Better Teacher or Different Subject?

Jul 24, 2014 by

An Interview with Alan J. Singer:  Better Teacher or Different Subject?
Michael F. Shaughnessy –
1) Alan in one of your recent posts, you raised some questions about evaluating teachers based on their subject matter- algebra versus social studies.  Let’s discuss this a bit. How can anyone PROVE that just because a teachers’ pupils do better on a math test- that this teacher is a more skilled teacher than one that is providing social studies instruction?
Of course, teachers are always a factor in student learning. As a high school student I did better in class when I liked a teacher, but that does not necessarily mean they were better teachers. I am pretty vain about my ability as a teacher and I like to think that all of my students perform well on tests because of me, but of course that is just not true. Many factors impact on student performance on high-stakes standardized tests so it is impossible to assign either credit, or blame, to a single teacher. We need to ask: Who are the students in your class? What were their earlier educational experiences? What other issues are affecting their lives and school performance?
Students are people and people are complex. Student performance can be affected by family tragedy, language or learning problems, social awkwardness, or simply having a fight with parents or friends before the test. Everyone has bad hair days. None of these are related to the quality of a teacher. The American Statistical Association (ASA) analyzed Value-Added Assessment (VAA) Models for evaluating teachers based on student tests scores and reported “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality” (
2) Social studies involves, well, reading, and algebra, involves, well, math, and mathematical thinking. Could it be that some students enter classes better thinkers, and others enter classes with a better background in math?
I am not sure I completely agree with this. There can be rote learning and a skill acquisition focus in social studies and math classrooms. There can also be creativity involved in discovering a deeper understanding of both historical issues and connections and mathematical problem solving. One of the beauties of math is that it is a self-contained universe based on clear axioms and procedures so students can work on discovery without being not distracted.  Student interest in a subject and talent in a particular area are always going to affect performance. No matter how hard I worked, or did not work, in high school I was consistently a lousy language student and I could never carry a tune in music. Howard Gardner argues that people have different innate intelligences or academic strengths, that they understand things in different ways, and that this has a major impact on how they learn. But all this does not mean a caring and concerned teacher cannot help students to do better. In the movie Stand and Deliver the teacher, Jaime Escalante, tries to help his students to see the broader picture and it looks like at least some of them truly understood the math. However, some of them were just memorizing formula and sequence, kind of like an algorithm. ​ In the end I think he was successful motivating his students because they responded positively to him as a mentor and because of his interest in their lives.
3) Years of experience teaching a subject might be an important variable . . . does anyone take into account the issue of comparing a first year algebra teacher to a teacher who has been in the classroom for ten years?
There are a lot of studies comparing beginning and experienced teachers. In fact, the comparison was behind the California Vergara court decision on school inequality. Beginning teachers have to figure out what works and does not work in the classroom. In my experience, that takes between three and five years of hard work. But beginning teachers also bring enthusiasm and interest in their students, two very valuable qualities. Ideally a school has a mixture of enthusiastic beginners and savvy veteran teachers.
4) I have done some math research myself- studying students in Calculus I,II,III, and IV. While a student may do well on an algebra test in high school- does that necessarily mean they are going to major in math in college or even continue to do well in geometry, trig and so forth?
It did not for me. I was a very strong performer on algebra and geometry standardized tests, the New York State Regents exams, did less well in trigonometry, and lost interest in math after one semester of college. Today, when I read a book like Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Brian Greene’s work on string theory, or Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I usually skip the math. I figure the math people will make sure the numbers are correct.
5) As a former social studies teacher myself- I know that you are incorporating economics, government, political science, a bit of geography and history into this thing called ” social studies “—thus relying on a lot of background knowledge. Am I off on this?
I always try to connect lessons on history and society to student prior experience as a way of engaging student interest. They also bring experiences to class that genuinely excite their classmates. But I center my lessons on an analysis of primary source documents, charts, graphs, photographs, cartoons and artifacts. Whatever a particular student’s experience or academic performance level, they are able to participate in the lesson by analyzing the material with us.
6)  In algebra- there is always a correct answer—9x=81 and x=9.   But in social studies—are things that pristine and clear?
I have a colleague, Andrea Libresco, who likes to describe history as “messy.” One of my goals in every lesson is to help students understand that the world is complex and that the causes and results of events are usually very complicated. I am not sure there is always only one correct answer in algebra, especially if we are trying to teach students how to visualize and solve a problem, rather than just memorize procedures. Algebra should be about figuring things out, not just solving an equation. In this equation X can also equal 81/9 or (11-2) and (4+5). They might not be the answer we are looking for, but they would be “correct” answers.
7)  Should students with a documented learning disability, for example in math, be required to take algebra- and should their scores be weighted differently?
Of course, they should learn algebra. They have a right to learn with everyone else. I just do not believe that a high school diploma should be based on performance on a single test or in a single subject. I keep remembering how tortured I was in French.
8)  In many schools across America, there are ” English Language Learners”.  Should their scores be differentially assessed or weighted?
I have the same feeling here. Our job as teachers is to support students as they learn. But everyone does not learn the same way and at the same pace. ELL need to learn English to maximize their potential and to function at a high level in an English dominated society and an Anglo culture. But they also need to learn other subjects in school and should not have to wait until they learn English first. Fundamentally, I think school should be about teaching, not about assessing people’s worth as human beings using highly suspect tests.
9) What have I neglected to ask?
How readers can learn more about these issues. They can check out my Huffington Post blog or read my book, Education Flashpoints  (Routledge The book draws on my Huffington Post columns — rated one of the top educational blogs in the United States. It is also available from Amazon ( ​
Alan Singer, Director, Secondary Education Social Studies
Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership
128 Hagedorn Hall / 119 Hofstra University / Hempstead, NY 11549


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