University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham discusses some interesting results from a new study that finds good English teachers improved students’ learning in math.

First, ELA [English literature] teachers may, on average, provide a bigger boost to what are usually called non-cognitive skills: self-regulation, persistence, seeing oneself as belonging in school, and so on. Second, better ELA skills—especially better reading skills like decoding, fluency, deployment of comprehension strategies, and self-monitoring of comprehension—seem likely to pay dividends in many subjects.

Researchers studied “two enormous data sets” from the test scores of children in third through eighth grade in New York City and Miami-Dade school districts for nearly ten years. They compared kids’ growth in both math and English test scores from year to year, an approach known as “value-added measurement,” or VAM. They found that nearly half of a child’s improvement in math over a year was related to his learning in English classes the year previous. In other words, having a really good English teacher helped a child do better in math, also.

The reverse didn’t work, however: having a really good math teacher did not increase a child’s learning in English class very much. Willingham conjectures:

This outcome is easy to understand from a cognitive perspective—students learn more outside of school that can be applicable to ELA [English language arts] tests (compared to math), and thus the contribution of a teacher and school will be relatively smaller. But the contribution of ELA and math teachers to long-term outcomes (e.g., graduation) is equivalent. Why?

One possibility is that students learn different kinds of things from each. They may learn more subject-specific content from math teachers that persist to math performance next year. But a good ELA teacher may be more likely to impart different, more persistent skills to students—they may improve their self-image as students, for example.

These results also have implications for all kinds of curriculum decisions schools and teachers make. For one, it seems to support classical education’s strong emphasis on a robust humanities curriculum. It seems to not only increase kids’ math knowledge but also their long-term outcomes like graduation rates, college entrance, and so forth.

For another, it suggests that focusing on “STEM” — science, technology, engineering, and math — as opposed to a holistic and integrated curriculum with a strong humanities component may be counterproductive. If you want your kids to be good at math, these results indicate, you should ensure they have a strong grounding in literature and language.

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