Teacher question: My school district recently implemented departmentalization for first and second grades. I have concerns about this approach, as it involves young students having multiple teachers and transitioning between classes. Additionally, I believe that early literacy should be integrated throughout the curriculum rather than limited to an English Language Arts block. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this.
This idea doesn’t seem to have much merit.
While there are no studies specifically examining the effectiveness of departmentalization in the primary grades, it seems that researchers have not considered it a worthwhile idea to evaluate.
There have been studies on departmentalization with older students (grades 4-8), where some arguments can be made in favor of this approach. The main argument is that with an expanding curriculum, students benefit from having teachers who specialize in specific subjects such as science, math, social studies, and literature. It is unrealistic to expect one teacher to possess in-depth knowledge in all these areas, so departmentalization helps divide and conquer. This argument is similar to the justification for departmentalization in high school and college.
However, as we move down the grade levels, this argument becomes less compelling.
I agree that Ms. Smith may have more knowledge of pre-algebra than Mr. Jones, and he may be more familiar with young adult literature. It would be more beneficial for the students if these teachers could focus on teaching their areas of expertise throughout the day.
However, I strongly disagree with the notion that Ms. Smith should spend her time exclusively teaching 6- and 7-year-olds arithmetic because she knows more about counting and 2-place subtraction problems. In my opinion, if Mr. Jones hasn’t mastered these basic aspects of the number system, he should consider seeking additional education in elementary school teaching.
A recent interview study asked 12 primary grade teachers about the benefits of departmentalization (Strohl, Schmertzing, & Schmertzing, no date). Some teachers claimed that it allowed them to focus on areas where they had more knowledge and therefore enhanced their teaching. However, there was no empirical evidence to support these assertions.
Studies on departmentalization in upper grades and middle school levels, where I acknowledged that there may be some educational benefits, consistently show no advantage of disciplinary teaching over self-contained classroom instruction in terms of student learning (Baroody, 2017; Chennis, 2018; Kent, 2012; Mitchell, 2014; Skelton, 2015, Yearwood, 2011). Given this lack of evidence, I find it highly unlikely that primary grades would see improved effectiveness through departmentalization.
One benefit mentioned by teachers who support departmentalization is that it reduces their workload. They only need to prepare half as many lessons as before. I believe this convenience is the primary attraction of this practice. Studies in upper elementary grades suggest only slight improvements in lessons, which do not significantly impact reading or math achievement (Baroody, 2017). In other words, the time saved is usually not reinvested in developing more engaging or personalized lessons.
However, it is important to note that instructional impact is generally greater with younger students compared to older ones. Therefore, there are additional concerns when it comes to departmentalizing young children.
One obvious drawback is the loss of instructional time due to transitions. Whether it’s the teachers or the students who are moving, these transitions take away valuable teaching time, which research shows has negative effects on learning in the early grades (e.g., McLean, Sparapani, Toste, & Connor, 2016). McGrath and Rust (2002) found that transitions in departmentalized settings take significantly longer than transitions within class, and these differences in time affect the learning of upper elementary students.
Another important consideration is the social and emotional aspects of learning. The relationship between teachers and students plays a crucial role in learning at all levels, but it is particularly vital in the early years (as a former first-grade teacher, I can attest to this). Separating young children from their teacher for several hours a day risks diminishing the warmth and closeness of the classroom environment, which research has identified as important for academic achievement (Bryce, Bradley, Abry, Swanson, & Thompson, 2019; Hughes, & Kwok, 2007; López, 2012; Wilson, Pianta, & Stuhlman, 2007). It is therefore not surprising that early childhood experts tend to oppose departmentalization.
In terms of reading instruction, teachers need the flexibility to provide additional support to prevent students from falling behind.
Coordinating information among the teachers takes a significant amount of time, and this monitoring tends to be neglected. Monitoring students’ learning and providing extra support to meet their individual needs often does not happen in departmentalized schools.
Even in upper grades, teachers have complained about the lack of flexibility in departmentalization.
I look at a change like this and ask myself:
1. Will it reduce or increase the amount of reading instruction? In this case, I believe it will reduce the amount of teaching that students receive.
2. Will it diminish or enhance instructional focus on key reading areas? I do not think it will have any impact on this.
3. Will it improve or worsen the quality of teaching? I suspect it may do harm by reducing the warmth and inclusiveness of primary grade classrooms and limiting teachers’ ability to monitor and address students’ individual learning needs.
Considering these answers, I would not support such an approach.
If teachers are feeling overwhelmed with excessive planning responsibilities, it would be more effective to explore ways to better support them, such as providing shared planning time, adopting textbook programs, offering professional development opportunities, reducing workload, analyzing how teachers use their planning time, establishing better routines, etc.
These approaches could be more helpful and carry less risk of negatively impacting reading achievement or limiting future growth.
In summary, there is no research specifically examining the effectiveness of departmentalization in grades K-2. Therefore, the best I can do is offer an opinion based on other research (such as studies on departmentalization in upper grades and studies on positive social environments in primary grades) and my own 50+ years of experience in education, including as a first-grade teacher. Based on these factors, I believe departmentalizing primary grades is a bad idea. The potential sacrifices that children would have to make outweigh any potential benefits. As there have been no direct studies on the learning outcomes of departmentalization in the primary grades, this response relies on generalizations from other research and my professional experience.
Baroody, A.E. (2017). Exploring the contribution of classroom formats on teaching effectiveness and achievement in upper elementary classrooms. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 28(2), 314-335.
Bryce, C. I., Bradley, R. H., Abry, T., Swanson, J., & Thompson, M. S. (2019). Parents’ and teachers’ academic influences, behavioral engagement, and first- and fifth-grade achievement. School Psychology, 34(5), 492-502.
Chennis, S.T. (2018). The impact of traditional and departmentalized classroom instructional settings on fifth-grade students’ reading achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Liberty University.
Hughes, J., & Kwok, O. (2007). Influence of student-teacher and parent-teacher relationships on lower-achieving readers’ engagement and achievement in the primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(1), 39-51.
Kent, K.P. (2012). Self-contained versus departmentalized school organization and the impact on fourth and fifth grade student achievement in reading and mathematics as determined by the Kentucky Core Content Test. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Louisville.
López, F. A. (2012). Moderators of language acquisition models and reading achievement for English language learners: The role of emotional warmth and instructional support. Teachers College Record, 114(8), 1-30.
McGrath, C.J., & Rust, J.O. (2002). Academic achievement and between-class transition time for self-contained and departmental upper-elementary classes. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 29(1), 40-43.
McLean L, Sparapani N, Toste JR, Connor CM. (2016). Classroom quality as a predictor of first graders’ time in non-instructional activities and literacy achievement. Journal of School Psychology, 56, 45-58. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2016.03.004.
Mitchell, V.T. (2014). Departmentalized or self-contained: The relationship between classroom configuration and student achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California State University, Fullerton.
Skelton, C.R. (2015). The effects of departmentalized and self-contained structures on student achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Mississippi.
Strohl, A., Schmertzing, L., & Schmertzing, R. (No date). Elementary teachers’ experiences and perceptions of departmentalized instruction: A case study. Journal of Case Studies in Education.
Wilson, H. K., Pianta, R. C., & Stuhlman, M. (2007). Typical classroom experiences in first grade: The role of classroom climate and functional risk in the development of social competencies. The Elementary School Journal, 108(2), 81-96.
Yearwood, C. (2011). Effects of departmentalized versus traditional settings on fifth graders’ math and reading achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Liberty University.
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