Should We Departmentalize Our Primary Grades?

  • 18 September, 2021
  • 14 Comments

Teacher question:

My school district has recently departmentalized first and second grades. The students seem very young to have two teachers and move classes mid-day. It also seems that early literacy should stretch across the school and not only be taught during an ELA block. I’m interested to know your thoughts.

Shanahan responds:

This strikes me as a singularly bad idea.

In fairness, I know of no studies on the effectiveness of the practice (in terms of kids’ learning) at these early grade levels, but this appears to be the result of no researcher thinking this to be even a remotely good idea worth evaluating.

There are several studies of departmentalization with older students (Grades 4-8). At those grade levels there are some arguments for the practice. The major one being that given a burgeoning curriculum, students are better served by teachers who are especially well versed in science, math, social studies, and literature. Teachers can’t be expected to have a sufficient depth of knowledge on all of these topics, so departmentalization allows us to divide and conquer. It’s the same basic argument that supports departmentalizing in the high school and college.

Of course, as one travels down the grade levels this depth of knowledge contention deteriorates.

I’m willing to accept that Ms. Smith knows more about pre-algebra than Mr. Jones, and that he is much more familiar with YA literature than she. Kids would likely be better served if those teachers spent the whole day teaching their expertise and knowledge.

You have another think coming, however, if you think I’d endorse the idea that Ms. Smith knows so much more about counting and 2-place subtraction problems that she should spend her time devoted only to teaching 6- and 7-year-olds arithmetic. In my book if Mr. Jones hasn’t mastered those basic aspects of the number system, he should hang up his spikes and enroll in the best elementary school he can find.

A recent interview study queried 12 primary grade teachers about the attractions of departmentalization (Strohl, Schmertzing, & Schmertzing, no date). Some of them held forth about how it allowed them to focus in areas in which they possessed greater depths of knowledge and to teach better. There were no data supporting these assertions.

Studies of the matter in the upper grades and middle school level – those grades for which I conceded there could be some educational benefit to the approach. Repeatedly, these studies have found no consistent advantage in disciplinary teaching over self-contained classroom instruction for kids’ learning (Baroody, 2017; Chennis, 2018; Kent, 2012; Mitchell, 2014; Skelton, 2015, Yearwood, 2011). Given this lack of benefit, it is hard for me to credit those claims of improved primary grade effectiveness. It seems highly unlikely to me.

Another benefit of departmentalizing that teachers noted was that it reduced their workload. They only had to develop half as many lessons as in the past. I suspect this is the real attraction of the practice. The upper elementary studies suggest some rather modest improvements to lessons but not enough to improve either reading or math achievement (Baroody, 2017). In other words, the saved time isn’t usually invested in the development of more powerful or personal lessons.

But remember, those data are from studies with older kids. Instruction generally has bigger impacts on learning with younger kids (and less so with older ones). There are problems with departmentalizing that appear more threatening with the young’uns.

The most obvious of these drawbacks is the loss of instructional time to transitions. Whether it’s the teachers or the kids who end up moving, it takes time away from teaching – which has been found to have negative impacts on learning in those early grades (e.g., McLean, Sparapani, Toste, & Connor, 2016). McGrath and Rust (2002) reported that transitions in departmentalized settings take significantly longer than within class transitions and that these time differences mattered in the learning of upper elementary students.

Another real caution is the social-emotional aspects of learning. The relationship among teachers and students is an important determinant of learning at all levels, but particularly in the early years (I was called “Mommy” often enough as a first-grade teacher to sensitize me to this issue). Peeling those little ones away from the teacher for several hours a day runs the risk of diminishing classroom warmth and the closeness of the relations between teachers and students; relations research has identified as being important to academic achievement (Bryce, Bradley, Abry, Swanson, & Thompson, 2019; Hughes, & Kwok, 2007; López, 2012; Wilson, Pianta, & Stuhlman, 2007). Not surprisingly, early childhood experts tend not to be proponents of this organizational scheme.

In terms of reading instruction, teachers need the flexibility to provide extra help along the way, to prevent kids them from falling behind.

It takes substantial amounts of time to coordinate information among teachers so that no child slips through the cracks, and because of this such monitoring tends to be suppressed. Monitoring kids learning and providing extra support to meet their varied needs just doesn’t happen much in departmentalized schools. 

Even in the upper grades, a major complaint teachers have about departmentalization is the loss of flexibility.

I look at a change like this and ask myself,

(1)   Will it increase or decrease the amount of reading instruction?

In this case, I think the answer is that it will reduce the amount of teaching the students will receive.

(2)   Will it increase or diminish instructional attention to key areas of reading? My answer is that it won’t likely affect this at all.

(3)   Will it improve or weaken the quality of the teaching that students receive? My hunch here is that it may do some real harm, reducing the warmth and inclusiveness of primary grade classrooms, and tying the teachers’ hands when it comes to monitoring and responding to children’s extra learning needs.

Given those answers, I’d not willingly adopt such an approach.

If teachers are feeling overworked with too much to plan, I’d be looking at what could be done to support them better (e.g., shared planning times, textbook program adoptions, professional development, reductions in load, administrative analysis of how teachers use their planning time, better routinization, etc.).

Those approaches might help, and they run less risk of lowering reading achievement or limiting possible future gains. 

In summary, as far as I can tell, there is no research into the effectiveness of departmentalization in grades K-2. Accordingly, the best I can do is to venture an opinion. For the reasons given, I think it a bad idea. The plan isn’t worth the sacrifices that the children must make. Because there have been no direct studies of the learning outcomes of this in the primary grades, this response is based the generalization of other research (such as studies of departmentalization in the upper grades and studies of positive social environments in the primary grades) and upon my 50+ years in education, including as a first- grade teacher.

References

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.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Leah Falkowski
Sep 23, 2021 05:35 PM

Do you believe early childhood students can departmentalize into separate subjects for learning and to what extent? How young can it start? Could it start at toddlerhood?

Grace Vyduna-Haskins
Sep 18, 2021 04:54 PM

In addition, a single teacher per classroom allows for cross teaching of subject matter. One might present number words as they occur in reading materials or emphasize letter/sound relationships found in math terminology. A single teachers would know what had already been taught in the other area. Science and social study topics can also interweave with reading (terminology, vocabulary, etc.).

Nicole
Sep 18, 2021 05:06 PM

Hmm, having taught the primary grades myself, I would push back on the idea that there's an automatic relationship between being able to do primary-grade math and being able to teach it. After all, while your hypothetical Mr. Jones may be a fine analytical reader, you wouldn't automatically expect that to equip him to effectively teach students to decode, right? Same goes for laying a solid mathematical foundation.

Regarding increased focus and specialization for teachers, I feel like this is something that sounds nice but will be irrelevant to educational gains while the general discourse around pedagogy is as poor as it is. A reading-specialized teacher who remains ideologically committed to the workshop model isn't going to see gains, because the premises of their instruction are flawed, and ditto various somewhat analogous math pedagogy models. I could see it making a difference for teachers/schools really focused on things that work. That said, even in that situation I wouldn't expect departmentalization to be worth the trade-offs in the primary grades, for the reasons you've outlined relating to transition time and social/emotional needs. The homeroom teacher bond is huge for those ages, for kids and honestly often for parents too.

Nancy
Sep 18, 2021 06:02 PM

Not only am I an opponent to departmentalizing in primary , I have seen such departmentalizations go so far as to track students to a low group and high group starting in second grade! The “low” students quickly realize this and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, and is incredibly demeaning. By sixth grade, students who once had such great potential see themselves so negatively that they give up. It was heart breaking to see this, and I only stayed at that district for a year.

Sandra R Backlund
Sep 18, 2021 06:07 PM

"In fairness, I know of no studies on the effectiveness of the practice (in terms of kids’ learning) at these early grade levels, but this appears to be the result of no researcher thinking this to be even a remotely good idea worth evaluating." Your statement appears to be opinion, and suggests that only researched practices are good ideas worth evaluating. How fair is that? A comment like this, coming from an expert as well known as you is prejudicial. Perhaps traditional ways of teaching are more complex to research, and therefore, go ignored. Perhaps teachers of subject matter are just as capable of nurturing students as "homeroom" teachers in certain environments. Good teaching and high student achievement can be achieved in a variety of school structures, and suggesting a lack of worth in researching those outside the norm only leads to the status quo.

Leslie Sharp
Sep 18, 2021 08:02 PM

In response to Sandra's post about the status quo. Effectiveness of practice and impact on student learning is everything when it comes to moving from the status quo. As primary grade teachers, we were given evidence-based practices over twenty years ago to support all students in reading instruction, but we have yet to embrace what we know works so that all students have equity in instruction and can learn to read.

Trace
Sep 18, 2021 09:19 PM

Human beings are pattern seekers. Young children are especially this way; they learn best with connections. It is very difficult to make connections within the subject areas unless one teacher is able to plan for and teach content based on these connections. The various teachers would also require an enormous amount of of planning time to keep those connections and to share information about the students. I am also a huge proponent of teaching reading via content— content literacy. Increasing that knowledge in our littlest ones is such a key. I also know for a fact that these little people don’t have the organizational prowess to move from classroom to classroom— so the teachers would have to be the ones moving. I also think they need the consistency that one— or at the most 2 teachers provide. I have tried departmentalizing at grade 3– I taught the science, social st. and math. The other teacher taught the language arts. For me it was a huge thumbs down; after one year we decided that was it. Among many other issues the transition time was a disaster— we also had a lot more emotional meltdowns. Although I saved a little time in planning I lost time by having to track 50 students instead of just 25.
Lastly, the teachers would have to really really all be incredible for this to work well.
One last note— for 2 students there were actually less behavior issues bc having more than one teacher worked for them. I think it was more because they were given more chances bc one teacher did not have to put up with their shenanigans all day. ????

Timothy Shanahan
Sep 18, 2021 09:37 PM

Trace--

Thanks for this. I've 3rd grade, but never in a departmentalized situation. The closest I've come to that was a school that hired a push in science teacher and he would plan the lessons, but we'd co-teach. Of course, that both pulled up my science and science teaching knowledge but it suffered from none of the problems that you and I wrote about above. Thanks for confirming, based on your own teaching experiences, what the research is suggesting.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Sep 18, 2021 09:43 PM

Sandra--
When someone asks me if something benefits children, the first place I look is to see if there is any empirical evidence one way or the other. In a case like this, in which there is little or no direct evidence, then i look to see best professional opinions that I'm aware of (opinions that reflect deep thought about an issue and perhaps an inventive way of generalizing from less direct research that might have some relevance). In this case, I thought it telling that departmentalization (an issue frequently studied) has garnered no attention from those kinds of authors. If this were a particularly difficult issue to study or was a new issue, then I wouldn't put much stock in the lack of research. However, in this case, the reason for the lack of study is that those people who have really thought about this have chosen not to study it because it is likely a bad idea (and who wants to foist something on kids that they think to be potentially harmful).

tim

Tricia Stoll
Sep 19, 2021 02:32 PM

I actually have experience with this topic. As a second grade teacher under new leadership, my team and I were told that we would be departmentalized. Naturally, we were reluctant but to our surprise it was a very successful 2 years. However, the three of us loved working together and shared the same philosophies. We made time for “family time” on Friday afternoon and crammed all of the students into one classroom for fluency building. We also created what we called “4th block” for remediation/enrichment. The students saw us as a unit and transitions were seamless. Data indicated student growth . After the second year and with other changes in staff and larger classroom sizes we quickly moved back to self contained classes to meet the social emotional needs of our students. So, my input would be that an innovative move such as this one would probably be situational with many variables to consider. My opinion is not backed up by research but definitely supported by experience.

Alexander Radosavljevic
Sep 19, 2021 06:53 PM

My parents attended school in the former Yugoslavia pre WWII and they had different teachers for all of the subject areas in what we call elementary school. Students stayed in the same classroom and various subject matter teachers came to their classroom to teach each subject. Yes, I realize that this is not the same environment as we have here and the culture is different. I am curious to know why we expect elementary school teachers to prepare lessons, do assessment, and provide social/emotional learning opportunities 5 days per week over 9 months. I believe that most researchers have never had to do this type of work and I would be more willing to hear their views after they've done this for at least 5 years. I have taught in the Chicago Public Schools for 14 years (also a graduate of K-12 Chicago Public Schools), hold a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction, worked as an evaluator of CPS programs, and as a teacher educator in several universities. I have also been a union delegate in CPS. Yes, this sounds cranky but I hold no sympathy for researchers and policy makers who have no track record of enduring what our teachers experience. Teachers' work environment equals our students' learning environment. Please do something to make teachers' jobs better.

Timothy Shanahan
Sep 19, 2021 08:27 PM

Alexander--
You're right... screw the kids... Why would anyone care what's best for them? The whole purpose of education is to have jobs for you and me-- the kids are just something we have endure.

Good luck.

tim

Abigail M
Sep 20, 2021 02:55 AM

I really think you are being overly harsh with a one-size-fits-all opinion. I can think of many situations where departmentalization works to the benefit of the kids -- but it depends on different circumstances among different populations. Think of dual-language immersion schools, where a mid-day shift is common--- or schools that serve a large number of ESL students. (Same problem either way: the teacher who is best equipped to teach English language arts is not likely the same as the teacher best equipped to communicate in the second language).

The problem with your arithmetic example is that you are minimizing the skill-set needed to teach beginning reading. It may be that Mr Jones is perfectly capable of teaching basic arithmetic, but if Mr. Jones has a master's in Reading and Literacy, and Ms. Smith is a newly minted teacher still learning the basics of classroom management .... it's not the math skills that should be the focus of attention. Teaching reading is complicated (if it weren't, there would be no need for anyone to read your blog) -- and not all teachers are equally adept at the task. So it can make a whole lot of sense for schools opt to distribute their resources in a way that can allow a greater number of kids to have the benefit of getting their beginning reading instruction from teachers who are best able to provide the strongest foundation.

The question isn't whether a practice is good or bad, it is (or should be) to develop an understanding of the when, why, and how part. There simply are very big differences in school environments and resources, quality of staff, and populations of students that are going to lead to situations where a practice that may be unworkable in one context may be a perfect solution in another.

Timothy Shanahan
Sep 27, 2021 12:03 AM

Leah--

I think departmentalizing preschool would be an even worse idea than doing so in primary grades.

tim

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *
Name*
Email*
Website
Comments

Should We Departmentalize Our Primary Grades?

14 comments

One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.