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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

Educator Effectiveness

March 2019

Question:

What does the research say about departmentalization in early elementary grades, specifically the effects on student academic achievement or social-emotional outcomes?



Response:

Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on departmentalizing (that is, a teacher specializing in a particular subject) in early elementary grades. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to student achievement and social-emotional outcomes for kindergarten through grade 4 students. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Bastian, K. C., & Fortner, C. K. (2018, March). Is less more? Outcomes for subject-area specialists in elementary grades. Paper presented at the 43rd annual Association for Education Finance and Policy conference, Portland, OR. Retrieved from https://aefpweb.org/sites/default/files/webform/AEFP_ESspecialization_FINAL.pdf

From the abstract: “While subject-area specialization is common practice in secondary grades, little is known about its incidence and impact in elementary schools. In this study, we use data from North Carolina elementary schools to assess which teachers specialize and whether specialization benefits student achievement. We find that specialization is prevalent in upper elementary grades—approximately 25 percent of 4th grade teachers and 37 percent of 5th grade teachers specialize—and that schools assign relatively more effective teachers to specialize. Student achievement results indicate that specialization is not leading to its theorized benefits in mathematics and reading. Specialists are no more effective than their generalist peers and are less effective than they were before specializing. School-level achievement in mathematics and reading does not improve with more specialization. Science results are different and show benefits to specialization. These findings question the use of specialization but invite continued research to more fully assess its impact.”

Brobst, J., Markworth, K., Tasker, T., & Ohana, C. (2017). Comparing the preparedness, content knowledge, and instructional quality of elementary science specialists and self-contained teachers. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54(10), 1302–1321. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1160722

From the ERIC abstract: “In this article, we report on the results of a study comparing the preparedness, content knowledge, and instructional practices of elementary science specialist (ESS) teachers with those of a matched sample of self-contained elementary teachers. Analysis of survey data collected for the two groups indicated that ESS teachers were more likely than self-contained teachers to hold science content degrees. ESS teachers scored significantly higher than self-contained teachers on self-reported measures of the following: preparedness to teach science and engineering content; familiarity with science standards; knowledge of students’ strengths and weaknesses in science, having enough time to meet students’ needs in science and having enough time to plan for all the subject areas that they teach. ESS teachers also scored significantly higher than self-contained teachers on selected measures of science content knowledge. Finally, in comparison to self-contained teachers, some elements of ESS teachers’ science lessons were better aligned with our chosen framework for quality elementary science instruction. Regression analyses suggested that these differences in quality of science lessons could be predicted based on the different amounts of time that ESS and self-contained teachers are respectively afforded for planning and teaching science. Implications are provided for future research into elementary science specialization as well as professional development support for all teachers of elementary science.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Chan, T. C., Terry, D., & Bessette, H. J. (2009). Fourth and fifth grade departmentalization: A transition to middle school. Journal for the Liberal Arts and Sciences, 13(2), 5–13. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/facpubs/618/

From the abstract: “The difficulties involved in the transition for students leaving elementary school, where there typically exists little departmentalization, to the middle school, where departmentalization is the primary structure, have often been noted by scholars. While some studies cited in this work indicated a decrease in student achievement with the implementation of departmentalization, this approach should not be categorically rejected. In this regard, this study examines how elementary students can begin to be better prepared in fourth and fifth grades to enter the departmentalization system.”

Chang, F. C., Muñoz, M. A., & Koshewa, S. (2008). Evaluating the impact of departmentalization on elementary school students. Planning and Changing, 39(3/4), 131–145. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1150563

From the ERIC abstract: “The increasing accountability demands are leading some districts to departmentalize or consider departmentalizing at the elementary school level (Delviscio & Muffs, 2007). Departmentalization allows teachers to specialize and teach one content area in-depth which may, in turn, lead to higher accountability test scores. Although, due to accountability pressures, schools may feel it is more important to departmentalize, this might not be the best way to improve school connectedness and its outcome—student success. In fact, unless combined with looping, a departmentalization model decreases the amount of contact time between students and teachers, which, in turn, may decrease the likelihood that students feel attached to their teachers. Previous research indicated that students who feel closer to their teachers have fewer behavior problems and higher gains in academic skills (Pianta & Stuhlman, 2004; Silver et al., 2005). The current study examined the relationship between departmentalization and student connectedness to school. Findings indicated that a departmentalization model, where a student interacts with multiple teachers, does not necessarily facilitate the establishment of a caring classroom where students feel connected. If we agree that students’ connectedness to school is intimately related to academic success, then it is imperative to move to a whole-child approach where teachers are aware of each student’s learning style.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Fox, L. (2016). Playing to teachers’ strengths: Using multiple measures of teacher effectiveness to improve teacher assignments. Education Finance and Policy, 11(1), 70–96. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1087596

From the ERIC abstract: “Current uses of value-added modeling largely ignore or assume away the potential for teachers to be more effective with one type of student than another or in one subject than another. This paper explores the stability of value-added measures across different subgroups and subjects using administrative data from a large urban school district. For elementary school teachers, effectiveness measures are highly stable across subgroups, with correlations upward of 0.9. The estimated cross-subject correlation between math and English language arts is around 0.7, suggesting some differential effectiveness by subject. To understand the magnitude of this correlation, I simulate targeted re-sorting of teachers to classrooms based on their comparative advantage. The results suggest that using multiple measures of value added to specialize teachers by subject could produce small average increases in student achievement, and larger increases for some students.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Fryer, R. G., Jr. (2018). The ‘pupil’ factory: Specialization and the production of human capital in schools. American Economic Review, 108(3), 616–56. Retrieved from https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.20161495

From the abstract: “I conducted a randomized field experiment in traditional public elementary schools in Houston, Texas designed to test the potential productivity benefits of teacher specialization. The average impact of encouraging schools to specialize their teachers on student achievement is −0.11 standard deviations per year on a combined index of math and reading test scores. I argue that the results are consistent with a model in which the benefits of specialization driven by sorting teachers into a subset of subjects based on comparative advantage is outweighed by inefficient pedagogy due to having fewer interactions with each student, though other mechanisms are possible.”

Goldhaber, D., Cowan, J., & Walch, J. (2012). Is a good elementary teacher always good? Assessing teacher performance estimates across subjects (CEDR Working Paper 2012-7.2). Seattle, WA: University of Washington. Retrieved from http://2fwww.cedr.us/papers/working/CEDR%20WP%202012_7-2.pdf

From the abstract: “In most elementary schools, teachers are responsible for several subjects. Various personnel policies, such as evaluating teachers based on value-added estimates aggregated across subjects or departmentalizing teachers, implicitly make assumptions about how closely teacher effectiveness is aligned across subjects. This paper reports on research exploring these issues using student-teacher linked data from North Carolina to assess the correlation of teacher productivity across math and reading. We find correlations of value-added estimates of about 0.6 and correlations in the underlying teacher effectiveness of 0.7-0.8. Assigning teachers to teach particular subjects based on their measured productivity could yield modest student achievement benefits.”

Levy, A. J., Jia, Y., Marco-Bujosa, L., Gess-Newsome, J., & Pasquale, M. (2016). Science specialists or classroom teachers: Who should teach elementary science? Science Educator, 25(1), 10–21. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1110245

From the ERIC abstract: “This study examined science programs, instruction, and student outcomes at 30 elementary schools in a large, urban district in the northeast United States in an effort to understand whether there were meaningful differences in the quality, quantity and cost of science education when provided by a science specialist or a classroom teacher. Student performance on the state’s mandated science achievement test and student engagement in science lessons were used as student outcome measures. A conceptual framework of the elementary science experience guided the study, and data were collected on all components of schools’ science instruction and science programs, including their costs, through interviews, observations, surveys, and school and district records. The data suggest that there is no single answer to the question. While poorly resourced school science programs produced poor student outcomes, not all well-resourced programs produced positive student outcomes. Students in schools where there was a high school-wide value placed on science—in both science specialist and classroom teacher models—achieved the best student outcomes. Those most effective science specialist schools had significantly lower per classroom costs than the most effective schools where classroom teachers taught science; and they also had the greatest commitment to science.”

Markworth, K. A., Brobst, J., Ohana, C., & Parker, R. (2016). Elementary content specialization: Models, affordances, and constraints. International Journal of STEM Education, 3(1), 16. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1181792

From the ERIC abstract: “Background: This study investigates the models of elementary content specialization (ECS) in elementary mathematics and science and the affordances and constraints related to ECS—both generally and in relation to specific models. Elementary content specialists are defined as full-time classroom teachers who are responsible for content instruction for two or more classes of students. The sample consists of 34 elementary content specialists in math and/or science, as well as a matched comparison group of self-contained classroom teachers. Participants participated in a focus-group interview and an online survey. Qualitative and quantitative analyses were performed to determine the models of ECS present in the sample and the affordances and constraints related to ECS as compared to traditional, self-contained classrooms. Results: This research differentiates six models of specialization, characterized as ‘within-grade team teaching,’ ‘across-grade team teaching,’ and ‘science as a special.’ Comparisons of data from math and science teachers engaged in ECS with self-contained teachers indicate that content specialization has affordances related to planning time, professional development, and instructional time. Constraints related to ECS include limitations on flexibility and the ability to collaborate with other teachers around content. No significant differences are found for time spent in transitions and most comparisons related to meeting the academic, social, and emotional needs of elementary students. Conclusions: Engagement in ECS generally, and different models of ECS specifically, present various affordances and constraints. Differences between self-contained and ECS structures are magnified by certain models of specialization, such that these models can be placed along continua for these factors. There seems to be a trade-off with these factors in ECS implementation, such that easing the role of the teacher in one area amplifies it in another. A variety of factors may contribute to teachers’ and administrators’ decisions to engage in ECS. These continua of factors may support teachers and administrators in their decision-making as they consider alternative instructional arrangements to the traditional, self-contained model.”

Parker, A., Rakes, L., & Arndt, K. (2017). Departmentalized, self-contained, or somewhere in between: Understanding elementary grade-level organizational decision-making. Educational Forum, 81(3), 236–255. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1142095

From the ERIC abstract: “Recent trends indicate a move away from self-contained classrooms and toward content-focused departmentalization in elementary schools. This study takes a snapshot of the existing organizational structures used in elementary schools in one district and explores administrators’ beliefs and practices regarding this phenomenon. Our findings suggest administrators base their decisions to organize grade levels on various factors, including their own experiences, contextual dynamics, and personal perceptions of outcomes for students and teachers.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Strohl, A., Schmertzing, L. C., Schmertzing, R., & Hsiao, E. (2014). Comparison of self-contained and departmentalized elementary teachers’ perceptions of classroom structure and job satisfaction. Journal of Studies in Education, 4(1), 109–127. Retrieved from http://macrothink.org/journal/index.php/jse/article/view/4802/3981

From the abstract: “Most elementary schools adhere to a self-contained format to deliver student instruction. This case study explored the implementation of a nontraditional format typically used in middle and high schools known as departmentalized instruction. Twelve of 29 first through third grade teachers were asked by their administration to implement departmentalized instruction for a trial year. This study compares levels of perceived stress and morale in relation to job satisfaction between the departmentalized teachers and self-contained teachers within the same school. This case study utilized focus group interviews as well as data collected from pre- and post-surveys comprised of Likert-scaled items and open-ended questions. The survey responses informed the study about various dimensions of teacher morale and job satisfaction and the focus groups informed the study about departmentalized teachers’ own comparison between the two models of instruction. Consistent with related literature, findings revealed departmentalized teachers experienced higher morale, lighter workload, and increased overall job satisfaction in comparison to self-contained teachers in the same school. Further, in comparison to their prior self-contained teaching experiences, departmentalized teachers overwhelmingly preferred the new structure.”

Strohl, A., Schmertzing, L., & Schmertzing, R. (2014). Elementary teachers’ experiences and perceptions of departmentalized instruction: A case study. Journal of Case Studies in Education, 6, 1. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1060635

From the ERIC abstract: “This case study investigated elementary teachers’ experiences and perceptions during a trial year of departmentalized instruction in a rural south Georgia elementary school. To inform their decision about whole-school departmentalization for the future, school administrators appointed twelve first through third grade teachers to pilot the instructional model for one school year. This case study utilized data collected from focus group interviews, individual interviews with departmentalized teachers, teacher journals, and questionnaires. The experiences and perceptions of the departmentalized teachers informed the study about perceived positive and negative attributes of departmentalized instruction, self-efficacy beliefs, and experiences of a shift in instructional models. Aligning with related literature, findings revealed teacher preference for the departmentalized instructional model over the self-contained model due to lighter workload, more focused and higher quality instruction, and increased self-efficacy.”

Methods

Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Departmentalized + descriptor: “elementary education”

  • Platoon*

  • Specialization + descriptor: “elementary education”

  • “Teacher effectiveness” specialists “Elementary School Teachers”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2004 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-;experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.