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What is the most recent research on elementary departmentalization?

March 2017

Following an established REL-NEI research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on departmentalization in elementary school grades. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed the effects of departmentalization in the elementary grades. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

  1. Markworth, Kimberly A.; Brobst, Joseph; Ohana, Chris; Parker, Ruth (2016). Elementary content specialization: models, affordances, and constraints. International Journal of STEM Education, 3(16)
    From the abstract: “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. 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.”
  2. Minott, R.C. (2016). Elementary Teachers' Experiences of Departmentalized Instruction and Its Impact on Student Affect. Ph.D. Dissertation, William Howard Taft University.
    From the abstract: “The purpose of this qualitative dissertation was to explore the lived experiences of departmentalized elementary teachers, Grades 1-3, and how they addressed their students' affective needs. The main research question of the study was how do elementary school teachers perceive departmentalized instruction and describe their experiences of this structure's impact on their students' affective needs. Data from interviews were initially open coded into 47 categories. Non-notable responses appearing in less than 75% of the transcripts were eliminated. The remaining open-coded responses were then grouped into 5 axially coded themes. This dissertation employed a qualitative interview and data gathering process. Phenomenology was used as the research design. This mode of inquiry allowed me to capture the lived experiences of teachers' perceptions related to addressing their students' affective needs. All subjects reported positive experiences and successes in this endeavor. Recommendations include piloting departmentalization prior to implementation, consideration of teacher personality and teaching style prior to pairing teachers, and investigating the impact of departmentalization on various types of learners. Appended to the paper are: (1) Confirmation of Participation E-mail; (2) Interview Guide and Protocol; (3) Invitation to Participate E-mail; (4) Selection Confirmation; and (5) Adult Consent Form.”
  3. Coffey, Debra; Cox, Sandra; Hillman, Sherry; Chan, Tak C. (2015). Innovative Planning to Meet the Future Challenges of Elementary Education. The Journal of the International Society for Educational Planning, 22(1), 5-14.
    From the abstract: “This article is focused on identifying the current issues in elementary education in the United States. In each of these issues, elementary educators are at the crossroads looking for solutions and directions. Based on the review of literature, the authors pinpoint the upcoming challenges elementary school educators will be facing in the future. Some of these challenges relate to ongoing current issues, and some are anticipated to emerge with the rapid changes in future trends. Innovative strategies for meeting future challenges with the development of culturally responsive elementary schools that enhance student achievement are recommended. A structure of action plan implementation is also suggested.”
    Please note that departmentalization is addressed on pp. 6-7
  4. Strohl, A., Schmertzing, L., and Schmertzing, R. (2014). Elementary Teachers' Experiences and Perceptions of Departmentalized Instruction: A Case Study. Journal of Case Studies in Education, 6.
    From the 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.”
  5. Fuchang, Liu (2011). Pre-Service Teachers’ Perceptions of Departmentalization of Elementary Schools. International Journal of Whole Schooling, 7(1), 40-52.
    From the abstract: “This paper discusses the advantages and disadvantages of departmentalization of elementary schools, with an emphasis on teaching mathematics, as perceived by preservice teachers who shared their opinions through online discussion. Advantages include teachers' enthusiasm about and focused attention on the specialized area and students' easier transition to junior high school. Disadvantages include not knowing students on a more personal level, loss of integration and connection across different subjects, added stress on young children when they have to move from classroom to classroom, and time wasted during such moves. Some middle ground, such as team teaching, was offered as a compromise between departmentalizing and not departmentalizing.”


Keywords and Search Strings

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

Elementary school departmentalization



Content specialization



Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Insititute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched journals via EBSCO Host.

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 for last 15 years, from 2001 to present, were include in the search and review.

Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Northeast & Islands Region (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, US Virgin Islands, and Vermont), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands at Education Development Center. This memorandum was prepared by REL Northeast & Islands under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0008, administered by Education Development Center. 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.