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Impact Evaluation of Departmentalized Instruction in Elementary Schools

Contract Information

Current Status:

Implementation and data collection are underway.


September 2017 – September 2022



Contract Number:



Mathematica Policy Research
Public Impact
Social Policy Research Associates
Clowder Consulting


The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was most recently reauthorized in 2015 as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA gives states considerable flexibility in designing systems to hold their schools accountable for improving student achievement. This flexibility extends to the types of strategies that states encourage or require their low-performing schools to adopt. However, many strategies in use have little to no evidence of effectiveness. More research is needed to help states identify strategies that are likely to help their low-performing schools improve.

One such strategy is departmentalized instruction, where each teacher specializes in teaching one subject to multiple classes of students instead of teaching all subjects to a single class of students (self-contained instruction). Departmentalization is nearly ubiquitous in secondary schools, but has only recently become more popular in upper elementary schools. Despite the growing popularity of this approach to organizing instruction, virtually no evidence exists on its effectiveness relative to the more traditional self-contained approach. This evaluation will help to fill the gap by examining the impact of departmentalizing fourth and fifth grade teachers in a large number of low-performing elementary schools across the country.

  • What is the impact of departmentalizing instruction on upper elementary teachers' and students' outcomes after one and two years?
  • How do schools structure departmentalization, and what challenges and benefits do principals and teachers perceive in switching from self-contained classrooms to departmentalization?

A total of 90 elementary schools in 12 districts across the country were recruited to participate in the study. All schools were using self-contained classrooms during the 2018–19 school year. Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, approximately half of these schools are choosing to switch to departmentalized instruction in fourth grade and fifth grade (treatment), while the remaining schools are choosing to continue with self-contained classrooms (comparison). The study team will follow the treatment schools as they implement departmentalized instruction over two years.

Data collection will include: principal interviews to learn how teacher assignments were made and how departmentalization was structured; a teacher survey to examine teachers' perceptions of and approaches to departmentalization; classroom observations to examine instruction and interactions between students and teachers; extant district data on teacher retention and on students' math and reading achievement, attendance, and disciplinary incidents. These data, combined with a quasi-experimental "matched comparisons" design, will allow the study team to credibly examine the implementation and impact of departmentalization on teacher and student outcomes.

Key findings will be available after the study report is published.

The report for the study is expected in 2022 and will be announced on