Saturday, October 25, 2008

Liberty Elementary Changes Class Structure

Most children today, attending a primary level school, will receive their education in a self contained classroom. The students will typically stay with the same teacher throughout the instructional time each day. The teacher will be responsible for all content areas: mathematics, language arts, social studies, writing, and science. It is assumed that a teacher in a self contained classroom knows information about all subject areas, and they may even be referred to as “Jack (or Jill)-of-all-trades” (Chan & Jarman, 2004, p.70). The general education teacher will spend most of the day with the students with the exception of lunch time, physical education, and music. A benefit of the self contained classroom is there may be more flexibility in scheduling. If a teacher needs to spend more time on a lesson, they have the ability to continue and extend the lesson without feeling the pressure of sticking to a regimented schedule. The self contained classroom structure allows for more instructional time due to the lack of class transition (McGrath & Rust. 2002).

Classroom organizational structure is a topic that has been debated by educators for quite some time (McGrath & Rust, 2002). The number of subjects covered by each teacher is one of the organizational structures discussed. In the self contained classroom, the teacher is responsible for all subject areas, but in a departmental setting a teacher may only be responsible for one or two content areas. McPartland (1987) suggested that the intentions of departmentalization would allow teachers to become specialists in the subject matter they teach, and this would give them the knowledge required to design higher quality lessons. Others argued that if a teacher is highly proficient in math or writing they will help others learn math or writing only if they can draw on their own knowledge to complete tasks (Hill, Rowan, & Ball, 2005).

Departmentalization is an important issue at the school in which I teach and therefore, warrants investigation. Schools at both the intermediate and high school grades have been departmentalized for many years. However, some of the primary campuses, which have students in kindergarten through fourth grade, have begun to convert to team teaching or departmentalizing. There are a number of issues that have been raised by parents. These include, but are not limited to; a concern their child will not receive the nurturing provided in a self-contained classroom, their child may have difficulty performing for teachers with differing instructional styles, the level of personal communication on student progress will be insufficient, and that their child may not be mature enough to handle the responsibility of changing classrooms. For the parents to feel comfortable, they want to understand the benefits of a departmentalized classroom. Departmentalizing has also raised concerns for the teachers. The amount of time required to make departmentalization effective is considerable. Hours of preparation are required to ensure student expectations are met. As a teacher in a third grade program that recently converted to departmentalization, I have a vested interest in this topic.

The intention behind departmentalizing at Liberty Elementary is to improve student success in both reading and mathematics. The plan included having teachers stronger in specific content areas teach to their strengths. There are 4 third grade teachers, 2 would be assigned to teach English/language arts (ELA) and social studies (SS), and 2 would teach math and science (M/SC). Previously all of the third grade classrooms were self-contained, and only one teacher had experience in the departmentalized structure. Discussions took place on classroom procedures, and transition procedures to ensure implantation would be as smooth as possible. The ELA/reading teachers would plan together, as well as, the math and science teachers. The entire team would meet weekly to discuss any concerns. The data gathering project was coincidentally assigned at a timely point in our change towards departmentalization, and the question that needs to be answered is; what perception do the parents have of any benefits or concerns for departmentalizing the third grade classroom structure at Liberty Elementary?

A survey was distributed to all the parents of students in the third grade to determine how the parent’s perceived the departmentalized classroom structure, and if it is working for them. Based on the results one team (Team A) of teachers is successfully implementing a departmentalized structure while another team (Team B) seems to be having difficulty. Team A seems to have an open line of communication between the parents, students and teachers. Overall the parents seem to be pleased with the results they are seeing from their students learning in a departmentalized setting, with the main concern being math tutoring, and its availability. The survey, however, revealed several areas that need to be addressed. The communication lines need to be opened more between the teachers in Team B, the parents and the students. There seems to be an underlying current of discontent with one of the teachers in Team B, not only from the parent’s perspective, but also from the student perspective. It would seem that there is a considerable amount of room for improvement. According to the literature read, communication and planning are key areas that must be addressed in order for departmentalization to be successful. Since this is a new concept implemented in the third grade, there will be some adjustments to be made throughout the year. As a grade level, the lines of communication need to be consistent in all classes, and any areas for professional development must be addressed.


Chan, T.C., & Jarman, D. (2004, September/October). Departmentalize elementary schools. Principle Magazine, The Turnaround Principal, Speaking Out, 84(1), 70.

Hill, H.C., Rowan, B, Ball, D.L. (2005, Summer). Effects of teacher’s mathematical knowledge for teaching on student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 42(2), 371-406.

McGrath, C.J., & Rust, J.O. (2002, March). Academic achievement and between-class transition time for self-contained and departmental upper-elementary classes [14 paragraphs]. Journal of Instructional Psychology [Online serial], Available:

McPartland, J. (1987). Balancing high quality subject-matter instruction with positive teacher-relations in the middle grades: Effects of departmentalization, tracking and block scheduling on learning environments (Report No. SP029925). Baltimore, MD.: John Hopkins University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED291704)