The Specialization of Elementary Education

I can still remember my first day of middle school: A fresh new school, new subjects, and… wait, more than one teacher?

Like most elementary students, I had become accustomed to the traditional setup: one teacher for reading, math, science, and everything else. General education at its finest.

It took some time getting used to the routine of changing classes—and teachers—throughout the school day.

It’s a transition almost every K12 student has to adjust to—but maybe not for long.

Increasingly, more elementary schools are “departmentalizing.” That is, hiring teachers who are specific subject matter experts, as opposed to generalists who lead instruction on every topic. As with middle and high schools, elementary students would switch classrooms and teachers throughout the day.

Writing for Education Week, Catherine Gewertz highlights the potential benefits of the approach, also called platooning. Supporters of the movement posit that students can learn more from specialized instructors who display passion and energy for specific subject matter. They also say it will acclimate students to the structure of higher level learning at an early age.

But can the approach help move the needle on student achievement?

Writing for We Are Teachers, elementary school teacher and researcher Elizabeth Mulvahill outlines the pros and cons of this approach. Here’s what she thinks:

Pros

  • Teachers who specialize in one topic are better-able to adapt their lessons to different types of learners. And, teachers who teach what they love are more enthusiastic.
  • Departmentalizing doesn’t affect budgets or staffing—the roles of current teachers change.
  • Collaboration and teamwork among teachers will grow under departmentalization, primarily because teachers have to coordinate lessons between subjects and work in tandem to plan such events as parent conferences.
  • Student attention will increase because school days are broken up and students have break time to let off steam and move around. Sitting in the same classroom all day, by contrast, often leads to boredom and distraction.
  • Students in departmentalized elementary schools may find the transition to middle and high school more manageable, since they’ll already be used to the format.

Cons

  • Departmentalization makes it harder for students to develop close relationships with their teachers, something that is vital for elementary student development.
  • Teachers have less flexibility. With shorter time periods of instruction, teachers are not able to devote longer periods of time to one subject.
  • Departmentalization requires immense collaboration. Teachers have to work extra hard to make sure students receive a unified, connected curriculum within each class.
  • It’s harder to issue consistent discipline among multiple teachers and classes.
  • Time management could become an issue. Teachers have to coordinate in order to ensure class time is effective. They’ll also likely forfeit valuable learning time to class transitions.

If your district is considering departmentalization, it’ll be up to your to weigh the pros and cons of the change and make an informed decision. Make sure your community is part of that conversation up front—especially students, parents, and teachers. Omitting that input, intentionally or unintentionally, could lead to a series of headaches you don’t need.

Are any of your elementary schools “platooned”? If so, how’s it going? Tell us in the comments.

Want to start a conversation on the merits of departmentalization in your community? Start by asking your community what it thinks.

Author: Todd Kominiak

Todd Kominiak is Managing Editor of TrustED.

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