When is it time for elementary school kids to leave their classroom teacher so that they can be taught by teachers specializing in one subject field? According to a story from Chalkbeat New York (by Monica Disare and Sarah Darville on January 7, 2016), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to ensure that more eighth graders have strong preparation for algebra is leading to designating some classroom teachers as math teachers for fifth graders. The New York City teachers who may volunteer or be chosen by their principals for the new math assignments will receive additional training over the next 12 months—which certainly can’t hurt.
In New York City, there are already departments for each school subject in many middle schools, starting in sixth grade—as there are in middle schools in most school districts across the U.S. So “departmentalization” is not a new idea. It has been used for a very long time in high schools, where it is expected. It has been used for a long time in many middle schools and in junior high schools before them, where it is accepted. And it has been used in some elementary schools over the years, too. In the 1960s when I was in fourth grade, we began switching classes for math and for language arts (of course, switching teachers allowed for ability grouping in those days—and still could).
Whether New York City should have specialized math teachers in fifth grade in order to improve the math performance of its students is not the question here. The question is whether you should be departmentalizing in your elementary schools, as likely some of you already are. The next question is whether that departmentalization should lead to ability grouping, which a school can pull off a lot easier with departmentalized teachers than with general classroom teachers. Why? Because one math teacher can teach four or five levels of math to different groups of kids in a day, but one classroom teacher cannot teach all those levels of math and all of the other subjects to 30 kids in a day. But why departmentalize just in math? Why not language arts? And, while you are at it, why not science and social studies? Who is answering these questions in your schools?
There are certainly pros and cons to departmentalization, though my feeling is that the pros outweigh the cons. That is probably true at a fairly early age—even by first or second grade. Teachers who are expert in teaching one subject very well (just as high school teachers are) might be better, in the long run, for bright kids, average kids, and struggling kids than teachers who are spreading themselves thin over four or more subject fields. Furthermore, kids who have trouble getting along with one teacher have more chances in a day to form a bond with other teachers, who might suit them better. Maybe the New York City plan doesn’t go nearly far enough.
What did New York City parents say about math teachers for fifth graders? The article didn’t mention any parent input into the plan or any parent response to the plan. I hope that would not be true in your school district.
It is time to take a look at how your school district and your elementary school address departmentalization:
- Elementary school parents: Ask your school board whether the board has a policy on departmentalization—that is, ask whether the board has given the superintendent any policy guidance on the grade level or school level at which teachers should teach one academic subject rather than be general classroom teachers. If the board does not have such a policy, ask the board to consider the adoption of one, after getting the input of parents and, of course, of teachers and of principals.
This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting. Here are some questions that the board and/or the superintendent should be able to answer for you: Who decides now when schools start departmentalizing—the board, the superintendent, or individual school principals? How is departmentalization operating in various schools in the district? Which subjects are departmentalized at each grade level? Do teachers and principals believe that departmentalization has been successful? Do they believe it should be extended into lower grade levels? Has departmentalization led to ability grouping? If so, in what grades and subjects? If so, has ability grouping proved to be effective in teaching your students?
If the decision about departmentalization is left to individual school principals, ask your principal how it operates in your school. How were decisions about when to departmentalize made? How were parents involved in those decisions? How effective have those practices been? Is ability grouping used in conjunction with departmentalization? Should it be? Is it time to rethink any of those decisions? How would the principal know if it were time?