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The EDifier

July 27, 2016

Elementary Teacher Specialization

We have all bemoaned the high rate of teacher turnover in the U.S. and wondered how to increase teacher quality.  Most proposed solutions are costly, though: increased pay, smaller classes, merit-based pay, housing for teachers in urban areas.  The National Center on Education and the Economy released a report last week that examines the training, hiring, and work practices of elementary school teachers in four high-performing nations, with implications for how the U.S. could improve its elementary teacher workforce.  The easiest to implement? Specialization.

Elementary classrooms typically are “self-contained,” meaning that one teacher has the same class of students all day and teaches Reading, Writing, Math, Science, and Social Studies.  However, some schools have a “departmentalized” structure, which looks more like middle school or high school.  Typically, 2-4 teachers will work as a team with the same group of students who rotate through the classes.  This allows teachers to focus their lesson planning on only one or two subjects.

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Departmentalized teaching provides multiple benefits:

  1. Reduced workload for teachers, which improves job satisfaction.
  2. Teachers have a deeper knowledge of the subject that they teach, which results in increased confidence and student performance.
  3. Students have the opportunity to know multiple adults and improve their organizational skills.
  4. Teachers collaborate more due to sharing students.

Even if elementary schools are concerned about changing their schedules, they can still ask teachers to specialize in a particular subject, making them the expert on their grade level team.  Doing so would still provide for deeper teacher knowledge and increased collaboration.

As a former teacher who started in a self-contained classroom and then was in a departmentalized structure for two years, I can attest to the shorter work hours, improved student achievement, and stronger collaborations provided by only teaching one or two subjects.  In fact, one of the reasons I left the elementary classroom was because my principal decided to return to self-contained classrooms.  Research tells me I’m not alone.






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