Professional Development

New York City Moves to ‘Departmentalize’ Math Teaching for 5th Graders

By Liana Loewus — January 22, 2016 2 min read
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Across the country, most 5th grade students, along with the rest of their elementary peers, sit in a single classroom with a single teacher for reading, math, science, and social studies instruction. It’s not until middle school that they tend to start switching teachers for the various academic subjects.

But that may be changing for some of New York City’s 5th graders, Chalkbeat New York reports. The school district is looking to departmentalize math instruction at that grade level, meaning there would be a designated teacher (or teachers) who teach only math.

As my colleague Catherine Gewertz wrote in 2014, some elementary schools have already moved to departmentalizing, or “platooning,” as a way to improve teachers’ subject-matter expertise, which some say is even more important with the Common Core State Standards. But educators and parents do have concerns about the practice, especially that young students will miss out on developing a close bond with their classroom teacher, so it hasn’t become widespread.

The move to departmentalizing 5th grade in New York is part of a larger “Algebra for All” initiative in the city, according to a memo sent to principals in early January. The district is hoping to increase students’ readiness for algebra by improving math instruction in the early grades. The initiative also seeks to “minimize any math anxiety [5th grade through Algebra I math teachers] may have and strengthen their capacity to serve as content experts in their schools,” the memo says.

Research has shown that teachers’ math anxiety can be passed down to students, particularly when the teacher and student are the same gender.

New York City teachers who wish to take on designated 5th grade math classes will receive three days of professional development this winter, three weeks of professional development this summer, and five days next school year, when the departmentalizing begins. “We know this initiative is a big step forward and are working to develop both the operational and instructional supports schools will need to be successful,” the memo states.

As Chalkbeat notes, schools can choose whether they want to participate, and it’s unclear how many the district hopes to include.

Image: First graders Diana Vieyra, front, and Mia Roughton, line up with classmates as they switch from math to social studies class at Blue Ridge Elementary School in Walla Walla, Wash. The school has departmentalized instruction since 2010, moving even the youngest students from teacher to teacher for different subjects. —Molly Van Wagner for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.