At Sharpstein Elementary School, 2nd graders are getting used to a routine that most American children don’t learn for four more years: Several times a day, they line up and switch classrooms and teachers by subject.
They spend the morning with one teacher for reading and writing, breaking in the middle for music, library, or physical education classes. After lunch, they head to another room for math and science. Then students return to their original teacher for social studies. Sharpstein’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders have similar schedules.
The school in Walla Walla, Wash., is one of a small but growing number that are adapting for elementary schools a practice that has long defined middle and high schools: departmentalization. Also known as specializing or “platooning,” the model has been used in limited ways in the lower grades for years, with children leaving their main classrooms for math or reading instruction. It grew in popularity after the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act increased pressure on schools to raise test scores.
Now, as the Common Core State Standards require new kinds of skills from younger children, some schools are expanding the model by asking teachers to drop their traditional roles as generalists and serve instead as experts in one or two content areas. Most commonly, they’re trying it in grades 3-5, but some are doing it with pupils as early as kindergarten.
Some schools provide one teacher for math and science instruction, and another for literacy and social studies, so students work with only two teachers a day. Others split the subjects even further, rotating students among four instructors.
Schools that have embraced this shift are betting on a double yield: Students will learn more from teachers steeped in a given subject, school leaders hope, and teachers will be renewed and excited by diving more deeply into the subjects they love.
But the approach has trade-offs. Chief among them is the risk that the youngest children lose the close teacher bonds and developmentally appropriate kinds of learning they need. Elementary teachers, accustomed to spending many hours daily with the same den of children, might have as little as an hour with them, and take on two or three times as many students in exchange.
For those and other reasons, the departmentalization of elementary schools has not become widespread. But the practice is sparking renewed interest, and uptake, in scattered districts across the country.
Focusing on Content
As a regional superintendent in the District of Columbia schools in 2010, Amanda Alexander oversaw the move to a variety of departmentalized models by her 12 elementary schools. Over the next three years, their gains in test scores outpaced those of the school system overall. Ms. Alexander saw similar progress in 2008 as a principal when she used the model in her school.
Now, as the deputy chief of schools for the 45,000-student district, she sees interest bubbling up from a handful of other principals in the district.
“People are starting to rethink the idea,” said Ms. Alexander. “The common core has definitely had an influence on the thinking of those school leaders.”
Many Denver elementary schools have platooned for years, but there’s been an uptick of interest lately, said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief academic officer. One sign of that interest: More elementary teachers are requesting professional development in a single content area, she said.
“They’re saying that if they participate in one content area and learn it deeply, as opposed to learning the [common-core] changes in language arts and math at the same time, it helps them get better more quickly,” she said.
As a teacher and principal in Massachusetts, Mark Higgins saw academic standards grow more demanding over the last decade. A few years ago, as the principal of Witchcraft Heights Elementary School in Salem, he concluded that his teachers needed more support with the shifting expectations, so he provided systematic training, some of it in conjunction with his feeder middle school.
Fifth graders at Witchcraft Heights now rotate through three teachers daily; 4th graders have two teachers. The staff is considering extending the model to 3rd grade.
Fifth grade teacher Kathleen Marchetti is responsible for social studies and English/language arts, while a colleague handles math and science. She said she loves the new model.
“Our curriculum was becoming almost like middle school; there was so much to cover in each subject, that after planning my week out, I wasn’t having enough time to plan creative things to do, or go into anything deeply,” she said. “Now I get to do stuff I wouldn’t get time to do in [a] self-contained [classroom].”
The flip side is that Ms. Marchetti now has more students. When Witchcraft Heights first switched, she went from having 24 students to 75. That was “a lot more essays to grade,” she said. But the addition of another teacher eased her workload.
“Now I just have 40 essays,” Ms. Marchetti said. But even still, “I stay later than I used to.”
The Palm Beach County school system, in Florida, was a something of a laboratory for departmentalization. The 187,000-student district required it of all 109 elementary schools for grades 3-5 in the 2009-10 school year. But when that requirement was eliminated the following year, some schools stuck with it and some didn’t, said Debbie Battles, the district’s director of elementary curriculum.
As an elementary principal in 2009-10, Ms. Battles concluded that with departmentalization, it’s important to create cross-disciplinary teams so teachers know how their students are doing across the curriculum. She now advises schools to that effect if they inquire about the model.
Given the common core’s expectation that teachers of all subjects teach literacy, those teams are especially important, Ms. Battles said.
Deepening teachers’ content knowledge requires an intense focus on professional development. Rocketship Education, which runs nine charter schools in California and Wisconsin, has used the platoon model since the network was launched in 2006. Students rotate to four different teachers—sometimes changing rooms, sometimes changing stations within a large, multi-teacher classroom.
To help steep teachers in their disciplines, the network provides 250 hours a year of professional development, plus in-class coaching during the year, said Lynn Liao, the network’s chief programs officer.
Since Rocketship schools serve primarily low-income children with weaker skills, it’s particularly important to have a way to help teachers go “from good to great more quickly,” Ms. Liao said. And many of the charter network’s teachers are relatively new to teaching, so the heavy serving of professional development helps them get up to speed more quickly, she said.
‘Protected Time’ for Subjects
At Blue Ridge Elementary School in Walla Walla, Principal Kim Doepker is in her fourth year of platooning. She recently took calls from principals in Arizona and Michigan who are interested in doing it, too.
Reorganizing the school in a way that developed—and then took advantage of—her teachers’ content expertise has been a key part of Ms. Doepker’s strategy for improving achievement. It was also a “good fit” for a dual-language-immersion school like hers, she said, since students were already changing teachers for classes in English and in Spanish.
“I asked myself what we could do to work smarter, know our content, and focus on our planning, and this has really been wonderful,” she said.
Ian Yale, the principal of Columbia Elementary School in Burbank, Wash., whose school was a model for Ms. Doepker and her team, said one of the best aspects of departmentalizing is that each subject gets “protected” time. His 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, who have experienced the approach for eight years, get an hour a day in science with teachers who are experts in that subject, he said.
The model requires Mr. Yale to invest more money in deepening teachers’ content knowledge, he said, but he saves on curriculum materials.
“I don’t need 90 books when only 30 kids are coming into the room, so my dollars go farther,” he said.
At Walla Walla’s Sharpstein Elementary, Principal Matt Bona added a twist to his departmentalizing model: “looping,” in which teachers keep the same students for two years. A pair of 2nd and 3rd grade teachers—one who focuses on math, another on literacy, social studies, and science—shares students, switching off during the day. The same is true for the 4th and 5th grades.
The combination of content specialization and looping is particularly helpful to the school’s English-learners as they develop language skills, and it also benefits all students by allowing them to build relationships with their teachers over two years, Mr. Bona said.
Sharpstein parent Karri Bruce said she appreciated that Mr. Bona held a series of discussions with parents as he considered the change. In those meetings, some parents worried that with multiple teachers, their children wouldn’t “be known” as well, and that a potential problem could slip through the cracks. Some parents felt, too, that departmentalization could rush children—and their parents—into a middle school model before they were ready, Ms. Bruce said in an email.
“I personally feel that with decisions like this, you gain some things and you lose some things,” she wrote. “My children will have the same teachers for a two-year block. I like that level of continuity. But you also have a larger communication circle for your child, which can be tedious at times.”
Her 3rd grade son, though, enjoys “the variety and the change of scenery” of going to different teachers, Ms. Bruce said. “While it’s taken me a while to get used to this new schedule, I don’t think he ever missed a beat.”
Even fans of platooning, though, often are wary of using it with children younger than 3rd grade.
Ms. Alexander, in the District of Columbia, said she would advise schools to stick with 3rd grade and higher.
Ms. Doepker, of Walla Walla’s Blue Ridge Elementary, acknowledged that “we do have some kiddos who don’t do well with transitions.” To address that problem, she “hand selected” children that struggled the most with the switches and grouped them with one teacher all day.
Preserve Play, Exploration
Donna Snyder, who oversees “whole-child programs” for ASCD, a professional-development organization in Alexandria, Va., said even children in 3rd grade “really need that go-to person” at the center of a self-contained classroom. Changing classrooms risks undermining the feeling of security that facilitates learning in the early years, she said.
Self-contained classrooms and departmentalized models can both work, as long as the teaching approach is age-appropriate, said Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, who co-wrote a recent paper exploring the increasing academic emphasis in kindergarten.
“Kids are capable of a lot, and they’re curious, and more flexible, than we give them credit for,” she said. “But all of it comes down to how it’s done. There isn’t a problem with more of an academic focus if it’s handled in a way that keeps in mind what 5-year-olds are like and how they function. You have to be sure to preserve play, exploration, social interaction.”
Mary Riner, a parent in the District of Columbia, said she is glad her children went to a departmentalized elementary school. It offered them sufficiently challenging content instruction, she said, and prepared them better for changing classes in middle school.
“In the younger grades, no way could I ever give up that iconic kindergarten teacher in her rocking chair reading a story,” Ms. Riner said. “But as they get older, they need more knowledge, more depth, someone who really knows their stuff.”
Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week as ‘Platooning’ on Rise in Early Grades