Impact Evaluation of Departmentalized Instruction in Elementary Schools

2017-2021
Prepared for
U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences

The focus of school improvement strategies has shifted from reforming whole schools to improving the quality of instruction in individual classrooms. Although most elementary schools use a self-contained classrooms—that is, one teacher who instructs all core subjects to their class—departmentalized instruction is on the rise in upper elementary grades. This type of instruction—in which teachers specialize in teaching specific subjects—holds promise for several reasons. Many teachers are, to some degree, more effective at teaching particular subjects. Assigning teachers to those subjects could raise student achievement. It also allows teachers to concentrate planning on fewer subjects, which may lead to more thoughtful lessons and deeper instructional or content knowledge in those subjects. This study is evaluating the impact of departmentalized instruction in upper elementary grades on student achievement and other key student and teacher outcomes.

We anticipate 200 elementary schools that are currently using self-contained instruction in grades 4 and 5 to participate in the study. Half will be randomly assigned to a treatment group that switches to departmentalized instruction in grades 4 and 5, and the other half to a control group that continues using self-contained instruction. Both groups will maintain their assigned instructional model for two years.

Findings will provide information for educators and administrators on how best to deploy their existing teachers to maximize student learning. The findings will also help state policymakers make an informed decision about whether an improvement strategy such as departmentalized instruction is worth recommending for their low-performing elementary schools. Departmentalization may be particularly appealing because it is likely a low-cost strategy that better allocates existing teaching resources, rather than requiring additional resources.

The research team is collecting implementation and outcomes data from several sources:

  • Data on school structure from technical assistance sessions and monitoring calls
  • Data on benefits and challenges encountered during the school year from phone interviews with principals
  • Data on teachers’ experiences and satisfaction from a survey
  • Data on student achievement, teacher retention, and teachers’ baseline effectiveness scores from administrative records
  • Data on instructional quality and teachers’ interactions with students from video recordings of lessons taught
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