U.S. Educational Legislation and Improvement of Student Performance

Introduction

According to statistic data, in 2012, the US students’ performance in mathematics was below average. Among all the thirty-four countries represented in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), such as Germany, Japan, and Israel, the United States were ranked only twenty-seventh (Results from PISA, 2012).

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The statistical numbers make it clear that the current US educational system may be regarded ineffective and inefficient. Many researchers see the ground of the problem in the commonly accepted elementary school teaching model that is called a self-contained or generalized model (Diamond, Maerten-Rivera, & Rohrer, 2013; Strohl, Schmertzing, & Schmertzing, 2014; Nelson, 2014). In the self-contained settings, a group of students receives instructions on the multiple subjects from the same teacher every day. Although the generalized organization is implemented in the majority of elementary schools across the country, the previous research papers have indicated some disadvantages of the given model that affect the teachers and students’ performance negatively (Strohl, Schmertzing, Schmertzing, & Hsiao, 2014). The negative results on teachers include the lack of in-depth knowledge of subjects, heavy workloads, low self-efficacy, and high level of stress that leads to decline in job satisfaction (Stewart, 2015). Since the teachers play a crucial role in the effectiveness of the knowledge transition to students, their inability to perform at a high level negatively affects the students’ performance in class as well.

The findings and observations demonstrated in the statistic reports and the previous research make it clear that the elementary education model’ efficiency is an up-to-date issue, and the alternative educational structures must be investigated. Departmentalization of elementary school can be regarded as a potential method for the existing dilemmas resolving (Strohl, Schmertzing, Schmertzing, & Hsiao). Evaluation of the positive and negative impacts on the teaching and learning processes is of increasing interest and importance because it can support the detection of the areas that need to be improved, and the understanding of how these improvements are to be made.

According to Nelson (2014), teaching in the departmentalized settings provokes teachers’ professional development (p. 8). In opposition to teaching in the self-contained model, the different groups of students receive instructions from the same specialist in one class. When the educational process is organized this way, teachers are provided with the sufficient time for the lessons’ preparation and design (Strohl, Schmertzing, & Schmertzing, 2014). Other advantages of departmentalization include the decrease of workloads that reduce the chance of teachers’ burnouts, higher level of professionalism and knowledge of the subject content, improvement of teachers’ professional self-perception and confidence (Strohl, Schmertzing, Schmertzing, & Hsiao). The claims in the multiple studies show that after the transition towards the departmentalized organization of education in some elementary schools, the students’ performance has drastically enhanced mainly because of the positive changes in the teachers’ functioning and abilities (Nelson, 2014; Stewart, 2015).

Although there is a sufficient amount of investigation devoted to the impacts on the teachers’ efficacy in the departmentalized settings, the findings in the research of changes in students’ performance in this educational structure are controversial. The lack of arguments and clear-cut facts about the departmentalization’s positive impacts on students’ level of knowledge create the obstacles for the adoption and recognition of the model by the schools’ administration.

According to Freiberg (2014), in the period of transition from the self-contained form of education to the secondary departmentalized structure, the students are exposed to stress that interferes with their successful acclimatization in the new educational environment and absorption of knowledge (p. 37). As the result, the academic performance may be deteriorated. Therefore, it is possible to say, that implementation of departmentalization in elementary education can enhance the situation in the secondary school as well because, in this case, the students will become familiar with the modes and standards of studying and communication accepted in the middle-school.

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It is possible to say that the further research of the issues related to the improvement of the students’ self-perception, abilities to learn and absorb knowledge, communicate with peers and adults, and perform in the variety of subjects in the self-contained settings will help to provide more evidence for the potentials of the model. The research needs to investigate the causal factors that influence the improvement of the students learning abilities. It may support verification of the previous research results and may stimulate the model’s acceptance in schools.

Overview of the U.S. Educational System

Since the adoption of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act in 2002, the U.S. educational system has experienced numerous transformations. The legislation has a purpose of teaching and learning intervention and improvement. The NCLB emphasizes the importance of the accountability and attempts to make its assessment a standard practice (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). The assessments of students from 3 to 8 grades became obligatory. The test results are compared to the state’s academic normative to identify the student’s level of compliance with the standard.

The mandatory accountability monitoring creates challenges for the elementary school teachers. The generalist teachers need to observe the standards in the instruction of each content subject every day. However, the teachers prefer to focus on those subjects that are most urgent (Taylor-Buckner, 2014). In this way, more time is frequently devoted to reading and writing while science instruction is paid less attention.

The requirement for the improvement of students’ academic performance makes teachers devote more time to the content areas other than reading and math (Horton, 2013, p. 6). As the result, the question of instructional quality arises. Because of to the federal accountability requirements, the elementary schools in some states attempt to shift from generalist model to departmentalization. The changes in the organizational structures made it possible to research the different educational practices and effects of both models on students’ achievements. According to many researchers, the students in the departmentalized upper elementary grades had higher scores in mathematics and reading comparing to their peers in the self-contained educational settings (Taylor-Buckner, 2014). Therefore, departmentalization may be considered more appropriate for the effective academic improvement.

Academic and Psychological Needs of the Elementary Students

In the majority of schools, the emphasis is made on the academic performance while social and emotional learning of students is usually neglected. The development of social skills can be defined as the process of gaining the social awareness, establishment and maintenance of social relationship (Kabasakal & Totan, 2013, p. 56). By mastering this process, an individual becomes more successful in managing his/her life. Emotional learning may be regarded as the process of understanding of personal emotions and the emotions of other people, consideration of them, building of morality, and development of the responsible attitudes and behaviors as well as the establishment of the positive relations. It is observed that some children handle the emotional and social development independently, but some of them need support (Kabasakal & Totan, 2013, p. 56).

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The development of social skills and fulfillment of the emotional needs are the basic requirements that support the mental well-being of children and are as important as academic learning. According to Kabasakal and Totan (2013), the improvement of emotional and social skills in children positively affects their performance in class (p. 57). The protection of the psychological soundness of the students thus is a vital element of the educational process effectiveness. The creation of the positive climate in the classroom and encouragement of the students’ communication with peers and adults help to fulfill their emotional needs, reduce stress, and prevent children and adolescents from the expression of aggression and substance use (Hargreaves, Earl, & Ryan, 2013). As the result of multiple needs consideration, the academic development becomes more efficient.

Self-contained Educational Model

The majority of elementary schools in the USA implement the self-contained model of teaching. While teaching in the self-contained class, a teacher needs to instruct multiple content areas to a group of the same students during the school day. In the traditional educational settings, the teachers are generalists, and they are responsible for many subjects in the curriculum (Horton, 2013).

The self-contained organizational structure facilitates the establishment of relationships between teachers and students – it is easier for the students to be in contact with their teacher, and the teacher understands the academic or personal weaknesses and strengths of each learner. However, teachers have fewer opportunities to collaborate with other colleagues and share professional experiences with them (Stewart, 2015, p. 10). Self-contained educational model excludes the cooperation to a large extent and is more focused on individual work in the class organization: planning, content review, material preparation, etc. Thus, the teachers are expected to be able to elaborate lessons and deliver knowledge in all the subjects included in the curriculum (Strohl, Schmertzing, Schmertzing, & Hsiao, 2014). Moreover, it is expected that the generalists should comply with all the professional standards and execute their work in high quality.

According to many researchers, the quality of the instruction in science and mathematics classes in the generalist educational settings is widely questioned (Horton, 2013; Taylor-Buckner, 2014). It is observed that in this model, teachers pay less time to the instruction of science subjects in comparison to departmentalized classes. However, such subjects as reading and writing are emphasized in the self-contained classes, and the students can learn them in a productive way (Johnson, 2013).

One of the advantages of the generalist education is that teachers are familiar with their students’ competencies and weaknesses as well as their characters and behavior patterns. According to Hattie and Anderman (2013), when the teacher-student relations in the classrooms are characterized as positive, the academic performance improves (p. 188). Teachers may use the advantage of close relationships with learners to provide the efficient educational experience by taking into consideration the individuals’ learning abilities and styles.

According to finding in multiple research studies in the field of education, the self-contained models has some limitations in the improvement of the students’ academic achievements (Nelson, 2014; Johnson, 2013). The teachers are expected to be experts in all the content areas, they are isolated from the colleagues, and do not have sufficient time for the lessons preparation (Strohl, Schmertzing, & Schmertzing, 2014). As the result, the effectiveness of teaching decreases affecting students’ proficiency in a negative way.

The further study of interrelations between organizational structures, teachers’ efficacy, and students’ performance is needed. The study needs to be focused on the advantages and disadvantages of both traditional and alternative models to identify in which educational settings the academic improvement is possible. Based on the findings, it will be possible to find strategies and methodologies that will help students to learn more effectively.

Departmentalization

In the departmentalized classrooms, a teacher is responsible for the instruction of one or a few content areas during the school day, and the students rotate from class to class. In this way, teachers’ competence and level of expertise in the instruction of particular subjects is higher. In the departmentalized settings, the instructional time in science and math is equal to instruction time in all the other content areas. Moreover, the departmentalized science classes are usually outfitted with the necessary equipment, and both students and teachers may easily access all the resources and materials (Horton, 2013, p. 24).

In comparison to self-contained model, departmentalization allows teachers to interact with their colleagues more often and facilitates the professional discussion of various instructional and social issues. The teachers’ collaboration provokes the professional growth and improvement of instructional techniques. Moreover, implementation of the model provokes the reduction of material costs (Horton, 2013). Instead of the provision of the necessary equipment for each self-contained classroom, the school administration purchases it for the arrangement of one specialized class and lets the different groups of students use the same recourses throughout the school day.

Departmentalization is commonly implemented in the U. S. Middle schools. When the upper elementary students are educated according to the same schedule and in the same fashion, they become better prepared for the transition to the middle school. It is also observed, that teachers take a more advantageous position in departmentalized class in regards to lesson preparation, knowledge improvement, and self-efficacy increase (Strohl, Schmertzing, Schmertzing, & Hsiao, 2014).

Advantages of Departmentalization

The findings in a number of research studies demonstrate the benefits and advantages of departmentalization. Because of the increase of standard demands in such subjects like mathematics and science, a generalist teacher cannot manage high-quality instruction. A high level of specialization in discipline is required, and departmentalization is the model that allows teachers to acquire the necessary competence. According to researchers, the idea that a single teacher can be an expert in all the curriculum subjects is rather unrealistic (Diamond, Maerten-Rivera, & Rohrer, 2013; Strohl, Schmertzing, Schmertzing, & Hsiao, 2014; Thomson, & Kaufmann, 2012). Thus, it is suggested for the upper elementary class students to be instructed by the specialists in departmentalized settings. According to Stewart (2015), the specialists in the content area can understand the academic needs of the students better and can respond to these needs more effectively (p. 15). The specialist teachers create a favorable classroom environment in which learning process becomes productive.

A high level of expertise increases the efficiency of instruction. As a plus, in departmentalization the teachers are free from the necessity of teaching the content areas where they feel incompetent and uncomfortable. According to Strohl and colleagues (2014), in the self-contained model, the generalist teachers are usually forced to instruct the areas they are not enough qualified for and which they do not like (p. 4). For the increase of the professional efficacy, it is better to let teachers master one or a few subjects rather than compelling them to cover multiple different disciplines.

In departmentalization, a high level of proficiency impacts teaching in a good way because of the instructor’s profound knowledge that can easily be developed as the model allows teachers to learn new teaching techniques and apply the specialized equipment (Horton, 2013). As the result, the students receive more in-depth knowledge than they would be able to receive in the self-contained class.

In departmentalized class, teachers do not have an opportunity to miss the subject because they simply feel unconfident about it. Thus, departmentalization supports better compliance with the standards of education by allowing teachers instruct the subjects they feel adequate about. According to Diamond and colleagues (2013), the instruction becomes more efficient due to sufficient time for lesson preparation and because of a high level of teachers’ motivation and encouragement with their professional capabilities (p. 10). As Horton (2013) claims, when the lessons are shorter yet well organized and planned, the students feel less bored and are more motivated by the teacher’s enthusiasm (p. 40). Effective time management is one of the principle advantages of departmentalization. Due to the sufficiency of time, teachers can plan their instruction more thoughtfully and can be focused on the professional growth and improvement of gaps in knowledge.

In departmentalization, students meet many instructors and experience multiple distinct teaching techniques on the everyday basis. According to Johnson (2013), the exposure to numerous teaching methods benefits students helping them to develop the social skills and flexibility and broadening their knowledge (p. 30). It is also mentioned that children develop adaptiveness abilities in the departmentalized settings (Hanks, 2013). As the result, they learn to be a part of a team, and their transition to the middle school becomes more feasible.

Other advantages of departmentalization are the increase of attraction of male specialists to elementary school teaching because they are not required to instruct all disciplines, and new and inexperienced teachers’ better adaptation to the schooling environment because they don’t need to be with the learners all day long (Johnson, 2013).

Potential Disadvantages of Departmentalization

Although the advantages of departmentalization are many, some researchers argue that the model impacts the teacher-student relationship negatively (Taylor-Buckner, 2014). As the result of the lack of closeness between teachers and students, the efficiency of instruction may suffer, and the students may experience challenges in the understanding information. It is possible to say that the application of the self-contained model in elementary schools is conditioned by the external factors such as children’s psychological development and communication. Some researchers claim that self-contained model is thus more appropriate for education of students in elementary schools because it allows teachers to understand each individual student, use time in a more flexible way, correlate the students’ abilities and knowledge across the content areas, and support children in emotional and social learning and development (Taylor-Buckner, 2014).

In comparison to the self-contained model, teachers in departmentalization may experience difficulties in communication with parents due to the increase in the number of students. In generalist settings, teacher-parent relations are facilitated because of organizational structure.

Some researchers see the compromise in the combination of the two models. For example, it is possible to keep the student-cantered approach as in the self-contained model yet make education more specialized as in departmentalization (Landahl, 2012). The semi-departmentalized educational settings allow the teachers and school administration to reduce the potential disadvantages of the model and emphasize the positive sides of it.

Assessment of the Students’ Perception of School Environment in Self-contained and Departmentalized Settings

According to multiple research findings, when a student has negative attitudes and perceptions of the school environment, there is a possibility that his/her academic performance will be low (Hargreaves, Earl, & Ryan, 2013; Hanks, 2013). For the improvement of educational achievements, the students’ perceptions must be positive. As it observed by Hanks (2013), students’ positive attitude to school is largely dependent on their level of psychological connectedness to various aspects of schooling environment (p. 56). Therefore, when shifting towards the departmentalized model, it is necessary to take into consideration the students’ connectedness with teachers, educational tasks, and the schooling environment in the whole. According to Hanks (2013), the lack of close and sound relations between teacher and student influence instruction, learning process, and student behavior negatively (p. 56). The students’ perception of their connection with a teacher is the decisive factor that determines the character of relationships.

It is possible to assume that an individual student who needs to interact with many teachers during the day will likely be unable to be in the close relations with each of his/her teachers. And while teaching a large number of students, the instructors will not be able to be connected to everyone. However, the lack of close relationships with the teachers may be a risk factor provoking the development of poor behaviors and decline in the academic performance.

According to Hanks (2013), in the departmentalized classrooms, students may have negative perceptions of their communication with teachers regarding the issues of support and trust (p. 24). It is observed that the younger students will experience more challenges in the establishment of close relations with adults in the departmentalization and their attitude toward school will be negative. On the contrary, in the generalist model, the teachers’ care for students is more evident, and it helps the students to feel more involved. Therefore, for the increase of effectiveness of transition to departmentalization, it is important to pay attention to the manner of student-teacher communication.

Departmentalization from the Administrative Point of View

The NCLB legislative act impacts all the aspects of schools organization, and especially leadership and administrative decision-making. Since the conceptions and regulations stated in the NCLB are mandatory, the school principals need to consider laws while undertaking the educational measures for accountability increase and developing the intervention practices. According to Landahl (2012), principals need to pay significant attention to the organizational structures, the systems of class formation, the amount of instructional time, and the inner organizational culture for personnel (p. 2). The consideration of multiple aspects in decision-making process assists the improvement of students’ performance in class and helps to maintain long-term positive results.

The main organizational issues are related to the coordination and allocation of work (Landahl, 2012, p. 3). Departmentalization and self-contained forms of education coordination are most frequently used in the U.S. schools at the elementary level. The models have different styles of organization in the teachers’ working process and students’ fashion of studying; as the result, they may have different educational outcomes. Therefore, comprehension of the principals’ motivation in their decision to implement a particular model is of significant interest for the research because it will help to understand which aspects and effects of educational structure models need to be exposed to the further investigation.

According to the finding in the study conducted by Landahl (2012), the major reasons that the administrators and principals had for the implementation of self-contained structures were related to the improvement of the relationships between teachers and students. It was observed in the study that many principals were concerned that specialized classes are not suitable for the younger students due to their need for close communication and support in the problem-solving of different kinds. It is also mentioned that self-contained models may be helpful in the increase of the accountability at the elementary level (Landahl, 2012).

The major reasons for the utilization of departmentalization were the principals’ concern with the lack of teachers’ competence in all content areas of the curriculum. By shifting educational structure from generalization to specialization, the schools leaders attempted to help the teachers who lacked confidence and expertise in some subjects by letting them specialize in the area where they felt more secure (Landahl, 2012, p. 127). Along with the teachers’ level of proficiency, principals paid significant attention to student performance in making a decision for the application of departmentalization. While deciding to implement a new organizational model, administrators took into consideration evidence provided by multiple research findings and observations that claim that departmentalized settings are more likely will influence the students’ achievements in a positive way.

Potential Positive Impacts of Elementary School Departmentalization on General Educational Outcomes

According to Watts (2012), nowadays, the U.S. employers are concerned with the level of competence of their new employees who graduated from the high schools. According to the research, the majority of school graduates lack the skills of critical thinking, written communication, and evaluation (Watts, 2012, p. 1). As the result, employers try to avoid hiring employees with the high school diplomas.

It thus is important to integrate the practices developing the skills that are highly demanded in the present-day job market: literacy, communication skills, technology knowledge, and analytical thinking. Since elementary education may be regarded as the basis of the general educational system, integration of these particular practices must commence at the initial elementary school level.

A high level of teachers’ specialization in the subject allows them to transfer their knowledge to students more efficiently and effectively while the generalist teaching frequently reduces this opportunity (Watts, 2012; Stewart, 2015). It is expected that teachers in departmentalization will be more able to provide high-quality instruction in those subjects that nowadays are socially demanded: science, mathematics, and technology. As it was observed in the recent research studies, teachers in the self-contained classrooms do not feel confident in some of the content areas, and the quality of their instruction suffers (Stewart, 2015, p. 10). Lack of competence in teachers interferes with the improvement of the student performance and development.

It is possible to assume that departmentalization meets the excess demands of the modern job market. A specialist teacher has a deeper knowledge of discipline in comparison to generalists, and he/she knows how to apply this knowledge in practice. Departmentalization decreases the opportunity that some of the subjects will be neglected and missed by the instructor. In this organizational model, all the content areas are covered and paid attention and the sufficient amount of time is devoted to them (Watts, 2012, p. 2). Based on this, it is possible to say that departmentalization improves proficiency of both teachers and students.

Conclusion

The current U.S. educational legislation requires the immediate improvement of student performance. Teaching and administrative staff in schools attempts to achieve positive results by implementing alternative methodologies and organizational structures.

According to researchers, the organizational structure in classrooms may impact students’ academic performance to a large extent (Horton, 2013; Taylor-Buckner, 2014; Nelson, 2014; Johnson, 2013). In this way, implementation of departmentalization at the elementary level may provoke positive outcomes in learning and increase the effectiveness of educational process due to teacher expertise in the subject area. At the same time, self-contained model, it found to be more appropriate for the younger students (Landahl, 2012). In the self-contained educational settings, the teachers can meet the emotional and psychological needs of the immature students more successfully, and it is important because consideration of the psychological and social factors in the children development facilitates the improvement of academic performance.

References

Diamond, B. S., Maerten-Rivera, J., & Rohrer, R. (2013). Elementary teachers’ science content knowledge: Relationships among multiple measures. Florida Journal of Educational Research, 51, 1-20.

Freiberg, E. (2014). The relationship between academic performance and elementary student and teacher attitudes towards departmentalizing. Web.

Hanks, M. (2013). A study of fifth grade students’ perceptions and attitudes of a self-contained versus a departmentalized middle school classroom. Master of Education Theses & Projects, 60, 1-76. Web. 

Hargreaves, A., Earl, L., & Ryan, J. (2013). Schooling for change: Reinventing education for early adolescents. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Anderman, E. (2013). International guide to student achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.

Horton, L. A. (2013). Self-contained to departmentalization: A case study of academic achievement in fifth grade classes at an urban elementary school. Web.

Johnson, M. L. (2013). The benefits of departmentalization in upper elementary grades for students and teachers. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text. Web.

Kabasakal, Z., & Totan, T. (2013). The effect of social and emotional learning needs on decreasing the mental symptoms in elementary school students. Çukurova University. Faculty of Education Journal, 42(1), 56-64.

Landahl, M. P. (2012). Elementary principals’ perceptions of institutional structures. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text. Web.

Nelson, K. (2014). A study comparing fifth grade student achievement in mathematics in departmentalized and non-departmentalized settings. Doctoral Dissertations and Projects, 829, 1-194. Web.

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Stewart, L. L. (2015). Teachers’ perspectives on self-contained and departmentalized instructional models. Web.

Strohl, A., Schmertzing, L., & Schmertzing, R. (2014). Elementary teachers’ experiences and perceptions of departmentalized instruction: A case study. Journal of Case Studies in Education, 6, 1-17.

Strohl, A., Schmertzing, L., Schmertzing, R., & Hsiao, E. (2014). Comparison of self-contained and departmentalized elementary teachers’ perceptions of classroom structure and job satisfaction. Journal of Studies in Education, 4(1), 109-127.

Taylor-Buckner, N. (2014). The effects of elementary departmentalization on mathematics proficiency. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text. Web.

Thomson, M. M., & Kaufmann, E. (2012). Elementary teachers’ views of their science professional development attendance: An expectancy-value approach. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 9(1), 45-58.

U.S. Department of Education. (2002). An act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind (20 USC 6301). Washington, DC: Author.

Watts, T. C. (2012). Departmentalization and twenty-first century skills. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text. Web.

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