Departmentalization in the Elementary School


Departmentalization is a common practice in middle and high school. It has been acknowledged that such an organization is beneficial for students and educators (Chang, Muñoz, & Koshewa, 2008). Specialist teachers are experts in specific areas and have the necessary time and skills to provide high-quality educational services. Students get acquainted with different teaching styles, which positively affects their academic performance and motivation. Students benefit since their teachers specialize in certain areas and have the extensive knowledge they can share. However, at elementary school, the debate concerning the potential benefits of this model is still ongoing. Some of the major concerns are associated with students’ age, the level of their psychological maturity, and their ability to interact with many educators. This paper includes a review of the article by Chang et al. (2008) that focuses on the use of departmentalization in the elementary school setting.

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Problem Addressed and Purpose of the Study

Some schools try to apply departmentalization in different forms. Educators report higher job satisfaction levels due to the decreased workload and the ability to learn from instruction (Strohl, Schmertzing, Schmertzing, & Hsiao, 2014). Nevertheless, it is still unclear whether elementary students can properly adapt to this model. Some studies indicate that students display positive academic performance in some subjects. Clearly, large-scale research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of departmentalization in elementary schools. It is noteworthy that academic performance is one of the components to pay attention to as students’ motivation is another influential factor that can define students’ attitude towards studies in later years. According to Chang et al. (2008), elementary students tend to have quite a negative attitude towards school, so the development of positive relationships with their teacher is critical. The purpose of the study under consideration is the analysis of elementary students’ connectedness to school in departmentalized and self-contained educational settings.

Research Questions and Hypotheses

Chang et al. (2008) did not provide any hypothesis or research questions, but they established three research goals instead. First, the researchers aimed at examining the connectedness of elementary students in departmentalized and non-departmentalized schools. Secondly, Chang et al. (2008) examined the “relationship between degrees of departmentalization and students’ connectedness to school” (p. 134). They also investigated whether this educational model related differently “to students’ connectedness to school by grade level” (p. 134). The focus of the study was the students’ perspective on their educational experiences rather than particular academic results.

Theoretical/Conceptual Framework

Chang et al. (2008) did not describe the theoretical or conceptual framework that guided their study. However, the researchers mentioned some theories and concepts that were deemed important for elementary students’ academic success. It was stressed that the relationships with teachers are crucial for students at this age. Therefore, the researchers referred to Vygotsky’s social development theory. Chang et al. (2008) also mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the concept of motivation. In simple terms, this study was associated with such concepts as motivation, school climate, social links, connectedness to school, and social development.

Analysis and Synthesis of the Previous Research Literature

The article in question does not include a section where the researchers analyze and synthesize previous research literature. Nevertheless, Chang et al. (2008) referred to various studies and theories to justify the choice of methods and conclusions they made. Some references were not very recent (published in the 1990s), which can be regarded as a certain flaw. At the same time, these cases were not numerous, and the sources also provided a historical context identifying the major aspects of the problem.

Methodology and Design

The study under analysis was a part of a larger program that involved the evaluation of the Child Development Project that included such elements as cooperative learning, developmental discipline, and classroom meetings. Chang et al. (2008) utilized a causal-comparative research design (also referred to as ex-post-facto), a quantitative method identifying cause-and-effect relationships. The researchers employed Multivariate Analysis of Variance procedures to identify whether students differed in terms of the dependent variables. The research in question involved eight elementary schools that participated in the programs from 2002 to 2007. The sample size was rather large since 702 departmentalized and 1,100 non-departmentalized students participated. The researchers described students’ characteristics such as age, gender, and ethnicity. Students completed questionnaires that included Likert-type scales. The researchers implemented the reliability analysis that revealed the excellent internal consistency reliability of the tool (Chang et al., 2008). The questionnaires addressed students’ autonomy, liking of school, respect for teachers, support from other students, concern for others.

Results and Conclusions Made

Chang et al. (2008) found that departmentalized students rated trust, support, and respect for educators considerably lower as compared to non-departmentalized students. It is also stressed that younger students and those who had three or more different teachers had the lowest connectedness to school. These findings are consistent with the results of other studies suggesting that only a limited number of teachers should be involved in the educational process in the elementary school setting. For instance, Goldhaber, Cowan, and Walch (2013) found that the specialization of mathematics and reading teachers can be beneficial for elementary students. Webel, Conner, Sheffel, Tarr, and Austin (2017) also claim that elementary mathematics specialists can contribute to the improvement of elementary students’ academic performance. However, it is clear that multiple specialists (over three educators) can make elementary (especially younger) students less trustful and motivated.

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Limitations and Ways to Eliminate Them

One of the major limitations, as defined by Chang et al. (2008), is the use of the causal-comparative design. The researchers stated that the schools chose different levels of departmentalization, but educators did not participate in the decision-making process. Therefore, many teachers had negative views on the matter, which could hurt their performance and the overall outcomes of the study. To eliminate this limitation, it is possible to conduct studies involving schools and practitioners who acknowledge the positive outcomes of departmentalization or, at least, understand the importance of the implementation of proper research. Chang et al. (2008) emphasized that experimental design could identify the implications of the educational model in question. It would be necessary to implement a wide-scale study that could involve educational establishments in different states.

Moreover, it is noted that students could have had a limited connectedness to school due to ineffective educational services provided at the establishments that took part in the study. When addressing this flaw, the experimental or quasi-experimental design could also be beneficial. For instance, it is critical to test students’ connectedness before and after the intervention or program involving departmentalization. Finally, the researchers claimed that academic outcomes were also valuable factors to consider, but they were excluded from the scope of this study. This limitation can be handled by the inclusion of this variable. It is possible to analyze students’ connectedness at school and their academic performance. It is noteworthy that the use of quantitative instruments is appropriate and can be employed in further studies as well.

As far as the article’s outline is concerned, it also contains certain flaws. For instance, the researchers could have utilized a more conventional approach including the description of the theoretical framework, and hypotheses or research questions. The description of these aspects could add more clarity to the design and methods used. It could be beneficial to refer to more recent studies, which would provide the necessary context for the research under analysis. At the same time, the researchers provide extensive details as to the methods they used and the results they obtained. Such a thick description contributes to the validity and reliability of the study.


To sum up, it is necessary to note that the study under analysis has certain implications for practitioners and researchers. For practitioners, it is clear that departmentalization in the elementary-school setting requires substantial research. A certain degree of departmentalization is possible, but schools should be careful when implementing the projects involving the establishment of this model. As for researchers, certain flaws of the causal-comparative design are identified. Investigators will be able to use the methods employed by Chang et al. (2008), but some of them should be modified. All in all, the study in question is valuable since it contributes to the knowledge base concerning the departmentalization of elementary schools.


Chang, F. C., Muñoz, M. A., & Koshewa, S. (2008). Evaluating the impact of departmentalization on elementary school students. Planning and Changing, 39(3&4), 131-145.

Goldhaber, D., Cowan, J., & Walch, J. (2013). Is a good elementary teacher always good? Assessing teacher performance estimates across subjects. Economics of Education Review, 36, 216-228.

Strohl, A., Schmertzing, L., Schmertzing, R., & Hsiao, E. L. (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.

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Webel, C., Conner, K. A., Sheffel, C., Tarr, J. E., & Austin, C. (2017). Elementary mathematics specialists in “departmentalized” teaching assignments: Affordances and constraints. The Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 46, 196-214.

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