Changing Classes in Elementary School

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Educational changes can be good, but sometimes you need to weigh the benefits gained against the disadvantages that students might incur. What I’m talking about is the new practice of having elementary students change classes—or departmentalize—as middle and high school students have always done. Gaining in acceptance as it becomes more widespread, this practice is in place based on the premise that having students taught by teachers who specialize in a subject will augment standardized test scores. Therefore, instead of remaining with one teacher who instructs students in all subjects, students might have three teachers: one for grammar and writing, another for reading and social studies and a third for math and science.

In addition to improved test scores, supporters of departmentalization tout the deeper knowledge that students gain from specialists in a subject, along with the enthusiasm specialists engender for the subject. They also point to the enhanced performance of teachers who, under departmentalization, can focus on only one or two subjects rather than five.

Of course, critics see this change differently. They lament the loss of stability and security that very young students have when they get to know and remain with one teacher all day, throughout the school year. And, as detractors note, students who departmentalize must adapt to several different teaching styles at a very young age, which they believe the children are not developmentally equipped to do. They also bemoan the inability of teachers to link a topic across subjects when they no longer teach all subjects. And, finally, dissenters point out that anecdotal evidence is the only support for departmentalization’s ability to raise test scores, suggesting that stronger proof is needed.

While I see the merits of having specialists teach more in-depth lessons and impart their own love of the subject, I lean toward the opponents of departmentalization. The stability and security that young children gain from remaining with one teacher can have a positive and enduring influence on their education (and their perception of it), whereas having to adjust to several teachers is a bit much to ask of children at such a young age. Plus, I like the idea of a teacher being able to take one theme and carry it through various subjects, so that students see the links among domains rather than learning a topic in isolation. It’s more difficult to do that under departmentalization. And I’d like to see definitive studies proving that it not only raises test scores, but also actually improves learning.

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