The Organization of the Elementary Classroom Delivery Model

The structure of elementary schools is an issue contested by educational specialists and administrators since the beginning of the twentieth century (McGrath, 2002). One aspect is the model of classroom delivery. Through the years, operation of elementary schools has adopted the self-contained or the departmentalization paradigm. The education spectrum has numerous styles of instructional organization or delivery within the educational prism. For instance, the self-contained, departmentalized, team-teaching, collaboration, changing classes, and rotating classes exist within this spectrum. In this continuum, the self-contained and departmentalized classrooms occupy the opposite ends of this educational spectrum. In a self-contained setting, a group of students is taught by one teacher covering all subject areas with some amount of independence. On the other hand, departmentalization is a classroom delivery model where a particular subject matter is taught by an educator specializing in the course and students move from one classroom to another for instruction. Identification of the most effective instructional practices would require school administrators to not only consider the quality and content of the lesson but the manner in which it was presented and delivered in the classroom. This should not only be the concern of the school but to students, parents, and policymakers who are the stake holders of elementary school system.

The first few years of schooling influence both the aspirations and achievements of all people. Early exposure of children to school subjects help shape a child’s subsequent academic successes or shortcomings and schooling in the early years builds the foundation for future success. Since one does not learn in isolation, interactions and relationships with teachers and classmates also greatly impact each young child’s social growth and development. Learning is truly a lifelong experience influenced by numerous individuals and events that offers many benefits. 

In the majority of elementary schools nowadays, the typical educational setting is a single classroom with one teacher responsible for teaching language arts, math, social studies, and science (Chan, 2004). Therefore the teacher is a generalist; although in some elementary schools, there are often special children that are taught music, art and physical education. On rare instances, gifted children attend self-contained classes (Hayden, 2007). Advocates of this model claimed that it allows students to become better acquainted with the teacher, enables the teacher to become aware of each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits, and permit more flexibility in scheduling, less transition time, and better chance for integration of different content areas (Catledge-Howard, Ward, Dilworth, & Mississippi State University, 2003; McGrath & Rust, 2002).

On the other hand, departmentalization is a program where children are taught several subjects by different teachers in diverse classrooms. It presents the following advantages as follows: specialization, instructional teams, teacher retention and transition to middle and high school and teacher flexibility. “The intention of departmentalization allows teachers to become specialists in the subject matter they teach, and this gives them the knowledge required to design higher quality lessons” (Hill, Rowan & Ball, 2005, p. 377).  With the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, there is greater accountability among stakeholders throughout the nation’s school divisions and stated the need for more highly qualified and competent teachers (Hill, Rowan & Ball, 2005).

However, opponents to departmentalization of elementary schools claimed that it diminishes the uniqueness of the home-like environment and the parental image of a teacher. In fact, a self-contained organization helps students transition from a home to a school setting especially among the younger elementary school pupils. When they reach fourth and fifth grades, departmentalized system is needed to work toward a seamless transition from elementary to middle school.

A great deal of preparation is needed for successful departmentalization. Through departmentalization, it is possible to cover the content in depth in Science, Social Studies and Math because it provides teachers freedom to maximize available resources and more preparation time. Because of departmentalization, teachers increase their knowledge about the subject matter they are expected to teach. Therefore teachers must have sufficient understanding of the subject they are responsible to teach (Lederman & Flick 2004). In determining what teachers should know, standards for students are desired outcomes; but teachers should have a knowledge level above and beyond what a regular elementary pupil should know. In a departmentalized program, the entire members of the faculty work closely with each other as a team. Thus team planning is a crucial element leading to successful departmentalization. Prior and during implementation, teachers should have thoroughly discussed the curriculum to be taught in each subject area making sure that integration is carried out which has a vital role to play in the program. Teams of teachers must meet regularly to allow periodic assessment of departmentalization, therefore gaps and challenges will be addressed immediately (Merenbloom, 1997). Administrators should provide the teams of teachers ample time for regular collaboration.

Another is teacher support and approval. Guemelata (2004) said, “All teachers involved must buy into the program for it to work”. Rosser (2004) found that a handful of teachers believed that the experience of third and fourth graders in a departmentalized classroom is generally pleasant. They believed that students this age should possess the consistency and structure throughout the day and that all classes have the same disciplinary guidelines and rules. Classroom dynamics should also be similar across all classrooms and there should be fair treatment of students by all subject teachers. Byers (2004) mentioned not all teachers showed support to departmentalization in the elementary years. Some teachers felt that by virtue of their age, elementary school children could not be able to cope with the demands and adjustments of switching classes. In addition, the teachers feel that elementary school children need the nurturance of one classroom teacher.

Another important consideration in departmentalization is parent-teacher communication. Teachers are charged with the responsibility of keeping accurate records of their students’ progress. In departmentalized classrooms, there are a number of students which would make communication with parents more difficult. Some schools have adopted well-organized programs with effective communication procedures which can be in the form of newsletters, web pages and student planners. Consequently, students are given added responsibility to communicate with their parents using daily planners (Byers, 2004).

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The student body also had varying perceptions and feelings on departmentalization. While some students feel enjoyment in changing classrooms and getting to know other subject teachers, other felt they need the company of one teacher for longer periods of time in the day. Though the objective of departmentalization is to enable students to adapt with transition, classroom switching, and numerous subject teachers, the key is in how departmentalization is organization in the school. One third grade child suggested only switching for four days a week and spending one whole day with the homeroom teacher (Albets, 2004). Another student thought it would be best to switch classes twice a day (Oglen, 2004).

As partners with teachers in education, parents’ perception also matters on the issue of departmentalization. Similar to the students, opinion of parents is divided. Some parents felt elementary school children are too young to handle added demands and responsibilities. Some were concerned of the social and emotional impact the program will have on the students. There were some parents who shifted sides when their children were able to adjust to the changes implemented (Stumps, 2004).

Though departmentalization presents obvious advantages, it cannot be denied that there are loopholes to this approach. One is the likelihood that many students may not experience a caring and supportive classroom environment. Achieving a positive teacher-student relationship is difficult with departmentalization. When teachers encounter several classes of students in a day, they are not able to get to know the needs of their students and it is impossible to provide them individual attention. Departmentalized can be likened to an assembly line in which time spent with students is depersonalized (Canady & Retting, 1995). Another is when students change teachers several times a day, they may not relate to any of the teachers as well as they would when they only have one teacher. Researches have shown that departmentalization result in poor academic performance among elementary children.

Although minimal research on effectiveness of self-contained classrooms exists, the results have significant implications. One study undertaken by McGrath and Rust (2002) found that performance of fifth and sixth grade pupils in Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) in the total battery, language and science subtests was significantly higher in self-contained than in departmentalized classrooms. No differences in math, reading and social studies subtests were noted in both groups (Catledge-Howard, Ward, Dilworth, & Mississippi State University, 2003; McGrath & Rust, 2002). Alspaugh and Harting observed that a transition from a self-contained to departmentalized settings resulted in significantly lower marks in reading and math scores (Catledge-Howard, Ward, Dilworth, & Mississippi State University, 2003). In addition, Piirto and Kolloff reported that gifted students scored higher in self-contained classrooms than in departmentalized settings. Both emphasized it may be because students are able to be themselves without fear of the social implications associated with their giftedness (Piirto, 2004).

Does the academic performance of elementary children vary significantly from the self-contained and departmentalized classrooms? Which group performed better? Will the study support the advocates of self-containment or departmentalization? This will be the principal question to be explored in this proposed study. Assessment of student performance in reading and mathematics will be done using the Standards of Learning.

Standards of Learning or SOL is a program which provides the learning and achievement expectations in Virginia’s public schools. These standards represent the contents of curriculum which many stakeholders in education composed of teachers, school administrators, parents, business and community leaders deem fit for learning in a particular grade level. Through the SOL, the Virginia Department of Education, schools, and school systems are able to routinely assess academic performance of elementary school children, which could very well reflect the effectiveness of instructional strategies and practices. The program is supportive and is the direct response to the No Child Left Behind Law of former President George W. Bush last January 8, 2002. Four student achievement areas are addressed: English, Mathematics, Science, and History/Social Science. Both English and Mathematics performance are measured in Grades 3-8 while on the other hand, Science and History SOLs are conducted in selected grade levels (3, 5, and 8).

Historical Background

The first schools in the US had schoolhouses with children of all ages occupying one room and discussion was facilitated by one teacher. The first grade school was introduced in 1848 when the Grammar School in Boston, Massachusetts opened. Impressed by this system in Germany, the first American educators adopted the graded system. During its early years, the Quincy School had 12 equally-sized rooms where each teacher met with some fifty-five children for a year at a time. The creators of this system predicted that this will be the pattern in the next fifty years; this system would go on beyond their estimate (Silbeman, 1970).

Elementary schools back then were originally organized following the traditional self-contained model (Heathers, 1967). This setup had persisted without any supporting theoretical justification until the early 20th century (Baker, 1999). Research demonstrated that departmentalization has been recommended and experimented in the intermediate levels almost exclusively. Findings from research failed to conclusively address whether a departmentalized model had more benefits than the self-contained structure. The recommendation of researchers has always been the conduct of similar studies exploring the advantages or disadvantages of these classroom delivery models.

Departmentalization has been recognized as the most significant educational development in the early 1900s. Mohl (1975) determined that it was William A. Wirt then superintendent of schools in Gary, Indiana, who originated the idea of class division according to subject area. This plan of Wirt’s became known as the Platoon School Plan. Under this plan, departmentalization was more extensive than what is apparent in schools nowadays (Walter, 1970).

Wirt’s objective for departmentalization is for schools to be self-sufficient. Children studying woodwork learned to create school furniture. Those in sewing or tailoring can make their own clothes and those in home economics are able to shop wisely and prepare food for lunches. Classes equip children to survive in society such as printing, gardening, mechanic, among others. There were also academic subjects like art, music, drama, and dancing. Mohl (1979) described the Platoon plan as having a full and enriched curriculum.

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Brochman (1978) stated that the most popular advocate of the Platoon Plan is Alice Barrow. It was her belief that children taught under this plan will reap numerous educational benefits and will be able to continue in their educational careers till the tertiary level and acquire the necessary skills in everyday life and the workplace. With this system, Barrow believed that children will live productively. Today, departmentalization by subject area is engrained in the school system with its utility in the higher grade levels.

Eccles and Midgley (1991) explained that school administrators and organizers prefer the departmentalized over the self-contained model of instruction because it allows students to be familiar with the secondary educational system ultimately becoming better adjusted with the system. Because the students were previously exposed to departmentalization during the later parts of their elementary education, they will not be spending their time acclimating to the high school organization.

Between 1910 and 1920, interest in the departmentalized setting was increasing. The second decade of the 20th century has seen transition, unrest, and reformation in all aspects of American life and these became the catalysts for departmentalizing public schools. The basis for this may have been pre and post war outcomes for World War I and II.  Economic activity in America at that time heavily relied on the factory and specialization in careers and schools reflected this outcome. During the industrial boom, specialization of particular subjects became increasingly evident. However, at that time, departmentalized referred to students receiving instruction from different teachers who taught art, music, or physical education.  In the 1930s and 1940s, the use of these two organizational structures was the hottest educational debate of the day (Silberman, 1970). In the next years from 1950 t0 1960, departmentalization increased in popularity especially in the intermediate levels. Then it faded in the 1970s and 1980s and picked up steam in the 1990s up to the present (Boswer, 1984). Evidently this fight has been going around for 100 years.  

Purpose of the Proposed Study

Being a school administrator in an institution that implements both self-contained and departmentalized classroom delivery models has motivated the researcher to determine which setup would be more beneficial in enhancing students’ academic performance. During the preparation of the proposal manuscript, literature search proved to be a very challenging task. First the research sorted through numerous titles, abstracts, studies, and articles; however very few pinned down the research question. The many articles searched through the worldwide web using Google Scholar covered all educational levels from special to tertiary education. Unfortunately after a thorough and exhaustive literature search, most of the studies were outdated and very few are peer-reviewed and conducted in the year 2000 above. This has even made the study more urgent so that research gaps on the effectiveness of self-contained and departmentalized classroom settings on the students’ academic performance.

In public schools, there is a wide range of instructional strategies in every level and it is the principal’s prerogative to select the delivery model that best address the educational needs of the students. Nowadays schools implement varied class arrangements to cater to different student learning styles and increased academic requirements. At the district level, it is the budget that determines the form and style of instructional practices to be implemented. Altering student organizational arrangements to enhance classroom learning is very important to educational leaders in the twenty-first century. In each model, there are advantages as well as disadvantages. This proposed study will enable educational leaders better decide on the best practices on classroom instruction based on the research results. By best practices, we mean the delivery model that leads to optimal outcomes in measures of academic performance.   

Typically, school administrators are exposed to a great deal of hands-on experiences in the classroom at varying levels in both self-contained and departmentalized settings.  This study hopes to furnish research-based data from which decision-making will be built upon particularly in the implementation of the most efficient classroom setting. Administrators should be able to justify the use of the best strategy by citing data supporting its utilization and that it should be the one that will improve academic achievement of students. The answer to this question is even more important when emphasis on accountability at the state and district levels will be considered as provided for by the results of standardized measures. The succeeding paragraphs will give readers a perspective on the performance of American students in Mathematics and Science.

Enhancing the reading performance of elementary school children is of national interest, and the motivation for this research since reading is the fundamental part of education. As indicated by the National Center for Education Statistics or NCES in 2004, four out of 10 fourth grade students are below the proficiency level in reading. In 2000, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development described oral reading fluency as one of the five critical components in reading instruction. This component was cited by Chard, Vaughn and Tyler (2002) as the most neglected goal in reading..

In 1995, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) or currently known as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study evaluated the performance of US students in mathematics and science in comparison with other countries in three different grade levels. Among US 4th graders, the TIMMS results showed average performance in both subjects compared to students representing other countries. The most disappointing was among the 12th graders who did not even passed the international benchmarks in both science and mathematics. The 1995 TIMSS assessments revealed that U.S. 4th-graders performed average in both mathematics and science in comparison to students in other nations, but U.S. 12th-graders scored below the international average and among the lowest of the TIMSS nations in mathematics and science general knowledge. The US still continues to lag behind the TIMMS when it was administered in 1999.

The first few years in the educational career of an individual is said to be very crucial as it sets the stage for igniting the individual’s love and commitment for learning each subject matter. The teacher should be able to facilitate this need for more learning so the student will aspire to learn more. In planning the curriculum, the administrators should see to it that there is a clear delineation on the relationships of various subjects so that education is complete and cohesive. The strength and cohesiveness of this relationship can be assessed in either a self-contained or departmentalized classroom setting. As school administrators it is imperative to analyze situations, decide, and resolve concerns by exploiting all possible avenues and options to address these concerns.  As an educator, there is a need to acknowledge that pre-adolescent students have a different psychological, physiological and cognitive makeup. In elementary education, school environment plays a prominent role in student development and learning. Above all, students at this age need connection with their peers, teachers, and the school. According to Inlay (2005), a school environment that promotes safety and supports autonomy has the potential to produce preadolescents capable of thinking critically, developing opinions, and engaging more in their classes.


This research is aimed to addressing the question on the effect of self-contained and departmentalized classrooms on students’ academic performance. Which model promotes academic achievement? Which model gives optimal results? Results of the study will enable administrators to make informed decisions as to the type of model to be adopted that will best serve the interest of the school which is the pursuit of academic excellence. Academic excellence has been at the forefront of every mission and vision of elementary schools not only in the US but also worldwide as they are periodically assessed through standardized tests and in effect becomes the gauge for continuance or termination of its operation; therefore the challenge confronting these schools is to adhere to both district-level and national achievement benchmarks.

Research Questions

This research will delve on the effect of self-contained and departmentalized classrooms on academic achievement among fourth graders in Virginia Beach City Public Schools District. Specifically, it will answer the following research questions:

What is the demographic profile of the selected fourth grade students in terms of:

Type of classroom delivery model


Racial background

What is the academic performance of selected fourth grade students from self-contained and departmentalized classrooms in Virginia in terms of:

Reading ability


3. Is there a significant difference in the academic performance of selected respondents from self-contained and departmentalized classrooms in terms of:

3.1. Reading ability

3.2. Mathematics


The above information indicates that the choice of classroom delivery model though the prerogative of the school principal is a factor promoting academic achievement among students. Therefore a research on the effects of self-contained and departmentalized educational settings on academic achievement of fourth graders in Virginia Beach City Public Schools District warrants a scholarly and scientific investigation. The null hypothesis that will be tested at 0.05 level of significance is stated as follows:

Ho: There is no significant difference in the academic achievement of fourth grade students from self-contained and departmentalized classrooms at Virginia Beach City Public Schools District. Criterion variables for academic performance will be scores in reading and mathematics.

Rationale and Significance of the Study

Debate on the effects of self-containment and departmentalization models on academic achievement in elementary schools have started prior to the 1980s. The early studies dealt specifically on the common psychological and sociological developments in the preadolescence and adolescence stages that took place during the period when most schools had departmentalized classroom instruction. School psychologists and teachers will find this study useful in the interpretation of scores and trying to understand the behavior of children who will not or will be switching classes. The data will sharpen one’s awareness on the effects of teacher-student relationship on academic performance as this will be more difficult to establish in departmentalized settings as explained by various authorities. Very few studies were found to have focused on the influence of classroom delivery models on academic achievement and if there are, it is not recent. Mathematics achievement seemed to be the most widely studied while reading ability is not as extensively explored as the former. With the seemingly, constant criticism of America’s educational system basing on the low performance in TIMMS compared to other countries, this study must be proposed to determine the best method of instruction that meet national and international standards. This study will help augment the limited number of recent literature therefore updating research on this regard. The findings of this study will be useful in school reforms, re-structuring and re-evaluation endeavors of school administrators, teachers, and local school councils.

Nature of the Study

In order to provide evidence of a causal link between variables, this study attempts to establish statistical differences in the variables that assess academic achievement such as reading, science, and mathematics scores. Study implementation will employ the descriptive, quantitative, and cross-sectional design. It will determine the academic achievement of fourth grade students randomly selected from two classroom settings namely self-contained and departmentalized. The standardized tests will be the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) in reading, science, and mathematics. This study is expected to determine the link between the variables the study will ascertain.

Assumptions and Limitations

For this study, it will be assumed that the respondent population will follow a normal distribution and that classes in each demographic factor will be adequately represented. Since a stratified random sampling method will be conducted, the conclusion could be generalized to reflect the situation in the Virginia Beach City Public Schools District. Another assumption will be that the respondents will truthfully answer the items in the questionnaire ensuring a high external validity. The analysis in the study will be limited to data based on actual test results from the Virginia Standards of Learning on two subjects, reading and mathematics. The respondents will only be fourth grade students from self-contained and departmentalized public schools in the Virginia Beach City Public Schools District.

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