Elementary school structure

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Elementary school structure has been an issue debated by educators, administrators, parents and district, state, and national level curriculum personnel for many years. (McGrath, Rust, 2002). Many structural changes have taken place. Changes within schools have been depicted as a "fashion trend' as opposed to a scientific building process (Stevens, 2004). Often changes are proposed and supported without thorough research to indicate the innovations are beneficial. Innovative programs are implemented, and before results of them are evaluated, districts and states move on to another idea.

With the 2007 reauthorization of the original 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), math and reading mastery have become essential because of annual testing and higher expectations with more accountability. There is a high level of instruction that is needed to improve the academic achievement of every student and the necessity to have effective teachers' in general academic subject areas in all classrooms has become a requirement because the NCLB has sought to elevate the performance of American schools and students with federal oversight and strict penalties for poor performance. (U.S. Department of Education, No Child Left Behind: Building on Results, 2007).

The National Reading Panel (2000) Teaching Children to Read investigated the value of teaching reading to elementary students. The authors did little discussion on organizational structure but did explain that teachers should be highly qualified in their field of expertise. Teachers who teach one subject area become more specialized in their area of instruction than teachers who teach all subject areas. High-quality teachers' is a key component of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Research provides a clear connection between student achievement and teacher quality (Darling-Hammond, 1999). NCLB requires that all core content teachers be highly qualified (HQ) in their assignment. A well-prepared teacher is vitally important to a child's education and ensuring for all students. While this requirement does not guarantee an effective teacher in every classroom, it does set a common expectation for teacher knowledge being that of a specialized content area.

The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008), which was released in 2008, investigated the value of mathematics specialists at the elementary level. The authors of this report found that students in elementary school had no difference in the mathematics gain scores in a departmentalized structure compared to students in a school with a self-contained structure. However, one of the recommendations was indirectly connected to the organizational structure of the elementary schools for math through the use of full-time elementary math specialists. There are at least three models for the use of math specialists: the lead teacher or math coach model, the specialized-teacher model, and the pull-out model. The specialized-teacher model involves teachers being responsible for the direct - instruction of students and have the responsibility for the instruction of a single grade level.

Throughout research studies, various terms and descriptions are used to define the classroom structures. For the purpose of this research study, the terms traditional and departmentalized are used with the following definitions:

Traditional-indicates the self-contained general education classroom where students are taught all core, academic subjects of reading/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies by one teacher for an entire school year.

Departmentalized-specifies the classroom structure where students are taught core, academic subjects by more than one teacher. The number of teachers may vary from two to four. These departmentalized students change classes throughout the day and receive instruction from a teacher who may be considered a specialist in a certain subject area (math and reading) due to an endorsement or specialized training. At other times, teachers are given opportunities to teach the subject of choice.

Purpose of the Study

This primary purpose of this quantitative study will examine which organizational structure, traditional (self-contained, one teacher for all academic subjects) or departmentalized (math and reading taught by a different teacher), has the greatest effect on general third-grade students' reading and math achievement as measured by the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test).

Background of Study

In response to reported state and national student achievement levels, numerous types of reform efforts have been initiated in mathematics and reading classrooms across the Nation. There is a need to rethink how mathematics and reading instruction are delivered in the elementary school classroom. Two factors impacted this study: (a) elementary school classroom organizational structures; and (b) reading and mathematics achievement and accountability as set by the FCAT.

Organizational structures. According to the United States Department of Education (2005), the nation is continuing to follow a trend of low academic achievement with little increase since the 1960s. It is startling to see that elementary school students today, who have access to so much technology and information, are not scoring significantly higher than students from prior generations. Many issues arise that can affect student achievement; one may be the organizational structure of the school. One aspect of organizational structure involves how many subject areas one teacher covers in the classroom. In this more traditional, self-contained classroom the teacher is expected to carry the responsibility of the curriculum; teaching reading/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies for the entire day (Chan & Jarman, 2004). The other side of organizational structure is the departmental approach. This is sometimes referred to as the four teacher model. In this approach the teachers teach specific content areas and the students move from classroom to classroom during the day (Gerretson, Bosnick & Schofield, 2008).

Historically, education in the United States has followed the pattern of eight years of elementary education, followed by four years of high school. At the end of the nineteenth century, secondary education began in seventh grade (Mizel, 2005).

Reading. Reading achievement in the United States has been steadily increasing over the last decade. According to the 2007 National Assessment of Education Programs (NAEP) report the number of fourth graders who score at or above the proficient level raised from 29% in 1992 to 33% in 2007. Eight grade students nationwide have shown an increase from 29% of the students reaching at the proficiency level in 1992 to 31% in 2007.

Across the United States schools are under pressure to increase student achievement. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to increase academic standards, implement assessments, and be accountable for student achievement (USDOE, 2005). In some states poor-performing school systems are compelled to relinquish control of their school to the state if student achievement fails to rise. Therefore, states and school districts are increasingly struggling to implement school improvement initiatives which will increase student achievement (Goodnuagh, 2001). Reading is a foundation skill for school learning and life learning-the ability to read is critical for success in modern society. Improving student literacy has been an important focus of education for many years. Recent emphasis on accountability and increases in reading standards have created the need for carefully designed materials and instructional strategies that address the needs of all learners.

Mathematics. Mathematics achievement in the United States has also been steadily increasing over the last decade. According to the 2007 National Assessment of Education Programs (NAEP) report the number of fourth graders who score at or above the proficient level raised from 59% in 1992 to 82% in 2007. Eight grade students nationwide have shown an increase from 58% of the students reaching at the proficiency level in 1992 to 71% in 2007. Being able to understand numbers, to count, and to calculate are basic but necessary abilities to participate adaptively in modern societies. Math learning disabilities can be a devastating problem in school and in later life. In today's world, mathematical knowledge and reasoning skills are no less important than the ability to read. Although reading skills are acknowledged to be critical for succeeding in school and in life, the importance of acquiring basic math skills for functioning effectively is only beginning to be recognized by the American public.

Statement of Problem

The problem identified in this study is to determine the best organizational structure-traditional or departmentalized-to produce the greatest improvement in third-grade students' math and reading achievement scores as measured by the FCAT. From these problem areas, the following research questions and null hypotheses were developed.

Research Questions and Hypotheses

Research Question 1: Do general education third-grade students have a higher mean scale score on the FCAT mathematics in a traditional (self-contained, one teacher for all academic subjects) classroom than third-grade students in a departmentalized (math taught by different teacher) classroom setting?

Null Hypothesis 1-H01: There will be no significant difference in the mathematics achievement of traditional (self-contained, one teacher for all academic subjects) third-grade general education mathematics students as compared to departmentalized (math taught by different teacher) third-grade general education mathematics students as shown by the mean scale score on the FCAT mathematics scores.

Research Question 2: Do general education third-grade students have a higher mean scale score on the FCAT reading in a traditional (self-contained, one teacher for all academic subjects) classroom than third-grade students in a departmentalized (reading taught by different teacher) classroom setting?

Null Hypothesis 2-H02: There will be no significant difference in the reading achievement of traditional (self-contained, one teacher for all academic subjects) third-grade general education reading students as compared to departmentalized (reading taught by different teacher) third-grade general education reading students as shown by the mean scale score on the FCAT reading scores.

Research Question 3: Do general education third-grade students have a higher percentage of students scoring at or above the minimum state expectations on the FCAT mathematics in a traditional (self-contained, one teacher for all academic subjects) classroom or in a departmentalized (math taught by a different teacher) classroom setting?

Null Hypothesis 3-H03: There will be no significant difference in mathematics achievement of traditional, self-contained (one-teacher for all academic subjects) third - grade general education students as compared to departmentalized (math taught by another teacher) third - grade general education students as shown by the percentage passing results of the FCAT mathematics scores.

Research Question 4: Do general education third-grade students have a higher percentage of students scoring at or above the minimum state expectations on the FCAT reading in a traditional (self-contained, one teacher for all academic subjects) classroom or in a departmentalized (reading taught by a different teacher) classroom setting?

Null Hypothesis 4-H04: There will be no significant difference in reading achievement of traditional, self-contained (one-teacher for all academic subjects) third - grade general education students as compared to departmentalized (reading taught by another teacher) third - grade general education students as shown by the percentage passing results of the FCAT reading scores.

Overview of Methodology

The population for this study will consist of 34, 730 third-grade students from 263 elementary schools from southeast Florida. Southeast Florida is a diverse multicultural/multi-ethnic population. Each individual school district will assist in obtaining the data. Data will be separated by means and percentages and categorized either as traditional (self-contained, one teacher) or departmentalized organizational structures (reading & math taught by a different teacher). The study will rely heavily on the 2009 - 2010 mathematics and reading FCAT scores. Using the third-grade math and reading scores, a z score population proportion distribution will be used to compare the passing percentages of students within each of the two structures. Additionally, a two-sample t test will be used to determine significant differences between the mean scale scores of the traditional classroom of students and the departmentalized classroom of students. An Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) will be used to analyze the means of both groups for the pre-test observance. FCAT math and reading means and percentages (2008-2009) will be used as the pre-test to make sure that each of counties are comparable.

Definition of Terms

Co-teaching. A particular classroom setting that involves two or more professionals with equivalent licensure, one who is a general education teacher and one who is a special education teacher or specialists. Both teachers participate fully and share in the responsibility of the instructional process. This type of teaching may also be referred to as an inclusive class where special education students receive some or all of their specialized instruction and related services in the general education classroom.

Departmentalization. Many upper elementary grades and almost all middle and high school classrooms in public schools are organized along department lines. The academic core areas (English/language, mathematics, science, and social studies) form the basis of the departmentalized school. This is also sometimes referred to as the four teacher model. In this approach the teachers teach specific content areas and the students move from classroom to classroom during the day. Students receive daily instruction from several different teachers because each teacher specializes in a single subject.

FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). Part of Florida's overall plan to implement higher standards to increase student achievement. This test is administered to students in grades 3-11consiting of CRT (criterion referenced tests) that include mathematics, reading, science, and writing, which measures the students' progress in meeting the SSS (Sunshine State Standards) core benchmarks.

Non-traditional. Non-traditional refers to any and all organizational structures with more than one teacher responsible for a group of students. Specific structures include: departmentalized, semi-departmentalized or interdisciplinary teams, teaming/ team teaching, co-teaching, and scheduling.

Mathematics FCAT. Five main components of mathematics instruction, including number and operations, the ability to understand and represent numbers, relationships among numbers, and number systems (e.g., the number 24 is 2 tens and 4 ones); algebra, the ability to understand patterns, relations, and functions of numbers, and use mathematical models to represent and understand quantitative relationships (e.g., x + 4 = 7, solve for x); measurement, the ability to understand measurable attributes of objects (e.g., time and money); geometry, the ability to analyze characteristics and properties of two- and three-dimensional shapes, apply transformation and use symmetry to analyze mathematical situations (e.g., length, width, area, and volume); and data analysis and probability, the ability to collect, organize, and display relevant data to answer questions with appropriate statistical methods (e.g., graphing).

Reading FCAT. The Reading section uses various written materials to assess reading comprehension and vocabulary. Word knowledge is crucial to reading comprehension and determines how well students will be able to comprehend the texts they read.

Scale Score. A numerical score that corresponds with the performance levels of FCAT results. Scores at or above 394 indicate a level of exceeding the expectation; scores of 284 - 331 means a student meets the expectation; and, below 284 denotes a student who has not met the expectation or minimum level of proficiency required for the test.

Sunshine State Standards. Identify what Florida public school students should know and be able to do during each of four grade clusters that represent developmental levels: PreK-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12. They describe the student achievement where the state holds schools accountable for students' learning in a subject area of language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, music, visual arts, theatre, dance, health, physical education, and foreign languages.

Teaming/Team teaching. A group of teachers, two or more, working cooperatively and sharing the responsibilities of the classroom to help a group of students at any age learn. This allows for more interaction between teachers and students. Usually the teachers have different responsibilities.

Traditional. One teacher is on control of the classroom structure and learning environment. This teacher is required to teach the four core academic subjects to a group of students for the academic year. The only time the students are away from the teacher would be for lunch and special activities, such as music, art, and/or physical education.

  • Chan,T., & Jarman, D. (2004). Departmentalize elementary schools. Principal Magazine, 84(1), 70-71. Retrieved http://www.slcgno.info/Departmentalized%20 Classroom%20 Organization%20Structure.pdf
  • Darling-Hammond, L. (1999). Teacher quality and student achievement: a review of state policy evidence (Document No R-99-1). Seattle, Washington. Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.
  • Gerretson, H., Bosnick, J., & Schofield, K. (2008). A case for content specialists as the elementary school classroom teacher. The Teacher Educator. 43(4) 302-314.
  • Goodnuagh, A. (2001). Teaching By the Book, No Asides Allowed. In M. K. Montero, Themes of the Times for Literacy (pp. 40-44). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • McGrath, C., Rust, J. (2002). Academic achievement and between-class transition time for self-contained and developmental upper-elementary classes. Journal of Instructional Psychology 29(1), 40-43.
  • Stevens, R. (2004). Why do educational innovations come and go? What do we know? What can we do? Teaching and Teacher Education, 20(4), 389-396.
  • U.S. Department of Education. (2007). Building on results: a blueprint for strengthening the no child left behind act, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from Education Publications Center website: www.edpubs.org. http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/nclb/buildingonresults.pdf
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