Is Departmentalization an Approved Practice in the PLC at Work™ Process?
Educators who embrace the PLC at Work™ process as the best hope for sustained and substantive improvement, know the first “big idea” is to ensure learning for all—students and adults alike. Therefore, these educators are willing to examine their traditional practices, policies, and programs through the lens of learning—looking at evidence of learning (the third “big idea”) to determine which traditional practices promote and which impede the learning process. When they discover practices that are misaligned with promoting learning for all, they are willing to seek out and implement better practices.
One of the traditional practices that many educators are currently examining as they address the second “big idea”—building a collaborative culture—is the impact of departmentalizing in the elementary and middle grades. There is no hard-and-fast rule in the PLC at Work™ process that forbids departmentalization. But, if by departmentalizing across a grade level, one teacher is solely responsible for every student at the grade level learning mathematics, while another is responsible for English language arts, another for science, and so on, the structure does not support the definition of team in the PLC at Work™ process: a group of people working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members are mutually accountable.
In effect, the four singleton teachers in this example become an interdisciplinary (ID) group, much like the grade-level structure in traditional middle schools. Recent research on interdisciplinary teams versus content teams consistently concludes that the content team structure leads to higher levels of student learning than the ID or departmentalized teams.
Research review indicates professional development with a sustained focus on subject specific teaching—strongly tied to the curriculum, instruction, and assessment that students would encounter—produces the most consistent effect on subject teaching and student learning. They indicate that other professional development emphases, such as using hands-on activities, taking steps to increase gender equity, or preparing teachers for leadership roles, respond to widespread interests and concerns. Yet none of these shows a consistent relationship to teachers’ conceptions of subject teaching or reported practices of subject teaching. Only the professional development focused on subject knowledge for teaching does so.
—Little and Bartlett, 2010
In contrast to traditional “drive-by” workshops, large gains in achievement have been found when teachers experience sustained professional development focused on learning to teach specific subject matter in the context of practice. This kind of improvement can occur through guided learning at the school site.
—Forum for Education and Democracy, 2008
To see whether teachers in your school display traits in all three areas (academic focus, shared beliefs and values, productive professional relationships) and operate synergistically for student success, observe the interaction of a team of teachers that meets regularly, such as the third-grade team, the middle school social studies teachers, the math teachers who teach freshman algebra, or any teams that share content. Many other teams are important in the life of a successful school, but what happens in teams that share content is a reflection of the whole culture.
—Saphier, King, and D’Auria, 2006 (p. 52)
Achieving a strong focus on the specifics of mathematics or science teaching is easiest when learning teams are comprised of teachers of one particular subject. Such scenarios are well established in some other countries. For example, US researchers examining STEM teaching in Shanghai noted that every middle school mathematics teacher was involved in two math learning teams: one comprised of all teachers responsible for the same math subject and another comprised of mathematics teachers across all math subjects and grades in the school.
—Fulton and Britton, 2011 (p. 16)
In the framework we investigated, a “learning team” or “teacher workgroup” is typically composed of three to seven individuals teaching the same grade level, course, or subject area. Absent a common task immediately relevant to each teacher’s own classroom, it is difficult to create and sustain the kind of inquiry cycle observed in the scale-up schools and others in which we now work. In elementary programs, grade-level teams fulfill this function. At the secondary level, we have been most successful when teachers are organized into course-level (or subject-area) teams, such as seventh-grade prealgebra or ninth-grade English. To be successful, teams need to set and share goals to work on that are immediately applicable to their classrooms. Without such goals, teams will drift toward superficial discussions and truncated efforts to test alternative instruction.
—Gallimore, Ermeling, Saunders, and Goldenberg, 2009
Given that content- or subject-specific teams are connected by research to higher levels of learning—and given that the core curriculum in the upper elementary grades is vast and deeply packed—some schools are creating effective subteams within a grade level, allowing two or more teachers to departmentalize. Using the example of the four-member team above, rather than each teacher specializing in one subject area, the entire team agrees that every teacher will teach both ELA and math because the stakes for elementary students are so high if they are not successful in those significant content areas. Each teacher at the grade level commits to be mutually accountable for student learning in those two subjects. The team then departmentalizes for the other subjects (i.e., two teachers partner for science, while the other two partner for social studies).
A six-member grade-level team recently shared a slightly different approach. Every teacher agreed to teach ELA. The team established a shared goal for improving student learning in ELA; the members worked interdependently and supported one another as they planned and delivered first best instruction in each classroom; and they created team-developed common formative assessments for ELA and administered them to all students in the grade level. The entire team analyzed results and provided systematic intervention and enrichment for all of students. In addition, the team subdivided for the other content areas: two teachers took responsibility for student learning in mathematics, two in science, and two in social studies.
If educators in your organization examine traditional practices and discover structures that create teacher isolation rather than team collaboration, the structure is likely misaligned with the mission of "learning for all,” and thus you have two choices: 1) change the structure so that professionals can engage in job-embedded, job-alike, and content-specific learning or 2) change the mission of your organization to “learning for some.”