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Comparative Study on Departmentalized and Self-Contained Classrooms Concerning the Systems Theory and Action Research


Systems Theory

A theory that supports the theoretical foundation of this study is systems theory. Systems theory can be applied to any system that exists in nature, technology, or, or human domains (Boulding, 1991). Systems theory involves systems thinking, which means concentrating on the whole rather than the individual parts (Mele, Pels, & Polese, 2010). The individual parts are important in that their interactions create the essence of the whole, as they are rationally connected to each other (Mele et al., 2010). The individual parts share a purpose that requires understanding the coherency of the inputs and outputs emerging from the whole, rather than simply focusing on the sum of the parts. The focus of systems theory is on the interactions of the parts (Mele et al., 2010).

Systems theory can be described as a systematic approach to categorizing anything. It’s founder, Ludwig van Bertalanffy (Hammond, 2003) proposed that the concept was a universal practice that allows components of any and no particular system to interact with each other. Though this concept was published in 1934, it is a concept that is still applied among all disciplines of academia today. Even outside common academic fields, systems theory is used in even the most seemingly trivial areas of life. Systems theories will not always operate according to the same structure, but the concept itself is applied to essentially anything that uses a system to function.

“General systems theory has been proposed as a basis for the unification of science.” (Kast & Rozenzweig, 1972) Bertalanffy was a biologist himself. While systems theory may have originated from a scientific foundation, it is one which can be universally applied to just about any aspect of life that calls for some form of orderly structure to sustain itself. (Boulding, 2003) This can be applied to everyday situations such as business management, city planning, or academic institutions. Naturally, we will be using this concept to establish the most ideal elements in effectively planning ideal curriculums for the latter.

Action Research

The purpose of action research is to improve or refine a process (Brydon-Miller, et. al, 2003). One of the main advantages of action research is that it is always relevant to the situation of the participants. (Sagor, 2000) Ever since Kurt Lewin founded the concept of Action Research, it is a term that has found its way into a multitude of applications. Ultimately, the principle behind action research is to promote constant change and development for the sake of improving upon something. (Dickens & Watkins, 1999) Action research is often used in the field of education because it promotes teamwork among educators through sharing of new ideas (Scott-Ladd & Chan, 2008). Action research involves the same seven steps, regardless of the situation or setting (Scott-Ladd & Chan, 2008). The seven steps are: (a) selecting the focus of the study, (b) clarifying existing theories about the topic, (c) identifying relevant research questions, data collection, data analysis, reporting the results of the study, and then transforming the research into informed action (Sagor, 2000).

Action research serves three major purposes. The first purpose of action research is to build a reflective practice. (McNiff, 2016, p. 3) The second purpose of action research is to achieve progress (Scott-Ladd & Chan, 2008). The third purpose of action research is to build professional culture within the organization (Scott-ladd & Chan, 2008).

One of the key components of successful action research is having team members agree on the type of research needed and the outcomes that needs to be achieved. (McNiff, 2016, p. 34) To do this, the faculty must agree on a single research topic (McNiff, 2016, p. 34).

One purpose of action research was to help professional teachers become even more professional in their classroom delivery (Chan-Ladd, 2008). Action research also helped to revitalize and motivate teachers who were getting burned out over their lack of student progress (Sagor, 2000). Schools must meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population (McNiff, 2016, p. 3). Diversity can present challenges for meeting the requirements of standardized testing (Cassell, 2006).

One of the main motivations for teachers is that they want to know they are making a difference in the lives of their students. Negative pressures can often cause teachers to become exhausted and lose motivation (Sagor, 2000). Action research that leads to meaningful data is the best road to success in a school system that is standards based (Sagor, 2000). The results of this study could be a significant contribution to the teaching profession.

Review of the Research Literature and Methodological Literature

This section examines the ways that action research and systems theories can be applied to this study. We will cover the applied literature and analyze ways in which educators can collaborate with their faculty leaders to improve the structure of their curriculum for their students. We will be discussing the significant pros and cons between departmentalized and self-contained classrooms,

Research on Departmentalized Versus Self-Contained Classrooms

Elementary education has a long history of self-contained classrooms in US education. The contemporary self-contained classroom consists of one instructor, teaching up to X number of children, who teaches every required content area. This setting remains common for students with special needs, students in alternative schools, and at the elementary level in the general school setting (Lane & Wehby, 2005). On rare occasions, elementary-aged students were identified as gifted attend self-contained classes (Hayden, 2007). The advantages of the self-contained setting are that the teacher has more opportunities to learn the strengths, weaknesses, and individual learning styles of the students (Ackerlund, 1959). There is more flexibility in the schedule, and a better chance for integration of the different content areas (Lane & Wehby, 2005). In addition, students have more actual learning time in the classroom because they are not losing time moving to another setting (McGrath & Rust, 2002).

Researchers have described the effects of departmentalization and self-contained classrooms. Early research focused mainly on finding ways in which students could be distributed amongst peers of their own learning abilities, interests and intellect. As the 20th century progressed, curriculums expanded to many different subjects and learning styles, which created many different optimal curriculums for students on all spectrums of the learning curve, specific classes catered to individual core subjects, and specialized classes for children who do not fit into a mainstream curriculum (Gray, 2008). Researchers moved on to determine that while the majority of students are on the average end of the learning curve, and can thus adapt to a standard curriculum with little or no difficulty, some students have special needs that can be better addressed on a personal level. (Lane & Wehbly, 2005).

The researchers concluded self-contained settings were better for gifted students because the students can learn without fear of social implications and because they were not singled out as separate from their peers.

Chan and Jarman (2004) pointed out several qualities of departmentalization. for instance, the ways in which it helps students assimilate to middle school formats, creates grade-level instructional teams, and promotes teacher retention. Departmentalization is positively related to teacher retention, which was shown to have significant positive impacts on student achievement (Barmby, 2006; Vanderhaar, Mu, & Rodosky, 2006). The idea of departmentalization began with John Dewey, teacher and philosopher, who believed in the need to educate the whole child and to encourage a free flow of ideas based on students’ individualized interests (Stuckart and Glanz, 2010). Dewey (1938) identified three important goals of educating the whole child through the curriculum including the development of intelligence, the acquisition of socially useful skills, and the healthy growth of the individual. Dewey also stressed the importance of teaching the whole child by paying close attention to the personal experiences of the learner when constructing lessons and addressing problems in society through the lesson. This is the opposite of the philosophy that exists today regarding standardized testing and the standardization of the curriculum.

McGrath and Rust (2002) addressed different aspects of meeting the social and emotional needs of elementary students and the academic achievement level of those students. The researchers examined the relationship between elementary school classroom organizational structures and standardized achievement scores, transition time between classes, and instructional time. The study included 103 fifth grade participants and 94 sixth grade participants from two schools in one school district in rural Tennessee. The students from school A attended departmentalized classrooms; whereas, the students from school B attended self-contained classrooms. The socioeconomic levels from each school were similar with approximately 27% of the students at each school receiving free or reduced lunch. Student scores from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), measuring the achievement of basic skills in reading, spelling, language, mathematics, study skills, science, and social studies, served as the dependent variable for the study. McGrath recorded both transition and instructional time for two full days through direct observation. Results indicated students in self-contained classrooms gained significantly more than those in departmentalized classes when considering the total battery, language arts, and science portions of the test with no differences found in reading, mathematics, and social studies. The average transition time of 3.27 minutes in self-contained classrooms was significant compared to the departmentalized classrooms with an average transition time of 4.55 minutes. Despite these differences in transition time, there was no significant difference in actual instructional time with departmentalized classes averaging 48 minutes of instruction per hour while self-contained classrooms averaged 46 minutes of instruction per hour. Interestingly, anecdotal observations also revealed that self-contained classrooms offered instruction in additional academic areas not addressed in the departmentalized classroom including computer usage, creative writing, and journal writing. This finding was congruent with the findings from other studies supporting the notion that departmentalization and scheduled times to switch classes should not be used in elementary schools because it limits what teachers can offer their students instructionally (Dunn, 1952; Harris, 1996; McGrath and Rust, 2002).

McPartland (1987) used data from a sample of 433 schools in the PEQA to examine the quality of the subject matter along with teacher/student relationships with the goal of discovering the effects of departmentalization. He hypothesized that departmentalization would produce higher quality instruction and teacher based knowledge in the singular subject area they were learning. McPartland based his hypothesis on the belief that departmentalized instruction allowed teachers to specialize while self-contained classrooms allowed teachers to meet the needs of the whole child. McParland stated positive results from developing the whole student. The students in the study completed achievement tests in reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, science, analytical thinking, and answered 14 survey questions about their perceptions of the school. The results from the study indicated more positive teacher/student relationships in self-contained classrooms as opposed to departmentalization. By contrast, results indicated that departmentalization improved the quality of instruction by having teachers specialize in the subject matter. McPartland concluded that schools could use departmentalization if the homeroom teacher assumes responsibility for the needs of the whole child in their homeroom class, or the school would need to assign the student to a staff member as a mentor. McPartland’s research is pertinent to this study because the results revealed the strengths and weaknesses of both classroom organizational structures.

Departmentalization allows teachers to be experts in their field, which prevents teachers from having teachers teach subjects where they do not feel comfortable and competent. Chan, and Jarman (2004) found that teachers in self-contained classrooms are forced to teach subjects they do not enjoy nor feel comfortable teaching. “Teachers need not be Jacks of all trades but can be masters of their fields,” (Chan and Jarman, 2004, p. 70). Baker (2011) conducted a qualitative study that explored the decision-making process where the choice to departmentalize the 9th grade in a school that had recently been established in a small, rural Pennsylvania district. She discovered that the institution exerts a significant influence on the decision-making process, and she observed the benefits and limitations to departmentalization firsthand (Baker, 2011). This led her to conclude that semi-departmentalization may effectively reduce the limitations typically associated with departmentalization by balancing a student-centered approach with content specificity (Baker, 2011).

Yearwood (2011), examined whether fifth grade students receiving instruction from a departmentalized classroom structure attained higher testing t-scores on the reading and mathematics section of state assessments in comparison to fifth grade students who were placed in self-contained classroom settings during the same school year. Yearwood used a convenience sample of about 2,152 fifth grade students attending public school in a rural county in Georgia. In 14 schools, the individual Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) mean scores were obtained and analyzed regarding skills in alignment with state performance tests in reading and mathematics, the two benchmark content areas assessed for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in Georgia. The author used archival student achievement scores from the 2010 Georgia CRCT in reading and mathematics section of the CRCT. Yearwood reported that in both reading and mathematics, the students placed in departmentalized classroom settings outperformed the fifth-grade students attending self-contained classroom structures. This finding contradicted previous researchers who found no statistically significant difference in student achievement between the classroom structures. Yearwood found a statistically significant difference in fifth graders’ mathematics achievement scores based on their placement into departmentalized settings.

Another researcher examined attitudes and achievement for students transitioning into middle school from either departmentalized or self-contained classroom organizations. Disseler used 700 randomly selected sixth grade students from a rural area of North Carolina using the end-of Grade Math and Reading Assessment (GMRA) used in the district to measure student achievement. Using multivariate analysis, Pillai’s Trace and Post hoc analyses, Disseler found no significant interaction between the organizational structures found at the elementary level regarding transition concerns, gender, or achievement.

Disseler (2010) used data obtained by the school system’s accountability

Department, which was given to all sixth graders in early October of the 2009-2010 school years. The survey was optional. Students were asked to list the name of the school they attended in fifth grade. Disseler (2010) also had teachers complete surveys in which they were asked to predict end-of-grade assessment regarding how well the students would score on the test following the year of instruction in their specific classroom organization of departmentalization or traditional self-contained. After the assessment was completed, the scores were compiled and analyzed. The scores were analyzed from the viewpoint of how well students did on the fifth-grade assessment in comparison to how well the teachers were able to accurately predict their scores.

Students with Disabilities

The passage of Public Law 94-142, The Education of All Handicapped

Children’s Act, create a significant transformation in the education of students with

disabilities (GA DOE, 2010). It introduced the concept of the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to guarantee students with disabilities the right to be educated, to the degree possible, among the general student population (Cawley, Hayden, Cade, and Baker-Kroczynski, 2002). Public Law 105-17, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was an

Amendment that supports the LRE mandate and stipulates that SWDs have access to and make advancements in the general education (GE) curriculum to the best of their abilities (Cawley, et al., 2002). The NCLB Legislative Act of 2001, ensured that every child, regardless of disabilities, met the required proficient level of academic achievement by the 2013-201 (GA DOE, 2010). Accountability reform had proven benefit to students with disabilities as school systems had been required to increase the instruction and provide the opportunity for children with special needs to learn the same curriculum as other students (Nagle, Yunker, and Malmgren, 2006).

For the current research study the problem was that there is the lack of research on the academic success of students in terms of the type and organization of the classroom instructional setting at the research site. Few students at the research site had the opportunity to explore the benefits or differences between receiving instruction in self-contained classrooms as compared to the departmentalization model of instructions. The goal from this research was to increase student achievement. In this very important time period of test scores and school grades, it is imperative that individual schools find the best methods of instruction in order to ensure the success of their students.

Departmentalized Versus Self-Contained

Culyer et al. (2002) conducted a research study similar to the current study. The study investigated the relationship between elementary school classroom organizational structure (i.e., self-contained versus departmental formats) and standardized achievement scores. It also examined transition time between classes, and its effect on instruction time. Participants in Culyer’s (1992) study included 103 fifth-grade and 94 sixth-grade students from one school district. Based on previous findings, students from self-contained classes were predicted to achieve significantly higher than comparable students from departmentalized classes, take substantially less time to change classes, and spend more time in instruction. Results from Culyer’s (1992) study indicated that the self-contained group gained substantially more points on Total Battery, Language, and Science subtests when compared to the departmentalized classroom group. Students in departmentalized classes took significantly longer to transition from subject to subject than did the self-contained class students. No differences were found in terms of instructional time. Findings were consistent for both fifth and sixth grade students.

Each Public Florida school receives a School Grade at the end of each school year. The school grade is determined based upon student achievement results on the state assessment (FCAT). Schools can receive a Grade in the range of A-F. School grades also determine school funding as well as other important aspects of program planning for the upcoming school year. Based on the achievement data for Elementary X, the current research site, there has been a substantial reduction in the school grade, as indicated by the Florida Department of Education, since there has been a shift to the departmentalized setting. Using data from prior school years when the school was self-contained, there is substantial data to suggest this may be the best method for increasing achievement levels at Elementary X (Florida Department of Education, 2015).

Departmentalized Model

When looking at the departmentalized approach, each classroom teacher is responsible for instructing the students on an individual subject or a few groups of subjects. In this type of instruction, the teacher is working in their area of expertise while the students transition to other teachers. The departmentalized model can guarantee additional instructional time for hands on teaching and provide greater resources for each class of students (Gess-Newsome, 1999).

Gough (1982) states, “Specialization also releases teachers from the isolation of the self-contained classroom, where no other adult is available to provide insights into social interactions and instructional problems” (p. 41). A possible rationale for departmentalized classrooms is cost reduction due to less teachers needing prep work. Departmentalized classrooms in the upper elementary grades were scheduled similarly to middle school, having one teacher responsible for conveying subject content to several students (Slavin, 2007).

Self-Contained Model

The self-contained model of classroom organization consists of students assigned to one teacher who is responsible for covering all content areas during the school day. In the

traditional, self-contained classroom, a teacher was responsible for instructing all content areas of the curriculum each day (McGrath and Rust, 2002). This organizational structure enabled teacher and student a better opportunity to become acquainted, while allowing the teacher to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student. They were able to understand how to help them with their individual learning needs (McGrath and Rust, 2002). It is important to note that in a self-contained classroom there is less time for collaborative planning due to time constraints. When looking at time constraints many questions have been brought up about the amount of teaching taking place for additional subjects (science/ social studies), since they are not a tested subject, (Abell et al, 2010). Self-contained classroom organizations consistently achieve considerably more instructional time than similar students from a departmentalized structure because of the decreased amount of transitional time between classes (McGrath & Rust, 2002).

Summary of Chapter 2

The structural organization of the elementary classrooms has been an area of intense research interest. Specifically, at question was whether the departmentalized model of instruction created a classroom environment that better suited development of better student critical thinking skills (Cianciolo, Flory, & Atwell, 2006). Researchers described two models to describe and determine the affect academic achievement had on student performance, and those two models were the Adequate Yearly Progress and the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Researchers have continued to insist upon the importance of utilizing teacher specialists in elementary schools as part of the NCLB (2002) reform (Century, Rudnick, & Freeman, 2008). Other models have been identified, such as the self-contained model, where one teacher is responsible for teaching all content areas in a self-contained room with the same group of students throughout the school day (Levy et al., 2008; Yearwood, 2011). Several teachers in the self-contained classrooms felt that they did not receive sufficient support, and they felt where were not properly trained to perform at an adequate level to use inquiry-based curriculum materials (Levy et al., 2008).

The review of related literature demonstrated that there is not a clear connection between classroom instructional organization, departmentalization and self-contained structural settings. With the various variables, it is still undetermined as to which classroom structure is dominate for improving student achievement levels. According to Slavin (1987), “Given a relatively fixed set of resources, every innovation in classroom organization solves some problems but also crates new problems which must themselves be solved” (p. 93). Other research has shown that there was no significant difference on the organizational setting and how it relates to student achievement (Disseler, 2010). The mixed results obtained from this review support the need for the current research study regarding the best teaching method for various types of students. This study will delve more into the ideal teaching methods for students of all intellectual and behavioral backgrounds, so that a common curriculum that is best suited for the vast majority of students can be feasible.

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