Do you ever wish you could focus your energies on teaching kids to write or on diving deep into a study of the Civil War? Are you happiest tinkering with science projects or playing math games?
As elementary teachers face increasing pressure to boost math and literacy scores, some schools are turning to “platooning,” or subject specialization, in an effort to bump up student achievement and salvage time for more creative and in-depth lessons.
Long employed in middle and high schools, platooning is the practice of using specialized teachers to lead instruction. Instead of having one third-grade teacher, as most kids do now, third graders may have a math teacher, a reading teacher, and a science teacher, in addition to a homeroom teacher who covers writing and social studies. At schools that platoon, it’s not uncommon for one teacher to take on two subjects: often, math and science or English language arts and social studies.
But is platooning in elementary school a good idea? Critics say that too many transitions are disruptive for young children. Proponents cite the ability to focus more on subjects like science. We asked on-the-ground educators to share their insights. Here’s what they told us.
✔ Teachers can efficiently address academic needs
William M. Boyd Elementary School in Atlanta switched to platooning after then–assistant principal Marcus Jackson noticed something interesting about his fourth graders’ test scores: The students of two of his teachers had great scores in ELA and social studies but lagged in math and science, while the students of two other teachers had excellent math and science scores but poor ELA and social studies results.
“We had teachers who were very proficient in ELA and social studies, and some who were exemplars in math and science. So it was a no-brainer for us to have those teachers departmentalize,” says Jackson, who is now Boyd’s principal. He compares platooning to sports: “You look at a basketball or football team. Some people are better at blocking; some are better at passing; some are better at running or catching. I was able to cater to [teachers’] strengths.”
James Davis, a fourth-grade math and science teacher at Boyd, says that departmentalization allows teachers to very quickly identify student needs and develop specialized intervention to meet them. “We’re really able to home in on those skills where students struggle and need support,” he says.
✔ Time to focus on passions and strengths
“When a teacher has expertise in a particular area, he or she tends to flourish and will go above and beyond,” Davis says. “That passion permeates the room. When students see that the teacher is excited about the subject matter, that helps.”
Kathleen Marchetti, a fifth-grade teacher at Witchcraft Heights Elementary School in Salem, Massachusetts, approached her principal a few years ago and asked if she could specialize. “I’ve always felt very strong in teaching reading and writing,” she says. As a fifth-grade ELA and social studies teacher, Marchetti is now able to spend her entire day teaching to her strengths.
✔ More time for creative, hands-on learning
Platooning sets aside time for each subject, and because a teacher is responsible for only one or two subjects, he or she has time to plan hands-on activities. “When I worked at other schools where I was required to teach all subjects, it was really difficult to include a science lab each week,” Davis says. Hands-on science activities—which take time to plan and implement—were often crowded out by extra reading or math instruction.
Marchetti says she now has time to “think of creative things I wouldn’t even have had the time to research before,” projects such as a school-wide artist-in-residence program. Marchetti researched and wrote a grant that funded the artist visit, which led to students writing, publishing, and presenting a book of poetry.
✔ Students benefit from different teaching styles
Teachers don’t “click” with every student. Sometimes that’s due to a personality conflict, other times to differences in teaching and learning styles. “I tend to make up plans, but then abandon them and shoot from the hip,” Marchetti says. “My style couldn’t be more opposite than the fifth-grade math and science teacher, who is far more organized.”
Platooning gives kids the opportunity to work with multiple teachers each day—and gives teachers the opportunity to work with a range of students.
✖ Focus on academics may overshadow developmental needs
“Developing children function best when they spend their time with role-model caregivers who know them very well,” says Wendy Ostroff, a developmental psychologist and author of Understanding How Young Children Learn: Bringing the Science of Child Development to the Classroom. “I fear that elementary schools are switching to departmentalization as they become more and more focused on the ‘stuff’ of learning—specific content that is chosen for each grade level by top-down standards.”
Concerns regarding developmental appropriateness are exactly why few schools use the platooning approach before third grade; many wait until fourth or fifth grade to begin to departmentalize.
✖ Teachers may not develop a holistic understanding of students
“When I had one class all day, I felt I knew those students better,” Marchetti says, noting that some of her students who struggle in ELA might be great in math and science. “I don’t necessarily get to know that side of them, where they’re successful in something.”
Teachers who have worked in departmentalized elementary schools say that close coordination and communication between colleagues can help teachers develop a fully rounded understanding of their students. Connecting with students during after-school activities and clubs can also help to forge bonds.
✖ Transitions take time and can be tough on everyone
“Switching classes chops up the school day in a way that can be incredibly disruptive for deep learning,” says Ostroff. “It takes a lot of time to be a genuinely engaged, curious learner.” While some schools try to minimize transitions by limiting the number of teachers per grade level—having students switch classrooms only once a day, instead of three or more times—other schools have abandoned platooning after experiencing a negative impact from multiple transitions.
“We found that the increased number of transitions was very hard on our students. At our school, platooning meant our third graders had had 10 teachers since entering kindergarten,” says Maria Garcia, principal of Sharpstein Elementary in Walla Walla, Washington. After experimenting for two years, the school reverted to the traditional model of elementary education. As a result, says Garcia, “our teachers and students are much happier and more relaxed.”
✖ Kids may struggle with logistical challenges
Elementary students have a hard time keeping track of supplies under the best of conditions, so it’s perhaps not surprising that students who switch classes and teachers throughout the day are sometimes missing essential equipment. “Making sure students have all their resources and tools of learning is a challenge,” admits Boyd Elementary’s Davis.
And scheduling interventionist services can be a logistical nightmare, says Marchetti. “Let’s say a special education teacher wants to take a group of kids out for reading intervention at a certain time. Now, some of the kids are doing math and the others are doing reading. Before, when the entire class did reading at the same time, she could just come in and grab kids.”
Of course, a determination to work things through can ease the impact of any logistical challenges. “We try our best to help,” Davis says. “This year, instead of having kids juggle and remember so many notebooks, we required them to have one binder, and within that binder, they carry [several] notebooks.”
Similarly, Marchetti and her fellow teachers work closely with special education staff at Witchcraft Elementary to be sure students get the services they need. Scheduling, she says, “can be aggravating” at times, “but it’s nothing we haven’t been able to solve.”
Illustration: Phil Hackett