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Teacher question:

We are trying to raise our third-grade reading scores. What do you think of “platooning” to help us meet that goal?

Shanahan’s response:

Platooning, or what in my time was called “departmentalization,” is apparently on the rise in America’s primary grades. Schools like yours are hungry to raise reading and math achievement, and this looks like an inexpensive way to do it.

It costs nothing to have classrooms departmentalized rather than self-contained: it requires no additional teachers; there are no added professional development costs; there are no added textbook, computer, or other instructional materials costs; and many teachers love the idea of no longer being responsible for subjects that are part of the state testing.

Moreover, there will be lots of winners. Platooned teachers won’t have to prepare as many lessons, since they’ll get to reteach a lesson two or three times. And, they get to spend a larger portion of their day teaching what they are comfortable with or even passionate about. Principals won’t have to worry about hiring teachers capable of teaching the whole primary grade curriculum either; a teacher candidate’s lack of knowledge about phonics, long division, or global warming shouldn’t be a concern during job interviews (the weaknesses can be easily hidden behind departmental assignments).

Sounds great.

Except … for one itsy-bitsy problem … it usually doesn’t work.

Basically, research has not been especially kind to efforts to improve achievement by changing school or classroom organizational plans. Or, better put: platooning hasn’t been found to improve reading achievement.

I’m not arguing against departments for high schools (in fact, I’m for that idea). The high school curriculum is deep and diverse enough that it would be foolish to expect an individual to master the whole thing to the point where consistent good teaching would be expected. I’ll even go for that in the middle schools for the same reason.

However, as we move down the grades, it is harder to justify. Not surprisingly, when there are positive research results in the platooning column in the elementary grades, they have a tendency to be with fifth-graders (not second-graders).

Departmentalization or not, I frankly would not want to hire a third-grade teacher who couldn’t read third-grade level books, do third-grade level math, or master the intricacies of third-grade science or social studies content. I’m not surprised at all that the teacher who has worked out an effective teaching strategy for leading kids successfully through the labyrinth of Turn of the Screw may not know how to do the same for the graphical representation of an algebraic function or for distinguishing meiosis from mitosis or for investigating the primary documents relevant to President Truman’s momentous decision to construct an H-Bomb and its role in the Cold War.

I appreciate that not all teachers (including me) can do all of these things easily and well — on a daily basis.

While I buy that, I don’t think it’s crazy to expect primary teachers to understand and be able to teach kids about borrowing in subtraction, character analysis in Where the Wild Things Are, the role of fire departments in a community, and that for plants to germinate, seeds require heat and moisture.

Most studies of platooning in the elementary grades have found no advantage to the practice, though a small number of studies have reported some benefits, usually in math — not reading (McClendon, 2016). These math advantages have most often shown up in fifth- and sixth-grade studies, but at least one found positive outcomes as low as third-grade (DelViscio & Muffs, 2007).

I haven’t found any meta-analyses of the issue but given the large number of no-benefits studies and the tendency for the positive effects to be small, I wouldn’t expect such an analysis to result in a meaningfully large effect size due to platooning — especially if one controlled for things like grade level.

One interesting recent study found that departmentalization improved math scores a bit, but only when the teachers were deficient in math knowledge (Taylor-Buckner, 2014).

I definitely would not promote platooning in the primary grades, or even in the upper elementary grades if my purpose was higher reading scores.

Platooning shrinks instructional time (moving kids and teachers around increases transition times). It limits a teacher’s ability to differentiate levels of support, since no matter how well a teacher understands a student’s reading situation, she won’t be working with him/her much of the day. And, platooning can have a pernicious impact on teacher–student relations; building a learning-supportive classroom community is tough when the kids aren’t with you.

If you want to raise reading achievement look for approaches that will increase the amount of time that can be devoted to reading and writing instruction, that will better focus instruction on the skills or abilities that lead to literacy learning and improve the quality of the teaching that is provided.

I understand that it is hard to accomplish those recommendations — certainly harder than just moving kids around the school. But unlike platooning, they have a proven track record of success.

For more on platooning, here is a piece that Scholastic recently posted: The pros and cons of specialization by subject for elementary teachers (opens in a new window).

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
June 15, 2018