The Role of Institution, Ideology, Interests, and Information in the Decision to Departmentalize in Elementary Schools

Open Access
Baker, Betsy A.
Graduate Program:
Educational Leadership
Doctor of Education
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 01, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Nona Ann Prestine, Dissertation Advisor
  • Nona Ann Prestine, Committee Chair
  • Preston Green, Committee Member
  • James F Nolan Jr., Committee Member
  • Roger C Shouse, Committee Member
  • departmentalize
  • horizontal organization
  • self-contained
  • elementary
  • departmentalization
  • elementary departmentalization
ABSTRACT Given escalating accountability requirements under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), educators and administrators face intensified pressure to significantly increase student achievement in their schools. Changing how schools and classrooms are organized for instruction, as a strategy for school improvement, has been one response to this pressure. Departmentalizing in the elementary school serves as one example of such an organizational change. Very little research, however, specifically addresses elementary-level departmentalization. Without a strong research basis for their decision to departmentalize, how are schools making this choice in an era in which evidence-based decision making is demanded? This qualitative study explored the decision-making process involved in determining whether or not to departmentalize in the elementary grades through an in-depth case study of one small, rural Pennsylvania district, where the choice to departmentalize has been made. Specifically, the study sought to provide insight into the involvement of individual stakeholders in the decision; the influence of these stakeholders’ ideologies, interests, and access to information on the decision; and the impact of the institution on the decision. The benefits and limitations of elementary departmentalization were also described. Data collection occurred over a two-month period and included individual conversational interviews with 3 administrators and 13 teachers, 3 parent focus group interviews, and analysis of a variety of relevant documents. Extensive analysis was primarily accomplished through pattern coding, based on the research questions. The research resulted in a thick, rich description of the district’s long-standing experience with departmentalization in the sixth grade and its recent decisions to expand departmentalization to the fifth grade and to explore departmentalization in fourth grade. Two broad conclusions were drawn from the research. For one, the institution exerted a significant influence on the decision-making process and on the ultimate decision. This institutional context influenced the individuals’ perceptions of their own interests, ideologies, and knowledge used in the decision-making process. The second conclusion drawn from the research suggested that semi-departmentalization may effectively reduce many of the limitations typically associated with a departmentalized approach by balancing a student-centered approach with content specificity. A number of recommendations for practice and for further research were also provided.