Regrouping Students

To lessen accountability pressures on teachers, a school pilots a looping and departmentalization model in the elementary grades by James L. DelViscio and Michael L. Muffs

Several years ago, when the principal at Bishop Dunn Memorial School in Newburgh, N.Y., had trouble filling a 4th-grade teaching vacancy, he checked with other school officials in the area and realized they were all having the same problem.

Good teachers, it seemed increasingly obvious, were shying away from accepting 4th-grade positions because of the growing accountability pressures that were being unfairly brought to bear on that grade level. Highly publicized reports of the state’s new battery of stand-ardized assessments were scaring off applicants.

To address the personnel needs while more fairly sharing the accountability load for these critical 4th-grade tests, the leadership at Bishop Dunn devised an innovative instructional arrangement that borrows from both looping and departmentalization concepts.

Better Continuity
Looping, a common practice in European schools, involves a teacher moving with his or her students after one year to the next grade level, then looping back to work with a new group of students at the lower grade level after the second year. Departmentalization, which is more often used at the middle and secondary school levels, involves a team of teachers working as subject-area specialists.

The small school only had one class and one teacher per grade level so the administration combined these two concepts to create a new system that fit the school. The new middle elementary program involves a team of three teachers, each of whom has become a specialist in one subject area. They remain as homeroom teachers in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, and twice a day they switch classes and provide students from the other grades specialized instruction in math, social studies or science.

The initial benefit of this new program was that it provides more continuity in instruction from one year to the next as well as increased instructional time. This is because the teachers spend less time at the beginning of the year reviewing and assessing the ability of their students. This was seen immediately with the 3rd-grade teacher whose specialization is math and a year later recognized by the other two grade-level instructors.

A second benefit was the bond that naturally developed between the three teachers as a result of their increased time together working on schedules and cross-curriculum constructs. Furthermore, the teachers each developed a broader understanding of middle elementary curriculum by having to teach the same subject at two or three levels.

A significant difference between the program and a traditional looping program is that teachers work with a class for three years rather than two. This is especially beneficial once the teachers are armed with the 4th-grade assessments, which provides them with an even greater understanding of their students’ developing academic strengths and unresolved weaknesses. Prior to this program, teachers often didn’t receive the standardized test results until the last month of school or when they had to review six-month-old scores in September. Now the results can be used as both diagnostic and assessment tools.

This gift of an extra year or more for teachers to work with developmentally immature students is one of the main advantages cited in the literature on looping. It allows more time to observe, analyze and employ alternate strategies before making critical recommendations regarding issues such as retention.

An outgrowth of the new program at Bishop Dunn was the increased enthusiasm that teachers demonstrated when they began spending more time working in subject areas that are most interesting to them. Furthermore, the students are now exposed to differentiated teaching styles at an earlier age than in most elementary schools. This decreases the “transition shock” commonly seen among 6th graders when they move from their self-contained 5th-grade classroom into a fully departmentalized middle school.

Parental Concerns
The parents had mixed reactions to the new program at Bishop Dunn. While the parents of 5th graders recognized their children would benefit from being able to ease into middle school as a result of the new program, parents of 3rd graders were more apprehensive. Fortunately, the 3rd grade teacher, highly respected, had an outstanding reputation for classroom management. Her presence as a homeroom teacher for the 3rd graders helped allay parental fears.

Another concern some parents had was that by the second half of the second year of looping, the students and possibly the teachers might become “stale” with each other. This was allayed by changing the homeroom teacher each year, adding a degree of freshness to the relationship while maintaining the benefits of a traditional looping program.

Meanwhile, the school’s staff experienced many benefits with the modified looping program. Foremost was the ability of teachers to use more positive approaches to classroom management while getting to know their students better. More opportunities were available for bonding between teachers and students as well as teachers and parents.

Apprehension about the start of a new school year diminished for students, who also had more time to establish positive peer relationships.

Because one of the program’s principal goals was to improve students’ stand-ardized test scores, faculty and administrators were pleased with the encouraging results that students produced on state and national standardized tests. The 4th-grade state test data clearly illustrated academic gains. On the standardized Iowa Test of Basic Skills assessments, conducted annually at Bishop Dunn, the results were especially impressive for the 4th grade students who had been involved in looping for two years.

However, it is difficult to draw any clear conclusions using these data as they compare three different groups of students. Therefore, it is necessary to compare other data generated from the ITBS assessments that are used to measure individual student growth over time. This data also suggests students in the program fared just as well in two different ITBS measures of growth-percentile rank and grade equivalent scores.

The impressive first four years of state and national standardized testing results experienced by 3rd, 4th and 5th graders are certainly encouraging and make it easier to argue the case for continuing the program. Next steps included discussions with neighboring school districts to pilot a similar program to further validate the program’s educational value.

Interestingly, the principal’s home district, Wallkill, N.Y., recently implemented a looping program in at least two of the classes at Plattekill Elementary School to improve the school’s faltering scores on the state’s English language assessment. Newburgh, the district where Bishop Dunn is located, also has been evaluating its elementary grade programs.

Bishop Dunn staff members hope to have the opportunity to promote the program in other schools. One key to success is to find teachers who already are familiar with the curriculum at three grade levels or are willing to put forth the effort to assume such a challenge. Expect resistance by teachers’ unions — something Bishop Dunn as a parochial school did not have to worry about — to such major changes in grade structuring, especially if the union perceives teachers had limited opportunity for input prior to the changes or if the union considers them changes in working conditions.

It’s important to identify teachers who make a commitment to remain at their same school for at least three to five years. This commitment enables students to take full advantage of having the same teacher in the core subject areas throughout the entire three years of the program.

Participating teachers must be more open to collaboration, sharing curriculum information and working with others on their team on a daily basis — more than most classroom instructors are accustomed to. At Bishop Dunn, this was the most difficult obstacle encountered in making the transition.

Pilot First
Other potential obstacles to success, however, would be less difficult to address in larger public schools than in smaller settings like Bishop Dunn. Studies suggest, for example, that looping or any variation of multigrade grouping should be an option, not a requirement. Parents also should be given the option of whether to involve their children in the unique program, which was not an option offered at Bishop Dunn.

Other suggestions offered by Jon Wiles and Joseph Bondi in their book Curriculum Development: A Guide to Practice as school officials consider looping and/or departmentalization at the elementary level are to initiate a pilot program with a limited number of participants or to try various forms of grade-level or cross-grade grouping before fully implementing either grade-level configuration.

Whether offered as an option or not, leaders would serve their cause by providing detailed information using reliable data to justify a change. Good sales work with parents also might include a list of the advantages and potential disadvantages of restructuring grades.

Leave room for the possibility that the personalities of the teachers and students could clash enough to make the thought of working together for more than one year a counterproductive concept. This might be alleviated in a larger school setting where there would be the flexibility to switch to another teacher after the first year or for the parents to opt out of the program if they so desire.

Schools will continue to seek ways to better address vertical curriculum stand-ards, to increase collaboration among grade levels and ultimately to improve student assessment scores. One can expect alternative instructional models will become increasingly popular.

James DelViscio is principal of Bishop Dunn Memorial Elementary School, 50 Gidney Ave., Newburgh, NY 12550. E-mail: delviscio@msmc.edu. Michael Muffs is an associate professor of educational administration at SUNY New Paltz in New Paltz, N.Y.