From Elementary Generalist to Mathematics Specialist: Examining Teacher Practice and Student Outcomes in Departmental and Self-Contained Models

This research investigates student mathematics learning outcomes at the elementary level in relation to teacher expertise (elementary teachers with math specialist certification versus generally prepared elementary teachers) and school organization (departmentalized versus self-contained mathematics classrooms). Findings will provide evidence of the impact of content-specific teacher expertise and a departmentalized school organizational model that offers students access to well-qualified teachers of mathematics with no additional staffing costs.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
1414438
Funding Period: 
August 1, 2014 to July 31, 2018
Full Description: 

This research investigates student mathematics learning outcomes at the elementary level in relation to teacher expertise (elementary teachers with math specialist certification versus generally prepared elementary teachers) and school organization (departmentalized versus self-contained mathematics classrooms). University of Missouri researchers will organize and facilitate the research in multiple Missouri public and private school sites. Findings will provide evidence of the impact of content-specific teacher expertise and a departmentalized school organizational model that offers students access to well-qualified teachers of mathematics with no additional staffing costs. To investigate the impact of teacher expertise and school organization on student learning experimental, quasi-experimental, and qualitative designs are employed. Specifically, 80 teachers who have earned state certification as Elementary Mathematics Specialists (hereafter, "EMS teachers") will be selected to participate in the study. Employing a randomized experimental design, half of the EMS teachers will be assigned to teach in a departmental model (Condition 1) in their school, teaching two or more sections of grade 4 mathematics. The other half will remain in generalist (hereafter, self-contained) positions (Condition 2) in their school, teaching all regular subjects to a single class of students. A comparison group of 40 non-EMS teachers with self-contained teaching assignments (Condition 3) will be selected from the same schools in Condition 2. The Smarter Balanced assessment will provide a baseline measure of students' prior achievement in grade 3 and also a measure of the mathematics achievement of grade 4 students taught by the 120 teachers in the study. The project team will analyze student-level mathematics scores linked with specific teachers.

Improving student achievement in mathematics at the elementary level is particularly challenging due to the way elementary students are generally organized for instruction (e.g., one teacher responsible for teaching all subjects to 25-30 students). Because elementary teachers must be knowledgeable about many content areas, they rarely study mathematics in depth, even though there is a growing body of evidence showing the impact of specialized mathematical knowledge for teaching on student learning outcomes. This study carefully researches an alternative model, where elementary teachers with special training in mathematics teaching and learning are assigned more than one single class of students for mathematics instruction. Findings from the research will provide evidence about the impact of both certification as an elementary mathematics specialist and teaching in a departmental assignment on student learning. The results will help school and district leaders better plan for assignment of staff to provide all students with access to high quality mathematics instruction.