Platooning in primary school

“Platooning” teachers — creating math/science and reading/history specialists — is growing in popularity in elementary schools, writes Catherine Gewertz in Education Week.

At Sharpstein Elementary School in Washington state, children in second grade and up switch classrooms and teachers several times a day. 

They spend the morning with one teacher for reading and writing, breaking in the middle for music, library, or physical education classes. After lunch, they head to another room for math and science. Then students return to their original teacher for social studies.

Most schools don’t start using specialist teachers till third grade, but some start as early as kindergarten, writes Gewertz. Often students have one teacher for math and science and a second teacher for literacy and social studies. But some schools rotate students among four teachers. 

That means elementary teachers spend less time each day with more students. 

Ian Yale, the principal of Columbia Elementary School in Burbank, Wash., said departmentalizing gives each subject “protected” time. His 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders “get an hour a day in science with teachers who are experts in that subject.”

The school invests more money in deepening teachers’ content knowledge, but saves on curriculum materials.

 Sharpstein Elementary also uses “looping.” Specialized teachers stay with the same students for two years. That helps teachers and students build relationships. 

Team teaching lets one teacher specialize in math and the other in reading, writes Sacha Luria, who’s also a looper. “By specializing and looping I am developing a strong relationship with each child and their families, as well as giving them a strong academic situation.”

Many elementary teachers aren’t well-prepared to teach math and science, especially if they’re expected to teach “high-level concepts.”

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Part of the madness of the educational system is the idea that somehow you can have a teacher for a year or two and then move on to another one.

    You will never become a master anything bouncing from teacher to teacher. You have to learn a style — a single way of doing things. Then you can elaborate, improvise, adapt, and develop your own style.

    But learning a style requires studying with a single teacher or group of teachers. Otherwise you spend each year learning how to please that particular teacher before it all becomes obsolete.

  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    An added complication of this that I’ve seen is that teachers are disproportionately young women, who on occasion disappear for several months for maternity leave. With platooning, this can leave an entire grade level with a substitute teacher in that subject. The substitute will need to take time to understand where the class is in the given curriculum and to understand the individual students in their classes. At least with multiple teachers teaching the same subject, a substitute has people they can turn to and work with to get up to speed.

    We’ve also had a teacher disappear for non-pregnancy reasons, which left the whole math curriculum at that grade level in turmoil for several months–and they never really got back on track.

    All the eggs end up in one basket.

  3. We switched classes in elementary – in our school, it wasn’t because teachers were dedicated to a specific subject, it was how they handled ability grouping. At math time, we’d all go to our specific classrooms, then back to homeroom, and then we’d switch again for language arts. As a kid, I loved it, since it meant that you were never stuck with a not-so-great teacher for an entire day. Even if all of the teachers were good, the change of pace was fun.

    One advantage that I can see is that it would make remediation a little easier. If the second grade math teacher teaches fractions badly, an entire grade will miss it…and the 3rd grade teacher will know to work on it with all students. In some places, where students are randomly shuffled each year, you could instead have 4 third grade teachers, each needing to reteach fractions to 25% of their class because that group had a teacher who didn’t teach fractions well, while the rest of the kids were fine. Ideally, with specialist teachers, they’d all be good at the specific subjects that they were responsible for.

  4. Each teacher has fewer subjects to prep. Each teacher teaches the same lesson to all students in the grade. Each student in the grade gets the same amount of time in each subject–next year’s teachers will not find a group of students who had much less than everyone else.

    Access to weaker and stronger teachers in the grade are more equitably distributed to students.

  5. I think it sounds like a good idea.