Since CSOS’s founding, one of its enduring stated goals has been “to produce useful information on how changes in the social organization of schools can influence a broad range of important student outcomes.” When I joined its middle grades research program in August 1988, CSOS was one of the U.S. Department of Education’s national research centers, the Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools (CREMS). One important line of research in that program used national and state data to conduct quasi-experimental studies of the relative advantages and disadvantages of a variety of alternative organizational approaches that educators were implementing as they attempted to create desirable learning environments for early adolescents so that more students would make a smooth and successful transition into the middle grades.
This research indicated that strategic semi-departmentalization – a plan under which willing teachers with broad interests, training, and experience are encouraged to use interdisciplinary instruction to teach more than one content area to sixth-graders – was a particularly promising approach. This plan gives these core interdisciplinary teachers the opportunity to work with the same smaller group of students across several periods each day; helps students synthesize their learning and skills coherently across content areas; and facilitates closer, mutually supportive interpersonal relationships among students and between students and the teacher. For example, Henry Jay Becker’s research indicated that semi-departmentalization in sixth grade was “a benefit or at least not detrimental for learning in most subjects for most groups of students,” and that “in middle school settings, having fewer teachers is most clearly associated with greater achievement (in English, reading, science and social studies) for students from low and low-middle social backgrounds” and thus helped close achievement gaps between students from different socio-economic groups. However, because of the inherent limitations associated with evidence from quasi-experimental research, Becker called for “more rigorous analyses” of the impacts of semi-departmentalization “by means of controlled field experiments”.
The participation of CSOS’s faculty in JHU’s Doctor of Education program gives us the welcome opportunity to help prepare the next generation of practitioner-scholars to become transformational leaders in the districts, schools, or other educational environments where they work in the U.S. or internationally. In his applied dissertation research in this program, Robert Dodd, a consulting principal in a Maryland district, heeded Becker’s call to design, implement, and rigorously-evaluate an alternative to departmentalization in sixth-grade of middle school. Project SUCCESS (Student Unified Curriculum Combining English, Digital Literacy, Science, and Social Studies) is an innovative and student-centered approach to middle school instruction. Because students in Project SUCCESS spend half of each school day with one teacher and one intact peer group, the number of class transitions and disparate peer arrangements students experience in the first year of middle school are significantly reduced. Instead, students in Project SUCCESS receive interdisciplinary instruction from one teacher who has more time to build relationships and identify and meet each student’s learning needs. Moreover, Project SUCCESS fosters strong peer relationships during a critical time of early adolescent identity formation. As such, semi self-contained instruction in Project SUCCESS serves as a protective factor against the adverse effects of the elementary to middle school transition.
Dodd conducted a randomized controlled trial in two middle schools during 2016-2017 to evaluate the impacts of Project SUCCESS on students’ engagement, achievement, and perceptions of the classroom environment. That is, in collaboration with each school’s principal, he randomly assigned 22% of the incoming students in each school to Project SUCCESS(treatment) and 78% of the students to business-as-usual departmentalization (control) in the spring of grade 5. Each school had two Project Success Teachers who each taught four subjects to the section of students assigned to them. Across the two schools, 87 students were assigned to Project SUCCESS and 313 students were assigned to the departmentalized control sections. Equivalence testing showed that there were no significant differences in prior achievement between students in the two conditions. Surveys were administered to students in both Project SUCCESS and the control group to measure school engagement and their perceptions of the classroom environment. In addition, differences in achievement between students in Project SUCCESS and students in the departmentalized control group were analyzed using MAP-R (Measures of Academic Progress in Reading) scores and cumulative grade point average.
As Dodd hypothesized, the results from linear regression analyses indicate that Project SUCCESS produced large statistically significant positive impacts on students’ literacy development in grade 6. Specifically, students in Project SUCCESS had scale scores that were 4 points higher than students in departmentalization on the full-scale MAP-R measure and also significantly higher scores on the three related subscales: informational text (4.1 points higher); literary text (4.8 points higher); and foundational vocabulary (3.4 points higher).
As Dodd also hypothesized, Project SUCCESS greatly reduced (to non-significance) the achievement gap between students who qualify for free- and reduced-meals (FARMS) and students of higher-socio-economic status. Specifically, the gap between FARMS and Non-FARMS students was 2 points lower among Project SUCCESS students than those assigned to a departmentalized, business-as-usual schedule. Thus, Dodd’s rigorous experiment replicated the results Becker found using less rigorous methods three decades ago.
Project Success also helped students to feel socially engaged at school with their peers (significantly more likely to report that “interacting with peers is an important part of school for me”). Similarly, Project Success students were also more likely to perceive their school as positive, equitable place where teachers focused on helping all students learn. That is, Project Success students were less likely than the other students to indicate that their school had a negative “performance goal” structure where teachers treat students who get good grades better than other students, pay too much attention to grades and not enough to helping students learn, care only about the smart kids, and encourage students to compete against each other for grades.