Components of School Organization

Of course, most school staffs inherit a preexisting organizational structure. For many educators, certain aspects of the school's organization—such as the number of classes in the master schedule in a high school or the houses in a middle school—are part of the school's very identity. This reality can make altering the school's organization slow and difficult.
Still, educators should consider the following aspects of the school to determine which ones, if any, should be changed.
At the elementary-school level, units are usually instructional teams or grade-level groups, in which teachers work with students from classes other than their own homerooms. For example, three 4th grade teachers might choose to work together to teach all 100 children in the grade. Many middle schools have houses in place, which might be led for instance by four teachers, each representing core curricular areas, working together with a group of 100–125 students. (When these are multi-age groups and students remain with the same teachers over several years, teachers and students grow to know one another particularly well.) Many high schools establish schools-within-a-school to create smaller and more personal learning communities. Some of these are grade-based, whereas others are organized around an instructional focus, such as technology or the arts.

Master Schedule

The influence of the master schedule is hard to overstate. The schedule structures the pace of the interactions between students and teachers, and class length affects the nature of instruction and the depth to which students are able to go at any given time. At the elementary- and middle-school levels, the master schedule conveys the relative importance of different areas of study: for example, when language arts are allocated 90 minutes a day, and science is allocated 30 minutes twice a week, students and teachers receive powerful messages about the supposed value of each subject.
Alternatives to traditional scheduling practices at the middle- and high-school levels have been widely discussed in the educational literature under the general heading of “block scheduling.”
Although not a panacea, block scheduling can materially affect the quality of student-teacher interactions and the nature of teacher collaboration. The main characteristic of these approaches is that they organize instructional time into longer blocks than the traditional pattern, thus allowing teachers and students greater flexibility in how they use their time. With longer blocks of time, students can embark on projects that would be difficult to complete in only 43 minutes. Teachers accustomed to relying on lecturing find that they need to vary their approach under block scheduling, enabling students to engage in deeper and more sustained exploration of content.

Deployment of Instructional Personnel

Most elementary schools assign classroom teachers groups of 20–30 students, although there are usually other teachers available as well: specialists for subjects such as art, music, and physical education; state-funded remedial reading or math teachers; Title I teachers; and teachers funded through district or external funds to serve migrant students, ESL learners, or “gifted” students. In fact, some elementary schools have more “extra” teachers than they do regular ones! The situation is different at the middle- and high-school levels, where students rotate among content specialists.
In schools committed to enhancing student learning, teachers go to considerable effort to integrate “special” subjects with more “academic” disciplines. Even when the schedule demands that a class of 3rd grade students goes to art class at, say, 11:00 a.m. on Thursdays, the art teacher and the home-room teacher work to ensure that what the students are learning in the two classes is not completely separate.
Many schools—particularly at the elementary level, and sometimes motivated by state statute or by the promise of additional funds—have created more classes with fewer students in each. These efforts have had mixed results, partly because when overall class sizes are reduced, other expenses are inevitably increased—for more classroom space and for additional content specialists (and the classroom space that they need).
In addition, there are frequently not enough qualified teachers to teach the new classes, especially at very large schools, resulting in at least a short-term reduction in teaching quality.
Although the research on class size has been inconclusive, studies suggest that reductions in size don't have much of an effect on student achievement unless the classes consist of 15 students or fewer. In any case, it is not the size of the homerooms that matters, but the size of instructional groups; consequently, if the entire teaching staff can be deployed in a manner that greatly reduces the size of instructional groups, results are likely to improve. A school organizational structure that supports the use of all teaching staff (including those paid for by categorical funds) to provide basic instruction can result in much smaller instructional groups than are traditionally found in schools.
(For more on this subject, see Chapter 12: Learning Support.)