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2014 ASCD Conference on Educational Leadership

2014 ASCD Conference on Educational Leadership

October 31–November 2, 2014, Orlando, Fla.

Learn the secrets to great leadership practices, and get immediate and practical solutions that address your needs.



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Enhancing Student Achievement

by Charlotte Danielson

Table of Contents

Chapter 5. School Organization

School organization” refers to how schools arrange the resources of time, space, and personnel for maximum effect on student learning. The school's organizational plan addresses those issues that affect the school as a whole, such as the master schedule, the location of staff in different rooms, and the assignment of aides to teachers or teams. (Matters that affect only individual teachers or teams—how to form reading groups for all 2nd graders, for example—are addressed in Chapter 11: Team Planning.)

Relationship to the Framework

How a school is organized is a matter for the staff to determine, and a school's organization should reflect the staff's commitment to the success of all students. Every aspect of the instructional program will convey the values and goals of the staff toward students and their learning.

High-Level Learning for All Students

Through a school's organizational patterns—whether the school is divided into teams or houses, for example, or whether it adopts a traditional or a block schedule—the staff can convey to both students and their parents that learning is important, that the business of the school is learning, and that the different elements of the school's organization are structured to support that learning. The master schedule, for example, is not established merely for the convenience of the transportation department, although bus schedules are important and must be accommodated. Nor are teams established only so that members of the faculty who are friends can work together. All arrangements must reflect an unwavering focus on student learning.

A Safe and Positive Environment

The wise deployment of space can go a long way toward ensuring a physically safe environment, particularly for young children. If classrooms, the art room, restrooms, and the library are all within easy walking distance, and if the paths to each are safe, children will feel secure going alone. In addition, a school's arrangement of teachers into teams, houses, and the like can contribute to a feeling of community, and therefore emotional safety, for students; they should feel part of a group small enough that their absence or illness would be noticed.

A Culture of Hard Work and Opportunities for Success

A focus on success is not a matter of spoon-feeding. A good school organization will offer students the optimal degree of challenge, stretching them while at the same time ensuring that they can succeed if they exert the necessary effort. Students need to know (and may need to be reminded) that it is up to them to exert the effort. For example, elementary-school teachers might let their students know that they are free to go to the computer lab or learning center once they've completed their work and mastered certain tasks; similarly, students in middle or high school could be told that if they are willing to commit to a heavy workload and fill any gaps in their understanding, they can enroll in Spanish II or an advanced placement course. Such opportunities should not constitute an exclusive club, open only to a few students; they should be open to any students willing to commit to them. The master schedule must be arranged to permit students to make these commitments and demonstrate their desire to participate in the most challenging opportunities the school has to offer.

When a school adopts a success orientation, it also commits itself to a flexible deployment of resources: nothing is carved in stone, and no one adopts a “take it or leave it” attitude. Students are assumed to be capable learners, and the school accepts its obligation to ensure successful learning by all students. Students should be able to get additional help when they need it, and to challenge the curriculum when they so choose; they should not be obliged to sit through a year of algebra if they can demonstrate, through a valid assessment, that they already understand the content. On the other hand, a student struggling with how to write a clear paragraph, for example, should be able to get help as needed.

School Organization

The research on school organization is clear: in general, small schools yield better results than large ones. This suggests that educators at large schools can help more students learn by creating subunits—schools within a school. Moreover, studies on teacher collaboration and teaming have shown that students benefit when teachers work together to promote student learning. Some schools in rural areas, of course, are too small, unable to provide a reasonable range of curricular or extracurricular offerings. But while educators in large schools can generally devise ways to break up into smaller units, those in small schools can't usually do much about their limited resources (although the Internet now provides students with learning opportunities that were not previously available).

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.)

Grouping Strategies

A school aiming to improve student performance must develop a reasoned approach, even a philosophy, toward the grouping of students for instruction. Such an approach should not include permanent tracking. When elementary-school students are clustered as “bluebirds” or “canaries” according to their real or perceived abilities, the groups often become permanent: those who are identified early on as particularly able tend to be the ones permitted to enroll in advanced courses in high school.

Permanent tracking harms all but the highest-performing students, who themselves gain only slightly from the practice. Short-term skill grouping, however, can be highly beneficial for all students. Students who do not understand, say, subtraction with regrouping should receive targeted instruction on the concept before moving on to a skill that depends upon it (such as division). But there is no reason for students who have already grasped subtraction with regrouping to spend any more time on the topic; they should instead be more productively engaged in other topics. Hence teachers need the flexibility to create skill groups when needed, particularly for concepts that are prerequisites for later lessons.

The school's approach to scheduling and deployment of staff must support the formation of short-term skill groups when needed. In addition, the school's organization must allow for skill groups to be formed quickly and changed frequently; flexibility, in other words, is the key.

Implications for Different Levels

I have discussed the above issues separately, as though educators addressed them one at a time. In reality, of course, the various aspects of a school's organizational structure are highly intertwined and tightly related to other aspects of the school, such as curriculum, student assessment, and learning support. Still, there are important differences among schools at different levels.

Elementary Schools

Teacher teams at the elementary-school level may comprise anywhere from two to eight teachers each; more than eight, however, can become unwieldy. These teams may be organized around a single grade level (a “2nd grade team”) or as “family” teams of, for example, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. Each arrangement has its advantages and disadvantages. Students in single-grade teams, of course, tend to be closer to one another academically than are those in family teams. On the other hand, these same students must relearn the ropes each year with a different group of teachers, and the teachers must become acquainted with a large new group of students. Academic levels may vary in family teams, but students stay with the same group of teachers for several years, reducing the startup time required at the beginning of the school year.

Middle Schools

The “middle-school philosophy”—which recognizes that young adolescents learn best when given a fair degree of autonomy, while at the same time “belonging” to a relatively small group of teachers and other students—has become dominant in schools serving the 5th or 6th to 8th grades. Students at this period in their lives experience rapid physical, emotional, and intellectual growth, matched in scope only by the first three years of life; they are experiencing fast and sometimes confusing changes. Middle schools, therefore, must provide both stability and stimulation, respecting the students' age-related concerns.

I have already suggested the major recommendation for middle schools: teachers should work in small teams, composed typically of four teachers, representing the core subjects. Additional subjects should be offered as “exploratory” opportunities for students. In addition, time should be scheduled—and instruction provided. in long blocks, permitting teachers the maximum degree of flexibility to meet student needs (and to alter internal arrangements as these needs change). When the school organization allows for the integration of various . support. teachers. Title I, remedial, migrant, gifted, and so on. teachers within each team have the best opportunity to arrange a combination of core and supplementary instruction for each student.

High Schools

Some high schools institute schools-within-a-school (SWAS), often for their 9th grade students. This structure is designed to mirror (and hence ease the transition from) the middle-school experience. If they can be managed, SWAS are recommended, as they provide students with smaller instructional units and permit them to learn the ropes of the high school—by interacting with a greater number of students and teachers, not to mention abiding by typically more structured rules of conduct—without also having to learn how to find a classroom or juggle the multiple demands of too many different courses.

Scheduling is the main aspect of school organization at the high-school level. Many high schools have by now implemented some form of block scheduling, in which students attend three to four classes on any given day rather than seven to nine. There are two basic patterns for block scheduling: four-by-four and A/B. In four-by-four schedules, students complete four “yearlong” courses each semester in periods of about 90 minutes each day. In the A/B schedule, classes are held on alternate days over the entire year; students may still be carrying six to eight courses, but they attend only half of them on any given day.

In general, block scheduling is advantageous because it provides longer instructional time and more opportunities for engaged learning. When teachers must plan for 90-minute classes, they are likely to employ different approaches than when classes are limited to 40 minutes; they can engage students more deeply in investigations, and will probably vary their instruction more. On the other hand, if teachers don't plan their time effectively, much of it may be wasted; students might devote considerable class time to independent work, for example, that might otherwise be assigned as homework. But in general, block scheduling tends to improve the school climate, with fewer discipline referrals, fewer class changes each day, greater student commitment to the work, and the potential for more engaging instruction.

The two major approaches to high-school block scheduling carry different advantages and disadvantages. Before implementing one or the other, educators are well advised to consult one of the many excellent books that have been written on the subject.


A school's organizational structures can go a long way toward promoting student learning. At all instructional levels, the school's organizational pattern can materially affect the manner in which students and teachers interact. All of these schoolwide structures should be designed to maximize teacher and student flexibility, encourage in-depth teaching and learning, and integrate as many different resources as possible.

The chart on the following page is intended to help educators examine their own school's approach to school organization and determine whether changes should be made. I have provided a similar chart at the end of each subsequent chapter.

Rubric for School Organization




Unit Size

The school has not been divided into subunits; students are assigned to a single teacher in elementary school or to single classes in high school.

Some smaller learning communities have been established as appropriate, but teachers within the subunits do not have the opportunity to engage in joint planning.

The teaming structure allows teachers to work together for the maximum benefit of students; the schedule has been organized to allow for common planning time.

Deployment of Teachers

. Extra. teachers work completely independently of the regular teachers, resulting in fragmented instruction.

Some “extra” teachers are integrated into the regular classroom, but both they and the regular teachers regard their roles as separate and supplemental to student learning in the regular classes.

All teachers in the school work together to maximize the learning of students; “extra” teachers provide their services as part of normal classroom instruction.

Allocation of Space

Space has been allocated for different functions within the school independent of the instructional needs of students and teachers, even when the school building would permit more suitable arrangements.

Only some decisions regarding the use of space are rational and support the school's mission.

Space is allocated to the various functions in ways that maximize the learning of all students. Teachers who work together have easy access to one another, and students can find their way around easily.


Permanent instructional groups that divide students according to real or perceived ability are locked into the organizational structure of the school; little or no flexibility to change the groups is possible.

Instructional groups based on ability are not locked into the school's organization, but the school culture does not support flexibility regarding student assignment to different groups.

Teachers are free, within their teams, to move students from group to group as their learning needs change. The school's schedule is organized to permit maximum flexibility for teachers to meet student needs.