Block Scheduling - Educational Reform Efforts

Block Scheduling - Educational Reform Efforts

Dr. Fred R. Bassett

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As George Bernard Shaw once said, "Hell is paved with good intentions, not with bad ones. All men mean well."  Likewise, education reform in this country is paved with good intentions.  The problem is that for decades most efforts at education reform have been the result of some perceived political or economic crisis that had little or nothing to do with public education. Responsibility for these crises, however, was put on public education by politicians, business leaders, and others who wanted to lay the blame on someone else or who had a personal agenda in mind.  Only a few examples of this phenomenon include:  (1) the blaming of public education in the 1950's for the failure of the U.S. to get a satellite in orbit ahead of the U.S.S.R. and the resulting focus on math and science education along with student "tracking" by ability level so that more engineers could be produced; (2) the blaming of public education in the 1960's for problems associated with racial integration and the Vietnam War and the resulting focus in education on a "relevant" curriculum and the de-emphasis of the classics.  (Concurrent with this reform was the call for "open-space" classrooms without walls and "new math".);  and (3) more recently beginning in the early 1980's, the blaming of public education for economic problems brought on by rising oil prices and poor planning by large corporations especially the automakers.  Regarding this last example, even though public education did not have anything to do with these economic problems, it got the lion's share of the blame through a report called "A Nation at Risk". And, even though those economic problems are behind us now and our economy is unquestionably the strongest in the world and just ended a period of unprecedented growth, public education is still constantly criticized in the media by every Tom, Dick, and Harry with an ax to grind or a personal interest to satisfy. 

I went to the trouble to go through that bit of history to put the latest reforms brought on by pressure from these groups and individuals in perspective.  These reforms were based on theories and assumptions that were popular at the time and were in response to the perceived economic crisis described in "A Nation at Risk".  (The perception was that the Japanese and German economies were getting stronger while the U.S. economy was suffering and losing global position.  Politicians and others laid the blame on public education in the U.S. for not producing a well educated workforce.  Of course after the U.S. economy rebounded and soared ahead of the Japanese and German economies, no one thought about giving public education in the U.S. any credit.  That is not how the blame game is played.)  These ties are especially obvious in the components that deal with career education, training students for the workplace, school-to-work programs, closer ties to business, etc.  The problem, however, is that just as in the earlier reform efforts, many components were not well thought out in terms of long range consequences, secondary effects, or hidden problems.

A great example of unforeseen consequences resulting from reform is demonstrated by the switch from junior high schools to middle schools.  This switch was not just one of changing grade levels in the schools from 7-9 to 6-8, but it also incorporated a change in perception of these schools from being junior versions of high schools which had a focus on subject area content and a more rigorous academic environment to schools with a focus on making sure that students felt good about themselves, had high self esteem, could explore a wide range of topics in order to give their curiosity free rein, and would be in an environment that provided them many opportunities to succeed.  Or so the theory went.  What has generally happened is that the middle grades are now redundant and shallow in subject area content, and student achievement has suffered.  Teachers who in the past got certified for grades 7-12 in their subject area under the old junior high system are now certified for the middle school level with less coursework required in subject content.   (Although it is true that under the old system, some teachers with a K-8 elementary certification were teaching in junior high schools.)  Middle school teachers have also been taught in professional development training and at colleges of education that they should not be as academically demanding of their students as they had been under the old system.  They were taught to focus on the emotional development of the child and not on his or her academic achievement.

This shift in focus away from academic rigor along with a reduction in subject area requirements for teacher certification has now come back to haunt our middle grade test scores on a multitude of tests and measures. The cry has gone out that something must be done on a state and national level.  All of which could have been avoided if someone had just thought through the logical consequences of reducing the academic rigor of education in the middle grades before millions of dollars were spent on changing over to middle schools.

Another great example of shortsighted reform is block scheduling.  By way of background, on a block schedule, a student takes four 90-minute classes a day and completes a year's worth of material in each class in the fall semester.  Accordingly, the same student then takes four different classes in the spring semester.  This leads to students earning up to 8 credits per year and up to 32 credits in high school (grades 9-12) instead of the 24 possible under a traditional 6 period per day schedule. 

Most schools do not consider the following before adopting a block schedule (If they did, they would certainly have second thoughts.):

· Class time is not only compressed from a year into a semester but also reduced. (Doubling the traditional 55 minute class period would yield 110 minutes not 90 minutes, so 20 minutes is lost each day for a semester.) In fact, block schedules reduce time in courses to such an extent that 24 credits can be earned in 3 years instead of the 4 years required for a traditional 6 period schedule, which means that a significant amount of course content has probably been left out of each course.  Furthermore, additional course content is lost if teachers do not teach for the full 90 minutes and use the extra daily time in class only for students to work on their homework.  Some schools have had to add extra courses to the curriculum to make up for the inability of students to master the required amount of material in the allotted time.  This has led to credit inflation on student transcripts where, for example, Algebra I, Algebra II, and Algebra III now show up, but in the past, the same amount of material was covered in the standard Algebra I and Algebra II courses.  This credit inflation negates any benefit to the student that would have resulted from additional course requirements for graduation. 

· If a school shifts from a traditional 6 period per day schedule to a block schedule to accommodate the new Kentucky graduation requirement of 22 credits, the percentage of time a student spends in required courses drops from 91.7% (22 out of 24 possible credits) to 68.8% (22 out of 32 possible credits).  Even under the old graduation requirement of 20 credits, students on a 6 period per day schedule would have been in required courses 83.3% of the time (20 out of 24 possible credits).  The decrease in time spent in required courses decreases the probability that students on a block schedule will learn the material in state required courses as well as students on a 6 period per day schedule (Time on task is highly correlated to learning). Also, the decrease in time spent in class is cumulative and results in students on a block schedule earning 24 credits in three years instead of the four years required for 24 credits on a traditional 6 period per day schedule (3 years times 8 credits per year versus 4 years times 6 credits per year).  When one realizes that students on a block schedule are getting the same number of course credits in 3 years that it took them 4 years to get on a traditional 6 period per day schedule, the amount of content that must have been left out becomes obvious.
· With the potential for students on a block schedule to earn the state required 22 credits by the time they finish their junior year, there has been a clamor from some quarters for students to be allowed to graduate early from high school.  The problem for the students who are given permission to graduate early is that they are missing out on up to a year's worth of high school education because they have been awarded 22 reduced content credits.  They are also entering post secondary education or the job market with a year's less maturity.  The problem for schools with early graduation is that it affects funding by reducing enrollment and may affect scores on the CATS test when students are not available for testing or turning in portfolios the second half of their senior year.

· Students in Advanced Placement (AP) classes take the national AP Exams in May, so if they finish an AP class at the end of the first semester, there is a big gap of several months before they take the exam, or, if they try to wait and take an AP class in the spring, there is not enough time to finish the class before the exam is given.  Many schools on block schedules try to get around this problem by letting AP classes run all year long instead of just for a semester, but this severely limits the number of AP classes a student may take and negates the purpose of a block schedule.  As reported in a study released by The College Board in May of 1998, student performance on average is lower on AP exams for those students who are taught in compressed schedules than for those who receive yearlong instruction.

· Testing results for the state CATS test, the CTBS, and other achievement tests can be thrown off by the fact that, depending on the test date, half of the students in each grade level being tested have completed courses crucial for increased performance (English, math, science, and social studies) while others have just started them.

· If a student takes a sequential course like Spanish I in the fall semester, there may be a large gap of several months until the fall semester or even spring semester of the following year when he or she may take Spanish II.  Some schools have tried to circumvent this problem by teaching two years of a foreign language in one year.  That approach creates its own set of problems with students who need more time to assimilate the material. (Problems also occur in sequential courses in areas other than foreign language.)

· Even on a block schedule, many schools have their band classes meet all year long instead of just for a semester so that band students can prepare for both the fall marching band competitions and the spring concert band competitions.  If band is a 90-minute class in the fall and spring, then those students have spent one fourth of their school time for the year in band class.  (Whether this is good or bad is a judgment call, but it does reduce the amount of class time available for other learning.)  On the other hand, if a school splits the 90-minute class so that band and another 45-minute class are created and run all year long, then a student would be better off in a traditional 55-minute band class.

· Teaching time per teacher is reduced as each teacher has a 90 minute planning period per day instead of a 55 minute one.  Some schools have tried to assign other duties to teachers during the 90 minute period such as making contacts with parents, but that has proved difficult for the school to monitor and increased the burden on administrators who have to do the

· Class sizes are larger under a block schedule than under a traditional six period schedule all other things being equal because under a block schedule, during any one of the four periods per day, on average only 3/4 of the teachers are available to teach class while 1/4 are on planning period.  In contrast, on a traditional six period schedule, during any one of the six periods per day, on average 5/6 of the teachers are available to teach class while 1/6 are on planning period.  For example, in a school with 60 teachers, on a block schedule during any given period 3/4 of 60 or 45 teachers would be teaching, and on a traditional six period schedule during any given period 5/6 of 60 or 50 teachers would be teaching.  With the extra 5 teachers on the traditional six period schedule to share the students, class sizes would be smaller.  (Typically after block schedules are implemented and class sizes rise, schools ask for more teachers to be assigned so that class sizes can be reduced.)

· Many teachers have trouble adjusting to teaching in 90 minute blocks, so they teach for about the same amount of time that they did in a 55 minute class and then give their students the remaining class time to finish their homework.  This reduces the amount of content covered in a course even further.  (However, when asked how they like block schedules, many teachers and students reply positively.  The teachers are only teaching 3 classes a day and have a 90 minute planning period while the students only have 4 classes a day, are responsible for learning less material in each class, and may have large amounts of time in class to do their homework. What's not to like except that students are learning less and teachers are teaching less?)

Some schools have tried to soften the deleterious effects of a block schedule by having an alternative-day schedule where four "A" classes are taught every other day and four different "B" classes are taught on intervening days.  In that way, classes can run the entire school year.

· Problems with this schedule other than ones previously mentioned include:  1) students are taking eight classes at one time and have to study and be tested in all eight classes at the same time;  2) individual classes only meet every other day, so continuity is lost;  3) classes meet on different days every other week ("A" classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the first week and Tuesday and Thursday the next week);  and (4) snow days may hit on "A" days more than "B" days or vice versa and, therefore, selectively impact those classes more than the others thus making make-up days problematic. 


For those of you that may not have heard of this schedule, it works basically along the following lines:

The school year is divided into 3 sections called trimesters instead of the usual 2 called semesters.

The school day has 5 periods instead of the usual 6.  (Hence the name 3x5 - 3 trimesters by 5 periods.)

Keeping the same length of school day would mean that each course would be about 10 minutes longer.

What in the past had been year-long courses under the 3x5 plan require the student to only take two of the three trimesters for course credit.  (Each trimester in a class is worth 1/2 credit.)

Claimed Advantages of 3x5 Trimester Schedule:

· More time per class period to learn.

· If student fails a trimester of a course during the first two trimesters, he or she still has the opportunity to pass for the year by
making up the failed work during the last trimester.

· It is possible for the student to earn 7.5 credits during the school year instead of 6.  (3 trimesters times 5 classes times 0.5 credit per class.)  This allows for increased enrollment in elective courses.

· Greater flexibility in scheduling.

Problems with the 3x5 Trimester Schedule

· Total time in each course is reduced which may interfere with student learning.  (The length of each class period would be increased by 20% while the total number of days in each class would be reduced by 33%.  A year's worth of material would have to be learned in 2/3 of a year.)

· Course inflation may occur if additional courses are added just to get through the expected amount of material.

· Class sizes will get larger.  (Under the 3x5 schedule more teachers have planning each period than on a 6 period schedule, so there are fewer teachers left to cover all of the students.  This is because 1/5 of the teachers would be on planning at one time instead of 1/6.)

· Scheduling can be much more complicated than on a traditional schedule.

· Not all students will be scheduled to take a full credit class during the first two trimesters.  Some may be scheduled for the last two, and some may even be scheduled to have a trimester break between the first half and the second half of a course.

· CATS, CTBS, and other testing may be thrown off by students being in different stages of course completion at the time of testing.

· It may be difficult to place students who transfer into the school during the year.

· There may be large gaps between courses in a sequence.  (For instance, if a student finishes the second half of a Spanish I class in the second trimester of one year and does not start the first half of Spanish II until the second trimester of the next year.)

· Trimester scheduling is not new.  It was tried in several areas around the country during the early to mid 1970's.  In the Birmingham Public Schools, after trying the trimester schedule, the majority of the teachers felt that students had not learned more than in previous years but that paperwork had increased.  A large percentage of the teachers also felt that they had no input into the scheduling process.  The feeling that students had not learned more than in the past was even more significant given the fact that the school day had been lengthened so that school was in session from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM to make up for the reduced number of days in class.

Just because the fancy sounding reforms don't work as advertised is not to say that there are not some tried and true ways of educating children.  What has been shown to work time and again are small, personal neighborhood schools where "everybody knows your name" and where parents and teachers work together to keep students from becoming isolated and "falling through the cracks".  A trend that has worked against this effective method of schooling over the years has been the push for consolidation of small neighborhood schools into mega-schools.   As a nation we are just waking up to the fact that bigger is not always better.

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October 8th, 2001 -

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