Block Scheduling

From time to time we’ll take a look at fads in education. Today’s: block scheduling.

First of all, what is it?

The basic idea is that students take fewer classes during a school day, but spend more time in each class. This could be done by reducing the number of subjects that a student takes during the school year. Usually, though, the school year is adjusted. One way is to make school more like college: This term (quarter or trimester), you take classes A, B, and C, but next term you take D, E, and F, a different set of classes. Another way to adjust the calendar is to adjust the school week, so that during the first week of school, students take A, B, and C on Monday, and then D, E, and F on Tuesday, and then revert to the Monday schedule, and so forth. These are just examples, school districts use variations on these themes.

The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at University of Minnesota offers a definition:

The nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association, offers a brief introduction to the idea.

Possible advantages

Possible advantage of block scheduling include:

  • More-in depth treatment of a subject
  • Students spend more time “on task” because they don’t spend as much time wandering the hallways between class, or waste time with the preliminaries of beginning or ending a class.
  • It makes it easier to conduct laboratory experiments, group projects, simulations, cooperative learning, and hands-on projects–in other words, activities other than lectures. It is more suitable for an educational philosophy that views the teacher as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.”
  • It may reduce the need for recordkeeping, giving teachers more time to plan or actually conduct classes.
  • Students may graduate early or take more advanced classes, since some forms of block scheduling allow for a student to take more classes.
  • “Teachers see fewer students during the day, giving them more time for individualized instruction.” — NEA
  • Students have more time for reflection and less information to process over the course of a school day. — NEA
  • Teachers have extended time for planning. — NEA

Criticism

Critics say that by itself, block scheduling is of little value to boost achievement.

Regrettably, to date our nation has responded to this new condition through tepid incrementalism. A tiny speck of teacher performance pay here, a dab of curriculum alignment there, a tiny piece of teacher professional development over there, block scheduling and a day or two of leadership training here, and a friendly nod to parent engagement somewhere.  However, these individual, ad hoc, and sometimes short-sighted and superficial school improvement components have had virtually no cumulative impact on student achievement. — James Guthrie

The Center for Education Reform has lodged various criticisms against block scheduling. See also The Case Against Block Scheduling, by Jeff Lindsay. Linday’s arguments are too lengthy to summarize here, but one key point he makes is that children need frequent repetition to learn, rather than shorter, in-depth experiences.

In 2008, the Washington Post noted that “some schools are switching back to the old routine of 45-minute daily classes as educators and researchers question whether the new approach has led to higher achievement.”

The NEA notes other criticisms:

  • Teachers see students only three to four days a week which fosters a lack of continuity from day to day.
  • If a student misses a day under the modular schedule, that student is actually missing two, or sometimes even more days.
  • In a 4×4, all of the information normally taught in a semester course has to be covered in one quarter. [In other words, it leads to a compressed schedule.]
  • It is difficult to cover the necessary material for Advanced Placement courses in the time allotted.

In addition, block scheduling may not work if it promotes a (continued) mismatch between student needs and teacher style. A student who needs a more active learning approach won’t benefit from a longer class if the extra time is simply devoted to lecture. And the student who soaks up lectures may be frustrated by a shift to group projects and the like.

Implementation

As you might expect, getting block scheduling into place–changing the way that a school operates–isn’t always popular. Some union leaders have complained that it leads to teachers working more hours on a given day than their contract calls for.

Labor troubles aside, moving to block scheduling won’t work if teachers don’t retool. As Elena Silvia of the group Education Sector noted a few years ago, “there is also ample evidence that most block formats will not work if teachers are only accustomed to and trained for traditional classes of, say, 50 minutes. These teachers tend to prepare instruction for a 50-minute class and then turn to supplemental or review materials for the remainder of a block-schedule time period. The purpose of the block—to increase the amount of focused and engaged instructional time—is undermined by this.”

Debra Viadero, a writer for Education Week, echoes those comments in one 2008 article: “On one point, though, scholars agree. Giving students more time won’t, in and of itself, improve learning. It’s all about what educators do to make the most of any extra time they get.” She adds: “the approach [block scheduling] was widely adopted, especially at the secondary school level, studies on whether students learn more in longer classes have so far yielded mixed results.”

Does block scheduling save money?

In its audit (PDF) of the Derby school district (USD 260), the Legislative Division of Post Audit said that the district could save money by abandoning its block scheduling. Whether this applies to other schools depends on the configuration of those schools.

One former member of the Virginia state board of education had this to say: “Students with block schedules typically have more credits at the end of four years than those with traditional schedules. Thus, unless required to earn more credits, they could graduate much earlier.”

If students graduate earlier, that should mean that schools spend less money enrolling the student. But it also means that schools receive less money.

Sometimes, at least, block scheduling has been implemented in a way that costs more money. Here’s an AP story (via Education Week) of a school district in California: “A block scheduling program, in which students study subjects for longer periods, may be scrapped altogether because it relies on extra teachers to make it work.”

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