LPA on Eliminating Block Scheduling: It Saves Maybe 1 Percent

Here’s what the Legislative Post Audit Committee of the Kansas Legislature had to say about block scheduling in its report on the USD 260 Derby. [Comments in parentheses are my own; I have used blue bold text to emphasize certain points. I have omitted the figures, so you’ll have to look at the original publication to see them.]

Under a traditional high school schedule, students typically go to the same 7 or 8 classes every day, with each class lasting about 40-60 minutes. Beginning in the mid 1990s, many high schools switched over to a block schedule, in which student take fewer classes each day, but for longer blocks of time. Although this method of scheduling is popular, in our work from a previous audit we saw that education research has found no positive effect (and perhaps even a negative effect) on student performance under a block schedule (see K-12 Education: Alternative Models for Organizing Middle Schools and High Schools, available at http://www.kslegislature.org/postaudit/ audits_perform/07pa02a.pdf). [Dated February 2007]

The Derby school district currently uses a “block” schedule in its high school, which is illustrated on the left side of Figure 1-4 on page 13. As the figure shows, the block schedule is made up of the following components:

–  Each day is divided into four 96-minute class periods (or “blocks”).

–  There are two class schedules which alternate each day. One schedule is for Mondays and Wednesdays; the other is for Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays alternate between the Monday/Wednesday schedule and the Tuesday/Thursday schedule.

–  There are a total of eight blocks each semester (four blocks for each of the two schedules).

Under the block schedule, the eight 96-minute blocks for full-time teachers break down like this:

–  They teach five classes.

– They provide extra assistance to students during one advising period.

–  They receive two planning periods (one each day).

[To summarize, a traditional school day, has 408 minutes, while a block-schedule day has 402 minutes. ]

We identified two problems with using 96-minute blocks that make this arrangement inefficient:

–  By using 96-minute blocks, the district provides significantly more planning time to its high school teachers than is required under its contract. The district is only contractually obligated to provide 55 minutes of planning time each day, which means the high school teachers receive 41 more minutes each day than they are entitled to. As a result, the district has to cover that time with additional teachers —the equivalent of 13 additional full-time teachers.

–  In 2009-10, the district will spend more than $100,000 “buying back” planning time from 11 teachers to get them to teach a sixth class. This year, the district needed some teachers to pick up additional classes, and had to buy back part of those teachers’ planning time—even the 41 extra minutes of planning time that’s above and beyond what’s required in the contract. That means the district pays for some of those minutes twice—once as part of the teacher’s regular salary, and again to have them teach the extra class. [I understand that a block schedule might require more teachers, depending on enrollment patterns, but why should it require the district to “buy back” teachers who are actually working  (slightly) fewer minutes  in the day under the block schedule? It looks like the district did not do a good job of getting buy-in from the teacher union, and instead had to pay more than should have been required.]

We looked at the impact of converting the high school’s block schedule to a “traditional” schedule. District officials asked us to look at whether the district could save money by switching to a more traditional format. To determine how a traditional schedule at the high school might look, we spoke with district and high school officials and reviewed documents such as class schedules, class rosters, and teacher contracts. Among the things we had to consider were the length of the class periods, passing periods between classes, planning periods, and advising periods. [I appreciate having the LPA look for efficiencies, but there’s a better way to find efficiencies than having auditors speculate about education matters: Give parents a voucher (perhaps adjusted for “at-risk” status) and let them shop at any willing school. School officials will find ways to please parents, which means they will look for ways to get the most bang for the buck.]

Our potential traditional schedule is shown on the right side of Figure 1-4, which provides a side-by-side comparison of the two schedules (traditional and block). As the figure shows, there are four main differences between the new traditional schedule we developed and the current block schedule: ˜

-Full-time teachers would teach 6 classes, instead of 5. ˜

– Teachers would have 48 minutes of planning time each day, instead of 96 minutes. ˜[What do the teachers do with the extra planning time under a block schedule? The report does not say. Perhaps longer classes require more planning.]

– The advising period would be 30 minutes each day, instead of 96 minutes every other day. [Again, how do teachers currently use the longer advising period? It could be time well spent. Or wasted.]

-˜ Overall, the school day would be 408 total minutes a day, instead of 402 (as provided for in the current contract with the teachers).

While the district would have to renegotiate certain aspects of teacher contracts to switch to a traditional high school class schedule, doing so could save the district at least $600,000 each year by reducing the number of teachers it would need. As discussed earlier, the district’s current contract with its teachers provides for a 402-minute school day, and entitles high school teachers to 55 minutes of planning time each day. Because the model schedule we developed would lengthen the school day and reduce the amount of planning time, the contract would need to be renegotiated to accommodate those changes. District officials indicated that such changes would need to be approved by three groups within the district before the changes could be made: the school board, the high school teachers, and the district’s collective bargaining unit. [Renegotiating the contract could eliminate some if not all of the savings of switching back to a traditional schedule.]

Despite these obstacles, switching to a traditional schedule has the potential for significant savings in personnel costs. Because each teacher would teach an additional class (six instead of five), the district would need fewer teachers to teach the same number of classes. To estimate the potential savings under a traditional schedule, we analyzed a selection of classes in core subject areas, like algebra, English, and science. Overall, these classes represent a little more than 40% of the district’s regular classes. The results of our analyses are shown in Figure 1-5 on the following page.

As the figure shows, the district would need 10 fewer teachers and could save more than $600,000 a year for the classes we looked at (almost $2.6 million over five years) by switching to a traditional schedule where each teacher would be responsible for six classes per semester, instead of five. Of the total savings, $500,000 comes from hiring fewer teachers, while the remaining $100,000 comes from no longer needing to buy back time to have teachers take on additional classes. The district could use the savings to reduce its overall expenses, increase teacher salaries, pay for needed programs, or fund other priorities it may identify.

If the district could fill its high school classes to the enrollment capacities set by the district, it could save an estimated $200,000 more per year in salary costs, whether or not it switches to a block schedule. District officials set a maximum enrollment level per class for every class section offered at the high school. Though the district’s contract with its teaching staff states that it will try to keep to the recommended class size of 29, it doesn’t commit to a definite number. Depending on the class, the maximum enrollment capacity for the types of classes we examined can range from 15 for a math lab class to 32 for an English class. [Yes, the district could also hire fewer teachers if it allowed classes to be bigger. Some teachers could be effective in that situation, but some would not.]

In comparing actual enrollment levels for these classes with the capacity set by the district, we noted that many of the class sections taught weren’t full. As illustrated in Figure 1-5, certain categories of classes, like Spanish, had a lower percent of the available seats filled than other categories, like U.S. Government or U.S. History.

We analyzed the potential costs savings if the district was able to fill its classes to their capacities—but not beyond—for the classes we examined for the current school year. Here’s what we found: ˜

– If the district switched to a traditional class schedule and was able to fill these classes to capacity, we estimated it could save an additional $200,000 a year because it would need fewer class sections. That would bring the total estimated annual savings to more than $800,000 a year for the classes we analyzed because the districts would need 14 fewer teachers overall. This analysis is shown in Figure 1-6.

–  If the district kept a block schedule but was able to fill its classes to capacity, we estimated it would need four fewer teaching positions than it currently has and could save just more than $200,000 per year.

District officials told us that one reason for offering more than the minimum number of sections is to help students avoid scheduling conflicts that would cut down on student’s options. [Giving students more options is a good thing, though of course that must be kept in context: A class for one would be very expensive.] For example, even if there are only enough students interested in a high-level Spanish class to support one section, the district might offer a second section in case the first section conflicted with another low-enrollment class, such as choir. The desire for this kind of flexibility should be weighed against the cost of offering the additional sections. [Note that online classes might help address the problem with scheduling conflicts.]

How financially valuable would a switch to traditional scheduling be? LPA says that the district could save $619,000 in a year, plus another $200,000 more if it also reduced the number of sections offered. To put that in perspective, in the 2008-09 school year, the Total Expenditure by District Report says that  the district spent $67.5 million, of which $41.3 million was state aid and $21.7 million was local revenue. So even with a change and fewer sections, the district would reduce its overall spending by 1.2 percent. Without reducing the number of sections, the savings would be even less.

Given the mixed record that block scheduling has on student achievement, a traditional schedule would probably not be an academic disaster (though the transition could be disruptive). But it’s not alone going to do much for the budget. The district might get better results by changing the way that it recruits, retains, and evaluates teachers.

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