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Block Scheduling: A Solution or a Problem?

The merits of block scheduling are a subject of great debate. Is it a flexible scheduling alternative that benefits students -- or is it a fad that's sure to pass?

Schools throughout the United States are adopting block scheduling in dramatically increasing numbers. The move to block scheduling, however, has sparked controversy.

Hailed by proponents as a vehicle for greater depth and flexibility in education, block scheduling has turned off some educators and parents, who criticize it as a faddish approach that fails to enhance academic performance.

WHAT IS BLOCK SCHEDULING?

In an article titled "All Around the Block: The Benefits and Challenges of a Non-Traditional School Schedule," Michael D. Rettig and Robert Lynn Canady estimate that "more than 50 percent of high schools in the United States are either using or considering a form of block scheduling."

In contrast with the traditional daily, six-, seven-, or eight-period schedule, a block schedule consists of three or four daily longer periods. Widely used forms of block scheduling are the alternate-day schedule, the 4/4 semester plan, and the trimester plan.

In the alternate-day schedule students and teachers meet every-other-day for extended time periods rather than meeting every day for shorter periods.
In the 4/4 semester plan students complete four "yearlong" courses that meet for about 90 minutes every day during a 90-day semester.
Students take two or three courses every 60 days in a trimester plan to earn six to nine credits per year.

Many schools work with schedules that are variations or combinations of these plans. For example, a school in Broward County, Florida, has adapted the trimester plan by adding three year-long classes to six trimester courses in order to accommodate musical performing groups and Advance Placement subjects, which need or prefer to go year round. Other school districts combine long terms and short terms to provide time for remediation and enrichment for students, as needed.

THE PHILOSOPHY BEHIND THE TREND

Rettig and Canady maintain that a handful of factors are motivating middle and high schools across the United States to adopt block scheduling:

  • When students attend as many as eight relatively short classes in different subjects every day, instruction can become fragmented; longer class periods give students more time to think and engage in active learning.
  • A schedule with one relatively short period after another can create a hectic, assembly-line environment;
  • A schedule that releases hundreds or thousands of adolescents into hallways six, seven, or eight times each school day for four or five minutes of noise and chaotic movement can exacerbate discipline problems.
  • Teachers benefit from more useable instructional time each day because less time is lost with beginning and ending classes.

A 1995 study by Carl Glickman, a University of Georgia professor, of 820 high schools and 11,000 students reported that schools in which active learning methods were predominant had significantly higher achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Teachers at schools with block scheduling may use longer instructional periods to engage students in experiments, writing, and other forms of active learning, as opposed to merely lecturing students.

In addition, the alternate-day schedule reduces the time teachers spend in record keeping because records need be kept only every other day instead of every day.

In the 4/4 format, in any one semester teachers prepare for fewer courses and work with fewer students. Grades and records need be kept for fewer students per semester. In addition, some students graduate in three years or earn a year of college credit while still in high school because eight credits can be earned each school year.

THE COPERNICAN PLAN

Like block scheduling, the Copernican Plan, developed by Joseph M. Carroll, also challenges the traditional organization of secondary schools. According to Carroll, a former superintendent who is now an education consultant and author, nothing is wrong with the traditional schedule "except that it prevents teachers from teaching well and students from learning well." Carroll also says that under a traditional secondary schedule, "teachers cannot deal meaningfully with every student every day..."

"Four hundred years ago, the renaissance scholar Copernicus demonstrated the unsystematic movements of the planets could be systematically explained if one begins with the assumption that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe (as was then thought)," Carroll explains. "Similarly, our Copernican Plan [challenges] tradition, the traditional organization of our secondary schools and particularly our high schools. Like Copernicus, the plan deals with facts and research that has been known for a long time, but which never seemed to make sense in the real world of schools."

"The Copernican Plan is not about 'block scheduling.' It is about the relationship between time and learning," Carroll adds. It involves change based on research and change that is systemic. It has a built-in method of continuing evaluation.

Carroll emphasizes that the Copernican Plan is not an end; it is a means to an end.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS

Even though more and more schools are switching to block scheduling, the approach has drawn fire from some educators and parents. Critics of block scheduling assert that the new scheduling format creates or exacerbates certain educational problems.

What will students do for 90-minute periods? critics ask. Proponents of block scheduling cite active learning as the key to keeping students engaged and learning during longer periods. But, even with a block-scheduling format, critics say, many teachers continue simply to lecture students rather than engaging them in active learning. Block scheduling in itself is no guarantee of active learning. And if active learning doesn't take place during, for example, a 90-minute class period, students may have trouble paying attention for the entire class.

Opponents of block scheduling, like the group Parents for Academic Excellence based in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, point out that student absences create problems under block scheduling. Making up missed work is always difficult. But when a student misses one day of classes under block scheduling, the student misses the equivalent of two days of instruction under the traditional system. A weeklong absence means the student misses two weeks of material. Such an absence may cause a student to fall behind to the extent that making up the work is difficult.

Teacher absences may lead to other problems, according to doubters. Under block scheduling, will a substitute teacher be qualified to teach 90-minute periods of, for example, physics?

Courses like languages or mathematics are sequential. Some critics of block scheduling point out that a student may take French I in the fall, not take French at all in the spring, go through the summer, and then take French II the following fall. At issue is how much French the student will recall after a break of several months. Advocates of block scheduling say most forgetting happens in the first few weeks after a course is taken. Yet critics point to studies that indicate greater memory loss over longer periods of time.

A practical hurdle also stands in the way of block scheduling in some school districts. A state arbitration panel in Connecticut recently ruled that Region 13, covering the towns of Durham and Middlefield, would have to pay teachers more under a proposed block schedule plan because teachers would be required to teach six different courses a year instead of five courses. The panel ruled that teachers should be compensated for added preparation time involved in an extra course, even if the teachers would teach for the same length of time. The school district still adopted block schedule after the ruling, but it reconfigured its scheduling to ensure that each teacher is responsible for only five courses.

WHAT ABOUT COMPROMISE?

Once advocates and opponents of block scheduling become entrenched, compromise between the groups can be difficult. In districts that have experienced a smooth transition to block scheduling, the administration has generally dealt with internal opposition that might exist among the staff and brought teachers on board before.

Here are Joseph M. Carroll's recommendations for handling the change process:

  • "Process is not product." Don't let the process of change itself dominate for too long.
  • "Successful change must be research-based and systemic." Center the process of change on developing a system based on sound instructional research and research-based evaluations of programs that led to improved student performance.
  • "Leadership is critical." Leaders must be crystal clear about what they want.
  • "Change the whole school at once." School-within-a-school or pilot programs threaten people without establishing a program.
  • "Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate." Make evaluation an integral part of the program.
  • "A caveat: Beware of the gifted opposition." Teachers and parents connected with honors courses are succeeding under the current system; often they view change as a threat to their position.
  • "Determine how much change a school community can absorb." Limit the number of changes and sequence them carefully.

REFERENCES

Block Scheduling: A Catalyst for Change in High Schools, by Robert L. Canady and Michael D. Rettig, Eye On Education, Princeton, N.J.

The Copernican Plan Evaluated: The Evolution of a Revolution and The Copernican Plan: Restructuring the American High School, by Joseph M. Carroll, Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands, 300 Brickstone Square, Suite 900, Andover, Mass. 01983.

Think About Block Scheduling, by Robin J. Fogarty, IRI Skylight Training and Publishing, Palatine, Ill.

Retooling the Instructional Day, by Gerald E. Kosanovic, National Association of Secondary School Principals, Reston, VA, (703) 860-7227

"Debunking the Semesterizing Myth," by Dennis Raphael, M.W. Walstrom, and L.D. McLean, Canadian Journal of Education, Winter 1986

"Science Achievement in Semester and All-Year Courses," by David J. Bateson, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, March 1990

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © Education World

Originally published 10/20/1997
Links updated 03/07/2013

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