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Around the Block: The Benefits and Challenges of Block Scheduling

Is block scheduling a vehicle for greater depth and flexibility in education or merely a faddish approach that fails to enhance academic performance? What do the researchers -- and the practitioners -- have to say? Education World examines the research about block scheduling in junior and senior high schools. Included: What you can do to ensure that block scheduling will succeed and tips from the principal of a successful "block-scheduled" school!

Are American students' achievements declining? Are we losing our competitive edge in the global marketplace? Many states seem to believe so. In an attempt to enhance education and make American students more globally competitive, some states have recently increased the number of course credits required for high-school graduation.

Is cramming more subjects into the traditional six- or seven-period day the solution? Some schools quickly found that adding course requirements left little room for electives, such as music and art. In an effort to counter that loss, administrators tried adding periods to the schedule. That move did little more than reduce class time for each individual subject! The bulging schedule created an impersonal assembly-line environment. It also increased the number of times students spent in hallways, which led to other problems.

Other schools adopted block scheduling.

A BLOCK SUCCESS STORY

More Resources

These resources provide additional information about block scheduling:
--- Block Scheduling Resources
--- Block Scheduling: Research and Resources
--- Block Scheduling Primer
--- ERIC Digest: Block Scheduling: Benefits and Challenges (1996)
--- Block Scheduling Issues

"You cannot just change the bell schedule and expect things to improve," Rex Bolinger told Education World. He is the principal of Angola (Indiana) High School, which has made block scheduling work. The success of Angola's program is spelled out in 4-Block Scheduling: A Case of Data Analysis of One High School After Two Years, a report presented to the Midwestern Educational Research Association in 1997. Comparing data for the two years prior to initiating block scheduling with results after two years on block scheduling, researchers discovered that

  • students' grade-point averages increased in almost all subjects;
  • students earned higher state-proficiency exam scores;
  • students made significant improvement in ACT College Board scores; SAT College Board scores showed no change.

Attendance improved for motivated students, and because students changed class less often, there were fewer fights and tardies. Angola's success did not happen without plenty of planning, however.

A well-thought-out plan is essential to the success of any alternative schedule, said David Hottenstein, author of books on alternative scheduling and principal of Hatboro-Horsham (Pennsylvania) High School. Hatboro-Horsham has also had great success with the block format.

"Schools that build the right schedule at the right time and utilize a well-thought-out plan and timeline for implementation have been extremely successful with alternative scheduling," Hottenstein told Education World. "The traditional assembly-line schedule has become inflexible and is virtually obsolete when you consider the academic needs of high-school students [today]."

"Schools must create a scheduling model that is tailored to meet their student and program needs," added Hottenstein.

According to Bolinger, another key to success is staff development. If block scheduling is to succeed anywhere, teachers must have multiple opportunities to develop active teaching styles in their various disciplines.

"Teachers must make a deliberate effort to examine how they deliver instruction," Bolinger told Education World. "Then they must agree to continually work to learn new ways of engaging active learners [because] students who have an emotional experience with content remember it."

"What does it matter if we cover 17 chapters and the students remember none of it or very little?" added Bolinger. "In block scheduling, the focus is on 'depth of learning,' not surface learning and low-level recall. We design longer periods of time for students to engage in learning."

Students are what block scheduling is all about. "So many schools miss the point," Bolinger concluded. "The only reason a school should change anything is to make it better for student learning."

DIFFERENT TYPES OF "BLOCKS"

About one in three high schools use some form of block schedule. In some states the number is much higher. In Virginia and North Carolina, for example, more than two-thirds of the high schools use alternative schedules. (See "The Effects of Block Scheduling," The School Administrator, March 1999.)

Most blocked schools are either on an alternate-day schedule (also called the A/B schedule) or some variation of a 4/4 semester schedule.

  • In the A/B schedule, classes meet every other day for an extended period, approximately double the length of the class period in the traditional schedule. Each student takes between six and eight classes at one time, but goes to only three or four per day.
  • In the 4/4 schedule, students take four courses every day for an extended class period, but they do not alternate courses. Instead, they complete the curriculum in a semester. They take another set of courses in the second semester, earning eight Carnegie units per year instead of six or seven -- without the stress of taking eight courses at the same time.

Most schools on the 4/4 schedule adapt it to meet the needs of a variety of disciplines and specialized courses.

  • Because AP exams are administered only one time per year, adjustments are frequently made for AP courses, especially for lab AP courses. Schools frequently offer lab AP courses in both semesters and allocate two credits.
  • Performing arts and sports classes might be offered as yearlong classes but not for two credits.
  • Foreign language classes are often offered in consecutive semesters in the same academic year.
  • "At risk" students are frequently offered Algebra I as a full-year block, which gives them more time to master the material.

Studies have found that when the 4/4 schedule successfully accommodates a student's needs, the student frequently stays in school to graduate. If necessary, a student can repeat several classes and still graduate with his or her class.

WHAT DO STUDIES SAY ABOUT BLOCK SCHEDULING?

Block Scheduling in High Schools

Although interest in extended periods beyond the traditional 50-minute period has existed since 1963, quantitative studies on the effects of longer class periods are still relatively scant. The studies that do exist frequently cite ratios, percentile changes, and questionnaires accompanied by little statistical analysis. (Source: "Why More Time Makes More Sense: Author of Copernican Plan Says 'Macro Scheduling' Brings Benefits to Student Learning," American Association of School Administrators, 12/2/96.)

A 1968 study found that urban high-school students learned business education better in a blocked schedule and suburban students learned it better in a traditional schedule. (See Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA), 2/8/99 "Effects of a 4 x 4 Junior High School Block Scheduling Program.")

A report prepared by the University of British Colombia and released in 1995 found students learned more science in yearlong classes than in semester or quarter classes. That study used data collected up to ten years ago at a time of teacher cutbacks and budget restrictions, a time when little or no teacher training was offered to implement and support new teaching strategies. (See "The Effects of Block Scheduling," The School Administrator, March 1999.)

A 1992 to 1995 study of 371 schools in North Carolina found that students who attended schools with blocked schedules scored at least equal to and slightly higher in some subjects on end-of-course statewide tests than did students in non-blocked schools. Although though their achievement scores were not significantly higher, the students in block scheduling did complete more courses in the same amount of time (eight instead of six or seven). The tests were all given at the end of the class instead of at the end of the school year, as was done in the British Colombia study. The study, however, did not address how the programs were implemented or the degree of teacher training provided before implementation. (See "The Effects of Block Scheduling.")

By the end of 1995, researchers had begun to strongly advocate that schools needed at least three to five years of experience with block scheduling before studies could accurately judge their effectiveness.

A "good" school, Thomas Edison High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, met that criterion. Administrators found that after five years of block scheduling,

  • students' SAT scores rose from a combined average of 978 to 1029;
  • the percentage of students who earned a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams rose from 70 to 81;
  • the dropout rate decreased from 8.5 percent to 5.9 percent;
  • the percentage of students who earned an Advanced Studies Diploma increased from 51 to 60.

    (See "Good Schools, Too, Turn to Block Scheduling," The School Administrator, March 1999.)

Block Scheduling in Junior High Schools

If research on the effects of block scheduling in high schools is sketchy, research on the effects of block scheduling in middle schools is almost non-existent. Prior to their own study, the authors of the EPAA report "Effects on Students of a 4 x 4 Junior High School Block Scheduling Program" found only three other studies of the effects of block scheduling with middle-school students, two of them conducted in the early 1980s! The third study, "The Effects of Block Scheduling on Seventh Grade Math Students," looked strictly at mathematics achievement. None of the studies conducted before theirs looked at effects past two years of implementation.

The EPAA report authors focused on the effects of block scheduling with middle-school students enrolled in a program that had been in effect for four years. The researchers found no difference in standardized reading and writing test scores between blocked and traditionally taught students and reduced performance in mathematics achievement. Intriguingly, they also found that male students in blocked schedules had higher GPAs than female students. High-school students on blocked schedules (10th and 11th graders) had higher GPAs than did junior-high students (8th and 9th graders).

"The variability of reported successes or failures of block scheduling depends on two different, but frequently interacting, sets of variables -- methodological variables and school culture/teacher variables," Brian Cobb told Education World. Cobb is one of the authors of "Effects on Students of a 4x4 Junior High School Block Scheduling Program." "Whether or not a study is designed well can affect whether the school to be studied shows a successful or an unsuccessful experience with block scheduling," Cobb said.

Among the variables Cobb cites:

  • How long has the school used a block schedule? Have students and faculty had time to work through the start-up pains?
  • Were students who lacked at least one year of experience with block scheduling eliminated from the study?
  • What outcome indicators were used? Were they valid indicators?
  • Did the outcome indicators span a range of curriculum areas?

"Assuming a study of two different but similar schools is designed well, you still might get diverging answersdepending on school culture and teacher professional variables," added Cobb. "If a principal or school board mandates a shift to block scheduling without involving teachers or if many teachers find switching from a 45-minute to a 90-minute format difficult and aren't given appropriate training, student outcomes in very similar schools could be different."

"Given a reasonable trust level and upbeat school culture and a fairly solid consensus by the teaching faculty of the school," Cobb said, " I believe that junior high schools should move to modified block scheduling. I think that some subject areas, and some teachers who by their natures are not aligning well to block scheduling, should be allowed to stay as 45-minute school periods. Many subject areas, however, could be switched to block scheduling."

"Many schools in this country use modified 4 x 4 block scheduling, and I think that is the best direction in the future for this instructional innovation," Cobb concluded.

TO BLOCK OR NOT TO BLOCK?

Researcher Carol Freeman thinks that even though it appears the four-period daily schedule results in significantly positive outcomes, those findings must be considered preliminary at best because there are so few quality studies to back them up. Freeman found that "decreasing the number of students for teachers and the number of classes for students and teachers seems to improve behavior, attitude, and academic achievement of students. Students are more focused on the classes they do have, the teachers know the students better, and individual students' needs are better addressed. Teacher and student workloads are more manageable, and, therefore, stress is reduced." (See Block Scheduling Research, Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, January 1995.)

If a student misses a sequence of classes in a blocked schedule, that student can find it very difficult to catch up with the content and to make up assignments, said Jeff Lindsay, a parent activist, in The Case Against Block Scheduling. In addition, if a student had been in two 50-minute classes and now has one 90-minute class, that's 10 percent less learning time. Couple that, Lindsay noted, with a teenager's short attention span. To keep the students' interest during the longer period, teachers may be tempted to eliminate or water down content. Lindsay emphasized that uninterrupted class time does not guarantee greater gains in achievement.

WHAT DOES WORK?

Most people concede that block scheduling improves school climate and the quality of the school day for both students and teachers. What is less abundant is hard data relative to the effect of block scheduling on student achievement. Many individual schools have reported gains; other studies in Canada and the United States have reported conflicting results. However, few schools return to the single-period schedule after adopting the A/B or 4 x 4 block. "Only one of the 201 schools that implemented a block schedule in Virginia during the last nine years has returned to a traditional schedule," noted the authors of "What We've Learned About Block Scheduling." (See The School Administrator, March 1999.)

Article by Glori Chaika
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

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Originally published 09/06/1999
Links last updated 07/26/2006


 

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