Caution Advised on Block Scheduling

by Kathy Mell

The commonly heard comment that American schools are not preparing students for life after graduation is unsettling. One increasingly popular strategy designed to improve high school achievement is the concept of alternative or "block" scheduling, which does away with the traditional six or seven-period school day. One form, referred to as the 4-block, breaks the school day into four 90 minute periods. Year long classes become a semester, and semester classes become one quarter classes. As a member of the Rhinelander School Board in Wisconsin, I was the only dissenting vote in our district's 8-1 approval of a modified version of the Copernican Plan of block scheduling. I reviewed substantial research on the subject which was gathered by district parents and remain unconvinced of the benefits of this method of restructuring the school day.

Proponents of this concept use a strong sales pitch. They argue that having fewer subjects at one time is easier for students to deal with and allows more time for teacher and student interaction. They also claim teachers will spend less time on management functions like attendance, and there will be more opportunities for electives and less stress in general. A good deal of material is available on block scheduling. However, there are few statistics that substantiate the claim that the changes have had positive academic results.

Advocates of block scheduling look to the Copernican Plan Evaluated: Restructuring the American High School as the primary model from which most block schedules are derived. Joseph Carrol, a former superintendent and now senior associate of Copernican Associates, Ltd., test piloted a form of block scheduling first in the District of Columbia in the 1960's during a remedial summer school program, and later in the 1980's at a school in Massachusetts. An evaluation team from Harvard University concluded that favorable outcomes can be expected by implementing this style of schedule. Why then, did the Massachusetts school revert back to the seven-period day after only two years on the Copernican Plan?

Additional data on schools which have experienced block scheduling is vague and generally not supportive of its effects. Wadena Deer Creek School in Minnesota has used the 4-block schedule for over 20 years but has no data on its affect on student performance. The Wasson, Colorado School District shows honor rolls going up but standardized test scores declining during the period of block scheduling. Their performance in classes which are rated as "advanced placement" did generally improve, but these classes were given 50% more scheduling time than other classes. In 1992, Parkland High School in North Carolina went from a six-period day to a 4-block. Overall, SAT scores dropped the first year and did not improve (as of 1995) to the level they were at before the change took place. Allegany High School in Cumberland, Maryland tried the 4-block schedule from 1993 to 1995, yet chose to return to their seven-period day. Staff evaluations voiced concern over burn out, less time for labs, and less overall time to cover curriculum. Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Maryland, a generally high achieving school in math, science and music, carefully studied the proposal before deciding to develop their own hybrid plan. As they proceed, they are discovering that the scheduling process itself is ongoing, requiring a full time staff person to administer.

To those involved in the arts, one area of concern is the negative effect block scheduling has on music students who would benefit from year round, continuous instruction. This has prompted the Music Educators National Conference in Virginia to circulate educational packets on this topic nationwide. They have found this form of scheduling to be devastating to music programs and can actually cause student participation in music programs to decrease. They have recently published a book on the topic of the effects of block scheduling on music programs.

In addition to the case studies previously mentioned, two extensive scientific studies are available that compare academic performance on the block versus traditional scheduling. Contrary to proponents' rhetoric, David Bateson's study, which studies all British Columbia 10th grade science students, showed that full year students outperform semester students. Further research by Bateson seemed to indicate that the shorter the class duration, the worse the student performance, with quarter year students performing the lowest. Another large Canadian study of math and social studies students, which includes 20 years worth of data, shows basically the same results.

As proponents of block scheduling continue to sponsor seminars and workshops throughout our state, it is important for school officials to obtain independent information on the success of these types of programs and not just listen to the self-proclaimed experts. Parents and community members must have input and become part of the decision making process. Rhinelander, unfortunately, chose to disregard the parents' findings, despite their substantial concern and involvement, and a Rhinelander high school staff vote showing marginal (less than 50%) support.

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