Block Scheduling’s Success Formula

Modifying time in school effectively boils down to a six-step recipe by DAVID S. HOTTENSTEIN

The first and foremost thing any school system leader needs to know about block scheduling is that, as a reform initiative, it is not singular in concept or design.

When educators try to simplify a complex issue they may not fully understand, they often subject a promising idea to negative labels and stereotyping before it even has a chance to reach its full potential or to be evaluated.

Administrators and school board leaders must take the time to research the diverse scheduling alternatives available and assess how each one will affect facility, class size, educational resources, technology, teacher/student ratio, professional development, curriculum, school climate, student/teacher performance and, most importantly, student achievement.

Selecting the right time configuration for your school and tailoring the schedule to meet the academic needs of all students should be the goal. Block scheduling is only the means to get there.

At the outset, school leaders must assess the strengths and weaknesses of its present schedule and set out to build a better one by involving all key stakeholders. Your motivation should not be cosmetic or trendy, but rather a commitment to improve your school system on an ongoing basis. Keep in mind that different block-scheduling concepts yield various results. These concepts can be altered and adjusted into hybrids (variations of the core themes) that will help you deal with local priorities, existing realities and program nuances.

Over the past eight years, I have found firsthand that the greatest strength of block scheduling is its flexibility. The concept of using time and organization as a catalyst to improve efficiency, productivity and quality control have been implemented successfully for decades in business and other institutions across the world.

Commitment to Change
The recipe for success includes the following six steps:

No. 1: The organization must believe change for the sake of ongoing school improvement is needed.

We know our society is changing radically and that our students will need to function as workers, family members and citizens. Educational leaders must realize that the one constant in this world (like it or not) is change!

Learn to manage change by developing a process that will take you from theory to practice successfully. Commit to a well-organized and coordinated approach to solving problems. Do not be afraid of change, but don't be reckless either. Develop a vehicle that will measure both qualitative and quantitative factors inside your schools and maintain a fair process for accountability. Remember, if it is measured, it will be done!

No. 2: Involve all the key stakeholders early on in the process of change.

Too many schools fail to realize the importance of comprehensive involvement in the change process. The stakeholders should be well informed (meetings, newsletters, etc.) and should participate actively, for example, by serving on committees, making visits to outside schools or attending pertinent workshops. If the stakeholders help build the new schedule, they are more likely to have ownership and will commit to supporting the revised time configuration.

No. 3: Select the right schedule for your system.

Make sure you decide what must remain intact (program priorities, such as music or Advanced Placement courses) and identify your existing realities (lunch, busing, etc.). Also be sure to take a close look at what will be affected when you move from a traditional schedule to a block schedule. Will you need more classrooms, teachers and supplies or less? Depending on which schedule you select, many variables can be affected, both positively and negatively. Decide what you want to improve most and provide for it through the new time configuration.

Infusing New Ideas
No. 4: Develop clear expectations for what you expect to improve inside the classroom.

These expectations should be developed constantly by the key stakeholders. Longer blocks of time will provide for interactive approaches, shifting methods three or four times each class, integrating technology, engaging students in their own learning and using different types of assessment that are aligned clearly with the curriculum are just some of the goals to consider.

Getting teachers to balance traditional approaches with innovative techniques will only happen consistently if effective professional development programs are planned and implemented. Schools must realize that a flow of new ideas into the system is critical to helping our academic programs and curriculum delivery systems stay on the cutting edge.

No. 5: Go from theory (your new schedule) to practice (implementation) successfully.

Most school systems do not realize that the manner in which we manage the change process is as important as the reform concept itself. Educators traditionally have not changed frequently, rapidly or efficiently. This trend is primarily responsible for our infatuation with the status quo. Schools that have had the most success with block scheduling usually have done the best job of handling the change process effectively.

No. 6: Maintain fair and constructive accountability for improved instruction and results.

Make a commitment to measure everything you do. These measurements should come in two modes. First, a formal study of each key change you make from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective. This should include a comparison between baseline data (traditional) and the key change (block schedules). Qualitative surveys administered to parents, teachers and students also help to evaluate improvements to the school climate and instruction inside the classroom.

Researchers are beginning to agree on several consistent positive trends connected to different types of block scheduling (see related article). If implemented properly, block scheduling can improve discipline, reduce stress, increase the capacity for academics, make the classroom experience more flexible and interactive, meet the educational needs of all students, provide more time for engaging the learner, create more opportunities for using technology and yield better quantitative results at the bottom line. In addition, school boards and superintendents may be able to improve results and, at the same time, operate more efficiently.

If block scheduling is such a wonderful idea then why are many schools still not convinced? The answer lies in three familiar areas that school boards and superintendents know well: politics, finance and educational outcomes.

Political Interference
My database of more than 300 schools using alternative schedules, coupled with considerable site visits to many of these schools, has helped me draw consistent experiential conclusions. One finding: Too much politicking operates in American education. The more I see, the more negative the impact on education.

Too many legislators and elected educational leaders are interested in getting reelected and keeping people happy instead of doing what is right and logical for students and the educational program. For most politicians, change spells trouble and yields controversy, not opportunity. Staying the course and holding on to the status quo is much less traumatic than forging in a new direction. Change is hard work and requires courage, knowledge and, above all, time. It is much easier to come up with reasons why something like block scheduling might not work rather than convince constituents that reform is needed.

My favorite true story about politics happened just two years ago. A bitter battle over block scheduling ensued in one small school district in Texas, but ultimately the school board voted to implement a 4x4 block schedule at its high school. Board members also commissioned a prestigious local university do a comprehensive study that included before and after comparisons in quantitative and qualitative areas.

Before the study was completed, a board election took place and several seats changed over the controversy, which tilted the majority toward the anti-block sentiment. With the study still pending, the board voted to do away with the 4x4 block schedule immediately. A few months later, the formal study from year one of block scheduling was released. It was one of the most comprehensive studies I have seen. The results were overwhelmingly positive, showing significant quantitative and qualitative improvement in a single year.

When the next board election came, the pendulum swung back and the 4x4 block scheduling was reinstated. In the meantime, parents, students and teachers were innocent pawns in this silly and counterproductive game.

Politicians need to establish high standards, clear guidelines for reaching those standards and sound educational policies that will foster that pursuit. They need not mettle in areas they neither know nor understand. Politicians should demand improved results and require accountability procedures at every turn. Leaders should only demand what they are prepared to fund instead of frustrating the system by giving lip service but not resources.

In his 1998 State of the Union address, President Clinton declared, "Politics should stay at the schoolhouse door." Sadly, the reality is that politics permeates every aspect of American education and mostly in negative ways. Instead of throwing debris in front of the school reform train, politicians should encourage and foster well-constructed change.

Financial Deterrents
School finance is second only to politics as a deterrent to positive school reform. I have seen several schools fail when implementing block scheduling due to a lack of financial support or a desire to save money alone and not improve academic results. Money and resources by themselves do not hold the solutions to all our educational problems, but if allocated and managed properly, they certainly amplify one's chances for success. Sufficient financial resources can assure enough time, staffing, technology, textbooks, facilities and professional development to support ongoing school improvement.

Too often the burden for financing education falls on local taxpayers. State funding and federal support is at times inconsistent, unfair and often virtually non-existent. Lip service about education as a priority is seldom backed by matching funds. We need to work with state legislators and local constituents to find creative and more equitable approaches for financially supporting education. Private sources through business partnerships, grants, fund-raisers and endowments are all potential sources.

Block scheduling specifically does not automatically mean greater expenditures. In fact, many school systems have built block schedules that have been very efficient financially. The blame for staff and program cuts often are placed unfairly on block scheduling.

Each school must calculate how changing from its existing schedule to a new time configuration will affect the educational program. The type of schedule you select will determine the positive or negative impact on facility, program, resources, staffing and costs. Each school system controls these decisions and has the flexibility to tailor the right schedule for the right school and academic program. These decisions are locally controlled and should be made collaboratively involving all of the key stakeholders.

Of course, whenever investing in a new idea in education, the bottom line always must be what will one receive in the way of tangible quantitative and qualitative results? This is why measurement is crucial and must be present in all aspects of the change process. Most school systems are willing to pay for improved results. Funds must be allocated only after careful planning and should be attached to constructive accountability systems.

Unfortunately, for many schools nationwide the funds simply do not exist. The only recourse in these situations lies in the motivation, creativity and innovation of the stakeholders in that school. Take the resources and tools you have available and do your best to maximize their potential. These scenarios do not always call for hardware or software or fancy equipment but rather "humanware," which remains the most powerful catalyst in the educational equation. Positive use of time coupled with strong humanware sets the stage for successful outcomes.

Educational Achievement
School system leadership, in concert with key stakeholders, needs to gain consensus on what the local educational mission should be. What are you trying to accomplish? What are the academic goals and objectives? What do students really need to know and be able to do? How do you want the curriculum delivered? What are your expectations for school climate? Are you meeting the needs of all students? Are you willing to take calculated risks and make well-organized changes in order to improve? Are you using time as efficiently and effectively as possible?

Most importantly, what is your definition of success and is your existing delivery system providing teachers and learners with the flexibility and academic opportunities needed to get the job done?

Typically, schools define success around three key areas of measurement. First, school climate, which includes student discipline, facilities, resources, teacher preparedness and student readiness for learning. Good schools have high standards for dress, behavior and classroom performance and consistently follow through on fair rules, regulations and policies every day.

Secondly, student and teacher interaction and performance inside the classroom must be improved if schools can claim success. Interactive approaches requiring students to become engaged in their own learning is essential. Teachers shifting methods two to four times per unit of learning by using different teaching styles to accommodate a multitude of learning modalities and aligning a variety of assessments with the curriculum is important.

Lastly, success must include quantitative student achievement results. Standardized test scores, including state skills, exams, Advanced Placement tests, SATs and ACTs, should improve if we do a good job of creating positive school climate and are proficient at delivering the essential curriculum and skills inside each classroom.

A Catalyst for Change
Even the nation's best secondary schools are in need of some ongoing structural and program changes as they prepare students for career, family responsibilities and citizenship in our fast-paced society. The traditional time schedule and instructional approach may not be the best way to educate all students. We need to consider more efficient and effective approaches that allow school schedules to be more flexible and that better meet the needs of all students.

We need to carefully plant powerful catalysts that will place teachers and students in the best possible learning environment. Alternative time configurations, such as block scheduling, can be one of the proven catalysts.

We must stop convincing ourselves that existing structures that have worked in the past will continue to serve us well in the future. Our disdain for change and our propensity for holding on to the status quo are clearly a recipe for failure. If we are truly interested in improving student outcomes, we should look first at our use of time and organization. The manner in which an organization and its members use time affects everything else that happens during the day.

Most importantly, we must tailor time reconfigurations to meet local needs and existing realities. Block scheduling and all other reform initiatives should be seen as opportunities, not looming controversies.

David Hottenstein is principal of Hatboro-Horsham High School, 899 Horsham Road, Horsham, PA 19044-1271. E-mail: dhottens@mciunix.mciu.k12.pa.us. He also serves as the district's director of secondary education and is the author of Intensive Scheduling: Restructuring America's Secondary Schools Through Time Management, published by Corwin Press.