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Back From the Block—Or Not?

Some schools abandon their block scheduling, though others swear by its impact by LINDA CHION KENNEY


Among the critics was Melvin Powell, now the district’s superintendent, who put his disfavor bluntly, saying: “I was opposed to it before I got here in this position, and after I got here, it took us a year to get rid of it.”

It’s not that Powell summarily dismisses what has become one of the hotter reforms in public schools. “If you were a rich system and had plenty of money so that you could do something with the eight classes, yes, it would be wonderful,” Powell says. “But we don’t have the money to do that.”

Indeed, how his district of 12 schools and 4,700 students found itself back from the block adds to the debate over a reform that has had a meteoric rise in a system more typically defined by slow and deliberate change, if not resistance.

Consider the observation of R. Brian Cobb, professor of education at Colorado State University, who through the university’s Research and Development Center for the Advancement of Learning has been studying block scheduling for years. In addition to a major literature review on the subject for the U.S. Department of Education, which was to be completed this fall, Cobb and his colleagues earlier this summer were working on a major study for the National Science Foundation.

“I was astounded at how broadly and quickly this rather major and comprehensive structural reform to a whole school has been adopted across the country without anyone, first of all, being forced to do it and secondly without having a lot of solid outcome evidence underlying it,” says Cobb, in explaining his initial interest in and enduring commitment to the study of block scheduling.

“Whole-school reforms at this level don’t often occur at this magnitude and pace without the federal government mandating it or without solid evidence that makes it almost a dereliction of responsibility not to move in that direction,” Cobb adds. “But block scheduling had neither. It’s a grassroots movement. It seems to build its momentum based on the logic of it and a judgment call by community and education leaders that it just looks like it ought to do better.”

Cobb is not alone in his assessment of the far-reaching reform. As the Education Writers Association noted in a background paper on block scheduling: “America’s secondary schools have undergone a revolution in scheduling with hardly anybody noticing.”

A typical form of block scheduling requires students to take four 90-minute classes a day en route to completing a year’s worth of material in a semester’s time. Add it up, and a student can complete 32 credits over the course of a four-year high school career—four more than is possible with a seven-period day. Alternatives to the so-called 4x4 block schedule include the “A/B block” in which four “A” classes and four “B” classes are taught on alternating days throughout the full year.

Sundry Perspectives
Like most reforms in public education, the block schedule is painted with a broad brush. There are those who swear by its effectiveness and others who dismiss the movement as a faddish approach to restructuring, doomed from the start. The truth, of course, depends on where block scheduling is practiced and how, and in that respect, there is no shortage of lessons learned in the field.

Consider this sampling of observations posted on an Internet listserv for foreign language teachers hosted by the State University of New York at Cortland:

• “We were told that one big advantage of the block was that students would have the opportunity to take more classes. Well, unless you have the staff to offer more electives, and unless you have a scheduling person who’s knowledgeable, you might end up with what we have: students who receive schedules with four classes and four study halls.”

• “Under the traditional schedule, I was far more efficient because I knew I had 50 minutes to achieve a certain number of activities. It was fast-paced. Maintaining that pace for 100 minutes leads to information overload for the students, not to mention a harried teacher at the end of the day.”

• “I was giving a training talk at the 4-H camp where I work in the summer. Nearing the end of the talk, I said, ‘Well I think we’ve dealt with this topic sufficiently, especially since the mind can only comprehend what the rear end can endure.’ One perceptive 16-year-old junior quipped, ‘Yeah, they should have told that to the people who invented block scheduling!’ ”

• “I currently teach on block (eight credits a year) and have mixed feelings. I haven’t covered as much material as normal, which bothers me. Students seem to forget more because I only see them every other day. On the other hand, the block is good for skits, in-class performances, alternative assessment and projects. At this point, I’m still not sure ... ”

Quick Abandonment
In the case of Escambia County, Powell, the district superintendent, was adamant it was time after six years to abandon the block. Initially teachers as a group were not too terribly impressed with it. Half were for it, half against, but despite the split vote, the school board voted to replace the traditional schedule.

“At the time, that was the thing to do. Everybody was doing it,” says Powell, now entering his 39th year in education. “Give students more classes, more electives, more opportunities—it was a big deal at the time. They put it in with great expectations, but like I said, it just didn’t pan out.”

 

For starters, he says, “I find it hard to believe that all your teachers are teaching 93 minutes a class period. I just don’t think you have that many teachers who can do that.” Instead many teachers used the additional minutes as busy time, he contends.

“I had parents upset when we changed back because the kids would get time to do homework in class,” Powell says. “But homework is for home, not the classroom, and the way a lot of our teachers were using their 93 minutes, there was a lot of time left over for doing homework.”

There are greater reasons why Powell says he disliked block scheduling, even though at first he felt obligated to keep an open mind. “It was kind of neat that first year it was there because I thought it was giving the kids a lot of opportunities,” he says. “But I didn’t realize the danger it presented in not having the kids go to math and English every day.”

Under the block in Escambia, students could take Algebra 1 the first semester of their freshman year and not follow up with Algebra 2 until the second semester of their second year. “In a rural system like ours, students could complete their math in the first three years,” Powell says. “You don’t want a child in his or her senior year not taking math, and then have to take the ACT or SAT.”

Powell believes his outlook might be different if his school district was wealthier.

“If I was in Mountain Brook in Birmingham, block scheduling would be great,” he admits, pointing to a property-rich suburban district in his state. “They can offer anything from different types of dance to a full program in the arts. And they have the money to get teachers on up to calculus. If we have enough kids, we have Calculus I, but sometimes we don’t have enough kids sign up for the class.”

Finances aside, Powell offers two more reasons for his opposition to block scheduling, arguments frequently cited by critics of the block.

“I don’t care what you’re teaching, whether it’s sex education or algebra, kids are not going to stay focused that long,” Powell says. “One of the points in favor of block scheduling is that because you don’t change classes that often, kids don’t get in as much trouble in the hallways. But you can’t tell me every kid likes all four classes they’re in, and a lot of kids get bored sitting in the classroom. They come out of that classroom with a lot of pent-up energy.”

Still, Powell says, what works—or doesn’t work—in Escambia County will not necessarily hold true in other parts of the country, where admittedly block scheduling has met with resounding success.

“There’s some good and bad to everything you do,” Powell says. “I don’t think you’re going to come across the exact thing everybody needs. You have to do what’s best for your district, and I think traditional scheduling is what’s best for our district.”

A Cyberspace Opponent
Jeff Lindsay first heard about block scheduling in 1995 when he was serving on a citizens advisory committee in the 14,800-student Appleton School District in Wisconsin. Lindsay, a chemical engineer, is not as vocal about his opposition to the block today, but his legacy lives on in cyberspace, with a link from his “Cracked Planet” website to an extensive six-part review of the issue.

Lindsay recalls that when Appleton principals first proposed block scheduling, he was amazed at how unbalanced he found the ensuing debate. “For a fairly radical change, incredibly there was nothing but advantages,” Lindsay says. “My experience in life says nothing’s perfect.”

With that view in mind, Lindsay set out to, as he put it, “dig into it.” Lindsay is no stranger to digging. A member of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, Lindsay has a series of web pages in which he alleges political and religious bias in textbooks.

He says his intent in stirring the block scheduling debate was to counter the overwhelmingly positive side presented by most educators. One school in Appleton today has block scheduling, though other schools have looked into it.

“I would never say that nobody should ever do something. That’s the same kind of sloppy thinking I’m criticizing,” says Lindsay, who claims his block schedule web pages receive 4,000 hits some days. “Block scheduling has its advantages. It can work if you go into it intelligently. If you do it foolishly, it really can be a disaster. Jumping on the bandwagon and pushing a fad, though, is wrong. The kids aren’t guinea pigs and we shouldn’t do anything that hurts their education.”

In like fashion, Joe Perez is just as adamant that block scheduling meets the needs of his students. He is the principal of Durant High School in Plant City, Fla., which opened in 1995 as the first school in Hillsborough County to adopt block scheduling.

“What the block does is create a climate in which the kids feel a lot less stress,” Perez says. “They’re not worrying about seven different classes, seven different sets of rules, and what could be a number of different tests a day.”

 

Perez favors block scheduling because it allows students to earn eight credits a year, opening the door to elective and advanced academic opportunities. While some districts lament the gap between classes, Perez says his school ensures that students in French I follow up with French 2 the next semester and French 3 the semester after that. He stresses that sequencing problems can be addressed with proper attention to the master schedule.

“Again it’s a matter of opinion,” he says. “My position is that you should use the system best suited for students, and I firmly believe that block meets the needs of all kinds of students and it’s something the students enjoy more.”

Competing Voices
As the push continues to implement block scheduling, do traditionalists like Lindsay or progressive educators like Perez have a greater influence on school leaders? Are more and more schools abandoning the block for a return to traditional scheduling? Search the Internet, and there’s ample evidence that educators are growing disenchanted with the block. But for every negative opinion, there’s just as many, if not more, favorable assessments. As with most reforms and practices in public education, success and failure depends on where you look and whom you ask.

“I couldn’t tell you if there is a megatrend going in one direction or another,” says Cobb, the Colorado State University professor who has been studying block scheduling since 1997. “Schools that have done well with block scheduling absolutely love it and won’t give it up and schools that have done poorly with block scheduling will give it up and never try it again. In general, I don’t think abandoning block is because of a fundamental problem with an ineffective, inferior instructional model. It’s caused by a mixture of other kinds of problems within schools, such as a lack of money to put in new options and teachers who are under-trained and who won’t adopt anything they didn’t initiate.”

For his part, Cobb has found that “no block schedule will work if teachers are not taught how to make the best use of the additional time within a single period.” Teachers also need to be “sensitized” by the leadership as they move toward block scheduling so they “buy into the work it will take to change their lesson plans to make the maximum use of time.”

Cobb found also that a hybrid schedule—mixing shorter chunks of time with the longer periods—would address the issue that some classes work better at 90 minutes and others do not. Moreover, his research suggests that the A/B block schedule works best for at-risk subgroups.

“As for the high-achieving students, they did equally well under both block scheduling formats and equally well with traditional scheduling,” Cobb says. “They weren’t hurt by block scheduling, and that’s an important thing to report.

Robert Lynn Canady, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, recognized in the mid-’60s the importance of “the time factor” in learning while he was directing the first staff desegregation project in Chattanooga, Tenn. Approaching the ’90s, he recognized also that using technology effectively, as well as Socratic seminars and other forms of higher-order teaching practices, was not possible with 40-minute periods. For him, one finding remains consistent: “Block can be a plus, but just because you change the bell doesn’t mean people are using block correctly.” As Canady puts it: “Everything depends on what the teacher does in the classroom.”

Canady and his research colleague, Michael Rettig, professor of education at James Madison University, see no signs of a retrenchment from block scheduling. “In the state of Virginia, we have 303 schools and at any one time there have been a total of 237 that have gone to block, and six that have gone out of block,” Rettig says. “I think each one of those schools has a story and a lot of times it has very little to do with block per se.”

A Money Decision
Sometimes it doesn’t matter if block scheduling improves student achievement or is simply overwhelmingly favored. In some cases, it simply has to go, which is the experience of Glenn Brown, who has served as a school board member of the 31,000-student Cedar Creek Independent School District (midway between Houston and Galveston County) since 1999. After Brown’s election, the last of three high schools joined the block.

“The reason we went to block to begin with was because there was a feeling among educators that going to block would improve the academic performance of students,” Brown says. “That was the thought at the time, that block scheduling was worth trying.”

Brown himself had concerns that a student’s attention span would not bode well for a 90-minute period, but, he adds, “There was nothing about block scheduling that in my mind created a need to abandon it.”

Rather, Cedar Creek’s three high schools abandoned block scheduling this year because of a $4.5 million deficit. “When you go to block, you have to hire more teachers, that’s what it boils down to,” Brown says. “The hardest part was having to reassign 78 teachers rather than hire the 78 teachers we needed to fill vacancies to maintain block. In effect, we have 78 fewer teachers.”

Parents in the well-to-do school district are concerned their children will earn fewer credits, Brown says. Nobody likes change, not the parents now forced to abandon block nor the parents who feared going to block in the first place. But the board is comfortable with its decision, he adds, because finances forced the issue.

“I’ve never really seen any clear, quantitative evidence that proved block scheduling was superior to the traditional schedule,” Brown says. “I think that was another reason why the board was not too concerned about abandoning the block. There was a general feeling it was better than the traditional schedule, but no one could prove it.”

Two years ago, Hillsborough County, Fla., moved from a six- to a seven-period high school day. That prompted the district to establish a task force to study whether all schools should go to block or whether schools on block should disband it for a traditional schedule.

“The gist of the findings was that there was no significant difference in achievement using our local assessments and semester exams,” says Chuck Fleming, general director of secondary education. “There were successes in both areas.”

Two years prior to this year’s opening of Newsome High School with block scheduling, another new high school, Alonso, opened with a traditional schedule. In 1997, Sickles High School premiered with block scheduling, then abandoned it a year later when the young school’s population burgeoned and forced the school into double sessions. Three years later, when Alonso opened to relieve Sickles, the Sickles community opted to keep its traditional schedule because, as Fleming puts it: “The culture of the school had developed into a traditional culture and it’s hard to change school cultures.”

Hillsborough County found it best to allow each school to select its own schedule.

“Block is a tool we use to organize the day, but with effective teaching and learning practices and a strong leadership and administration, we find that schools do well with either model,” Fleming says. “It’s a phrase that you always hear, and it’s a trite cliché, but it’s true. When it comes to academic achievement, it’s the classroom teacher who makes the difference.”

Buy In or Out
Meanwhile, researchers committed to researching the merits of block scheduling see an increased urgency to their work as school districts consider, for many reasons, the flight from block scheduling. Success depends so much, says Canady, who has written several books on block schedules, on teacher buy-in.

“I guess my overall conclusion is that just the change to clock alone will do a few things for you,” he says. “It will change the school climate, reduce the stress and help you teach in more effective ways. In most cases it reduces discipline and referrals to the office. But if you want to address student achievement, you have to make some courses longer and build in tutorials and necessary interventions. You can do that with most any schedule, but no one seems to do it unless they go to block.”

Linda Chion Kenney is a free-lance education writer in Valrico, Fla. E-mail: lindack@msn.com