A possible reform

In the past two weeks, I’ve attempted to set forth two major considerations which must be addressed if America’s schools are to be rescued from their present mediocrity.

I could continue in this vein for months, for there are many such issues.  But the solution of these matters will often require action at a state or national level, and - as I have lately questioned the leadership of our local schools - perhaps I should focus on a reform which could be undertaken now, and locally.

One area in which great improvements could be made concerns the use of time - particularly at the secondary level.

For example, our high schools currently use “alternate block” scheduling.  Under this “reform”, the traditional schedule - with 50-minute classes taught every day - has been replaced by one based on 90-minute “blocks”, meeting on alternate days.

I was in graduate school at UVA when this “reform” was being developed, and I must confess it initially struck me as promising.  However, having experienced “the block” as a teacher, I have changed my mind.

The initial logic of block scheduling rested on the assumption that one 90-minute class provided for as much actual instruction as two 50-minute classes.  Because so much class time is taken up by various beginning of class activities, such as taking attendance, experts deemed that block scheduling would justify eliminating 10 percent of the instructional time devoted to a particular course.

In actuality, this logic proved to have little to do with classroom reality.  After the first two weeks of school, any competent teacher can glance around the room and note which students are absent, without needing to call the role, Ferris Bueller-style.  

Classroom reality also quickly demonstrated a great flaw in the block.  While students could normally focus for 50 minutes of “direct instruction”, they could hardly endure 90 uninterrupted minutes.  Attention wandered, and teachers were forced to invent various “activities” to break up these long, tedious classes.

Advanced educational thinkers, such as those advocating Chesterfield’s so-called “Design for Excellence,” hailed these alternative activities as superior to direct instruction. 

But most teachers knew better.  More often than not, the alternative activities turned out to be a waste of time.

Still, when the kids could no longer sit still and pay attention, what else could teachers do?

Now, merely by adopting the block, our schools had cut instructional time, per course, by 10 percent.  Replacing 50 minutes of daily instruction with 90 minutes every other day meant - over an academic year - cutting the traditional 150 hours of instructional time per course to 135 hours.

When it became apparent that the amount of learning taking place during a 90-minute block often amounted to no more than 50 minutes of direct instruction - with the rest devoted to other, less effective activities - it began to become obvious that the block had actually cut learning time by much more than 10 percent.  

To be sure, block scheduling had its advantages.  By eliminating 10 percent of instructional time and several class changes each day, schools found that they could cram seven, or even eight, courses into the time formerly devoted to six.

On paper, this looked wonderfully efficient, though the net effect has been that today’s students learn less and less about more and more.

In fairness, the block works better in some subjects.  In Phys Ed, students have time to “dress out” and engage in a meaningful amount of activity in a 90-minute block. 

The block is also useful in hands-on subjects, such as Shop and Home Economics, where such courses still exist.

Most important, the block works well in Science courses emphasizing labs.

But block scheduling plays havoc with instruction in History and English, where direct instruction and discussion work better than nifty “activities”.  It also disrupts the gradual, day-to-day accretion of skills and knowledge in subjects such as Math and foreign languages.

The point is this:  There is no longer a reason to choose between the block and traditional 50-minute classes.  When this “reform” was adopted, school master-schedules - the assignment of students, teachers and classrooms for the year - were created using relatively primitive computer programs.

Today, with powerful, sophisticated computers, programs could easily be developed to create master- schedules incorporating alternate blocks, traditional periods, and even “double-blocks”.   (In a double-block, students would take the same class for 90 minutes every day - completing an entire course in one semester - or two courses in one year.  The double-block would be ideal, for example, for students struggling with Algebra - or for creating a two-years-in-one immersion program for students beginning a foreign language.The adoption of flexible master scheduling - suiting the length and frequency of classes to the requirements of particular subjects - is the sort of thing a progressive local administration could embrace.  Unlike the “nifty stuff” of “Design for Excellence”, it would actually help teachers to do their jobs.

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