Block Scheduling: Is this Right for America’s Public Schools?
John W. Cooper
"I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better," wrote Christof Lichtenberg, a famous philosopher. The principle that improvement requires change is driving the implementation of block scheduling throughout the high schools of our nation. Under a traditional schedule, students take six classes each day that meet for 55 minutes each. Block scheduling divides the school day differently so that a student only takes four classes each day that meet for approximately 85 minutes. (This form of block scheduling is often called the 4x4 plan. Although there are variations on the 4x4 plan, we will focus on the 4x4 plan.) Under this plan, all standard yearlong courses from the traditional plan are converted into half yearlong courses. In other words, students from schools that use block scheduling take only four classes each day, but complete a yearlong class in one semester. The students then take four new classes second semester. Is block scheduling a change for the better or a change for the worse? To find the answer, we will examine the effects and consequences of block scheduling.
The main factor which differentiates traditional scheduling from block scheduling is the length of the class period. In 1994, proponents of block scheduling, Edward Seifert (a Professor of Education Administration at Texas A and M University) and John Beck (a Dean of the College of Education at Southwest Texas State University) studied the relationship between block scheduling and the quality of instructional time. They found that “the lengthened classes [used in block scheduling] increased the amount of high-quality instructional time because teachers spent less time on procedures, routines, and management” (Queen). The logic behind this is if a student is only taking four classes a day instead of six, less time will be wasted with procedural tasks. At first, this salient argument appears to be very persuasive, but unfortunately it is also very deceptive, because under block scheduling, the total time each course meets over the course of a year is reduced substantially. With a traditional schedule, classes meet for 55 minutes a day, 180 days a year, for a total of 9900 minutes. With a block schedule, classes meet for 85 minutes a day, 90 days a year, for a total of 7650 minutes. The 2250-minute loss per class is a direct result of block scheduling, and is equivalent to a 22% loss in daily instructional time or approximately two months of classes. This substantial loss in educational time is not recouped by the few minutes gained from a reduction in time devoted to procedural tasks. Advocates for block scheduling, in particular Robert Canady (an Assistant Professor of Education at James Madison University), concede this point: “Alternative schedules may not add hours to the school day, but they can vastly improve the quality of the time students spend at school” (Canady).
This belief that block scheduling, unlike traditional scheduling, allows students to become engaged in active learning is often cited by proponents of block scheduling. Particularly Michael Rettig (a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Virginia) and Canady argue that when students have a traditional schedule, “instruction can become fragmented; longer class periods give students more time to think and engage in active learning” (Sharon). There is without question support for the benefits of active learning. A study on active learning in 820 high schools performed by Carl Glickman (a University of Georgia Professor of Education) found that schools where “active learning methods were predominant had significantly higher achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress” (Sharon). Although the study fails to show that the net effect of block scheduling is superior to the net effect of traditional scheduling, it does show block scheduling’s proponents' desire to increase active learning is a worthwhile goal.
Proponents of traditional scheduling agree on the importance of active learning, but disagree that block scheduling is the solution. Because block scheduling requires 85 minute blocks of time, instead of the traditional 55 minutes, and the average person’s attention span is 15-20 minutes (“Delivering”), critics of block scheduling suggest that adolescents will be unable to remained focused. Additionally, some classes, foreign language and mathematics in particular, are not conducive to long blocks of time, because they “do not lend themselves to an emphasis on intensity over breadth” (“Scheduling”). The University of Michigan’s class offerings supports this idea as well. The foreign language department generally offers classes that meet for 50 minutes, four times a week. If longer classes were preferable, why does the foreign language department primarily offer its classes in only 50 minute blocks? Proponents of block scheduling may not have an answer for this question, but they maintain that the overall effect of block scheduling is positive.
There are, however, some negative effects of 4x4 block scheduling. One negative effect is scheduling conflicts. At first this may seem trivial, but this problem is quite substantial. The probability of a scheduling conflict with a six-period day is equal to 16.6% or a ratio of one-to-six whereas the probability of a conflict with a four-period day is 25% or a ratio of one-to-four. This problem is magnified for those students who need to be enrolled in a particular class, such as band or AP calculus, that is only offered during one time period. A survey of Wisconsin music educators manifests the scheduling problems the 4x4 plan creates. The survey revealed that 32% of music educators reported that “conflicts with AP classes [caused] students to discontinue their music classes.” (“Impact”). Additionally, since a student needs to be enrolled in a music program throughout the entire year, under the 4x4 plan a music student must devote a quarter of his or her school day to music instead of a sixth, as is the case with a traditional schedule.
Proponents of block scheduling suggest that although there may be some problems, block scheduling is still an improvement over a traditional schedule because a majority of the students, principals, and teachers like it (“Block Scheduling - Implementation”). It is important to consider why many students and teachers respond favorably to block scheduling. It may be because students are receiving a better education, or perhaps it is because teachers only have to prepare for three classes a day with an 85 minute planning period, instead of five classes a day with a 55 minute planning period, and that the students, who have less work, are less stressed.
Generally, an undisputed effect of block scheduling is that it makes school less stressful. For example, the results of a survey of Tennessee secondary schools revealed the implementation of “block scheduling created a learning climate that was ‘quieter, less stressful, less harried and more relaxed’ ” (Stokes). One of the principal reasons why school is less stressful for students under block scheduling may be that they are responsible for less homework. A 1997 randomized study of 25 schools in North Carolina found that “students in block scheduled schools report significantly less time on homework than students in non-blocked schools” (“Block Scheduling - Implementation”). It is interesting to note that even a report that is extremely positive about block scheduling concedes this point. However, if students are doing less homework and are less stressed, but are also learning less, then the reduction in stress may not be best for the students. Moreover, this study suggests the reason for the reduction in homework: “Less homework time for students in blocked schools may partially be due to these students having a greater percentage of their courses as electives than students in traditional schools…” (“Block Scheduling - Implementation”). Having a greater percentage of course work and educational time spent in electives instead of in core subjects such as English or mathematics may not be the best way to improve America’s educational system.
By pointing to striking, isolated cases of success, proponents of block scheduling often suggest that block scheduling can improve America’s educational system. For example, David Hottenstein, the author of Intensive Scheduling: Restructuring America's Secondary Schools Through Time Management, promotes block scheduling by pointing to a high school in Pennsylvania that examined block scheduling’s impact on student achievement:
The researchers found little difference in student scores on the PSAT. [However,] SAT math scores showed a four-point decrease, while SAT verbal scores posted a 12-point increase. The distribution of grades improved, with the percentage of A's and B's increasing from 60% to 66% in all grades. The failure rate at the school dropped from 13% to 12%. [The] dropout rate fell from 16% to 12%. (Queen)
Block scheduling proponents repeatedly point to examples like this which champions block scheduling as improving the many measures of a school’s performance. Unfortunately, there are numerous problems with the preceding example. First, this is only one school that does not offer any insight into the effects of block scheduling if implemented on a larger scale. Some benefits of block scheduling are generally accepted, particularly improved grades. The problem with comparing grades under block scheduling to grades under traditional scheduling is that grades are only subjective, internal measures of the information the teacher covers, and do not objectively measure how much a student has learned. If block scheduling causes a teacher to cover less material in a course, the teacher’s grades, unlike an external measure such as the SAT, would not reflect the loss in learning. Consequently, improved grades are of no value when evaluating the merits of block scheduling as opposed to the traditional schedule. The improvement in SAT scores would be impressive except for the fact that since this is only one school; the results are not statistically significant. Additionally, while the English SAT score rose, the math SAT score fell. In evaluating block scheduling’s effectiveness, the only reliable information comes from long term studies of many schools that evaluate block scheduling using external measures.
Proponents of block scheduling point to one study that meets the preceding requirement: the North Carolina study. This study examined the effects of block scheduling on the scores of over 200 schools on the state mandated End-of-Course (EOC) test. The researchers who performed the study found that “after adjustment, block scheduled schools show significantly higher 1994, 1995 and 1998 scores, and not significantly higher 1996 and 1997 scores than nonblocked schools in most of the six subjects” (“Blocked Scheduled”). Currently, these researchers adjust the scores for starting point and parental education. In their 1996 report, the researchers discovered that on average block schools have less homework time. The researchers then increased the scores of block schools “to control for the lower homework time, though the magnitude of the adjustment due to homework is unclear” (Lindsay). Most regrettably, this study was not peer reviewed, and consequently there are questions about the validity of this kind of adjustment. Colleges would not raise SAT scores of applicants because they did less homework. Although the 1998 report no longer adjusts for homework time, the fact that in the past the researchers have made arbitrary adjustments for homework time undermines their credibility. Ironically, these perhaps biased proponents for block scheduling concede that currently their data is inconclusive: “At present, there are essentially no significant differences between groups of blocked and corresponding nonblocked school groups in terms of student performance in state EOC Tests” (“Public”). What was once, in 1996, perceived to be concrete external evidence supporting the validity of block scheduling is now at best uncertain. There is, however, statistically significant data that reveals block scheduling’s potential harm.
Dr. David J. Bateson (a professor of Curriculum Studies at the University of British Columbia) studied the effects of block scheduling on 30,000 10th graders in British Columbia, which is demographically similar to Wisconsin (“Block Scheduling - Semestering”). The results of the study were conclusive: “Students in year-long science courses significantly outperformed those taking science in semester-long blocks” (“Block Scheduling - Semestering”). The study’s magnitude and the study’s definitive results are substantial evidence against block scheduling. In British Colombia, Gordon Gore (a teacher of Science Methods at the University of the Cariboo) also performed an analysis on the end of the year results of the standardized test given to all 12th graders in the province. The results of his study showed students on block scheduling scored lower in all subjects. For example, 23.03% of yearlong students received a score of an A on the mathematics exam, while only 14.29% of the block scheduling students received a score of an A (Gore). Critics of these studies often suggest that since these were done in Canada, and not the United States, the results are irrelevant because Canada’s implementation of block scheduling is drastically different from America’s implementation. Although this may not be true, this should be taken into consideration; however, there are disturbing external testing results that reveal the harm of block scheduling in America as well.
In 1996 the College Board, the organization responsible for administering the AP tests and the SAT, released the following statement: “Students who completed yearlong courses offered only in the fall or only in the spring tended to perform poorly on AP examinations in 1995 and 1996. [Students] who took [a] course over a full year averaged higher scores in 77% of (20 of the 26) cases [analyzed]” (“AP”). This data is not definitive as it is only measuring AP classes, but this information is very disturbing: the fact that schools that use block scheduling have lower AP scores may reflect a loss in learning.
Block scheduling is not the solution for America’s educational system. In some contexts, block scheduling may be appropriate. Schools should, however, carefully examine and delay the implementation of block scheduling until there is a definitive answer. Although the verdict is not yet in, the current results leave serious questions as to the applicability and usefulness of block scheduling. Block scheduling is changing America’s educational system, but change for the sake of change is not always change for the better, and is instead often change for the worse.
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