The Case Against Block Scheduling



Part 1: The Nature of the Problem

Copyright 2013 Jeff Lindsay. Updated July 13, 2013.

This is one of several pages on the problems of block scheduling, an educational reform that is being tried across the country in spite of serious evidence that it is harmful to education. These pages are the work of Jeff Lindsay, whose children were in the Appleton, Wisconsin School District. Send your comments to jeff at jefflindsay dot com.

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Index to My Block Scheduling Pages:

About the Author

Innovation Fatigue - secrets of innovating and successJeff Lindsay is a parent of four boys in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the husband of Kendra Lindsay, a primary founder of the Classical School in Appleton. Not that it matters, but Jeff has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from BYU, has been an Assistant and Associate Professor at the Institute of Paper Science and Technology on the Georgia Tech Campus where he taught graduate-level science and engineering courses and advised many graduate students. Jeff is a registered U.S. patent agent, the former Corporate Patent Strategist of Kimberly-Clark Corporation with over 100 patents, and is currently in China helping an Asian company do intellectual property. Jeff loves inventing, photography, writing and learning.

Jeff is the lead author of a book on innovation, entrepreneurship and strategy from John Wiley & Sons: Conquering Innovation Fatigue by Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins, and Mukund Karanjikar. See the related blog, InnovationFatigue.com.

One: The Nature of the Problem
(This Page: Block.shtml)

Two: The Debate on Academic Harm
(Another Page: Block2.shtml)

Three: Pros and Cons, Alternatives
(Another Page: Block3.shtml)

Four: Comments from Others
(Another Page: Block4.shtml)

Five: Tactics and Resources
(Another Page: Block5.shtml)


Nature of the Problem [index]

Introduction

Block scheduling is a restructuring of the school day into classes much longer than the traditional 50-minute period. In one common form, students have four long class periods per day instead of seven or eight. A course that normally covered the entire school year could then be compressed into an intense half-year course. Fewer, longer classes are said to allow new styles of teaching rather than old fashioned direct instruction. Education is supposed to become less stressful, more relaxed, and more enjoyable, bringing a long list of educational advantages. Many educators and parents see it as a recycled form of the Modular Scheduling concept which was tried and abandoned in the 70s and 80s.

The case for block scheduling in high schools is being pushed from a variety of sources. Some of these sources offer long lists of euphoric virtues of block scheduling without any hard data and without any serious consideration of the down side. Regrettably, school boards across the country seem to be adopting an experimental program on the basis of its purported advantages without demanding or considering hard data. While there may be some interesting success stories at several schools, the case for block scheduling has not been established through serious, long-term scientific studies. At best, the case for block scheduling is tenuous and, in some cases, is contradicted by scientific studies. It seems to have fared no better than Modular Scheduling. Pending clear evidence in favor of a change, I feel that we should not rush to jump on the bandwagon.

On these pages, I provide evidence that block scheduling may not provide an academic benefit and in some cases might even seriously harm academic achievement in school. I didn't begin with that assumption. Rather, it is the conclusion that arises from looking at serious research on the block and academic achievement. Parents and students are not being told about the risks when the block is proposed for their schools. Sadly, many administrators don't feel a responsibility to find real data before the decision is made, and often refuse to seriously consider the evidence once it is laid before them. Informed parents find this utterly irresponsible and bewildering. And when parents and teachers experience the problems with the block - problems that were often denied as real risks by well-paid consultants who are brought in to usher in the block - the result is even more frustration at an educational system that doesn't really put the students first. Here's one of many examples of comments I have received from parents and teachers (see Part 5 of this work for more comments), this one from Minnesota, sent in late 1999 and used here with permission:
A city administrator gave all secondary schools the directive to implement the block in the fall of 1999. Now all junior/senior high school counselors are reporting a real mess. We have more schedule conflicts than ever before when we had a traditional seven period day. The science teachers do like the longer periods, but we are discovering students are not retaining the material. And we have been told to cut 20% of the curriculum. This is silly... why cut 20% if you have more time??? Someone is not looking a the total minutes. We are on an every-other-day block (8X2) and students are forgetting their homework, and not retaining material when taking tests. Grades in core classes are way down. Each student has four core classes and four electives. So even though they fail a core class, they can still get an A in "basket weaving 101" [Webmaster's note: basket weaving is actually a challenging art worthy of more respect!] or "making balloon doggies" 102, and pass to the next grade. Talk about an inflated GPA. And our performing arts teachers are really mad....
What's behind the reduced content and decreased retention that comes from the block? Read on!

Academic Harm: The Inherent Problems [index]

Before presenting the findings of major scientific studies on block scheduling, let's consider the "common sense" general objections that are made to block scheduling. (Additional specific problems are discussed below.) First, there is the fundamental problem of adolescent attention span. Making a class twice as long usually does not enable twice as much material to be covered. Many teachers are familiar with the short attention span of teenagers. The problems are especially severe with Learning Disabled kids. When a 50-minute class becomes a 90- or 100-minute class, what happens? To maintain attention, less instruction and more "fun" activities are needed. This "transformation" seems to be the greatest thing about block scheduling in the minds of some proponents, but in practice it means a watering down of course content. Proponents utter the empty slogan "less is more," meaning that less is covered but more is learned, but are unable to substantiate such rhetoric. Another slogan states that block scheduling helps to eliminate "the sage on the stage" in favor of "the guide on the side," but the "teacher as facilitator" concept rather than "teacher as instructor" is another unproven concept which, in fact, is at odds with the largest educational study ever conducted, Project Follow Through, which I discuss on a separate page at "http://www.jefflindsay.com/EducData.shtml."

The second common-sense problem with block scheduling is retention. With common forms of block scheduling, students take a full year of a class in one semester. Many months may pass before they take the next course in the sequence or before they take important tests like the ACT, resulting in more time to forget what was learned. Research data, discussed below, confirms that this may be a noteworthy problem.

Third, less total time is spent on core classes in typical block programs simply because 1 90-minute class has 10% less time than 2 50-minute classes. Where this occurs, there may be extra electives possible during the school year, but spending less time on math, English, and other core courses would seem destined to contribute to the watering down of content.

Problems 2 and 3 can be avoided with modified Block systems. For example, some schools are trying a modified Block with 4 courses one day and four other courses the next day, running year long to avoid retention problems. Instead of 90-minute classes, 100-minute blocks during part of a day can be tried. But the fundamental limitation of attention span cannot be ignored. My experience is that when motivated students are hungry for knowledge and are being fed by a motivated teacher, a class could continue for hours and still be effective. But the realities of public education make this an unrealistic scenario. Typical students already have difficulty maintaining interest over a 50-minute class. Doubling class length seems likely to reduce the effectiveness of learning. This limitation goes to the core of block scheduling and limits the academic results that can be obtained in the classroom. This common-sense objection is also supported by extensive research on the spacing effect, as summarized in a review article by Frank M. Emptier and R. Farris, "The Spacing Effect: Research and Practice," Journal of Research and Development in Education," vol. 23, 1990, p. 97, as cited by R. Wild, "Science Achievement and Block Schedules," presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, San Diego, California, April 20, 1998 (Dr. Wild's paper is available as Word document, 85k):

The spacing effect -- the tendency, given an amount of ... time, for spaced [or distributed ] presentations of a unit of information to yield much better learning than massed presentations -- is one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning.
Emptier and Farris offer the following summary of the importance of the spacing effect (pp. 97-101, as cited by Wild, 1998):
1st -- The spacing effect is one of the most dependable and robust phenomena in experimental psychology.

2nd -- The spacing effect is truly ubiquitous in scope. It had been observed in virtually every experimental learning paradigm, and with all sorts of traditional research material.

3rd -- The spacing effect has the distinction of being one of the most venerable phenomena in psychological literature.

Likewise, H.J. Walberg affirms the significance of the spacing effect ("Productive Use of Time," in Timepiece: Extending and Enhancing Learning Time, ed. L.W. Anderson and H.J. Walberg, National Association of Secondary School Principals, Reston, VA, 1993, p. 6, as cited by M. Czaja and J. McGee in American Secondary Education, 23(4):37-39 (July, 1995)):
"One of the most dependable findings from psychology holds up in classroom research: that "spaced" practices over several lessons or study periods is superior to equal amounts of time spent in 'massed' practice (concentrated, possibly in one session). Indeed, two spaced presentations or practice sessions are about twice as effective as two successive massed presentations of the same lengths."
If I understand that correctly, a single 100-minute class will tend to be significantly less effective than 2 50-minute classes. If this is so, we should expect block scheduling to harm academic achievement. Is this expectation verified in large-scale scientific studies? The answer is yes, as discussed in the next section below.

Since the theory offered in support of block scheduling is contrary to a huge body of data and experience with the spacing effect, it is fair that we approach block scheduling with skepticism and demand hard data of its success before we get on the bandwagon. If someone said that sitting on shiny crystals was more effective than antibiotics for treating an infection, we would be right to demand hard data of success before abandoning the established treatments. The crystal sitters have the burden of proof, yet we find many irresponsible advocates of block scheduling telling concerned parents that the burden is on them to prove that block scheduling doesn't work (and naturally, no study will be good enough to change their minds).

Some proponents of block scheduling, including Robert Canady, have cited a study from the University of Kansas in an effort to show that there are no serious retention problems in block scheduling. The reference for the study is G.B. Semb, J.A. Ellis, and J. Araujo, "Long-Term Memory for Knowledge Learned in School," Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 85, No. 2, 1993, pp. 305-316 (I believe JEP is a reputable, peer-reviewed journal). In this study, "Subjects were selected from students enrolled in 14 sections of a one-semester introductory child psychology course at the University of Kansas." After completing the course, there were two tests to evaluate retention, one at 4 months and one at 11 months after the course. Based on scores on the multiple choice test, the authors found that students retained about 85% of what they had learned after 4 months and still retained 80% after 11 months. Proponents of block scheduling say this shows that retention losses will be minor. However, I feel it is a crucial mistake to assume that college results can be applied to high school or middle school. The incentives and learning environment for college students are much different than in high school or middle school. Difficulties with attention span in the more motivated, more mature college students are likely to be much less than in adolescents who often don't even want to be in school. (In fact, block courses may work well in college.) In the study of Semb et al., the course was one designed for one semester. That may make it much different than a course designed for a year-long program that is now accelerated into one semester. Further, the course tested was not math or a foreign language, but child psychology. I don't want to put down psychology, but is there any reason to believe that retention of child psychology learning relates to disciplines like math and science, where unfamiliar concepts must be learned, drilled, and practiced? If we are to believe that retention in high school students will not be a problem under the block, we ought to be given solid evidence that pertains to high school students and to courses taken by high school students, not child psychology majors in college.

Dr. Frank Y. H. Wang, President of Saxon Publishers, a highly respected textbook company and publishers of the Saxon Math series, recently issued a statement about block scheduling and retention. I've received permission from Dr. Wang to quote from his 1996 letter:

Dear Educator,

The concept of "block scheduling" or "flex scheduling" has recently come into vogue and is being implemented in secondary schools throughout the country. Many Saxon users now face the challenge of implementing the Saxon program within a block schedule. The purpose of this handout is to help educators meet this challenge by describing classroom strategies for implementing the Saxon program within a block schedule.

Saxon Publishers does not advocate the use of block scheduling. If you are considering whether to implement block scheduling, we suggest you do not. We believe that children learn most effectively when they are exposed to concepts in small, easily understandable pieces called increments and when new concepts and skills are reviewed continuously. This pedagogical philosophy is supported by academic research. In the April 1991 issue of Educational Leadership, the author Frank Emptier asserts that "With total study time equated, two or more opportunities to study the same material are much more effective than a single opportunity." In his conclusion, Emptier writes: "To summarize, more frequent use of properly spaced reviews and tests in the classroom can dramatically improve classroom learning and retention. In addition, research suggests that spaced repetitions can foster time-on-task and help students develop and sustain positive attitudes toward school and learning." Emptier asserts that the frequency of exposure to a concept is more critical to a child's learning than total study time; with total study time being equal, shorter, more frequent study sessions are more effective.

There are two types of block scheduling: the first, called accelerated block scheduling, "is where students meet for an extended period of time (usually 90 minutes) every day of the week for a semester so that a full year's course will be covered in just half a year; the second type of block scheduling, called "alternate block scheduling," is where students meet for an extended period of time (again, 90 minutes) three days a week for the entire year. In both cases, the frequency of students' exposure to the subject matter is much diminished from a traditional system where students meet every day.

For typical high school students, the reduced frequency of exposure to material and the roadblock of attention span limitations in the longer classes can be predicted to spell trouble. In fact, major peer-reviewed studies show empirical evidence of such harm, as we see in the next section below. This casts doubt upon the oft-repeated claim that "less is more" under the block.

Can less really be more? An optimistic article on this theme was written by Jodi Benton-Kuepper of Millikin University, who looks at the results of three high-school English teachers in block scheduling in "Can Less Be More? The Quantity versus Quality Issue of Curriculum in a Block Schedule." Journal of Research and Development in Education, Vol. 32, no. 3, Spring 1999, pp. 168-177. She optimistically argues from her anecdotal evidence that block scheduling offers teachers increased "depth" in spite of the reduced coverage of material that usually accompanies block scheduling. However, the admissions concerning reduced coverage are telling:

All three participants agreed that there had been some reduction of content in their English courses due to block scheduling. Carol found that she had to reduce the number of books that her students read in her AP course, due primarily to lack of outside reading time. "We don't have as many weekends, we don't have as many vacation periods where students can be expected to read a book." She termed this reduction "abandonment," meaning that she had abandoned some books from the curriculum.

Fran also found that she had reduced content in two of her English courses. In her research course, two of the four required papers were cut because students don't have as much time to research topics....

Related research indicates that reducing or eliminating content is a common result of switching to a block schedule, as is the common concern in the need for reduction [nine publications are cited]. Many studies have shown that the curriculum has been reduced in some way to accommodate the time factor.

Wyatt (1996) reported that in order to do consistently longer labs or have more in-class study time or project development time, some content will have to be abandoned. Reid's (1995) findings showed that, in one case, the number of outside novels had to be cut in half in one system, for teachers found that students just cannot read the number of pages necessary even if they have homework for only four classes. "The days don't become 48 hours just because the students are with teachers twice as long" (p. 12). Staff in Freemans' (1996) study raised the concern of losing part of the curriculum in each course and its effect on student achievement. The biggest criticism of the block was from teachers frustrated that they now cover less material, for the curriculum must be reconfigured to fit into half the number of days provided for a course....

Overall, the majority of studies indicate that some reduction or elimination of content has occurred with a block schedule. Teachers find that there is not enough time to cover all of the material previously covered in the traditional schedule.

References cited by Benton-Kuepper above:

L.D. Wyatt, "More Time, More Training," The School Administrator, Vol. 53, No. 8, pp. 16-18.

L. Reid, Perceived Effects of Block Scheduling on the Teaching of English, report prepared March 15, 1995 (ERIC Doc. Rep. Service No. ED 382 950).

C.J. Freeman, Block Scheduling: A Vehicle for Change, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul, 1996.

Though Benton-Kuepper acknowledges the existence of concerns about the loss of material under the block, these concerns are dismissed:
Although some teachers do not agree that less is more [4 references cited], the 3 participants of this study, as well as many others, found that reducing the scope of the curriculum can work and that, in their opinions, the less is more belief is correct. It's a matter of deciding the essential elements and eliminating those that aren't essential.... [T]he reduction of scope was perceived to be counteracted by a greater depth of content achieved within the classes.

One must ask the rhetorical question as to whether the reduction in coverage occurred because it was suddenly realized that non-essential material was in the curriculum, or whether material was jettisoned out of necessity due to block scheduling's limitations? More importantly, who decides what is non-essential, and how was this decision made? Is anything truly essential, short of knowing how to swallow food and drink water? Do we need music? History? Math? One can reduce content ad infinitum and always find that it is "non-essential." When an English course slashes half of the reading material, are we making progress? Is any novel "essential"? Is education itself "essential"?

Why were "non-essential" items covered in the first place by these teachers when they were under the traditional schedule? If increased depth is more important than coverage of material, why weren't these same teachers already reducing course content and spending more time on the "essential" material? The entire exercise sounds like optimistic rationalization for adverse actions needed to implement a politically correct program.

Finally, I ask if the reduction in scope of our students' education that has been forced by block scheduling programs implemented by administrators has been motivated by a desire to enhance student knowledge and intellectual skills, or are those concerns secondary to the proponents of block scheduling? If less really is more, we can eliminate content to our hearts' desire under a traditional schedule. It's just that under the block, one doesn't have much choice.

The emperor's clothes, of necessity, are much scantier than before - but less us praise how thoroughly the remaining portions are still covered.

If, by some chance, the block actually promoted increased depth of understanding in spite of reduced coverage, we might expect to see student mastery of basic material to improve, as reflected by standardized testing assessed in scientific studies. Sadly, this is not the case, as we see below.

Major Scientific Studies Show Academic Harm [index]

2006 Report:
A new 2006 report deals with another study of block scheduling's effect on science education. The report is by Kristen M. Dexter, Robert H. Tai, and Philip Michael Sadler, "Traditional and Block Scheduling for College Science Preparation: A Comparison of College Science Success of Students Who Report Different High School Scheduling Plans," The High School Journal, Vol. 89, Number 4, April-May 2006, pp. 28-33. It showed that the block was not providing an advantage, and may have some small negative effects in science. Here is the abstract:

This study compares frequencies of instructional practices across differing scheduling plans (Traditional and Block plans), and explores the association between high school scheduling plans and college science preparation, using introductory college science grades as the outcome measure. More than 7000 students enrolled in introductory college biology, chemistry, and physics were surveyed. No large difference was found when comparing the use of frequencies of instructional practices across scheduling plans. Regression models investigating associations between scheduling plans and college grades found significant, but small differences in predicted college grades for Traditional, 4:4, and Unique Block students; however, the analysis found two negative interactions on college grades linking alternate Block (AB) with HS science achievement and AB block with peer tutoring. Overall, the results indicate that Block scheduling plans do not appear to provide an advantage to students in terms of college preparation in science.

Block scheduling is said to do many positive things such as reduce truancy, make school less stressful, increase planning time for teachers, improve teacher-student relationships, and provide time for off-site work experiences at local businesses. However, the critical issue is what it does for actual learning. My desire for a focus on academic achievement has been criticized by some proponents of block scheduling, but as a parent, I feel that academic achievement is what public education is for. The studies and trade articles that are used in support of block scheduling frequently base their conclusions on subjective criteria (e.g., many teachers enjoy it, kids seem to be having fun, the atmosphere is more relaxed, etc.). However, proponents are unable to demonstrate academic benefits with hard, scientific data. On the contrary, the largest scientific study comparing objective student performance in block classes with student performance in full year classes found that the full year (two semester) students outscored the block students on every measure. Dr. David J. Bateson of the University of British Columbia studied 30,000 10th grade students in British Columbia (demographically similar to Wisconsin) who took science courses in year-long or semester-long blocks ["Science Achievement in Semester and All-year Courses," Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(3): 233-240 (1990)]. Students in year-long science courses significantly outperformed both those taking science in the first semester and students taking science in the second semester. (I suggest that typical high school students seem to learn better in small, regular doses rather than brief, heavy doses. Heavy, concentrated learning may be great for highly motivated students, but the realities of short attention spans make fewer, longer classes a poor choice for secondary education.) Furthermore, Bateson's study suggests that first semester students had forgotten a significant amount of class material by the time they took the test at the end of the year, contrary to the popular myth that retention is not a problem. Considering that typical block schedules cause a gap of three to thirteen months between consecutive classes, with an average gap of 7 months, I suspect that students may have serious problems in classes which rely on retention of material taught in the last course.

In another Canadian study, Drs. Dennis Raphael, Merlin W. Wahlstrom, and L.D. McLean examined the effect of block scheduling on mathematics courses in Ontario schools ("Debunking the Semestering Myth," Canadian Journal of Education, 11(1): 36-52 (1986)). They found that academic achievement was significantly lower under block scheduling and found either adverse effects or no benefit in student attitudes about mathematics (contrary to the common claim that block scheduling improves "attitudinal" scores). They also confirmed that block scheduling resulted in fewer hours of actual instruction. Overall, block scheduling was detrimental to student achievement. Raphael's findings were much the same as Bateson's. In a smaller study of science results, Raphael and Wahlstrom again found that traditional full-year courses resulted in better achievement in biology and chemistry classes, with no statistically significant difference for physics (Canadian Journal of Education, 11(2): 180-183 (1986)). In contrast to Raphael's study of math classes, however, attitudinal scores for science courses did show some gains due to block scheduling (more students said they enjoyed the courses or thought they were worthwhile). The authors suggest that there may be some benefit of block scheduling for attitudes about science - in contrast to possible harms for science achievement. Raphael's work provides further scientific studies that show academic achievement in several areas (math, biology, chemistry) may be hurt by block scheduling. As far as I can tell, neither Raphael's nor Bateson's studies have been mentioned by the advocates of block scheduling in selling the idea to school districts. (Correction of Aug. 29, 1996: enough parents, armed with this web page and other resources, have been asking about the Canadian studies, that the primary opponents of block scheduling now must regularly deal with Bateson's and Raphael's work. Fairly weak criticisms are used, such as simply saying that Canada has a different socioeconomic situation or arguing that the magnitude of harm isn't very serious. Parents, keep asking those tough questions!) In most cases, districts seem to adopt the block scheduling program in ignorance of its effects. That's foolish and dangerous when dealing with the education of human beings.

At least one school district has alleged that Dr. Bateson has come out in favor of block scheduling since his 1990 publication (op. cit.). This is untrue. I have personally spoken with Dr. Bateson (Jan. 1996) and have learned that his conclusions have not changed, but in fact have only been verified in greater detail by a newly completed 1995 study involving 130,000 students in math and science courses (30,000 of which were in Grade 10, where differences between scheduling systems were considered). This study is now available on the Web as the 1995 British Columbia Assessment of Mathematics and Science. A much shorter preliminary report is archived at the Intensive Block Scheduling page (courtesy of Archive.org) from Drexel University. The preliminary report can be cited as M. Marshall, A. Taylor, D. Bateson, and S. Brigden, "The British Columbia Assessment of Mathematics and Science: Preliminary Report (DRAFT), 1995.

The 1995 Canadian study was not intended to examine block scheduling per se , but was an assessment of learning from Grade 7 to Grade 10, tested near the end of Grade 10. Of all the numerous possible effects considered, the strongest, most powerful factor was scheduling. In comparing the effects of quarter, semester, and regular full-year schedules, some measures showed a full 10% drop in performance between the quarter (accelerated block) system and the full year system attributable to block scheduling alone. Semester (half-year) students did better than the quarter students, but the best program for academic performance was the regular full-year system. The results are statistically significant, practically significant, and serious. I have also recently corresponded with Dr. Dennis Raphael and learned that his views of the hard data likewise have not changed. In both British Columbia and Ontario, serious peer-reviewed scientific studies involving many thousands of students across many schools demonstrate that academic performance suffers under the block. If administrators or board members don't even care about these findings, or refuse to at least consider them carefully before making a decision to adopt block scheduling, then what are we to assume about their competence, integrity, or agenda? To be fair, though, most are never made aware of the research results. On the other hand, I know of multiple cases where committees and administrators claimed to have been researching block scheduling in detail for several years, only to be completely surprised when a parent or teacher asked about the Canadian studies. "What Canadian studies? What negative effects?"

Here are excerpts from the 3 major publications cited above:

1. BATESON STUDY (SCIENCE CLASSES, 30,116 STUDENTS)
Bateson, David J. (1990). "Science Achievement in Semester and All-Year Courses," Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(3) pp. 233-240.

"Abstract: The study investigated the effects of full-credit semester and all-year timetables on science attitudes and science achievement of grade-10 students in British Columbia. All grade 10 students in British Columbia completed multiple matrix sampled assessment instruments in May of 1986. These instruments provided background information, affective scores, and cognitive scores which were used to compare the groups. It was found that, contrary to reported teacher perceptions of semester versus all-year courses, students in the all-year courses consistently outperformed both first- and second-semester students in the cognitive domains tested, and there were no significant differences in the affective domains. The finding that second-semester students out-performed the first-semester students casts doubt on the reported teacher perception that knowledge retention is of little concern under a semester system."

"Numerous studies and reports have cited teacher and student perceptions of changes which occur under alternate timetables... More recent studies completed in Ontario and based on Actual outcomes have indicated that these perceptions may have little basis in fact (Raphael & Wahlstrom, 1986; Raphael, Wahlstrom and McLean, 1986)."

"A total of 30,116 grade-10 students completed the assessment instruments. Of these, 19,195 (64.9%) were taking Science 10 in an all-year format, 5,277 (17.2%) completed Science 10 the first semester, 3,596 (11.1%) were taking Science 10 in the second semester, and the remaining 2,048 (6.8%) either did not take science in 1986 or were on another type of timetable (correspondence, trimester, etc.)."

"The results of this study show that at grade 10 in British Columbia, students who take science under a full-credit semester system do not perform as well on multiple-choice tests of curricular-based science knowledge as do students who have taken the same course on an all-year basis. Taken on a individual basis, no significant differences in the science attitudes of students on the two time-table systems were found. However, there is a pattern that all-year students score consistently, but not significantly, higher than semester students on the affective scales. These findings are in direct conflict with the perceptions of teachers involved in semester programs reported in previous studies. The fact that the second-semester students consistently outperformed the first semester students also contradicts the reported perception that knowledge retention should not be a concern when utilizing a semester timetable. It should be noted, however, that all studies cited prior to 1986 relied on teacher and student perceptions of outcomes... In contrast, this study has used actual student outcome data as the basis for comparison. It has shown that the actual outcomes are not congruent with expectations and perceptions and, as such, Raphael et al. (1986) may have selected a very appropriate title in 'Debunking the Semestering Myth.'"

2. RAPHAEL STUDY OF MATH, SAMPLED FROM 250 CLASSES IN 80 SCHOOLS

Raphael, D., Wahlstrom, M.W. and McLean, L.D. (1986). "Debunking the semestering myth." Canadian Journal of Education, 11(1), 36-52.

Abstract: "Advantages claimed for semester organization of secondary schools were examined using data from a probability sample of 250 mathematics classrooms in 80 Ontario schools. Achievement and attitude data were collected from 5280 students in the course of the Second International Mathematics Study, and it was determined that 94 of the classes were taught in half the school year, i.e., by semesters. Teachers in semester schools were likely to report use of a greater variety of instructional materials. Suggestions reported in the literature of better student attitudes and achievement were not supported, and performance of Grade 12 and 13 students in semestered classes was significantly lower than those in year-long classes. Teachers in semester schools reported comparable coverage of mathematics content, but fewer hours of instruction in their courses. Number of years of teaching experience was not correlated with student achievement in semester schools, but a positive correlation was observed in year-long classes. Lower achievement in semester mathematics classes was observed with no advantage in student attitudes."

My comments: Students were tested on several different mathematical areas: number systems, algebra (computation), algebra (other), equations and inequalities, analytical geometry, trigonometry, functions, probability and statistics. In every area without exception, the year-long class average scores are higher than the semester-long class average scores. This was true for students who chose math as their area of specialization as well as for students who did not.

The affective test measured student enjoyment of math. There was no advantage gained from block scheduling in student attitudes toward math. (End of my summary.)

"CONCLUSIONS: There may be many reasons for choosing a semester organization for a school, but educational advantage in terms of student attitudes and achievement does not appear to be one of them--at least not in mathematics classes. Instead of the more positive attitudes predicted, students in semester classes had either less positive or similar attitudes. Mathematics achievement was, however, clearly greater in year-long classes. None of the background measures available showed any difference in student, teacher, or school characteristics that could provide an alternate explanation for the achievement and attitude differences."

"The one possible exception was the amount of teaching experience, since teachers in year-long classes had on average just over two more years experience than their colleagues in semester classes. Where appropriate, allowance was made for this possible difference by statistical means. Reviews of the literature suggest in any event that teacher effects, for which years of experience is at best a weak surrogate, "are likely to be small when compared with the totality of the effects of the other variables affecting student achievement" (Centra and Potter, 1980, p. 287). The most parsimonious explanation is that students learned more mathematics in the full-year classes and developed at least as good an attitude toward the subject."

3. RAPHAEL STUDY OF SCIENCE, 75 SECONDARY SCHOOLS.
Raphael, D. and Wahlstrom, M.W. (1986). "The semester secondary school and student achievement: Results from the second Ontario international science study." Canadian Journal of Education, 11 (2), 180-183.

"In an earlier article (Raphael, Wahlstrom, and McLean, 1986), achievement results from the Ontario component of the Second International Mathematics Study (SIMS) were examined in relation to the claims of advocates of the semestered secondary school. While teachers in semestered Ontario schools reported greater variety in their teaching approaches, fewer hours of course instruction were reported. Analyses revealed that students enrolled in semestered Grade 12 and 13 mathematics classes demonstrated significantly lower achievement than their non-semestered school peers with no difference in attitudes."

"Ontario also participated in the Second International Science Study (SISS). Biology, chemistry, and physics classes were sampled from 75 secondary schools, and students were administered achievement and attitude items near the end of their course. Test booklets designed for the three science content areas of biology, chemistry, and physics each consisted of 30 international and 5 Canadian-designed items. Unlike SIMS, where 136 mathematics achievement items were rotated through a class, students in SISS answered all of the 35 items in either the biology, the chemistry, or the physics booklet depending upon the class in which they were enrolled. Attitude items designed to assess affective responses to the subject areas were administered at time of testing. Principals, responding to a school questionnaire, indicated whether the school was semestered or on a full-year timetable."

"Discussion: Consistent with the findings reported from SIMS in Ontario (Raphael, Wahlstrom, and McLean, 1986), achievement differences in biology and chemistry tended to favour students enrolled in non-semestered classes. In contrast, however, the attitude findings from SISS indicated that students enrolled in semestered courses projected more favourable attitudes towards science. Perhaps the view that the greater intensive study of a discipline seen in semestered schools promotes better attitudes has validity in the science areas, especially where teaching includes extensive laboratory sessions."

"In any event, the results of this and our earlier study appear, at least in Ontario, to be an historical footnote as the last two years has seen a rapid shift away from the year-long timetable. Reports from the field suggest that as many as 90% (in contrast to the 35% at the time of SIMS and SISS data collection) of secondary schools in Ontario have now adopted the semester system. Our results draw further attention to educators of possible problems associated with the semestered system."

Other Recent Studies: The Gore Study from Canada

Gordon Gore has also examined extensive data from British Columbia and found further evidence of harm caused by block scheduling. Another report, "1996 Provincial Exam Results and Timetables" by Gordon R. Gore (published at Drexel University as archived in 2001 at Archive.org) reviews twelfth-grade Provincial examination results in 1996 for English, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, French , history, geography, and literature. Full-year (conventional timetable) classes are compared to semester and quarter classes. Testing was done at the end of each course, regardless of which timetable students were on. Full-year students outperformed block scheduling students (semester or quarter) IN EVERY SUBJECT. For example, in mathematics, mean scores of full-year students were 69.41% compared to 64.63% for semester students and 62.85% for quarter students. Looking at grades given on the mathematics exam, 24% of full-year students received A's, compared to 14% of semester students and about 11% of quarter students. While performance dropped significantly for the quarter students, this was not necessarily reflected in the marks students received in their courses. Grade inflation appears to occur in schools on the block - an important factor to remember when administrators claim that the block works because of the higher grades that students receive.

The Gore study was published in the Dec. 1997 issue of The Physics Teacher (vol. 35, no. 9, pp. 525-527). (Thanks to Mitchell Johnson for sending me a copy.)

The Wronkovich Study: Math Education in Similar Ohio Schools

Things aren't always going to be bad in block scheduling. In fact, hopeful news comes from Dr. Mike Wronkovich, who completed a study of the Coventry School District in Ohio and found that some benefits can be achieved, in contrast to earlier data he had obtained. In my opinion, the study covers such a small number of students that it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions (e.g., we find comparisons being made between block and traditional schedules for specific classes with only 35 students on the traditional schedule, students who started off with lower scores that the block groups). But, in the spirit of fairness, below I present the information he sent me in March of 1999 about his study - information that has not yet been published.

Here's Dr. Wronkovich's summary of his more recent work:

Conclusions
In the initial research on blocking performed at Coventry, Wronkovich, Hess and Robinson (1997) noted certain limitations.... The concerns of Coventry school administrators with the findings in 1997 led to this new research reported here. In this study's design, an attempt was made to overcome the weaknesses of the first study conducted at Coventry and to broaden the base of the research to include other curricular areas. After analyzing the new data, we have concluded that student performance on the ETS subject tests indicates a different picture than what was observed in the first study. It may be that the weaknesses in the previous research did interfere with findings. In the follow-up research reported here, we have concluded that in geometry and world history, students performed with no statistically significant difference on the tests as a result of the style of scheduling. In English and biology, there was a statistical difference which favored block scheduling.

As a result of these findings, it seems obvious that the importance of establishing goals must precede the adoption of a scheduling style. These goals should include issues of student discipline, the curriculum, teacher training, and district finances. When establishing blocking at Coventry, goals were established primarily in the curriculum. As a result, block scheduling as practiced at Coventry allows for some important classroom information processing time. The quantity of concepts covered in a given subject seems to drop, but the opportunity to cement the concepts covered through a process oriented classroom approach is evident in direct observation of the block schedule. Thus, learner outcomes really need to be discussed prior to the adoption of any alternative schedule. In courses such as advanced placement, there are specific concepts that must be mastered. The sheer quantity of these concepts may inhibit the ability of the teacher to adequately address these under a Copernican block format. It has been the subject of discussion and research by the ETS, the sponsor of the advanced placement program. The assigned goals of advanced placement are clear and tied directly to a national test. It seems that accommodations need to be made regarding advanced placement if a school system expects to maintain and improve performance on these tests by their students. But not all courses have such specific and massive content goals.

Alternative scheduling at the high school level has opened the doors to debate about the current time management structure. At the high school level, educators have come to accept the process of departmentalizing learning into small chunks of specialized time. The traditional 20th Century model of high school education may prove to be inadequate to meet the challenges of the next century. So the possibility of alternative styles of time management at this level is refreshing. But changing time management will not resolve problems unless it is tied to some type of curricular reform. Remember, time management is a means to achieve goals. Also, since the styles of alternative scheduling is so diverse, the opportunities for experimentation is plentiful for schools. Evaluation based on observable goals will help schools fine tune their own systems of time management.

The results of this particular research have shown that there may be some flaws in the first attempts at changing scheduling styles. As educators, we must establish academic goals and apply what is being learned about alternative scheduling to those goals.

As we search for improved models for delivering learning to the students, we should avoid the tendency to return to an old way just because it is more comfortable. The idea of better time management for the secondary school schedule opens the door to better time management for schools in general. That includes the yearly calendar, the school day, and movement from grade to grade. Block scheduling is just one part of this process. What we have learned so far is just a small part of what must be researched in order to improve the educational system.

The new work of Wronkovich will be published shortly. The earlier findings of his, with less favorable implications for block scheduling, have been posted on this page since 1997. That earlier information follows, and is still useful in providing the background for Wronkovich's work (and it still may be valid, depending on the merits of the different approaches taken):
From: CV_WRONKOVIC@SCECA.OHIO.GOV
Date: Mon, 14 Apr 1997

As the lead member of a three member research team, I have recently completed the final draft of a year long study on the effects of block scheduling in the area of mathematics. We have sent the complete study to Phi Delta Kappa for publication consideration in the Kappan.

The study involved experimental and control group data from three years experience with block scheduling. Co-varying math ability, gender and grade point average, we wanted to determine if there was a significant difference between students who studied math under a block schedule versus a traditional schedule. Since we used multiple linear regression techniques, we wanted to determine if the type of instruction accounted for significant variance over and above the three co-variants. Our test was two-tailed since we were not sure in which direction a significant finding would point.

We were very pleased that we were able to find significance testing at a .05 alpha level. What we found was that students who studied Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2 under block scheduling performed significantly below those studying the same subjects under traditional scheduling on a early college math achievement test.

Space here does not allow me to do justice to the entire study. The abstract is a seven page document and the complete study is twenty-two pages in length. But, you will find the data analysis very interesting.

We went into the research as unbiased researchers. What we found should raise a warning flag to proponents of block scheduling. While further research is needed, we think our research is the first hard data look at the effects of scheduling on test performance in math.

I would like to send you an abstract of the study. If you would like this, please e-mail me back at this address.

Dr. Michael Wronkovich
Coventry North Campus
Akron, Ohio

Other team members:

Dr. Caryl Hess
Baldwin-Wallace College
Berea, Ohio

Dr. James Robinson
Manchester Local Schools
Akron, Ohio

A report on at least part of Wronkovich's 1997 work appeared in the December 1997 issue of the NASSP Bulletin ("Block Scheduling: An Objective Look at Math Outcomes Based on New Research"). I have a draft copy of the manuscript (courtesy of Jerry O'Neil). The study focused on students taking a sequence of three college preparatory math courses, Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. Students were evaluated in terms of their ability to perform on a test of college-level math skills, the Ohio College Early Math Placement Exam, or Ohio EMPT, a test of achievement rather than attitudes. Students were drawn from two demographically similar suburban Ohio school districts, Coventry Local Schools and Manchester Local Skills. Coventry uses a modified 4x4 block schedule in which students can choose intensified block or traditional schedules; only those on the block for all three years of high school math were selected. In the Manchester schools, only those on the traditional format for all three years of math were used. Students were exposed to essentially the same math curriculum, with the primary difference being the scheduling. Both scheduling formats provided 135 clock hours of math instruction per year. Differences in aptitude were considered using the math aptitude score from the PSAT/NMSQT test and using cumulative high school GPA. Gender differences were also considered. Gender, GPA, and the PSAT/NMSQT math aptitude score were used as covariates to account for differences in the groups. None of these covariates appeared to have a significant effect on the scores. The mean PSAT/NMSQT math score was similar at the two schools (47.2 in the block school, 48.7 in the traditional). There were 59 students tested in the block school and 107 in the traditional.

The findings are in line with the Canadian studies. The mean test score under the block was 17.15, compared to 22.07 for the traditional program. That's over a 20% drop in academic performance (ouch!) associated with the block. The F-test accounting for other sources of variance gave a statistically significant effect for scheduling at a confidence level of 95%.

The paper also delves into subjective impressions of block scheduling based on interviews with teachers and students. In spite of significantly lower academic performance, students on the block had positive feelings about it:

Finally, for those students actively involved in block classes, they expressed over and over in the comments a greater enjoyment of class time. The qualitative impression is that students who choose the block schedule for math find the lesson are presented in a more palatable manner. The data, however, suggest that they may not be learning as much or have the material as well mastered.
(In other words, they're doing a lot worse under the block, but they sure feel better about it. The smooth, professional proponents of the block emphasize positive subjective comments from students and teachers - and try to direct attention away from the issue of academic performance. Beware this tactic!)

Wronkovich et al. strive to find middle ground behind the apparent harm shown by objective performance tests and the positive subjective aspects of block scheduling. The paper is far from one-sided, perhaps even being overly generous in looking for good in the subjective responses to the block. In my opinion, the positive feelings expressed by those on the block are likely the result of classes that have been partially diluted or "dumbed down," in spite of the nominally "intensified" format. If the price of enjoying a more pleasurable schedule is a significant decrease in academic performance, then it's a price that few parents would knowingly want their children to pay (again, that's just my opinion).

Does the 1999 work of Wronkovich override his 1997 results? Perhaps. The original study was repeated because the district was not happy with the work, and the new, apparently improved version showed things were better. It is plausible that with the right adjustments to the curriculum, acceptable test results can be obtained. Is that due to improved education under the block, or is it partially due to teaching to the test? Even the very positively stated results from the 1999 work, the authors note that not as much material can be covered under the block. As long as the curriculum is adjusted to leave out that which is not tested, test scores might turn out well. But is there a net benefit to education? I'll have to wait to learn more about the methodology of the 1999 study and the results of Coventry on standardized tests. But with a small sample size, random effects can appear significant. That's why I still consider the large-scale, long-term Canadian studies to be of particular significance.

A Recent Canadian Study by Bruce Merz

In 2002, another Canadian study was completed which to some degree affirmed previous findings in Canada. Bruce Merz, a math teacher at British Columbia, recently finished his M.Ed. degree through Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, where his thesis topic was the effect of block scheduling on academic performance. His thesis, "The Effect of Block Scheduling on Academic Performance," is dated July 2002, according to an electronic version of his document that I have. He analyzed provincial exam data over the school years 1994/1995-2000/2001 using data from every student tested, giving a total sample size over 100,000 each year. In summarizing the consistent patterns seen in his seven-year window, he states:

[I]t is quite clear that in all subjects, provincial exam results are higher in linear schools than in semester schools. Biology, English, and French had one school year where this was not the case, History had two school years where this was not the case, and Mathematics displayed this result all seven school years. It should also be noted here that for Biology, English, French, and History, the differences in exam scores do not seem to have a consistent pattern and most linear [traditional schedule] school scores are between 0-2% higher than semester [block] schools. However, in Mathematics, linear school exam scores were always at least 2% higher than semester schools. . . .

It appears that students in linear schools performed better on provincial exams than students in semester schools in B.C. in all of the subjects investigated: Biology 12, English 12, French 12, History 12, and Mathematics 12. This seems to have been especially the case in Mathematics.

I look forward to the formal publication of Merz's study, which also includes a careful review of the literature and a consideration of other factors that might have contributed to the observed results (for example, it is difficult to isolate the effect of socioeconomic factors on test results). He did consider participation rate in the exams, and found that the linear [non-block] schools generally had higher participation rates on the exams, I suggest that their slightly higher scores are not likely to be due to testing only of a smaller group of brighter students in non-block schools.

Regarding Bateson's original work, some may have argued that the teachers in his study had not yet had time for training in the block and had not yet learned how to cope with the challenges of the block. Years later, in Merz's study, we see the same pattern of widespread decreased performance is still present, but possibly with a lower level of academic harm. Thus, it may be that with increased experience over a period of time, teachers can mitigate the harmful effects of the block to some degree. But Merz's large-scale study again indicates that the block is a barrier, not a boon, to academic performance.

Iowa State's ACT Studies

Iowa State University in conjunction with ACT Inc. completed a series of studies in 2002 regarding the effect of the block on ACT scores in Iowa and Illinois. The results show that the block may hurt ACT scores, as has been reported in an official Iowa State University news release dated July 1, 2002 and archived at Archive.org (or see the same story from EducationNews.org (archived)). One of these studies examined ACT scores for 568 public high schools in Illinois and Iowa, including longitudinal data for the two years prior to the implementation of block scheduling and four years after. The studies were conducted by Donald Hackmann, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State, and Matt Harmston, Ann-Maureen Pliska and Robert Ziomek from ACT. Here is an excerpt from the news release:

Block scheduling in schools may impact student achievement/ACT scores

AMES, Iowa -- Student achievement may be impaired by certain models of block scheduling, according to a new series of studies by Iowa State University and ACT. . . .

Block scheduling is used by about 30 percent of high schools in Iowa and Illinois, according to a series of joint studies. . . .

One of the joint studies conducted in conjunction with the ACT staff investigated changes in ACT composite scores for 568 public high schools in Illinois and Iowa, including longitudinal data for the two years prior to the implementation of block scheduling and four years after. This study showed that schools using the 4x4 semester model had markedly lower ACT scores in the first few years following implementation.

Schools using the eight-block, alternating-day approach experienced slight declines in ACT scores, while schools using the traditional eight-period day showed little change in achievement.

Rural schools in both states using the 4x4 semester method fared especially poorly in the study. The first years after implementation showed a marked decline in ACT scores, with a slight rebound in the fourth year. Eight-block, alternating-day schools showed a slight drop in ACT scores.

Suburban schools and urban schools demonstrated somewhat similar results, but the numbers of these studied were small, making interpretation of the data more difficult. In all cases, the decline in average student composite ACT scores after implementing the schedule change was beginning to level off after four years.

Look, if block scheduling is not helping students learn, why toy with it? Why is there so much pressure from administrators to adopt it, if it's not designed to help their students? Please remind the administrators of their fundamental duty to the students, and urge them to resist this popular fad. It's great for administrators and their careers, I am told, but they need to understand that the risk to academic performance makes this an unwise "reform."

We should also consider some experience in Washington. The Washington School Research Center has published a study, "Schedule Matters: The Relationship between High School Schedules and Student Academic Achievement," by Duane Baker, Jeff Joireman, Joan Clay, and Martin Abbott, Oct. 2006. This study of schools in the State of Washington looks at student achievement data in math, reading, and writing for Washington High Schools as a function of the schedule type of the schools. Schedule types included traditional seven-period days (21.6% of schools), traditional six-period days (41.2%), 4x4 block (14.2%), alternating A/B block (7.1%), and block (15.9%, some traditional periods and block periods). The authors write that "the results of the study led to two fundamental findings. First, the seven-period and Modified Block schedules were, overall, the highest performing schedules correlated with reading, writing, and math WASL. Second, the 4x4 and A/B Alternating Block schedules were, overall, the lowest performing schedules correlated with reading, writing, and math WASL." While they try to argue that the data don't necessarily prove that the block is a problem, there certainly wasn't dramatic support for any academic benefits from the block. As always, it remains appropriate for parents and teachers to ask tough questions of those touting the block. "What will the effect on academic performance be? Do you have evidence to show that there won't be any harm to our kids?"


Increased Graduation Requirements and the Block: A Backwards Solution [index]

Many states, struggling to reform their schools and find some way to increase academic achievement, have turned to increased standards for the schools. Sounds great. One of the most common steps taken is to increase the credit hours required for graduation. More required credits sounds great at first glance, but it can create a no-win situation. In Georgia, for example, where 24 credits were possible in a traditional schedule, high-school students soon found themselves 21 of those 24 possible credits already prescribed by higher powers, anxious to pull Georgia out of its low rankings in education. That left students with only 3 electives over their high school years. It seemed stifling - and likely to kill of a variety of important and valuable programs. The solution for many schools has been to turn to the block. Instead of 6 credits over a semester, students now can get 8 on a 4 x 4 plan. So what's the problem?

The problem is that the block hinders actual academic performance. The longer classes mean less material can be covered, due to limitations in attention span. (In fact, even if material were covered at the same rate per hour, there would be less covered over the year because the total time per class is less - that's why more credit hours can be fit into a year.) And since the class is packed into half the number of days (e.g., one semester instead of two), there is more opportunity to forget what was covered. Students learn better when a topic is covered in small, regular increments instead of a few large chunks. That's been demonstrated in numerous studies for decades. For academic achievement, the block is a step in the wrong direction, even if it does allow more classes to be taken.

So in the name of improving academic achievement, increased graduation requirements are driving many schools to adopt the block, which has been shown to have a negative impact on academic performance. Sort of like applying leaches to cure hemophilia.

Maybe instead of requiring more credits, we should require more teaching with proven methods, or more mastery of basic skills. But let's quit motivating schools to adopt harmful, unproven systems like the block.


Never too Late to Change: Dropping the Block [index]

Many schools have encountered "unexpected" problems with the block such as decreased academic performance or decreased time for learning. In spite of vocal opposition, some of these schools have had the courage to overthrow the much-praised block system and revert to a standard schedule or at least something closer to the a standard schedule. One recent example comes from Howard County in Maryland, where the school district appears to be ready to move toward a more standard approach to scheduling. This story was reported by Tanika White in The Baltimore Sun, Dec. 7, 2001, p. B7, under the headline "Standard Scheduling Advocated." This article discusses the recommendation of a committee to drop the four-by-four block system in Howard County magnet schools in order to provide more learning time for students and solve other problems introduced by the block. Excerpts follow:
Within two years, all Howard County high schools should be operating under the same daily schedule - and the much-praised four-by-four block schedule used in the district's prized magnet schools should be eliminated to provide teachers with more instruction time.

An 18-member committee studying Howard's high school schedules recommended those changes this week to Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. . . .

"Teachers at many schools are frustrated with the amount of time that they have to implement the curriculum. That came up a lot in our meetings. When we [shorten instructional time], we lose quality instruction," said Plunkett, chairman of the high school scheduling committee. "The main thing is that we have to have consistency, especially since we're adding new schools and we're getting ready to redo the boundary lines."

The committee's recommendations must be approved by O'Rourke and the five-member school board, but it appears likely that the county's schedules will soon be whittled to one. . . .

"We're not saying that there cannot be any 90-minute classes," Plunkett said. "We know that there's a need for labs, and there's some course work where students need longer periods. But we do need a yearlong schedule. . . .

The committee's work stemmed from a March report by Phyllis Utterback, then director of assessment. Utterback's report showed that when high schools strayed from a traditional six-period day, students can lose up to 36 hours of instructional time per year.

According to Utterback's report, a majority of teachers said that in some schedules, such as the four-by-four block, instruction time is so abbreviated that they do not feel they can adequately cover a course curriculum. Planning time, too, was shortened, teachers said.

Also, nearly 500 students said they lost credits when moving from one county high school to another. . . .

One of the guidelines on which the committee agreed was the need for a yearlong schedule - one reason the four-by-four block schedule is being recommended for elimination.

That schedule, the committee noted, offered students the least number of hours in class. . . .

When Utterback released her report in March, recommending that the district standardize high school schedules, principals loudly decried the idea, urging autonomy and community choice.

But apparently the demand for more student learning time has won out. . . .

If your district has adopted the block, don't give up! Gather data about its effect on students, learning time, standardized tests, and so forth, and keep working to inform board members and parents about the possible problems it can cause. Intellectually honest people can be willing to admit the problems that may become manifest in your school, and may be willing to fix them by abandoning an inadequate system.

"Seminar": More Dumbing-down with Block Scheduling [index]

I received a phone call recently from a brave Midwest parent who had organized parents to fight block scheduling, obtaining hundreds of signed petitions from voters asking for the block to be stopped. They succeeded, but in the battle, this parent saw that the school seemed bent on watering down education and gave up, putting his kids in a private school. One symptom of that was "seminar," a program that goes hand-in-hand with the block, but can be run independently.

Seminar is a glorified study hall - largely unsupervised time - that counts toward graduation or is even listed as a graduation requirement. It fits in with the theme of making life easier on the staff while reducing stress - and education - for the students. Wander around for over an hour and get graduation credit. Brilliant! But I didn't take the "seminar" fad seriously until I got this e-mail from a student:

I am a sophomore at [a high school in Michigan]. My school implemented block scheduling in the fall of 1997. Since its inception..., it has worked very well and over ninety percent of the students approve of it, as well as over seventy-five percent of all of the teachers. Our system appears to have some differences compared with schools on your webpage. We have four eighty-six minute classes each day, with each class meeting every other day. At our school, we also participate in a seminar, occurring the second period of every other day. During this period, we are able to travel from one teacher to another, should we need assistance on an assignment. We are also able to use this hour for scheduling, presentations, pep rallies, and computer usage. Our system works like this:

1. Each student reports to his or her seminar teacher. This teacher takes attendance and passes out information regarding school affairs, et cetera.

2. After twenty minutes have passed, each student has his or her seminar teacher initial his or her hall pass. This tells where the student plans on going. If a student is failing or doing poorly in a class, the seminar teacher usually requires the student to visit the other teacher to see what is wrong. Seminar teachers are given report cards and progress reports. They are able to tell how well each one of his or her students' are doing, academically.

3. Once the student has arrived at the other teacher's room, the teacher initials the planner. A student can stay until the end of the hour, or travel to another teacher.

4. After approximately forty-five minutes have passed since the beginning of the "open travelling time," students are frozen in that teacher's classroom until the end of seminar, which occurs twenty minutes later.

The seminar system works very well. It is a graduation requirement. Should students receive four seminar misuse forms, he or she will not receive credit. That student now is required to do community service, run by the school, in the summer.

I, as well as most people at my school, am a strong advocate of block scheduling. We think that this system is wonderful and very helpful. Since a strong majority of the students at my school go to college, this system prepares us for the years ahead. Teachers have found ways to eliminate lack-of-attention in class, due to block scheduling. Most teachers combine lessons or allow for a short stretching break midway through the class. In chemistry, we often may take notes for the first half of the period and do a lab during the second half.

Block scheduling allows for much more flexibility and options in students' schedules. Without a traditional six-period day, students can now take an additional course, whether an extra academic class, a fine arts class, a business class, or another elective class. Block scheduling improves the overall amount of workloads on students. With block scheduling, students have two nights to get homework done. This also provides for more flexibility. Students may still take extra classes after school, such as co-op or jazz ensemble.

Thank you for your time. I feel that block scheduling is the best thing to ever happen to my school.

I was gentle in my response to the student, but my actual feelings on this matter are pretty strong. The program described above sounds wonderful: lots of time to wander around, less homework to provide more evening flexibility, just fun and relaxing overall. Sweet. I'm glad they enjoy it. The atmosphere sounds a lot like some other schools I've seen - atmospheres that generally focus on anything BUT academic achievement. As a parent, I want my kids to be challenged, to have to sweat and struggle a little to be prepared for life. Wandering around the school during "seminar" time and enjoying the reduced homework load from the eminently enjoyable block scheduled system is not what many of us parents want. But it's consistent with the philosophy of many modern educators pushing the block.

I had one proponent of the block write me and say he felt the same as the student above, and questioned how I could possible question her pride in the block and in seminar without knowing any details about her school. I asked, in response, if there are there any serious longitudinal studies showing that a relaxed seminar approach improves academic performance? There serious studies showing that these "child-centered" approaches are failures, so if seminar in a block system breaks the mold and offers real, measurable academic success, then let's go for it. But academic achievement, like musical excellence or athletic excellence, generally requires work, effort, and discipline. Why should I accept the good feelings associated with block and seminar as having any real merit?

And if there are no data showing academic gains with a relaxed seminar approach, why are we toying with children by putting them in unproved programs?


Athletics and the Impractical Block [index]

To garner support for the block, administrators often pay thousands to bring in consultants who offer slick and polished sales pitches about the unlimited benefits of block scheduling. In these pitches, parents and teachers are typically told that the block will bring students the opportunity take more courses and get a better education. The reality can be otherwise. Consider this example from Texas, quoting e-mail sent to me by an informed parent in Feb. 2002:
You may not know that in Texas, extracurricular athletics and marching band are classes that meet during the school day. Texas coaches want their teams to practice everyday so what happens is that student athletes take an athletic period EVERYDAY. This means that during the time that their non-athlete peers take 4 classes, they are only taking three. This means that in 4 years they will only have 24 class periods in which to earn academic credits, while the non-athletes have 32 class periods available to them. Under the old 7 period day, athletes had 24 class periods available, while the non-athletes had 28.

In schools that offer an A/B rotating block the athletic period creates a nightmare for class scheduling. In the A/B system, students have 8 classes per semester. Athletes meet during last block everyday. This means that they only have 6 classes per semester. It also means that over a two-week period that they are in athletics for a total of 900 minutes. Please note however, that under state law they are only allowed to actually practice their sport for 600 minutes during that two-week period. The other 300 minutes is typically devoted to tutorials or study hall. The scheduling problem this creates is that during this athletic period 5 to 7 of the teaching faculty are not available to teach academic classes because they are coaching. This reduces the flexibility of the schedule and reduces the number of times a given subject may be offered. In addition it forces certain subjects that meet only once during the 8 period schedule to not be offered during the athletic period because the athletes would not be able to take the course. Because athletics ties up so many teachers and students whatever flexibility the block may have given us is taken away. The other irony of this is that athletes find it difficult to get all of the AP and elective courses they need because they are giving up 2 periods per semester to athletics.

Also note that in the two-week cycle while athletics is meeting for 600 minutes (10 days x 60 min/day), all other classes only meet for 450 minutes (every other day = 5 days x 90 min./day). This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Period 1 is boys' athletics, Period 2 is Girls' athletics, and 3rd Period is band. On top of that, athletes and band students have to stay in the athletic class or band class to remain in their programs. Example: football players are not permitted to get out of athletics during the second semester to take an elective. They have to stay in athletics period to do off-season conditioning.

It looks like the school is saying that athletics is more important than academics. If I had a child in high school, I would want to know why the school allows students to be in athletics everyday, but won't allow my child to be in AP History or AP Chemistry everyday?

This is not going to be such a serious issue in most states. I understand that athletics is taken as a course during the day in only two states, Texas and Tennessee. However, this type of problem can apply to other courses in which daily instruction or practice is felt to be necessary. There are often several unforeseen problems that can make the block a very difficult program for some students or some courses.

More recently, in April 2002, I received a response from another Texas parent to my comments above:

I just read your addition to your website on Athletics and Block Scheduling in Texas. I want to add that not just athletics are double blocked. The top bands are also double blocked. Therefore, any students who try to participate in both band and a sport may find that, within the 8 block schedules, they have 2 band and 2 athletic blocks. 50% of each instructional day is spent on non-academic electives. Our high school began block scheduling in 2001-2002. Next year, they are considering double-blocking Algebra I (because so many were failing on an A/B block schedule.)

Conceivably, a student who is both a talented musician and athlete, but did not complete Algebra I as an 8th grader could end up with 6 of 8 blocks for these three courses, and 2 remaining for all the other courses. So much for increased course-taking opportunities!

I hope the pendulum swings the other way quickly.

May it swing indeed!

Double Blocking: Exposing an Intrinsic Weakness of the A/B B.S. System [index]

A trend in some schools is to use "double-blocking" for a few courses to ensure that students get exposed to the class everyday.

Here's how "double-blocking" works, as explained by a parent in Texas:

Most of the schools I know about use an A/B block. This means that on "A" day students attend four classes and on "B" they attend 4 different classes. A sample schedule for a 9th grader might be as follows: A1-English; A2 Math; A3 PE; A4 Theatre; B1-Social Studies; B2 Biology; B3 Elective; B4 Spanish. This would be the schedule from August through May, resulting in a total of 8 credits for the year.

However, if the 9th grader is in athletics his schedule might be as follows: A1 English; A2 Math; A3 Science; A4 Athletics; B1 Social Studies; B2 Elective; B3 Spanish; B4 Athletics (again). This would result in 7 credits per year (athletics counts as PE credit in the 9th grade and for the first semester of the 10th grade).

This is done in athletics and band so that the coaches and band director can see their students every day. In the meantime the English teacher sees her students every other day. Additionally, students who are doing poorly in Algebra are "double-blocked" in Algebra. Sooooooo.... if you have a student who is in "double-blocked" in Algebra and who is in band and athletics, this student would receive 6 credits for the year. Whatever might have been gained in terms of number of credits for that student by block scheduling is lost.

Now stop and think about this. Why do band teachers and coaches want to see their kids everyday? Because first and foremost, they are concerned with the performance of the child. It is not enough to enjoy the classes or to have self-esteem about education: absolute achievement is demanded, and to obtain those skills, daily exposure and practice is known to be best. If our primary focus was on absolute achievement in math, science, or other areas, wouldn't we want daily exposure as well? In fact, a parent in Texas offered this interesting insight in 2003:
I think I have figured out a way to "break the block" in Texas. When my daughter enters high school, I am going to go to the registrar and insist that she be "double blocked" in English, Chemistry, Theatre, and Choir. The registrar will say, "We can't do that! I will say, "Why not? You do it for Band, Athletics, and some Algebra courses." When they say "no" again, I will hire a lawyer.

Any advantage schools may have gained by switching to BS is lost when they start "double-blocking." When schools double-block athletics or band, they create gross inequities in educational opportunity.

I think that the fastest way to break the block in Texas will be for large numbers of parents to show up at registration and insist that their child be double-blocked for all courses. Who knows? It would be a statement anyway.

I would like to begin building a coalition of parents, citizens, and taxpayers in Texas who are interested in high school scheduling issues and inequitable distribution of educational resources created by double-blocking. Do you have any suggestions on how to do this?

(If you are a Texas parent concerned about double-blocking, let me know and I'll forward your e-mail to the parent who provided the information above. Another Texas-specific group opposing the block and financial overspending has a Website at www.OurKeller.com.)

Another Story of Success Against the Block

In 2004, a parent in Delaware sent me this disturbing report of education harmed by the block:
I live in a small beach community-Lewes, Delaware. For years, our local high school was the pride of the state-top in state testing, SAT scores/college admissions, and various athletic awards. But, six years ago, our school superintendent imposed the "sentence" of 4X4 block scheduling! He presented it to the school board as follows: fewer behavior problems, teachers can "engage" students for 90 minutes, less homework, etc. The school board bought it and by a narrow margin we were imprisoned. The teachers continued to teach for 45 minutes and let the students do their homework or have "free time" for the rest. They have scheduled students to meet state testing needs only. For example, the students are top loaded with math and English in the first two years, and may not see it again until college! We have second semester juniors stating that they have nothing left to take! There are seniors finished classes by 1:00pm., or don't come in until 11:00 to start the day. We now have the lowest AP completion scores in the state, our SAT scores are falling way below the national trends, and our state testing scores are falling. We have been labeled a school "at-risk." It has been 6 years of failure, in every definition of the word.

At the outset, parents 6 years ago saw the red flags and tried to raise these issues with the school board, but to no avail. Recently, we have started another movement to rid our system of this nightmare: we provided a petition with numerous signatures, a school board member in favor of returning to the traditional strip schedule, provided a clear presentation of the downward trend in our school, and after reading your web site, I called the superintendent on many of the points you raised. We asked them to rethink this flawed scheduling and to consider returning to the traditional schedule. The vote was tied (3-3) and our very weak school board president, stated the following, "As president I have to cast the deciding vote. I am voting in favor of staying with the 4x4 block, because my daughter just loves it." When parents screamed that this is not just about her daughter, she refused to answer.

Because our options are limited, we are forced to send our daughter, who is currently in the 8th grade, to a topnotch boarding school. My preference is to keep her home with her family, but I cannot imagine going to high school and not having math, English, a foreign language, etc., everyday and still being competitive for college admission.

If you have any suggestions for us (the frustrated parents!) I would really appreciate it.

I shared some ideas on how to fight the block - getting parents organized, working with the school board, holding public meetings, not giving up, using facts and studies, etc.

Later, I received a Sept. 2004 report from the same parent indicating that THEY WON the fight against the block. Here is the message, (actually two messages combined) with an important lesson for all those dealing with educational fads:

We won! Two of our school board's members were up for re-election, and we put up two outstanding candidates and they won! The superintendent is finally listening to us and soon the awful days of block scheduling will be behind us.

Thank you for all of your great ideas, they worked!

It is indeed exciting, that our district will soon be rid of block scheduling. We tried many things: petitions (didn't work), ads in the local papers to attend school board meetings to voice opinions agains block scheduling (no one showed), and letters to the editor in local papers. The school board always came back saying to us,"It is just a small elitist group, and they do not represent the majority. The teachers know best, and they like block scheduling." Stating that the "teachers knew best"affected many uneducated people, who would often say to me, "what makes you think that you know more about teaching than a teacher!" But, two seats came up for re-election on the school board, and we found two popular candidates, who were dead set against block scheduling. We put up signs, we made phone calls, we went door to door and showed the negative effects of block scheduling on SAT scores/subsequent college performance. And when the election results were announced, we were there to say, "This is NOT a group of MINORITY ELITISTS! The MAJORITY has spoken!" Our candidates won with a huge majority. The candidate went to visit our district's superintendent, to announce that the teachers had one year to prepare to a return to traditional scheduling! Thanks for the support and encouragement. My advice: never give up, keep educating your community with literature NOT provided by the district, and find candidates on the school board who have the courage to rid their district of the scourge of block scheduling!

I'm thrilled to see parents standing up against the system to protect education for their kids. It's a hard battle sometimes, but it can be won!

How Two Moms Made a Diffence: Inspiring Success Story

Below is email from 2004, used with permission, showing how determined moms beat the block:
In 1996 block scheduling [BS] was being introduced to our school system. Our band director was scared out of his wits that his successful band program would go down the tubes with BS, so he began amassing information regarding BS from other music directors around the country. Since the information provided to him proved the negative effect BS had on music programs, he quickly shared his information with band parents. We were alarmed and many parents quickly fired off letters to the school board and/or spoke at school board meetings exposing the detriments of BS. We also gathered research mostly from your Website and shared if with board members.

Unfortunately, we lost primarily because the board "wanted to help students learn." All the wishy-washy reasons for BS flew out of the board members' mouths. . . . They could not be reasoned because they felt with BS, they would have less work. . . . The 1997-1998 school year was used to decide which type of BS would be implemented in the school year 1998-1999. Most concerned parents gave up, but my good friend and I were determined to expose the fallacies and harm of BS. We continued to research and were greatly encouraged by your Website. . . . A vote was taken in spring of 1998 to determine which type of BS to implement. My friend and I spoke exhaustedly against any type of BS, but we lost. BS was implemented the next fall.

Our concern about block had arisen mainly by doing a little math. BS meant less time spent on each subject, which as you well know was not good. Also common sense fueled our concerns . . . teens can't sit still for 90 minutes. . . . In the 1998-1999 school year, when our sons were seniors, our boys played cards, watched videos, did their homework during class, etc. They lost respect for their teachers and were frustrated about the material they realized that they were not being taught. In most of their classes the same lesson was taught that would have been taught during a regular schedule. Since they met only half the time, half the subject material was presented. You wouldn't believe the number of teachers that couldn't figure out why they couldn't cover all their material.... The few teachers who had been against BS drove themselves crazy to shove in all the material.

So, my friend and I griped and complained. We poured over everything we could find in your Website. Thankfully, two of the brainwashed board members resigned and were replaced by two who interested in the facts regarding BS. Praise be to God, the board revoked BS in 1999 and returned to a 7 period day. . . . Thank you for saving America's kids from another education fad!

As an encouragement to those parents who are waging battles to stop BS in their schools, remember my friend and I are just two stay-at-home moms who stopped BS at our school. We mainly waged this fight by ourselves. . . . If BS is implemented at your school, do not give up. . . . The greatest foe for BS is good old common sense. Keep up the fight!

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Last Updated: May 3, 2008

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