The Case Against Block Scheduling

Part 3: Pros and Cons, Alternatives

by Jeff Lindsay

This is one of several pages on the problems of block scheduling, a major educational "reform" that is being implemented across the country in spite of serious evidence that it is harmful to education. These pages are the work of Jeff Lindsay. On this page, I assume that you have already seen my main page on block scheduling, Part 1.

Search JeffLindsay.com + my blogs
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 (This page) Part 4 Part 5
The Nature of the Problem
(Main page + overall index)
The Debate on Academic Harm Pros and Cons, Alternatives Comments from Others Tactics and Resources
(And summary + links)

Index to this Page:




Advantages of Block Scheduling [index]

There are some advantages that have been observed in high schools using block scheduling, including:

The last advantage may be an important consideration and does have some "hard" data behind it. Rex Sharman published a paper, "Student Dropouts and Scheduling Patterns in Secondary Schools: An Exploratory Study," in the Alberta Journal of Educational Research (Vol. 36, pp. 325-36, Dec. 1990) with the following abstract (from the ERIC database):

The records of 4,886 students in 18 Ontario high schools revealed that, compared to traditional full-year schools, dropout rates in matched semestered schools were lower for general-level students and much lower for basic-level students. There were no differences for advanced-level students.

Block scheduling seems to increase the appeal of school to lower-level students, perhaps through increased attention, reduced stress, and more "fun" activities. This is a factor to consider. But I am not convinced that a reduction in dropouts outweighs justifies the potential loss in academic excellence.

One of the most interesting - though still tentative - cases of block scheduling success is found in the work of Dr. Joseph M. Carroll, a former school superintendent and now a senior associate of Copernican Associates, Ltd. See, for example, "The Copernican Plan Evaluated: The Evolution of a Revolution," Phi Delta Kappan, 76(2): 105-113 (1994). As a superintendent, Dr. Carroll implemented a form of block scheduling which he calls the Copernican Plan (named after Copernicus, who helped bring about a revolution in scientific understanding of planetary motion). Dr. Carroll observed that longer, fewer classes seemed to improve grades and reduce dropouts. Several other schools adopted versions of his program, and most of them also are said to have experienced positive results. However, I have not seen Dr. Carroll publish standardized test data for any of these schools - just the results of internal tests and grades. I am also not aware of any peer-reviewed publication by Dr. Carroll on his work, though it has received much attention in education magazines. However, I can't help but be skeptical of the sweeping claims made for the Copernican Plan in spite of a small and tentative base of data. I especially question statements like, "continuing with the present traditional Carnegie structure [rather than the Copernican Plan] raises the serious question of professional malpractice" (Carroll, op. cit., p. 113). Those are extremely strong words! If true, then why is it that Masconomet High School, which was the primary beneficiary of the Copernican Plan, is no longer using block scheduling? (That's according to e-mail from a parent in that area.) If it was so successful, why isn't the program still being used?

In my opinion, Dr. Carroll's claims need to be scientifically demonstrated in larger, more thorough studies. I also question the basic methodology of the work. Pertinent information - if true - has been sent to me by a parent who appears to be familiar with the work Carroll did. I quote with permission:

When [Dr. Carroll] first wanted to run his pilot program in Masconomet (the Renaissance Program) he told his teachers that he would not force anyone to do it. Since he didn't get an overwhelming response he decided he would do it only if he got a certain percentage of teachers who wanted to do it. In the end it was just done - he never got the percentage he was after. It was done for only 2 years. Some of his samples were very small. The program was dropped because it tore the school apart. Those in the program were given preference for field trips, special programs, etc.

The union actually waived its contract (teaching more minutes than their contract permitted) to cooperate.

The Harvard group that evaluated the pilot program were indeed from Harvard. They were, in fact, hand picked by Carroll. They were paid $18,000 to evaluate year 1. If it was deemed worthwhile there would be a year 2 - and another $18,000. The head of the evaluation team was Dr. Whitla - who is now the other partner in Copernican Associates. Each partner rents out for $1,250 per day. Both of the books that Carroll wrote - describing the study and the evaluation - are available through Copernican Associates only....

As far as the evaluations go - well there wasn't that much difference in objective tests, although the pilot kids did slightly worse. This is explained by the fact that they had initially scored lower on their Iowa tests (in math & English). They scored better on essays. This was evaluated by a (just one) Harvard graduate student in English. This student read the papers without knowing who was who and graded them. There was no other evaluation.

The evaluation did show better attitudes in the students in the pilot program than in the regular (Carnegie) program.

The other method of evaluation was done by filming the students and watching them use critical thinking to solve a problem. Supposedly they did much better at this because they worked together. It was described as very exciting.

If the above description of Dr. Carroll's methodology is correct, then one must wonder about the validity of the small Copernican Plan study, in spite of the connection to the illustrious Harvard name. Published articles provide little solid information about details of the study, though Dr. Carroll has published a book which is said to provide the missing details. (I do not yet have access to a copy of his book and don't wish to spend the $75 that it costs.) If the description given above is in error, then I welcome a correction. In general, publishing a study in a peer-reviewed, academic journal is a good way to enhance the credibility of a study, if it's any good, but is still no guarantee of quality. I'm still waiting for peer reviewed studies showing academic gains in block scheduling.

A commonly cited advantage is that the longer class period allows innovative teaching methods to be applied, such as "cooperative learning." Use of these "innovative" teaching methods is not an advantage unless it has been proven that they work better than old-fashioned direct instruction. Project Follow Through, the largest educational study ever, confirmed just the opposite. I feel that we should not settle for disproven "alternative" teaching methods as a reason for adopting new unproven programs like block scheduling.

Interestingly, reports and "studies" on block scheduling seem to be based on the assumption that block scheduling is going to be advantageous. The possibility of genuine harm is rarely considered by administrators and many others. By way of example, I recently received a draft of Momence High School's "Evaluation of Block 8 Scheduling" dated Nov. 29, 1999. Though it lacked information on actual academic impact, the report seemed to be reasonably fair and noted limitations like the lack of evidence that chronic truancy or tardiness had been reduced. Nevertheless, it was clear that the potential disadvantages of the block were not being seriously investigated. For example, in evaluating student attitudes toward the block, a survey was done using four standard questions:

The survey presumes that students like the block and that it has advantages. The question about changing one thing about the (block) schedule is not a serious attempt to investigate the disadvantages of the block. Who is out there asking questions like, "What are the disadvantages of the block?" or "Have you been covering less material on the block?"

Sometimes when the right questions are asked, the apparent advantages of the block may seem a lot less impressive than its proponents claim. As a general rule, a healthy dose of skepticism is needed when dealing with the claims of block scheduling proponents. Elizabeth Howard makes this point well in her article, "The Trouble with Block" in American School Board Journal (Jan. 1998, pp. 35-36). She notes the scarcity of research on the effects of block scheduling, and explains that administrators might not be prepared for the pitfalls of the system, even when they seem well prepared and trained. Therefore, those investigating the block need to dig deeper and ask tough questions:

When you call other schools to find out how block is working, consider talking to other staff members in addition to the principal. The registrar, curriculum coordinator, math and foreign language teachers, counselors, and cafeteria workers can add depth and insight to the information provided by proponents of block.
She also observes that the reality of the block often differs from the claims:
Does block scheduling give teachers more instructional time? Not necessarily. In fact, some teachers find they have less time with their students than before.... Consider the case of a Texas magnet school for math, science, and technology. On the traditional schedule, each class met for five 55-minute periods a week for a total of 550 minutes every two weeks. On block, each class met for 90 minutes on alternating days (three days one week, two days the next) for a total of 450 minutes every two weeks.... This amounts to 15 hours of lost time in one semester, 30 hours in the school year, or the equivalent of six weeks of class time under the traditional schedule.
Interestingly, she finds that claims of reduced drop outs and absenteeism may be an artifact of bookkeeping procedures - possibly a deliberately deceptive artifact. She illustrates with the case of a high school in Maricopa County, Arizona that adopted block scheduling.
[In this school] approximately the same number of students withdrew under block scheduling as had withdrawn before block scheduling, and for the same reasons. [The registrar] questions proponents' claims that absenteeism decreases under block. Administrators at her school insist that the absence rate is only 4 percent. "But we have only four blocks that kids can take classes in," she told me, "so four periods a day is the maximum they are counted absent in." The district office requires that blocks of time more than 60 minutes be counted as a double period, but [the] principal still counts the absences as single, giving the high school the lowest absence rate in the district.

When I pointed out that even 8 percent seems low for an absence rate, [the registrar] questioned all the figures. "We've had so much trouble getting into the block system this year that we've not had any time to check on it. Our work this year has been so slipshod, and my office has had to make tough choices. The teachers have been on an unofficial honor system. If they don't turn in their attendance, then their students aren't marked absent in any classes." Susan insisted that more clerical help is essential to keeping accurate records under block.

(See also Elizabeth Howard, "Block Scheduling and Advanced Placement Mathematics: When Tradition and Reform Collide," American Secondary Education, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 13-16. )

Remember, every change can have advantages as well as disadvantages. Both need to be considered.

Summary of the Problems [index]

1. Problems due directly or indirectly to attention span limitations: 2. Retention problems 3. Problems in transferring 4. Problems with Specific Courses 5. Academic performance: Block scheduling is unproven 6. Difficulty when school is missed

Views from Teachers [index]

While the vast majority of comments I have received from teachers regarding the block appear on page 4 of my block scheduling pages, where I have compiled comments from others, a couple of letters from teachers demand special consideration and are presented here. The letter address some of the specific raised previously.

Stephen V. Gilmore, a math teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, had the courage to publish the following letter in his local newspaper, The Star, on January 6, 2002, now available online at http://www.starnewspapers.com/star/spedit/let/061-ltr9.htm. His letter is reflective of many comments I have received from teachers who see that B.S. was not about improving academics.

Block scheduling: nothing more than gimmickry

A search for singer-songwriter Merrill Bainbridge led me to the site of your pop music critic, John Everson. This led me to investigate your newspaper further, whereupon I ran across a story about block scheduling.

My background: I grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. I attended high school 30 years ago, when a school day consisted of 8 periods of 45 minutes each. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics, I worked for 25 years as a consulting actuary.

I am now a first year high school math teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System (CMS), which operates on a block schedule -- a concept I had never even heard of until I accepted the teaching position with CMS.

My observations of block scheduling have been a shocking education for me. Block scheduling has resulted in less emphasis on core content and more on gimmickry.

Classes used to be places where serious learning took place. No more. Under block scheduling, they have become little more than glorified playtime periods.

Classes used to consist of core subject material being communicated to students by individuals rich in knowledge and experience. Now teachers are no longer teachers, but merely guides -- glorified baby-sitters, if you will.

Under block scheduling, the students are now in groups trying to "discover" facts that used to be communicated instantly when teachers actually taught.

It's obvious that this format wastes valuable class time -- and that doesn't include the time students waste by talking, singing, and becoming restless all-around as a result of the lengthened class periods.

Block scheduling is part of an overall emphasis on gimmicks such as whole math, where students at all levels learn to use calculators, and not much else.

This is apparent in the knowledge gap between my students and myself. Despite my having gone to school over 30 years ago, I still remember much of the math (and other subjects as well) that I learned in high school, whereas my pre-calculus students don't even remember the Algebra II they learned only last spring.

As the article mentioned, block scheduling is apparently the wave of the future for schools. Well, if block scheduling is the future, I have seen the future, and the future doesn't work! When you compare the traditional class schedule with block scheduling, it's no contest: the traditional class wins, by far.

In one of his most legendary songs, Willie Nelson offers the advice: "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys." To that I would add: "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to attend schools with block scheduling."

In Feb. 2005, I received permission to post a letter to a school board written by another experienced teacher, Bobby Chandler. He's been teaching in publc schools for 32 years, and is currently at Socastee High, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina where he teaches college preparatory, advanced placement, and International Baccalaureate history courses. His honors inclde being the 1992 South Carolina Daughters of the American Revolution Teacher of the Year, 1993 Horry County District Teacher of the Year, and 1993 South Carolina Honor Roll Teacher of the Year. He states that he has been publicly fighting block scheduling since 1996. It's an honor to hear from Mr. Chandler, whose views on the block and it's more experimental "hybrid" variants need to be considered by those who are toying with the block. Here is his letter:
Members of the Board:

Many are discovering the flaws of 4 x 4 block scheduling. Loris High and North Myrtle Beach High have abandoned it. Even North Carolina, a state that South Carolina often copies, one of the leading states in the nation in the implementation of 4 x 4, is now considering a change. What many are coming to realize is the need to provide continuity of learning over the entire course of a school year in smaller increments, because academic achievement is suffering. Dare I say it, the value of traditional scheduling is being rediscovered! A major problem for administration persists, however, the need to provide a scheduling construct that allows for more state mandated credits and, at the same time, the need to maximize resource allocations. National agendas which incorporate the needs of big business and governmental initiatives dare not be abandoned, for much more is at stake than academic achievement. The block scheduling construct must be maintained, or the restructuring of public education and the restructuring of American society will fail. Engineers of a new America, therefore, are toying with a compromise solution - hybrid scheduling. This, like 4 x 4, will be a huge disaster! I urge this Board to take the steps necessary for immediate public consideration and your subsequent approval of Dr. Peterson's proposal that an Executive Limitation be placed on the Superintendent that will require a traditional base schedule to be implemented in all high schools in the District.

Hybrid scheduling would utilize a block scheduling base that would merge 4 x 4, 4 A/B, and traditional scheduling. Some courses would meet every day for 90 minutes for one semester. Some would meet every other day for 90 minutes for two semesters. Some might even meet every day for 90 minutes for two semesters. Some would meet every day for 45 minutes for two semesters. These courses are currently referred to as "skinnies." Other variations and much flexibility could be offered in a hybrid construct. One might claim that time needed and subject matter could be matched for optimal delivery. Although this sounds like the solution to the problem of scheduling, one that should make many happy and serve as an effective compromise, hybrid scheduling would create even greater problems than 4 x 4, especially for classes with a traditional format.

Skinnies of 45 minutes would probably only be 35 minutes or so. If one considers that movement from one skinny class to another would entail about five minutes, and another five minutes or so would be necessary for roll and administrative incidentals, 35 minutes of instruction would probably be the norm. If skinnies are interrupted for unforeseen reasons, perhaps even 30 minutes or less of instruction would take place on any given day. Although students would benefit tremendously from having daily instruction in smaller increments, classes that are too short will not provide the necessary time for positive quantitative and qualitative activities and results.

A current state regulation requires that no class meet for less than 50 minutes (S. C. Code of Regulations 43-234, Section I, Number 2). There is a reason for this and one that should not be waived by the local board of trustees and the State Superintendent of Education (S. C. Code of Regulations, Section I, Number 5) in an attempt to implement a compromise solution to the on-going debate about high school scheduling. Most activities need a minimum amount of time to be successfully accomplished. Classes in the range of 50-55 minutes have traditionally been the most conducive to providing an acceptable amount of time on a daily basis. In addition, the continuity provided over the course of an entire school year has been the most appropriate way to ensure greater assimilation. We dare not lengthen the school day to accommodate 50 minute classes in a 4 x 4 construct. To do so would mean an additional hour added to the school day or an additional 15 minutes for every two, 50 minute skinnies. Blocked classes would need to be 105 minutes in length.

90 minute classes are far too long, in most cases. If some very specialized classes need expanded time, let us double block classes of 50 minutes. If we were to offer students seven, 50 minute classes, they would have 28 chances to get the mandated 24 credits, a much more reasonable scenario than the current possibility of 32 credits. A traditional base schedule, with some flexibility, would provide greater depth of learning, more continuity, and more time for the exploration of subject matter than would any block scheduling base, including trimester scheduling.

The Horry County School District should give serious consideration to Dr. Peterson's proposal and act expeditiously to return our high schools to a traditional base schedule. Experimentation with various forms of high school scheduling, if a traditional base is abandoned, will not produce greater academic achievement. It is time that we admit that the reform ideas of the sixties and the new restructuring movement of public education are making matters worse. We need a new debate, a real one, on how to improve public education. I have some ideas. In the near future, you are going to hear many of them.

Sincerely and professionally,

Bobby Chandler

Suggestions for Improved Use of Time [index]

Many people recognize the need for change in schools. Unfortunately, some people seem willing to jump at any proposed change in the hope that it might help. It sounds crazy, but I have heard several educators say that something has to be changed, block scheduling is a change, so why not try it? (Whatever happened to critical thinking skills?) Before we attempt changes, we should understand what the problems are and wisely pick reforms that target the problems rather than just shooting in the dark.

Students in this country spend about half as much time in core academic subjects as students in other countries. This point was made in the 1994 "Prisoners Of Time" reports by the National Education Commission On Time and Learning. One of the recommendations of that commission was to move toward block scheduling, but the reasoning behind that suggestion is shallow and unsupported by data. Block scheduling per se does not increase total time on core academic topics and often reduces it, as is the case when two 50-minute periods are replaced with a single 90-minute class.

Why do public schools in the United States spend so much less time on academics than other countries? It's not because of any fatal defect in class schedules, but in class content. U.S. schools insist upon far more time spent on "guidance," study halls, diversity training, "affective strands," health education, "critical thinking" skills, "cooperative learning," multiculturalism, conflict resolution, mandatory community service, driver education, and recycling projects. These components of education are not without value, but their value needs to be more critically weighed against the core academics which they displace. More carefully designed content rather than jumbled schedules or longer classes ought to be considered, in my opinion.

There are many opportunities for worthwhile reforms other than block scheduling. Magnet schools may be a valuable tool in some cases. Some scheduling adjustments might help. Reducing the time spent on "guidance" and "affective strands" in favor of more instruction may help. Adopting improved curricula to upgrade the content of courses is an obvious but often overlooked step. Offering more "challenge level" programs for kids that really want to learn is a possibility. I'm obviously not a professional educator and don't have all the answers, but I do know that block scheduling is being adopted in many cases out of ignorance. My advice: don't make changes just for the sake of changing. Look at alternatives carefully and demand hard data. Creative scheduling may be part of an overall solution, but let's make sure we know what the side effects may be.

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