February 23, 2005
As a consultant, I am often asked to assist a music program in assessing the potential effects of educational reform being proposed by their districts. These may relate to issues of reform, staffing, funding, or other some other aspect of the educational institution. Atypical example is a proposal for the adoption of block scheduling. I always begin the process by asking two questions.
- "What are the adult and student issues (benefits and shortcomings) in any proposal under consideration?"
- "Do the primary short and long-term benefit(s) accrue to the student?"
- Historical approaches to educational reform have included alternative forms of scheduling. One of the major approaches has been the block schedule. Although there is a significant lack of evidence of positive academic improvement, for over 60 years block scheduling has come and gone as school administrators have attempted to meet the demands of increasing student achievement. Over-emphasis on assessment of student achievement as measured by standardized test scores has been a primary catalyst.
Block scheduling comes in a variety of forms, most often the unmodified four-period school day commonly referred to as the 4 x 4 system. Students take four courses per semester, or up to eight courses per year. Each course is considered equivalent to a (former) full-year course. In the most common alternative, often referred to as the A/B system, the students take up to eight courses per year with classes meeting on alternate days for the entire year.
As school districts consider the adoption of block scheduling, they often establsih three basic assumptions.
- Students will have greater flexibility in scheduling; and, therefore, will be able to take more electives.
- Increases in the length of daily class session are better than shorter class periods extended of time. This is perceived of as an increase in student "contact time" that will result in increased student achievement.
- The length (number of minutes) of the school day will not change. This is normally a financial issue, because instructional costs would increase proportionately with the number of minutes added beyond those specified in the teacher contract.
A comparison the traditional and block schedule are illustrated in the table below. From the example you can determine the benefits and shortcomings of block scheduling to adult and student constituents in your school district. (Substitute appropriate data from your district to make comparative results.)
|Traditional (6-period Day)||Block (4x4 or A/B)|
|Length of School Day||355 Minutes||355 Minutes|
|Student Load||6 classes per day||4 classes per day|
|Class Length||55 minutes||85 minutes|
|Sessions per Course||180||90|
|Average Class Size||30||32.5|
|Daily Student Class Time||330 Minutes||340 minutes|
|Between-class Time||25 minutes (5 x 5)||15 minutes (3 x 5)|
|Teacher Load||5 classes per day||3 classes per day|
|Daily Teacher Class Time||275 minutes||255 minutes|
|Daily Teacher Prep Time||55 minutes||85 minutes|
By using the comparative data of the two forms of scheduling, you can determine the adult and student issues, the benefits and shortcomings of a proposed change to block scheduling, and who wins or loses. The partial list included below assumes the adoption of a block schedule as in the comparison data. (Student issues are in bold).
- There are less courses to schedule (4 instead of 6), reducing the workload of counselors. However, the probability of schedule conflict for the student is increased from 1:6 to 1:4. There will be increased difficultly in scheduling courses that are sequential; and, in some cases, an entire semester may go by before scheduling the next course. In the case of music performance, a student may not be able to schedule music for an entire year.
- The number of teachers on "preparatory" (non-teaching) time increases from 1:6 to 1:4. The district must hire additional teaching staff (8%) to compensate for the extra teachers on "prep" time, or increase student class sizes by 8%. There may also be a need to find additional classrooms.
- Teacher workloads are reduced from five classes per day to three. Curricular options in any subject area in which there is only one teacher (e.g., music, world languages, art) will be reduced by 40%.
- With students changing classes only three times per day, there tend to be less discipline problems. The 10 minutes gained from less time changing classes is added to instructional time (2.5 minutes per class).
- However, in practice many teachers are giving a 10-minute "mental" break during the 85-minute class. Others are using the "extra" class time as a guided "study hall" in which students can complete their homework.
- With each course meeting for one semester the number of classes is reduced from 180 to 90. In order to complete the equivalent number of assignments, a teacher on block schedule must cover the material of traditional class periods in on class. Further, in the traditional six-period day a (55-minute) class meets 180 times for a total of 9,900 minutes. Under the block scheduling format an (85-minute) class meets only 90 times, or a total of 7,650 minutes. This loss of 2,250 minutes of instructional time is the equivalent to a reduction of eight (8) weeks of instructional time per course for the student. In sequential courses that cover two semesters (two years on a traditional system), a total of 16 weeks of instructional time is lost. To achieve full mastery of subject competences, some districts have additional course requirements for graduation to make up for lost time in those curricular areas.
It should come as little surprise that even after decades of use there is no scientific evidence of increased student achievement under the block schedule format. Information released by the College Board and the AP (Advanced Placement) Testing Service appears to substantiate the evidence of the negative impact of block scheduling on student performance. In responding to poor student performance in states or districts with block scheduling they stated, "Students who completed year-long AP courses offered only in the fall or spring have tended to perform poorly on the examinations;" and, further stated that "the majority of AP teachers, coordinators, readers, and test development committee members opposed block scheduling." The board suggests "there is a need for controlled, longitudinal studies of the impact of block scheduling upon learning." (Office of Regional Affairs, College Board. July 14, 1998.)
Perhaps that is why so many districts that have implemented block scheduling have subsequently dropped it as ineffective.
In spite of the many negatives, many districts have adopted the block schedule. In the next issue we will look at some strategies that may be implemented to ensure the continuance of a strong music curriculum when a district mandates a change to the block schedule.
[Note: Significant information related to block scheduling has been contributed by Dr. Stephen J. Benham. He is currently Assistant Professor of Music at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Portions of this entry are extracted from an article we co-authored as published in the Instrumentalist, August, 1996.]
Until next time,