Popular reform draws mixed reviews
Block scheduling, where students study topics in intense spurts, may hurt performance on standardized tests.
The concept of "block scheduling" teaching in 90- rather than 45-minute periods swept through US high schools in the 1990s. But today, opinions on its degree of success run the gamut from upbeat and positive to angry and condemnatory.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's all less hectic," says Carol Ladd, a German teacher at Marnacock High School in Readfield, Maine, where block scheduling has been in place for four years. "There's time to introduce material, then manipulate and reinforce it. Retention is better." Students and faculty alike embrace the idea at her school, she says.
But at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School in Philadelphia, not everyone shares that sentiment. "It's absolutely horrible," says Lynn Dixon, an English teacher at the school, where block scheduling has been in effect for four years. "The kids are wildly bored, the teachers are wildly bored, discipline is worse, and the kids are out of the loop for standardized tests."
Some faculty have actually quit in frustration over the system, says Ms. Dixon.
Now fresh research is roiling the block-scheduling debate. A study of Illinois and Iowa high schools done by Iowa State University and the administrators of the ACT assessment suggests that the system causes student scores on the ACT to decline.
It's not the first time block scheduling has been called into question. The idea of turning high school classes into longer, more intense study units like those a college student might experience has come under fire in recent years. One frustrated Wisconsin parent maintains a website that includes an exhaustive index of negative research findings on block scheduling (www.jefflindsay.com/Block.shtml).
But block scheduling still has its enthusiastic supporters. The idea was made popular in recent decades by school reformers, who questioned the almost universally accepted tradition, in place since the early 1900s, of requiring all high school classes to meet for 45 to 50 minutes every school day.
Lengthening class periods, they recommended, would force teachers out of a lecture-only mode of teaching, allow students to engage more deeply in material, and cut down on disciplinary problems and time wasted in the hall between classes. The idea gained momentum rapidly throughout the 1990s and got a significant boost in 1994, when the National Education Commission released its "Prisoners of Time" report, which included a recommendation that high schools experiment with block scheduling.
Between 25 and 40 percent of high schools now use block scheduling, according to some estimates. In some states, that figure is significantly higher. In North Carolina, for instance, almost 90 percent of high schools have embraced the system. Some middle schools across the country have also moved toward the longer class periods.
There are two basic models for block scheduling. One, known as the 4 x 4, requires students to take four lengthy classes a day for a semester. The next semester, they move on to four different subjects.
The other model is sometimes called an A-B-A-B, or alternating system. Students have four extended class periods a day, but then alternate with four different classes the next day, allowing them to take eight classes spread out over the course of the school year.