Popular reform draws mixed reviews
Block scheduling, where students study topics in intense spurts, may hurt performance on standardized tests.
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The 4 x 4 is the system that comes in for the heaviest criticism, in part because it leaves lengthy time gaps in the academic sequence. A student who takes geometry in the fall of his sophomore year, for instance, may not have a math class again until the fall or spring of his junior year. The Iowa State study indicated that schools on the 4 x 4 system showed more dramatic declines on the ACT.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's easier to retain information when you spread it out through the year," says Heather McKelvey, who just graduated from Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School. She found that staying away from studies like math for months at a time made it hard to stay sharp. "It would take me at least a week just to remember where to put the exponents and how to set up the equations."
She succeeded in the end, but says she felt she was fighting against the block system rather than being helped by it.
Shariff Dunlap, a junior at King who failed both chemistry and Spanish, says he felt defeated by the system. "The periods are so long and boring, and it makes the kids be bad and talk too much during class," he says. He's also worried now about repeating Spanish this fall after a gap of almost nine months. "I don't remember any of it now," he says.
At Creston High School in Iowa, where an alternating block schedule has been in effect for seven years now, principal Todd Wolverton says test scores have remained steady, despite early hopes that the new schedule would spur academic improvement.
But in terms of atmospherics, Mr. Wolverton says block scheduling has been good for his school.
Students now take more classes, experience fewer disciplinary problems, and have better attendance. "It's been great for our chemistry classes and some of our vocational classes. In home ec you can bake the cookies and eat them, too," he says.
Math teachers in his school still dislike it, says Steve Westerberg, principal of Denison High School in Iowa. But he estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the faculty favor the block system they've now used for seven years.
"It gets teachers away from just lecturing and provides good opportunities for staff development," he says. It also allows short local field trips like visits to a courthouse or conservation site to take place during class time.
But he also cautions against expecting too much from the system. "It's just an arrangement of time. If schools are looking for a magic bullet, this isn't it."
Students have time to learn a subject matter in greater depth.
Schools with block schedules tend to give fewer failing grades and have lower dropout rates and fewer discipline problems.
Less time is lost in the halls between classes.
There is more time for student-teacher interaction, group work, discussion, labs, field trips, and other projects, including off-site employment or internships.
There is more time for teacher planning.
Longer time gaps between instruction and standardized exams may hurt test scores.
Student absences of even a day or two are hard to make up.
Transfers from school to school become more difficult.
Many teachers have not been trained to engage students in periods as long as 90 minutes.
Some subjects requiring regular repetition and dependent on a particular sequence of lessons like math, foreign language, and music can be particularly difficult to teach in block periods.
Less material may be covered.