Time in school is a precious resource. State policymakers determine how many days a year schools will be open; district boards of education decide when school will open in the morning and adjourn in the afternoon. And classroom teachers constantly check the clock on the wall, their wrist watches, or other time pieces to insure that current pace of lesson will end tidily when the bell rings. Policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers assume that how much time students spend with teachers in class makes a difference in what is learned, the classroom climate, while growing the all-important relationship between teacher and student. Thus, time in school is both scarce and precious (see here, here, and here).
No surprise, then, that given these assumptions about the importance of time state and district policymakers–the U.S. has a decentralized system of schooling rooted in 50 states and more than 13,000 districts–have fiddled with the school’s daily schedule. Most schools in the U.S. meet for at least six hours a day–since it is the primary instrument for distributing time to classroom learning and other activities.
Consider the unrelenting efforts to reform the nation’s secondary schools since the 1890s–yes, over a century and a quarter of efforts to improve what were once called junior and senior high schools, capstones of U.S. public education (see here, here, and here). In nearly all instances, reformers have included changes in secondary school daily schedules especially since the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.
Enter block scheduling as a reform of the traditional daily schedule.
What is block scheduling and when did it begin?
Block scheduling takes the traditional daily schedule of 6-8 classes a day of between 45-50 minutes–a schedule that dates back to the 1920s–and reorganizes the day into blocks of 60-90 minutes for various subjects on different days of the week. There are variations of block scheduling.
A traditional daily schedule:
A 4X4 schedule with 90-120 minutes for subject daily; students complete a course within one semester:
The most popular version of block scheduling is the A/B:
And there are hybrids that mix block and traditional scheduling for a student’s and teacher’s day:
What problems did block scheduling aim to solve?
Students took too many subjects a day (five to seven daily) with teachers seeing 125-150 students daily. That was a constant in the age-graded secondary school since the early 20th century. Within the traditional schedule, there has been insufficient time to develop concepts, build relationships between students and teacher, and cover subject matter and skills. Block scheduling offers students fewer subjects with enough time to handle a subject and lower the daily number of students each teacher faces than does the traditional high school bell schedule. Champions of block scheduling claim that the problems of low achievement, lack of interest in school subjects, chaos of constant movement of students through the school day and academic stress would decline.
Has block scheduling worked?
The answer depends upon who and what you read. Some researchers have become advocates of the reform and their research focuses on what they call “successful” instances (see here and here). Other researchers who have looked at all the studies–called meta-analyses–done on block scheduling and its various forms–reach different conclusions ranging from slight positive differences in one or more factors to no differences between traditional and block scheduling in its various incarnations (see here, here and here). The varied returns promised by block scheduling have yet to appear sufficiently to say that altering the time students spend with teachers in a block schedule has “worked.”
What has happened to block scheduling?
I found it difficult to locate any recent reliable estimate of the number of U.S. secondary schools that use versions of block schedules. I did find state estimates. In Washington state, about one-third of all high schools used one or another version of the schedule (see here). In some states, the percentage runs much higher. North Carolina had in 2009 nearly 90 percent of its high school using some form of block scheduling. In some places such as the metro Washington, D.C., school districts have tried block scheduling but decided to return to traditional ones. But at no point in the lifespan of this reform have I found evidence that a majority of U.S. secondary schools use block scheduling. The traditional schedule of six to eight periods of around 45-50 minutes continues to dominate the daily life of public secondary schools in the U.S.