Fiddling with Time in Classrooms: Whatever Happened to Block Scheduling?

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:

CHS-Bell-Schedule.jpg

A 4X4 schedule with 90-120 minutes for subject daily; students complete a course within one semester:

 

Sample+4x4+9th+Grade+Schedule.jpg

 

The most popular version of block scheduling is the A/B:

 

BLOCKsched-1024x406.jpg

And there are hybrids that mix block and traditional scheduling for a student’s and teacher’s day:

 

WHS-Schedule-2015-2016.jpg

 

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.

20 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

20 responses to “Fiddling with Time in Classrooms: Whatever Happened to Block Scheduling?

  1. I’ve taught at four schools. My student teaching school did hybrid, my first school did A/B, and my current school does 4 x 4. My third school was traditional when I worked there but is now hybrid.

    I dislike hybrid and A/B. In both cases, the last 30 minutes of classtime were worthless most days–the kids lost focus. Most of the teachers I knew agreed with me on this.

    I love 4 by 4. The only downside is coverage–it’s hard to transition from one subject to another. However, the kids cheerfully work bell to bell.

    So why does 4 by 4 work so well? It’s the same amount of time either way. The only reason I’ve come up with is that the kids have fewer classes. No evidence for it.

    I quite liked traditional schedule, too. I’d work it again, although it’d be a change. I found it quite easy to just expand lessons over three days, if I wanted to focus in on a topic. And it was much more relaxing to have the entire year.

    Most schools I know of do some version of block, but that might just be anecdotal.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    I wonder how many of these decisions are now linked to software systems and the assumptions that make these work, and “scale”that is, as a district-wide scheme. I’d guess that two of our local schools with selective admissions and programs would have school-specifc schedules, while many more might have the same basic schedule. It is also easy to overlook how bus or other transportation schedules affect start and end times for a school day. Here are some of the software products available for scheduling. https://www.capterra.com/school-administration-software/#infographic

  3. My district typically uses block scheduling (at the secondary level) during state-wide testing. Otherwise we use a traditional six period schedule which is a whirlwind of 46-55 minutes. I prefer (and look forward to) block schedules because we have time to delve deeper into the content and it gives students the much needed think time to process information.

  4. David F

    There’s a new schedule system that is making the rounds in independent schools pushed by ISM–it involves an 8 day cycle, 6 periods per day, where a class meets for 6 of the 8 days in the cycle. Periods are rotated in terms of when they meet, with 5 being 45 mins and 1 65 mins. There’s a 50 minute “community period” every day as well for activities or study hall.

    Our teachers mostly hate it, as it means that we won’t see our students for lengthy periods of time if the non-meeting days fall around a weekend or holiday. The students like it because they have a lot more free time–often having 2 periods per day plus a built in lunch of unstructured time. ISM has little actual research to support their claims IMHO, but use a lot of “21st century skills” stuff to promote their product.

  5. I teach at a school with A/B schedule, 4 X 90 minute periods per day. I like it much better that when I taught 50 minute periods. In my math classes I am never in a rush to complete a lecture or class assignment. The kids usually have time to complete homework in class where I can actually help them or answer questions. For the science teachers it is great. They can actually finish most labs in one period. The PE teacher actually has time to play a game of some kind. I can see an issue with it in states that require the teachers to go from point A to point B without concern for depth or retention. n If I had to go back to 50 minute periods I suspect I would lose scope. The 90 minute periods allow me to blend several sections (if I am following a text) into one period instead of the traditional one section per class per day. The blending has a tendency to make connections with math topics better. Concepts do not end up quite so compartmentalized. Yes, there are some drawbacks to 90 minute periods. I cannot do math for 90 minutes. If I cannot the kids sure cannot. Sometimes my programming classes get a bit twitchy after 60 minutes at a keyboard. We have to go outside and sit on the grass to get away from computer screens. 90 minutes is a long time for a kid to sit in front of a computer screen. Other times, especially if they are working on a Unity project, the long periods are perfect.

    Any schedule has pros and cons but many years of experience has convinced me the A/B schedule has fewer cons that the 7 or 8 X 50 schedule.

  6. Pingback: What happened to block scheduling? – Connected Teaching and Learning

  7. Wrote an answer to you here Larry. Perhaps you can visit my school, I sure would like to visit yours. https://annmichaelsen.com/2018/08/29/what-happened-to-block-scheduling/

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Ann, and your experience in the high school in which you teach and administer (Sandvika vgs, near Oslo,Norway).

  8. In Oakland, as a result of our Parcel Tax, we have begun large scale implementation of Linked Learning and Career Academies. One of the consequences is that several of our schools have adopted some variation of block and/or 8period days. As the oversight Commission, we asked staff to conduct a year long action research study of what our schools are learning about the investment in changes in the schedule… is it fundamental ? is it disruptive? what changes does it require in teacher behavior? student behavior? how much does it ultimately cost? what is gained/lost? Hope you can help us design the questions!!!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Gary.You already are asking solid questions. Be sure to document what schedule changes were made at each school.

  9. Pingback: Reorganizing the schedule – Connected Teaching and Learning

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