Whatever Happened to School Bells?

In many of the political efforts over the past half-century to reform public secondary schools, ease the “grammar of schooling,” and make schooling appealing to America’s teenagers, block scheduling altered the daily flow of lesson after lesson with different teachers by extending class time from, say 45 minutes to an hour or hour and a half with a bell sounding to end the longer class period. Block scheduling has been integrated into many (but not most) American secondary schools (see earlier post on this incremental reform). Block scheduling was one way to crack the the structural walls of the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling. That hasn’t happened.

It is not that block scheduling has fizzled; it is that the overall structure of the age-graded school organization and interlocking factors (e.g., teacher beliefs and practices, daily teaching load, administrative leadership, student and parental involvement) that make a school a school. The sheer complexity of schooling and classroom practice–and where electric bells fit in–is too often underestimated by policymakers and wannabe reformers.

So it comes as no surprise that the omnipresent sound of school bells accompany even the shift to the innovation called block schedules. The answer to this post’s question: is that school bells are still around. For whom do those electric bells toll? Teachers and students.

Bells, buzzers, chimes, and other timed noises mark the beginning of the school day, each of the five or eight class periods in a secondary school, lunch time, and the end of the day. And do not forget fire drills, and lockdowns if (or when) dangerous individuals enter the school, and other times the principal decides that the electric bell system has to buzz, clang or chime.

For those who have forgotten how school bells sound, listen here. Perhaps a few cartoons can dredge up memories of school bells, clock-watching, and students packing up a few minutes before the bell rings.

When did electric bells begin in schools?

In one-room schoolhouses, the dominant way of organizing schools for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, teachers rang the school bell by pulling a rope that announced school was open and a hand-held bell on a desk to begin and end lessons for the multi-age children and teenagers. Some teachers still use a bell on the desk to announce a new activity or lesson.

By the 1920s, electric bell systems had entered elementary and secondary schools, especially high schools. They have been, as most readers of this blog know well, been part of going to U.S. public schools ever since. (note to readers: I have looked exhaustively for when electric bells replaced hand-rung bells in schools and the best I can do is place the adoption of automatic electric bells occurring in the early 1900s. If any readers know of sources that date it earlier or later, please let me know).

Have some schools dropped electric bell-driven schedules?

Hoping to create calmer, more peaceful atmospheres on campus, schools around the state are turning off their bell systems and letting students figure out when class starts the old-fashioned way: by looking at a clock.

“The only places that have bells any more are prisons and schools,” said Chris Calderwood, assistant principal at Rancho Mirage High School near Palm Springs. “The bottom line is, every kid has a cell phone in their pocket. They know what time it is. Why not trust the kids to manage their own time?”

Rancho Mirage High, which opened in 2013, has never used bells. In creating protocols for the new school when it opened, Calderwood and other administrators looked at a range of policies designed to teach life skills and improve campus culture. Dumping the bells was one of them.

Instead, the school uses rattles — literally an audio recording of a rattlesnake, the school mascot. The rattle is broadcast just three times: when school starts, after lunch, and at the end of the last period. The rest of the day, students look at the clock and switch classes on their own.

The purpose is to teach students how to manage their own time, and create a more relaxed campus. Students say it works.

Saul Mejia, a 12th grader, said he’s rarely late to class since he started at Rancho Mirage.

“I’m used to it. I just check the time on my phone,” he said. “It’s good having no bells. People can keep track of their own time. I think it works pretty well.”

The school also requires students to wear lanyards showing their ID cards, and cell phones are OK in class. Students are encouraged to do research and other class-related tasks on their phones, although games and texting are still prohibited.

Overall, these changes have greatly improved the campus climate, Calderwood said. Discipline issues and tardiness are minimal, and students have learned to keep track of time on their own — a valuable skill for almost any job, he said. Indeed, students who show up late for class can get penalized.

The only hitch is that sometimes the classroom wall clock, the teacher’s watch and the students’ cell phones have different times. The cell phone time is usually the correct time. And students are good about not setting alarms on their phones, so the class doesn’t erupt in a cacophony of beeps and jingles every 50 minutes.

California schools aren’t alone in experimenting with “no bell” policies. Schools around the country are also trying the quiet approach. Most of the “no bell” schools are high schools, where students are deemed responsible enough to get to class without high-decibel reminders.

And those reminders can be highly distracting. At a typical high school with seven periods and lunch, as many as 16 bells ring daily. If there’s an early morning period, throw in an extra two bells.

“We’re all used to no-bells by now. When I go to schools that do have bells, I want to stick a fork in my eye. It’s so obnoxious,” Calderwood said. “Education can be like a monolith, big and slow to change, but when you have a chance to try something new, and it works, that’s really rewarding.”

Yes, there are some high schools in the nation that have dispensed with electric bell systems. Teachers and students take responsibility for beginning and ending classes. But keep in mind that the vast majority of elementary and secondary public schools continue to use bells, chimes, or buzzers to begin the day, tell students when to leave one classroom and enter another, announce mid-morning breaks, lunch, and the end of school.

So for those earnest policymakers and practitioners who rail at the dominance of the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling, even getting rid of bell-driven schedules is a task that gives reformers heartburn.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Whatever Happened to School Bells?

  1. In israel, allot of high-schools, mid and primary school change the bell to a song played at the same time.
    So you have a song , either chosen by the children leadership or by the staff, that plays allot of times during the day. (Every time for 1.5 minutes approximately).
    Usually it creates an ironic situation or just a feeling of fed up from a certain (sometimes loved one) song.
    And then they choose a different one…

  2. David F

    Hi Larry, We tried to get rid of bells but ran into the problem of some teachers not being mindful of the time and going over into the next class (which is really annoying if you’re the teacher with a bunch of kids rolling in late). Personally, I don’t mind the bells.

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