Is block scheduling all bad ?

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March 20, 2017 by stoptheblockhvrhs

“Block scheduling” is a blanket term that includes many variations of schedules based on the concept of fewer classes of longer length each day.  In his book “The Block Scheduling Handbook” author Jame Allen Queen stated that as of the writing (2008) he had counted at least 52 variations on block scheduling in use in the US.  The schedule being planned for HVRHS this fall includes three major components that differ from the current schedule.

The Extended Block

The extended (or long) block is the underlying tenet of block scheduling.  The promises of the extended block include:

  • More time for teachers to go into depth on any given day before breaking for the next class.
  • Fewer classroom changes during the day, making the pace less hectic and making it easier for students to focus on subjects.

The challenges that come from implementing extended blocks include:

  • Being able to exploit the promised benefits while covering the material
  • Sacrificing breadth for depth has consequences; students may not be ready for follow on class or college
    • teachers need to try new techniques to hold attention of students for 80 minutes in order to cover the material
      missing a class means missing more material
  • Trying to make up that material takes more time
  • Even when teachers can maintain the interest of most students, some will struggle to stay interested for 80 minutes

Semester Classes

The second aspect of HVRHS’ new schedule that represents a change is semester-based classes.  This is not an inherent or necessary part of block scheduling.  While some variations of block scheduling, including the 4×4 use only semester classes, many use only year long classes (in A/B blocks or other rotations, such as 5 classes a day in an 8 day rotation).  Some do a hybrid implementation, as HVRHS is currently planning, but with variations.  Among those who use a combination of semester and year long classes, most use A/B blocks for band and world languages, but also for math, to provide continuity there as well.  Some schools split the day between traditional year long classes of shorter duration and long block semester based classes instead of A/B.
The main argument in favor of a semester based class over an A/B class is that the more semester based classes a student has, the fewer classes he or she has to focus on during the semester.  The challenges are:

  • certain classes, like band and ag, need to be attended year round.  This is addressed in the schedule, but leads to the potential for scheduling difficulties (see below)
  • retention and continuity
    • Unless a student is a glutton for punishment and wishes to give up an elective to take 2 math classes per year, there will be large gaps in time between math classes.  This is already addressed for world languages, why not for math ?  It is an acknowledged problem as it is being addressed for AP classes.  In looking at schools that do use semester classes, math is mostly typically lumped in with band and world languages as a subject that is taken year round.
  • Covering the material in half as many days
    • Provide ample practice (homework) in math outside of class (spending more time in class sacrifices teaching time)
  • Scheduling conflicts.  Already, mock schedules being presented to students show major difficulties in allowing students to enroll in desired classes.

Fixed Schedule

The final significant change in the schedule is the move from a rotating schedule to a fixed schedule.  While some schools have moved from a standard fixed 7/8 period schedule to a fixed 4×4 schedule, we could find no claimed benefit of a fixed schedule over a rotating schedule.  Indeed, many schools that are on block schedules rotate their schedules, as HVRHS does today, so that students are not in the same class every day, first thing in the morning, or right after lunch, or at the end of the day when sports might interfere.

As we have stated previously, we believe that the current schedule at HVRHS is superior to the schedule being planned for next year.  That does not mean we do not acknowledge some of the claimed benefits of various block schedules.  It would be hard to argue against the promise of extended blocks were it not for the weight of the downsides.  But not all variations on block scheduling come with the same downsides.  Each one offers its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses.  All of this argues for looking at a scheduling change properly.  More to follow …

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