Fads rule much of American education. A good example is block scheduling. In most high schools in the Washington area — and much of the rest of the country — that innovation has replaced the traditional 45-minute daily class periods with classes that meet every other day for as long as 90 minutes each.
The block approach, influenced by the work of University of Virginia school administration expert Robert Lynn Canady, swept through this area in the 1990s. I had to explain it in several stories then. It was not easy. The array of colors and numbers used to distinguish each class was bewildering.
Still, about three-quarters of this region’s high schools, and many middle schools, have stuck with block schedules, even though many educators have a difficult time explaining why. Studies say neither block nor regular schedules make much of a difference.
Some schools have shifted back to regular schedules. Few had adopted block scheduling in recent years until now, when Arlington County sparked a parent rebellion with a plan to install block scheduling in all five county middle schools.
Arlington middle schools are doing well in a county with the nation’s highest percentage of college-graduate residents. Many parents ask: Why mess with that?
The idea of altering middle school schedules grew out of reports from the teacher-parent-resident committees that look into everything in Arlington. School officials say many expressed concern that middle school lessons weren’t as deep or as varied, nor as accessible to low-income students, as they ought to be.
Schools Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy, who installed a block schedule when he was the principal of a middle school in Fairfax County, said regular-length periods are too short for the kind of creative teaching needed. “We are doing a disservice to students to run them through a seven-period day with a 45 minute turnaround,” he said.
Margaret Gilhooley, interim assistant superintendent for instruction, said that, in elementary school, “if a class is not grasping a concept, you can expand the time.” With just 45 minutes in middle school, that is difficult to do.
Some Arlington parents say they fear the complications of the block system will shortchange English, physical education, music, art and foreign language instruction. “For students who miss school occasionally for various reasons, it could be harder for them to catch up,” said Doug Levin, who has middle and elementary school children.
Another protesting parent, Tara Claeys, noted that Glasgow Middle School in Fairfax was returning to regular scheduling because its test scores dropped during three years of block scheduling.
The research is slippery and inconclusive. A 2006 U-Va. study said students on block schedules in high school did somewhat worse in college science courses than those who had regular schedules. A 2010 review of research in British schools concluded that block scheduling did not produce negative outcomes but that the positive effects “are not strong enough to recommend their implementation.”
Many teachers like the opportunity to go deeper in each class period than 45 minutes. They will object to my calling block scheduling a fad. But in Montgomery County, where individual schools decide the issue, faculties have been split. When Montgomery’s Albert Einstein High School dropped block scheduling in 2007, students — particularly in foreign languages — said they preferred the daily schedule because they were less likely to forget their lessons.
Murphy canceled a plan to have two middle schools try block schedules next fall. The earliest the switch would be made will be fall 2013. He said he will review what parents and others say at forums and listen to his teachers and principals.
When schools adopt policies, fads or not, that don’t appear to help children learn more, parents resisting the change have a strong argument and deserve to be heard.
To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to postlocal.com.