Block Schedule Endures, But Results Are Unclear

At a new teacher orientation last week at Annapolis High School, Shelli Slutskin, the county's K-12 coordinator of science education, left, works with new science teacher Lisa Vollenweider.
At a new teacher orientation last week at Annapolis High School, Shelli Slutskin, the county's K-12 coordinator of science education, left, works with new science teacher Lisa Vollenweider. (By Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005

When the Anne Arundel County school system nearly doubled the length of classes at Severna Park High School, Renee Belisle found it harder to sit still. And the more demanding regimen seemed to stress out her teachers.

But there were things Belisle liked about the school's move in fall 2003 to divide the school day into larger blocks of time -- known as block scheduling. The new schedule, which called for longer classes to be held every other day, added two class slots. This allowed Belisle to take Advanced Placement Spanish literature her senior year. The extra classes might have helped her get into Cornell.

"It was good to be able to take more classes and just kind of see what you wanted to do," said Belisle, who will start college this fall. "But you don't know if they got watered down for [the sake of] quantity instead of quality."

Like the Prince George's system, the Anne Arundel school system has begun its third year of block scheduling. In Anne Arundel, it has proven to be one of the most significant, and disputed, changes imposed by Superintendent Eric J. Smith in a bid to raise high schools' academic caliber.

From its origins in the school-reform period of the early 1990s, block scheduling has slowly expanded across the region. Neither a sweeping change nor a fad, the block schedule is now embraced in roughly half of the Maryland suburbs as a tool to increase academic depth and flexibility. And most communities have departed from the traditional schedule of six or seven 55-minute classes.

Smith placed the county's 12 public high schools on matching block schedules two years ago. In Prince George's, then-schools chief Andre J. Hornsby imposed block scheduling in Prince George's County high schools the same year. Frederick County high schools, among the first on the East Coast to try block scheduling, made the change in 1991. Fairfax County, the largest school system in Northern Virginia, began moving to block scheduling in 1993 and now has every high school on the schedule.

Howard County, by contrast, took several high schools off block scheduling in 2004 when the system adopted a uniform class schedule based on 55-minute periods but incorporating elements of the block schedule. Six of Montgomery County's 24 high schools use block schedules. The format is uncommon in Southern Maryland.

The underlying trend might not be block scheduling so much as uniformity: Superintendents are increasingly placing schools on similar bell schedules, with similar textbooks and lesson plans.

They speak of a need to standardize what is taught from room to room and from school to school; to guarantee that a certain amount of instructional time is spent on math or reading or some other academic priority; and to simplify such tasks as training new teachers.

"When I first arrived, we had three different types of schedules," said Smith, the Anne Arundel superintendent. Now, he said, "we're all talking about the same textbook, and we're all talking about the same amount of time."

Block scheduling came about as a way to break up the assembly-line schedule that dominated high schools until the 1990s. The theory: Longer classes would give teachers more time for instruction and for using a variety of teaching styles, and students would spend less time walking through halls between classes and settling into their chairs at the start of classes. The schedule seemed natural for, say, science teachers, whose typical lesson might involve a lecture and laboratory work.

Frederick high schools were among the first to adopt a form of block scheduling known as the 4x4 model. Students take four classes at a time on a semester system. The format allows students to complete eight courses in a year, compared with six or seven in the traditional schedule. Teachers' planning periods are extended from about 50 minutes to 90. And the average teacher "load," the number of students taught in an academic session, is reduced by about half, to 100 or fewer.

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