By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Anne Arundel school leaders are moving toward a fundamental shift in how high school courses are scheduled, in response to teacher complaints of excessive workloads under the current system of double-length "block schedule" classes.
After just one meeting last week, a school system task force already seems to have reached consensus that the current high school schedule should be scrapped.
Students now take classes in a given subject on alternating days: four 86-minute classes on one day, four different classes of the same duration the next, for a total of eight classes in the academic year, a schedule known in education as the A/B block.
Enacted in fall 2003 by then-Superintendent Eric J. Smith, the A/B block schedule increased the number of classes students could take in a year from six to eight. It's widely acknowledged that students are better off taking more courses; the expanded offerings allow for more academic exploration and place students on a stronger competitive footing with those in other Washington-area systems.
But teachers have found their student loads vastly increased under block scheduling. Teachers typically went from teaching five classes a day to six classes across two days, and from serving about 150 students to 180 or more. The schedule emerged as the leading complaint among teachers leaving the system, cited by 71 percent of departing teachers in exit surveys. It is perhaps the most controversial of all the policies enacted during Smith's three-year tenure in Anne Arundel.
"To a person, the high school principals were adamant that we need to make a change promptly," said Kenneth Nichols, interim deputy superintendent and leader of the task force charged with studying the schedule.
The study group has already decided against returning to the old schedule of six 55-minute classes in most Anne Arundel high schools before 2003, Nichols said. It allowed students to take just 24 courses in four years of high school, not enough offerings to build the rich transcript of electives and advanced coursework that many four-year colleges expect from strong applicants.
Instead, the task force is leaning toward a new kind of block schedule. Known in academia as 4x4, the schedule has students take four long classes daily for a semester, then take four different courses in the next semester. The proposed schedule would lighten teacher loads to 100 or fewer students while preserving the competitive advantages of offering eight courses a year.
Anne Arundel teachers never objected to the block schedule itself; it was the load of students that drove them away, said Sheila Finlayson, president of the county teachers union.
"I've got a whole drawer of research here that supports the model they're considering," she said.
Roughly half the high schools in the Washington suburbs of Maryland use block scheduling. Both Anne Arundel and Prince George's adopted the A/B block, while Frederick County schools were among the first in the region to adopt the 4x4 model, in 1991. In contrast, only six of 24 Montgomery high schools, and no Howard high schools, operate on block schedules.
There are other ways to offer high school students more than the six credits a year they earned in Anne Arundel under the old system. School systems can, and occasionally do, subdivide the day into seven or eight classes of shorter lengths. But that typically means hiring more teachers to teach the extra classes, and that comes at a substantial cost. The block schedule accomplishes the same goal with fewer teachers and at a lower cost, essentially by having each teacher teach more classes over the course of the year.
Predictably, the proposed 4x4 schedule presents a new raft of problems for teachers and students. Students who take Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams in the spring may have a hard time recalling material they studied in a first-semester course, which, under the 4x4 schedule, would have ended months earlier. The schedule strains electives; band and chorus classes, for example, are typically offered continuously throughout the school year, not in a single semester. And a schedule with only four slots presents potential scheduling conflicts.
There's also concern about a time gap between courses in such areas as mathematics and foreign language, whose advocates stress the importance of students keeping in practice with those subjects.
"Technically, a freshman could take algebra or geometry in the first semester of freshman year and then not take anything [math-related] until the second semester of their sophomore year. That's almost a year's gap of having no math," said Debbie Ritchie, the countywide PTA president, who's involved in the scheduling discussions.
Under a modified block schedule being discussed in Anne Arundel, students would be able to subdivide one 86-minute course into two shorter classes, allowing for more flexibility in electives. Accommodations would have to be made for students taking spring AB and IB tests.
"One thing that's almost absolutely certain," said Arlen Liverman, director of high schools, is that "we don't want to have a schedule where a student finishes a course in January and doesn't take the exam until May."
The pace set by this task force is swift by the standards of public education policymaking: The group plans three further meetings in early January and hopes to present a recommendation to interim Superintendent Nancy M. Mann by the middle of that month.
The task force's sense of urgency stems from the disquieting rate of teacher turnover at the high school level, administrators say. Teacher resignations in Anne Arundel spiked from 295 in the 2001-02 academic year, before universal block scheduling, to 467 in 2004-05. Combined resignations and retirements at the secondary level, encompassing both middle and high schools, totaled 242 in 2004-05, or about 10 percent of teachers at that level. Resignations and retirements in elementary schools totaled 160, or about 7 percent of teachers at that level, according to Florie Bozzella, human resources director.
"About the third week in January" would be the deadline for making any change in time for the 2006-07 academic year. That is the strong hope of the task force, Liverman said, because students will need time to schedule classes well in advance. "We may just be holing up somewhere and hammering this out."