By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008
In most public high schools in the Washington area, classes last as long as 90 minutes apiece and course lineups for each student alternate every day under the block-scheduling innovation that took root a decade ago. Campuses often use color coding to remind students where to go. Fairfax High School, for one, has "blue days" and "gray days."
But some schools are switching back to the old routine of 45-minute daily classes as educators and researchers question whether the new approach has led to higher achievement.
Block scheduling aims to maximize time for in-depth teaching and opportunities for students to meet graduation requirements. Usually the schedules mean four courses one day and four others the next, although sometimes courses alternate in fall and spring.
Skeptics say students lose concentration during long classes and teachers lose chances to reinforce lessons through daily, year-long contact. Faculty support for the block system is declining in many schools, with some fashioning hybrid schedules, part block and part traditional.
After trying block schedules, Howard County decided five years ago to move all its high schools back to a traditional schedule of nearly all classes meeting every day. This school year, Albert Einstein High School in Montgomery County reverted to a traditional schedule -- seven 45-minute periods a day.
Eric Klein, a 12th-grader at the Kensington school, said he likes the change because shorter periods "make the day go a lot faster." Ariel "Cookie" Solomon, also in 12th grade, said she and her friends liked the block format because they had homework for only four classes each day. But the return to a daily schedule makes it easier to keep up in Spanish, a class in which "you can forget things," she said.
About three-fourths of the region's public high schools have some form of block scheduling, and the format is also popular elsewhere. Many educators support it because it allows room for more courses at a time when state governments are insisting on more credits for graduation. Some private schools also prefer the schedule for its flexibility and resemblance to college timetables. If teachers are well-trained, educators say, a 90-minute period without interruptions can be more exciting and productive than the 45-minute classes most parents remember.
But Einstein Principal James G. Fernandez said he is unconvinced that block scheduling, used in his school for several years, raises student achievement. He suggested that the format might lead some students to drop out because of long classes. So why have so many schools adopted it? "Other than it was the fad, I'm not really sure," he said. He said he switched back to a traditional schedule because it allowed a longer lunchtime for one-on-one work with students and because it might help prevent students from dropping out.
"Show me some data that indicates kids perform better" with block scheduling, Fernandez said. No such research has materialized, several experts said. In some cases, including a 2006 University of Virginia-Harvard University study of high school science courses, students on block schedules appeared to be doing worse than those on traditional schedules.
The study, by U-Va. researchers Kirsten M. Dexter and Robert H. Tai, joined by Harvard researcher Philip M. Sadler, was notable in part because U-Va. is considered the cradle of block scheduling, influenced by Prof. Robert Lynn Canaday's studies on the most effective ways to organize school days.
"We were quite surprised to see that block scheduling didn't play out in our research," said Tai, an associate education professor. One problem, he said, was that science teachers, despite being strong supporters of longer periods to allow lecture and laboratory time, could not sustain student interest for 90 minutes. "You have to do something with that time," he said. "Otherwise, the kids are going to be sitting there staring at you, and that is an unhappy situation."
A few education activists, including Jeff Lindsay in Appleton, Wis., have created Web sites that criticize block scheduling. But for the most part, the change to longer, less-frequent class periods received little notice because most students -- who often disliked juggling seven periods a day -- did not complain.
The Knox County, Tenn., school system was among the first to adopt block scheduling in 1993. Donna Wright, now an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction there, said she became interested in the format when she and other principals were looking for a way to expand schedules to help students meet lengthier graduation requirements. Each student needed eight classes a year to make room for required courses and interesting electives. But there was no room for eight periods a day. Having four periods a day, alternating every other day or every semester, seemed the way to go.
"A lecture over 90 minutes can be pretty deadly, however," she said. She and other educators have since been looking for ways to train teachers and organize time better. She said she sees no major backlash against block scheduling, but there have been complaints.
In Washington area public high schools, block schedules are the norm in the District, most of Northern Virginia and in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick and Prince George's counties. Traditional schedules prevail in Howard, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
Stafford, Montgomery and Charles counties have some of both.
David A. Bruzga, administrative director for Howard secondary schools, said officials there decided to go back to a traditional system in 2003 after struggling with five block systems. A committee studying the situation decided a uniform scheduling format would make it easier for students if they transferred schools. It was difficult to schedule Advanced Placement classes in some block systems. The lack of much research showing achievement gains from block scheduling also influenced the choice, he said.
Stephen L. Bedford, chief school performance officer in Montgomery, said the county's schools were allowed to decide for themselves, particularly after "we looked at the national research and it was very sketchy as to which schedule worked better than another." Montgomery high schools with some form of block scheduling are Montgomery Blair, James Hubert Blake, Northwood, Springbrook and Wheaton.
Northwood Principal Henry Johnson said he made clear to all teachers he hired for the new school in 2004 that they would have a block schedule, so faculty support was strong. School system officials objected to the original plan for four courses a semester, so he switched to four courses alternating daily and found that it worked well. But there is some dissent, he said. When the faculty voted last year on whether to stay on the block schedule, there were nearly as many votes against it as for it.
Several educators said they do not expect a rapid abandonment of block scheduling but more experiments mixing block and traditional. "What we are doing is trying to impact student learning in a way that meets the individual learning needs of students," Wright said, "as opposed to looking at what is convenient for teachers."
At Einstein, Fernandez said, so far the traditional schedule "seems to be working. I think we are getting better attendance."