Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Chip Off the Old Block

Today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought news that Gwinnett County has decided to abandon the block scheduling concept effective this fall. To which I say, "About time."

When Cobb County first studied the block scheduling concept in the 1990's, I was actually in favor of the plan. It had theoretical advantages. While the traditional schedule offered students six nearly-an-hour-long classes each day plus a lunch period, the block schedule offered only four hour-and-a-half-long classes each day plus lunch.

The purported benefits? Well, students supposedly would learn more with fewer interruptions. Teachers would have more time to complete complex assignments in a single day. Class-change time would be minimized. The idea was that we could offer a full year's worth of a class in one semester by halving the time-wasting roll calls, class reports, etc., and having as much actual teaching time in one block-scheduled semester class as we would in two standard-scheduled semester classes. Courses like Brit Lit, American Lit, and World Lit, which had been spread over two semesters, were compressed into one semester.

The problem is, it never really worked. First off, the idea that teachers could accomplish more with a ninety-minute class was sabotaged from the beginning by the mandate that teachers had to engage in different sorts of educational activities during that ninety minute period. Rather than ninety minutes of class lecture and discussion focusing on Candide, for instance, teachers should devote a portion of the class to the lecture and discussion, another portion to writing, and a third portion to a group activity. The end result was a class schedule that seemed to be designed by Dieter from the Saturday Night Live "Sprockets" feature: "Und now ve write!"

Student attentiveness began to flag after about forty-five minutes, regardless of the activity; there's a certain restlessness that sets in, no matter how good the class is, and teenagers are particularly susceptible to its effects.

No matter how you break it up, you simply can't cover the same amount of material in one semester of block scheduling as you can in two semesters under the standard schedule. I taught English, so I'll focus on what I know: teachers had to immediately decide what not to teach in order to compress everything into the block format. Selections were tossed aside, activities were discarded, in-depth study was sacrificed--in short, fitting things into the block became far more important than teaching the subject.

In case you didn't know it, our educational system has made tremendous sacrifices for bureaucracy. Teachers have to give up significant portions of the school year--as much as 10% of their class time--for mandated testing, from graduation tests to end-of-course tests. These tests are ineffective as educational tools, poorly designed as measurements of aptitude, and inordinately time-wasting. These tests took pretty much the same amount of class-days under the block-schedule--but because teachers were losing ninety-minute classes, the impact on already-compressed course schedules was even worse.

Absence became much more problematic; each day that a student was absent was more detrimental because the student missed more activity in that day's class. Theoretically, one day's absence under block scheduling would result in the student missing as much education in each of those four classes as he would have missed with two day's absence under standard scheduling--and the same was true when a teacher was out. (If you think that a teacher's course plan is implemented by a substitute, you're living in a fantasy world: when a teacher is absent, the sub is given a lesson plan that is at best a "treading water" activity and at worst a wholly irrelevant time-filler.)

And for courses with a continuity of flow, like foreign language classes, the impact could be immense. Theoretically, a student could take French I from September to December of 2005 (first semester freshman year, let's say), and not take French II until January to May of 2007 (last semester sophomore year), resulting in a year's gap with no language education. Bear in mind that school systems do everything they can to revamp schedules and school start times to wrap up a semester before the Christmas holidays because they're convinced that students forget things over the two-week gap! If that's true, imagine what they must forget during a thirteen-month gap!

The best teachers found a way to minimize the drawbacks--but that was only about 15% of the teaching staff. The rest of the teachers simply made do as best they could.

I felt like I was effective as a teacher under the block schedule--but I assure you I wasn't as effective as I was under the traditional schedule. And no matter how good my students were, they simply didn't get the depth of education under block scheduling that they received under traditional scheduling.

Cobb County has, I believe, sixteen high schools (I retired from teaching in 2000, and I've lost count of exactly how many high schools have been added since then); it's interesting that the two highest-achieving schools in the system are the schools that refuse to go to block scheduling. I don't think it's coincidence.

Schools have a history of foolish education-hindering decisions (when I first came to Cobb County, I taught in a building in which there were no walls between classes--another example of idiocy-experimentation in education); I hope that soon everyone realizes that block scheduling is just one more failed theory.

1 comment:

JLevitt said...

Dear Mr. Biggers,
It is a small world! I live right here in Northampton. I am part of a new group called ACCESS - Advancing Cobb County Education Supporting Students. We are basically a group of parents who research public school issues and write papers to inform parents of our findings. I was researching block scheduling and happened upon your well-written article. Thank you for the information!