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Research Spans Spectrum on Block Scheduling

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Block scheduling is a hot topic in school reform these days, with a growing number of high schools replacing the traditional setup of six or seven 45-minute classes a day with fewer classes that last longer.

Education associations and school-reform networks report a steady flow of inquiries about block scheduling, and many are planning workshops and publishing articles in response.

But does block scheduling help students learn more? What effect does it have on the school climate? And do longer classes really propel teachers to shift from lecturing to a more active teaching style, as block-scheduling advocates suggest?

So far, there is a small body of research that can help answer these questions.

Block-scheduling advocates cite data that schools have been collecting. Many, like Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash., report decreases in discipline problems and dropout rates and increases in attendance and grade-point averages.

But at the other end of the spectrum, some schools have found that failure rates increased, perhaps because when students miss a class, they miss more material and find it more difficult to catch up.

And several studies of block scheduling in Canada, where the approach has been popular for about a decade, found that it had a negative effect on achievement.

For example, two studies conducted in 1990 and in 1995 by David J. Bateson, a professor of curriculum at the University of British Columbia, have concluded that students in British Columbia's traditional schools outperformed students in two primary forms of block-scheduled schools on national math and science exams for 10th graders.

Those studies also found that there was no change in the way teachers teach; there was no significant increase in project-based work, debates, "or any of the other techniques that should lead to better and higher-level teaching skills," Mr. Bateson said. "If you don't change teaching methods, any of the benefits that are supposed to accrue don't come about. It could be if time and in-service education is provided, it is quite possible the results will literally reverse themselves."

However, a recent study by the Ministry of Education and Training, a Canadian government entity which oversees education, found that the block schedule had no impact on student achievement. That study was based on the 9th-grade reading scores of 130,000 students.

In North Carolina, where 38 percent of high schools use some type of block schedule, a December 1994 study reached the same conclusion. The state education department study found that student scores on statewide tests had neither increased nor decreased on average in the schools using a block schedule.

Looking for Answers

Steve Kramer, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., suggests that these findings show that block scheduling is more efficient than traditional class periods: The students in the North Carolina study had about 15 fewer hours of instructional time per class over the course of a semester, yet performed as well as they had before. In addition, under the block schedule, the students were able to enroll in additional classes, and teachers' planning time nearly doubled, from one roughly 50-minute period a day to one 90-minute period a day.

Because block scheduling has become relatively common only in the past few years, there are not many multischool studies that use recognized instruments such as the Scholastic Assessment Test or state exams to gauge changes in student achievement, said Jeffrey D. Sturgis, the interim school principal of Leavitt Area High School in Turner, Maine, one of the first schools in the state to try block scheduling.

Mr. Sturgis plans to compare performance on the Maine Educational Assessment by students in block vs. traditional schedules as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Maine.

Mr. Kramer of the University of Maryland agrees that there is not yet a good answer to the question of whether children, on the whole, learn more in block-scheduled schools.

"What there are answers to is 'this is how do you do it well' and 'this is how you do it poorly,'" he said.

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