In a Massachusetts School, Fomenting a ‘Revolution’ in Time

By Robert Rothman — February 21, 1990 10 min read

Topsfield, Mass--Like Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who forced the world to reconsider its view of the universe, Joseph M. Carroll is trying to force educators to change the way they look at time.

The superintendent of the Masconomet Regional School District here has taken a heretical position on the sanctity of the traditional high-school schedule--and drawn the interest of reformers trying to restructure American education.

A pilot project in place here is testing Mr. Carroll’s belief that the time schedule that has characterized education for most of this century has also inhibited efforts to improve schooling.

Teachers who see up to 150 students for only 45 minutes each day cannot, Mr. Carroll believes, provide individualized attention or the kind of close student-teacher relationships that enhance learning.

The traditional schedule tends also, he says, to exacerbate the hyperactivity often associated with teenagers, and offers them little opportunity to integrate concepts from separate disciplines.

In place of it, Mr. Carroll proposes assigning students to two 100-minute “macroclasses,” as well as an interdisciplinary seminar, each trimester. His proposal, outlined in a recently published book, The Copernican Plan, is being pilot-tested at the Masconomet High School.

“The changing of the schedule is primarily designed to establish a situation where it’s hard for teachers and students not to get to know each other well in a short time,” he explains. “By changing the fundamental way we use time, we create a situation where that can occur. At the same time, you lower class size substantially” and encourage innovative teaching.

“These things,” he predicts, “will result in more kids learning better.”

Mr. Carroll’s ideas have begun to attract the attention of restructuring proponents, who praise him for shattering one of the orthodoxies of American education.

“Everybody regards the division of time as automatically decreed by God almighty,” says Harold Howe 2nd, senior lecturer at the Harvard University Grduate School of Education. “It’s not. Why can’t we change time?”

Participants in the pilot project--and two Harvard University researchers commissioned to study it--say that, despite some snags in implementation, the plan has succeeded in fostering better student-teacher relationships and in improving teaching.

And although test scores have not yet been compiled, the participants also predict that students in what they call the “Renaissance program” will fare at least as well as those in the traditional program.

But like Copernicus, who challenged fundamental religious beliefs with his theory, Mr. Carroll has also encountered stiff opposition. Although the local school committee last month voted to allow the experiment to continue for another year, many residents and teachers warn that it is untried and may ultimately do more harm than good.

Moreover, critics contend, the idea is a luxury the district cannot afford at a time when the state is facing severe budget problems. This is particularly so, they say, in the case of Masconomet High, already considered one of the best schools in northeastern Massachusetts.

The project’s fate may rest with the outcome of votes next month to lift property-tax ceilings. If the votes fail, Mr. Carroll says, he may have to seek private funding to keep the project alive.

But he adds that such problems are typical for schools implementing bold ideas. “The thing I haven’t worked out is how to get a school to try something different,” he says. “That’s far more difficult than coming up with an idea for changes.”

‘Little Time Bites’

First proposed in 1983, the Copernican Plan is based on Mr. Carroll’s experience as an administrator in the Washington and Los Alamos, N.M., public schools.

At both sites, he recalls, he devised summer programs that offered fewer subjects taught in longer classes over a short period of time. In both cases, he notes, students appeared to thrive in the programs.

In addition, he says, several independent schools, as well as a New Haven, Conn., public magnet school, the High School in the Community, have found success using “macroclasses” as part of their program.

“I began to wonder,” he writes in The Copernican Plan, “if this more compact structure would be better for the regular school year.”

His conclusion was similar to that reached by Theodore R. Sizer, the author of Horace’s Compromise, who proposed that high schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools break down the traditional schedule into larger blocks of time.

“Serious intellectual and imaginative activity is not well-served by little time bites,” Mr. Sizer asserts. “You can’t expect serious study with the bell ringing every 52 minutes.”

‘Stretching the Limits’

Mr. Carroll proposed implementing the schedule change in Masconomet, a relatively affluent district that serves as a regional junior and senior high school for the towns of Boxford, Middleton, and Topsfield. Although his plan met resistance from the Masconomet Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, teachers and a group of community leaders agreed to study the idea and come up with their own recommendations.

Both groups concluded that a change in the school schedule that might facilitate closer relationships between students and teachers would be valuable. The school committee agreed to set up a pilot revised-schedule project in the 9th grade in the 1989-90 school year.

Mr. Carroll’s plan also calls for other reforms, such as differentiated diplomas and awarding credit based on mastery. But he says he did not try to implement the whole proposal immediately.

“An organization can only absorb so much change at once,” he says. “I’m stretching the limits right now.”

Personalizing Instruction

To implement the pilot program, Mr. Carroll asked students and their parents, as well as teachers, to volunteer. Some 80 students--about half of the 9th-grade class--are participating this year.

In addition, with a $20,000 grant from the Amelia Peabody Foundation, Mr. Carroll asked two researchers from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Vito Perrone and Dean K. Whitla, to study the program.

Students in the Renaissance program take two 100-minute classes each day for 60 days, then switch to two new classes. They also take a seminar each day, which is expected to allow them to draw on their studies to examine contemporary issues.

Teachers involved in the program teach six classes each year, rather than five. But class size is smaller--an average of 13, or one-sixth of 80, compared with 20 to 24 in the traditional program.

Thomas Hussey, president of the Masconomet Teachers Association, says changing the system “didn’t have a big impact on the [teachers’] contract.”

“We didn’t bend the rules that much,” adds Mr. Hussey, a mathematics teacher who is not participating in the project.

Teachers and parents who volunteered for it say it has benefitted both students and teachers.

The revised schedule “makes very good sense for me, from a kid’s point of view,” says David Donavel, an English teacher. “None of us studies five or six things at once.”

“The way [other] high schools are set up now feeds the frenetic behavior we associate with teenagers,” adds Barbara Was, a school-committee member. “They may have 10 or 12 areas competing for their attention.”

At the same time, notes Mr. Donavel, the project “has the advantage of personalizing instruction.”

“That means,” he says, “that not only do I get to pay greater attention to the learning needs of kids, but, in a less formal sense, I get to know and like the kids, and they get to know and--I hope--like me.”

“If they like a teacher,” Mr. Donavel suggests, “they are more likely to work for him.”

More Student Involvement

The strengthened bond between learner and teacher has also led students to “accept responsibility for their education,” says Donald Doliber, a social-studies teacher.

Susan Haas, an art teacher, adds that she often asks students to evaluate their lessons, and has found that they discuss ways “to challenge them even more.”

The longer classes have also enhanced teaching by forcing instructors to use new methods, notes Teunis J. Paarlberg, a math teacher.

“You can’t stand up and lecture for 100 minutes,” he says. “I’d die, like an actor.”

The alternative, he and others say, has been more encouragement of students to participate in their classwork. These efforts have helped teachers reach the students “in the middle,” who often “hide in the corner” in traditional classrooms, says Mr. Carroll.

Teachers involved in both programs--those dubbed the “all-pros"--say the new methods have improved their teaching in traditional classes as well.

But the longer classes of the experimental program, Mr. Doliber notes, enable teachers to tie their lessons together. “In a 100-minute span, I can talk about Martin Luther, about the Counter Reformation, and about the 30 Years’ War, as well as the themes running through all three events,” he says.

By contrast, he would spend a day on each topic in the traditional program and be unable to discuss the common themes because the lessons were too disjointed. “Some students can’t remember what they had for lunch the day before,” says the social-studies teacher, “much less the 30 Years’ War.”

‘Flunked’ Seminars

But despite their enthusiasm for the project, teachers say it has encountered problems. In some cases, notes Mr. Carroll, the complicated scheduling has eliminated some teachers’ preparation time.

In addition, teachers acknowledge that the seminar program did not work in the first trimester.

“We flunked,” concedes Mr. Paarlberg.

“We thought we’d get kids to talk about current, complex issues,” adds Mr. Donavel. “Our mistake was, we assumed that they knew enough to talk about them. They don’t. They’re only 14.”

During the current trimester, he notes, teachers are asking students to follow a single issue daily through the newspaper, and to make an oral presentation on the topic.

“We’re waiting to see if we get the behaviors” the teachers expect, Mr. Donavel says. “We’re off to a better start.”

The Retention Issue

But while the program participants appear to be supportive, some teachers and parents who elected not to participate question whether the program itself will be successful.

A key issue, says Mr. Hussey, the math teacher, is whether students will be able to retain their knowledge after taking a course for only 60 days.

“It’s conceivable that a student who took math from September to November 1989 won’t take it again until 1991,” he points out. “Who knows how much he will retain? Nobody knows. It’s a concern.”

In his book, Mr. Carroll suggests that the kind of teaching fostered by the new schedule would improve students’ long-term retention.

In addition, in one subject area--foreign languages--Masconomet has set up an enrichment program to help students retain their communications skills over the course of a year. Every other day during seminar periods in trimesters when they are not enrolled in foreign-language classes, students review vocabulary and conversations.

A Different Community?

In addition to the academic concerns, suggests Serena Caperonis, a school-committee member who voted against continuing the program, critics fear that the project is too expensive to maintain at a time when budgets are tight.

In order to evaluate it and to provide options for students, she says, the school must offer at least two classes for each subject. As the project moves into upper grades, the school will have to maintain two small classes in advanced courses.

The project might work better, Ms. Caperonis suggests, in a high school where students do poorly, rather than at Masconomet, where some 82 percent of graduates go on to higher education.

“It should be in a community where there is a problem with motivation, where the community is unhappy with the present system. I don’t think Masconomet is that community.”

But Mr. Howe argues that school reforms can benefit good schools as well as those with severe problems.

“I don’t think change in education should occur only when things aren’t working at all,” he says. “Change can occur most when things are best. Such schools have more of an opportunity to try things out.”

But despite the critics’ objections, the school committee last month voted 8 to 3 to continue the program for another year and to expand it into the 10th grade. The expansion makes the program more cost-effective, says Mr. Carroll, since he can schedule the teaching staff more efficiently.

But he and others caution that the funds needed to maintain the program--$120,000 out of the district’s annual budget of $7 million--may be threatened if the three towns fail next month to override property-tax limitations.

Ms. Caperonis says she hopes critics do not use the Copernican plan as an excuse to reject the overrides.

“Much more than the Renaissance program is going to go down” if the towns refuse to lift the tax ceilings, she says. “I am trying hard to educate people that this is not the way to kill this program.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as In a Massachusetts School, Fomenting a ‘Revolution’ in Time