When the jazz singer Peggy Lee died this past January, I paused to reflect on how much her hit recording on the ambivalence of love coincided with my own growing view toward the national debate over school scheduling choice. Miss Lee’s 1969 Grammy-winning song, “Is That All There Is?,” is a melancholy commentary on how love in practice never really rises to the level of the advertised hype. To me, the passionate arguments surrounding the traditional vs. block scheduling debate are a lot like that. For all of the hype, actual student-performance outcomes and teacher perceptions related to a school’s particular scheduling choice have turned out to be a wash.
The past 12 years or so have witnessed a lively discussion over school scheduling. Through it all, the decision to either retain traditional schedules or jump to one of the various block schedules has remained a contentious issue. As recently as the fall of the last school year, an article in these pages on block vs. traditional scheduling highlighted the ongoing drama. (“Changing Times,” Oct. 3, 2001.) The advocates of both schedule designs have continued to express their own definitive yet polarized views on the subject.
Although painful for many scheduling protagonists, perhaps it is time to declare a truce long enough to clarify a few things about the student impact of these schedules. In doing so, we might then come to understand what is not really at stake.
Let’s begin with a scheduling primer. The traditional schedule is the product of almost a century’s worth of incremental modifications. Its lineage traces back to a 1906 Carnegie Foundation educational commission that recommended 120 classroom hours as the universal standard for the mastery of a given subject. Today’s traditional 180-day school year is one that is filled with seven or eight school periods a day that each last approximately 45 to 50 minutes. One or two of these periods are usually devoted to lunch and study hall activities. It follows that each class mastered over the length of the traditional school year earns a student one Carnegie credit or unit.
The two primary varieties of block scheduling, A/B and 4 x 4 schedules, on the other hand, take an altogether different approach. The A/B students take six or seven classes that meet on alternating days for approximately 90 minutes each. Students following a 4 x 4 schedule take the same four classes each day for 90 minutes per class. While an A/B one-credit course is generally a yearlong program, a 4 x 4 course is based on an accelerated “four classes per semester” model. Because 4 x 4 students spend twice as much time in individual classes during a single semester, they generally receive one credit for each class of mastered work. Parenthetically, traditional or A/B students normally receive only a half-credit for a semester’s worth of work.
Suffice it to say, there are fundamental differences between the schedules, just as there are chasms that exist between the views of their respective defenders. Block-scheduling advocates maintain that longer class periods foster greater in-depth learning, fewer disciplinary problems, and more advantageous use of valuable teacher time. The traditional camp counters that the longer block periods fail to adequately support either average student attention spans or the retention of general knowledge in core areas.
Claims and counterclaims notwithstanding, the overriding concern for everyone involved in a block vs. traditional decision is how a given schedule might influence performance outcomes. In this case, performance outcomes are defined by higher participation and achievement rates in measurable activities. These outcomes include scores on nationally normed and mandatory statewide exams, grade point averages, enrollment in elective pursuits like Advanced Placement courses, and the results of SAT or ACT college-entrance exams. The outcomes might also include attendance rates, disciplinary referrals, and teachers’ satisfaction levels for their current schedules.
Performance outcomes are really the heart of the scheduling debate. Reduced to its most fundamental core, parents, teachers, and community members alike always return to asking the questions: “Will one schedule actually help the kids learn more and enable their teachers to teach more effectively? And if so, how will they know if it did?” Other things being equal, almost everyone wants the scheduling choice to be predicated on the answers to these paramount questions.
Fortunately, much evidence is now emerging. What may surprise many is that for all the angst embodied in the scheduling debate, current research now shows that a school’s schedule plays a remarkably insignificant role in determining performance outcomes.
Several studies from such disparate states as Iowa, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, and Missouri have reported a series of academic dead heats when comparing block and traditional schedules. These studies suggest that it is not so much the allocation of daily class time that influences a student’s performance. Instead, it is what teachers and students choose to do with that time once it is given to them.
Several studies have reported a series of dead heats when comparing block and traditional schedules.
Here at the University of Wisconsin’s Center on Education and Work, we are concluding a three-year study of 24 randomly selected and stratified 4 x 4 block and traditional public high schools. In the process, we have examined a school schedule’s effect on 620 nondisabled and special education seniors. Surprisingly, and contrary to our original hypotheses, we have discovered that when comparing mandatory state exams, voluntary ACT tests, grade point averages, attendance rates, and discipline referrals, there were no statistically significant differences between 4 x 4 block and traditional students. In other words, both nondisabled and special education students performed equally well with their peer counterparts on the opposing schedules.
Interestingly, and also well worth noting, was that the teachers and staff members of these selected schools expressed equivalent levels of satisfaction with their respective schedules. Block teachers indicated that they were generally happy with the block schedule, as were the traditional teachers with theirs. In the Wisconsin study, effective teachers appeared to excel on either schedule, just as struggling teachers appeared to struggle. The Wisconsin project, when considered alongside recent research studies on scheduling, suggests that additional variables related to quality, rather than quantity, of classroom time may have much greater influences on positive student-performance outcomes.
This means that despite significant differences in a schedule’s design, student-performance outcomes and teacher- satisfaction levels appear to remain largely unaffected. It also suggests that while outcome measurements will continue to command our attention for years to come, the great scheduling debate may not enjoy such parallel press coverage.
To put the issue of scheduling choice in its proper context, a concluding vignette is offered. Several years ago, a U.S. Marine Corps officer was teaching the subject of leadership to a group of newly commissioned second lieutenants. The class, “The Importance of Good Decisionmaking,” was premised on the notion that half of all decisions made in life matter very little. Good decisionmaking was always determined by what a person did or did not do with the half that mattered.
The officer illustrated his point by posing a question that would require choosing a particular course of action depending on the likelihood of summer rain. The junior officers were asked, if they had to choose, would they rather wear a raincoat, carry an umbrella, or just leave everything at home and take a chance on the vagaries of the daily weather forecast? The purpose of this exercise was to show that in the long-term scheme of things, a person’s ultimate decision on an inconsequential matter meant very little. The moral of the rain story was that if one is forced to choose between two or three options that will each result in a trivial outcome, one should do so quickly and then get on with dealing with the things that really do matter.
Quality and not quantity of classroom time is what appears to determine real and meaningful learning.
Deciding on a particular school schedule is beginning to look a lot like choosing between an umbrella or a raincoat. Either choice has the potential for useful yet inconsequential service. The real trick comes from making the decision and then moving forward. Wasting time and effort debating the unimportant only serves to detract attention from addressing other things that are in genuine need of attention.
Which of course brings us right back to the late, and always great, Miss Peggy Lee. As far as school scheduling choice is concerned, it appears for now that, yes, that’s all there is. The brouhaha over schedules does not seem nearly so important as the many other variables that contribute to sound educational practices. Based on existing research, neither block nor traditional schedules by themselves are going to perform miracles. Conversely, and in response to each side’s detractors, neither choice is going to do much harm either.
Quality and not quantity of classroom time is what appears to determine real and meaningful learning. Either block scheduling (in both of its varieties and all of its hybrids) or traditional schedules are well able to deliver quality. A shortage or surplus of relative quantity, however, seems to guarantee little, if anything.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2003 edition of Education Week as Scheduling Choice