The concept of "block scheduling" - teaching in 90- rather than
45-minute periods - swept through US high schools in the 1990s. But
today, opinions on its degree of success run the gamut from upbeat
and positive to angry and condemnatory.
"It's all less hectic," says Carol Ladd, a German teacher at
Marnacock High School in Readfield, Maine, where block scheduling
has been in place for four years. "There's time to introduce
material, then manipulate and reinforce it. Retention is better."
Students and faculty alike embrace the idea at her school, she says.
But at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School in Philadelphia,
not everyone shares that sentiment. "It's absolutely horrible," says
Lynn Dixon, an English teacher at the school, where block scheduling
has been in effect for four years. "The kids are wildly bored, the
teachers are wildly bored, discipline is worse, and the kids are out
of the loop for standardized tests."
Some faculty have actually quit in frustration over the system,
says Ms. Dixon.
Now fresh research is roiling the block-scheduling debate. A
study of Illinois and Iowa high schools done by Iowa State
University and the administrators of the ACT assessment suggests
that the system causes student scores on the ACT to decline.
It's not the first time block scheduling has been called into
question. The idea of turning high school classes into longer, more
intense study units like those a college student might experience
has come under fire in recent years. One frustrated Wisconsin parent
maintains a website that includes an exhaustive index of negative
research findings on block scheduling (www.jefflindsay.com/
But block scheduling still has its enthusiastic supporters. The
idea was made popular in recent decades by school reformers, who
questioned the almost universally accepted tradition, in place since
the early 1900s, of requiring all high school classes to meet for 45
to 50 minutes every school day.
A bid to engage more deeply in studies
Lengthening class periods, they recommended, would force teachers
out of a lecture-only mode of teaching, allow students to engage
more deeply in material, and cut down on disciplinary problems and
time wasted in the hall between classes. The idea gained momentum
rapidly throughout the 1990s and got a significant boost in 1994,
when the National Education Commission released its "Prisoners of
Time" report, which included a recommendation that high schools
experiment with block scheduling.
Between 25 and 40 percent of high schools now use block
scheduling, according to some estimates. In some states, that figure
is significantly higher. In North Carolina, for instance, almost 90
percent of high schools have embraced the system. Some middle
schools across the country have also moved toward the longer class
How it works
There are two basic models for block scheduling. One, known as
the 4 x 4, requires students to take four lengthy classes a day for
a semester. The next semester, they move on to four different
The other model is sometimes called an A-B-A-B, or alternating
system. Students have four extended class periods a day, but then
alternate with four different classes the next day, allowing them to
take eight classes spread out over the course of the school year.
The 4 x 4 is the system that comes in for the heaviest criticism,
in part because it leaves lengthy time gaps in the academic
sequence. A student who takes geometry in the fall of his sophomore
year, for instance, may not have a math class again until the fall
or spring of his junior year. …