How Much Are We Really Missing?

Today is the last day of the academic year here in the overly-large school district. This has been a challenging semester – for teachers, students, parents – to say the least.

Now comes the inevitable analysis of how much students have missed in the chaos of an abrupt switch to online schooling. Research cited in a New York Times article says some students have fallen “months behind”. NPR comes to similar conclusions based on a large survey of parents.

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Changes in Isolation

The concept of “block” scheduling of high school class has been around for a long time, at least since before 1992 when it began to seep into Fairfax County, the district that used to employ me. The basic idea is that, instead of having five to eight hour-long “regular” class periods in a school day, students would study a specific subject for 90 or more minutes every other day.

Why? Well, the advantages of that format were never clearly explained beyond everybody would have more time. Except they really wouldn’t. And, we were told, teachers would have more room for creative teaching and students would improve their learning. Except the record on that is also pretty murky.

Now a much smaller district in this area is considering changing to block scheduling for their middle schools and Jay Mathews doesn’t like it.

Many people, including me, think block scheduling is an attractive but unproductive fad. A 2006 University of Virginia study said students in high school block schedules did somewhat worse in college sciences than those who had regular schedules. A 2010 review of British research said block schedule results were slightly positive but “are not strong enough to recommend their implementation.”

I’ve read of several other studies that also found very little to support the change in schedule.

However, there is a much larger problem with block scheduling (and most other “reform” ideas) than the lack of supporting data. It, and most of the research, assumes that the current school format is a valid way for students to learn. And, in the case of blocking, all we need to do is rearrange the time to make it better.

In almost all high schools and most middle schools, a student day is divided up in to neat little discrete blocks of subject matter. When the bell rings, kids must switch gears and move on to work on a different specific subject, commonly in isolation. Chemistry here must never mix with Algebra there, and neither should be associated with social studies or literature. Keep that art and music far, far away from our labs, please.

So taking the same knowledge silos and making them larger is not really a change. Information and ideas in the real world swirl about and intermix freely but in school we treat each like the streams in Ghostbusters that must never get crossed, lest we get total protonic reversal.

The way time is organized in most schools is just one part of the issue with changing to a block format. Helping teachers adjust their pedagogy to best use the new schedule is another. For all I know this district is addressing all of this, but based on my experience, I doubt it.

Anyway, the last word should come from one middle school parent in Mathews’ story who asks an excellent question about the planned changes: “We would like to know exactly what they’re trying to accomplish at Williamsburg and why they think block scheduling is the answer.”

We should all demand the same discussion around any educational reform – and get good answers before making any changes.

Time for Spring Cleaning

The opinion section of yesterday’s Post featured their annual spring cleaning column*, a selection of ten essays on things each writer believes we’d be better off without.

Interesting that two are education related, although one of those pieces largely hits the mark, while the other misses completely.

In the first category is Let’s get rid of grades, written by a college professor. Her reasoning includes the misguided student motivation that comes from most grading systems, as well as the fact that “grades are not very good predictors of accomplishment, curiosity, happiness or success”.

All good points, but this is probably the best reason for dumping grades:

Without grades, we would be forced to offer detailed, critical assessments of our students’ strengths and weaknesses, both to them and to future schools and employers. We would need to pay closer attention to their process and their progress rather than just their final products.

The other essay about school, Get rid of the 3 p.m. school day, is by a vice president at CitiBank and former director of the Office of Management and Budget. In other words, an education “expert”.

His logic follows the usual political reform line that more time spent in school, without changing any other aspect of the experience (except maybe adding some “intensive” tutoring), will automatically lead to improved student achievement. As measured by those international standardized tests, of course.

How does he know this will work? Because “a longer day is a key aspect of high-performing charter schools”. We all know that charter schools are universally successful, and whatever they do should be applied everywhere.

I completely agree that we need to make some major changes to the way we use time in school – starting with dropping the reliance on a 1930’s agrarian calendar.

But, as with many other instructional factors, the same schedule may not be appropriate for every student in every school and we have to stop pretending that it will.

*Warning: the Post puts each essay on a different page and may require you to register with them to read them. I think registration is still free but, since I actually pay to have them deliver the analog version (aka a subscriber), I can’t be sure.