Block schedules: Take 8, pass 6

Block scheduling is being used as a quick fix for the graduation rate at some “dropout factories,” writes Rob Manwaring on The Quick and the Ed. These schools are shuffling instructional minutes to let students take eight classes a year, instead of six. That means a student can fail more classes and still earn enough credits to graduate.

By offering more courses per year, there is a higher chance that a student will be able to pass 6 of the 8 courses and be on track to graduation. There is a catch of course. Each class has less hours of instruction to cover the same amount of material.

Students can use the extra classes to take fluffy electives.

Manwaring visited a school that had improved its graduation rate through block scheduling, but students’ proficiency scores were very poor:  Only 13 percent of tenth graders were proficient in English; none were proficient in geometry, the math class most took, and 1 percent in basic algebra, 3 percent in advanced algebra.

Is this really a trend?

About Joanne


  1. We went off block scheduling in order to deal with personnel cuts in my district — and passing rates on the state tests began increasing immediately, even though we did not decrease the number of classes each student took. The daily instruction seems to have been the key.

  2. When I worked in NYC, we did this deliberately. In fact we offered 9 periods per day so the kids could pass 6 out of 9 and still be on track to graduate. A clear sign our system was busted was that the kids who passed all of their classes could easily graduate by the end of 11th grade. Block scheduling like this does nothing to help kids.

  3. One of my kids had block scheduling in his first two years of high school, in an affluent suburb. The format was four double-period classes each semester, each supposedly covering an entire year of material. Even though he was in honors sections of each class, he said that half of each period was wasted (doing homework, just talking, movie etc.) because most kids couldn’t learn that much new material every day or keep up with a lecture format for a double period. My brother, a HS history teacher, said the same; the only way to cover the material in one semester is to lecture and few kids can tolerate the pace. Continuity is also a problem, especially in math and foreign languages. Terrible, terrible idea.

  4. Unfortunately, it’s a well-respected-among-administrators terrible idea. The same reformers who want more school time, no wait – less instructional time, no wait – more classes, no wait – fewer classes at a time, no wait – long blocks, no wait – split blocks, no wait – summer school to fill in the gaps between block courses ….

    It sounds good in theory and that’s as far as the principals tend to go before jumping on the reform-of-the-day bandwagon.

  5. (Right): “The daily instruction seems to have been the key.”
    (mofof4): “…half of each period was wasted (doing homework, just talking, movie etc.) because most kids couldn’t learn that much new material every day or keep up with a lecture format for a double period.”

    100% agreement. I read some empirical research which found that short classes outperformed block schedules (Math performance). Maybe lab science and P.E. classes can use longer periods effectively. Simple solution, make these double periods. Why screw up Math instruction for the Chemistry teacher’s convenience?

    I could deliver my entire year’s worth of Alg I information in one two-hour lecture, but that would be incredibly dense and no student could absorb it. I figure the most reasonable dose of new information is five minutes per week for reasonably bright kids and every two weeks for slower kids. The rest of a fifty-minute class is explanation, demonstration, imitation, and practice (remember: EDIP).

    Hospitals know not to put too much food on a patient’s plate. 100 minutes is a long time to endure material you don’t like.

  6. I’m going to look into it myself, but does anyone know of specific research regarding block vs period scheduling?

  7. Super Sub,

    I read a study in some peer-reviewed Education journal, but cannot remember the title, authors, or name of the journal. All I remember is that this was an empirical, statistical comparison of two treatment regimes, block schedule and conventional. It looked at vocabulary and Math scores. Students in conventional (50 minute) classes scored better than students in block scheduled classes. This was about five years ago. Sorry that I cannot supply details.

  8. I’ve worked both, but I don’t understand why there’s this impression that block scheduling gives less instructional time. We just taught three classes one day, three the other, and it was exactly the same instructional minutes.

    So either Joanne or the article needs to be more specific, as block scheduling alone doesn’t lead to less instructional time or more “fluff” courses.

  9. Cal,

    In our state under six classes a day students get just under 170 hours in class per year, while under Block they got a maximum of 123 hours,

    Officially we were told that the purpose of Block was to force teachers to reinvent themselves because teacher-directed instruction won’t work for 11/2 hours. It was like throwing a kid in a lake to teach him to swim.

    Real world, it was about padding numbers and PR. Its purpose was to give 1/3rd more credits for less work, and of course to claim an educational miracle had occured.

    AB Block was the worst of all worlds for our neighborhood school. Block wasn’t bad, many say, in the magnet schools where you could give projects, and attendance was so bad.

    The biggest problem with AB was the lack of continuity where you could miss/cut a class and then go a week without seeing your teacher. Once we went 18 calender days without being able to teach my subject in one class, had four classes in two weeks, and then went two weeks without class. I once had two classes in an honors class in a month.

    Lynn Canady is a reputable advocate of Block and I don’t believe he supports AB. He advocates a lot of hybrid Block schedules that make sense though.

  10. Districts around me are dropping block because it is more expensive. So I’d say the trend has passed. Our district considered it at one point (before my time) and adopted a modified rotating block. My understanding is that it was a show-down between English and Science and we won for a change (sometimes it is good to have testing on your side). We have 7 periods, but one drops every day, so we only see 6 for 55 minutes each. This helps a bit with the pressure to get enough classes in, and 55 minutes is pretty adequate. Days when my prep period drops are killer, though.

  11. John-
    With your block scheduling, how long are the blocks compared to periods? Our blocks are double-length and we see the kids every other day, so our yearly hours are the same.

    My main criticisms of blocks are the lack of daily contact, missing students for 3-4 days with weekends, and that quite frankly, a lot of students cannot deal with 80 minute classes. They get too bored and overwhelmed, no matter how ‘engaging’ the lesson is.

    Sadly enough, one of the main reasons that fellow teachers at my school favor blocks is that reduces transitional time and that they lose less instructional time because it takes them 5-10 minutes to get kids settled down at the beginning of class. Seems to me thats a class management issue and not a scheduling issue.

  12. Apparently, there are more different kinds of block schedules than I realized. At my son’s school, kids took 4 (full-year) classes each semester and each class met every day. The continuity problems came because most kids, even those taking all classes at honors level, took math and foreign language only one semester each year, which left a semester (and sometimes a summer) between classes. When they arrived at the next class in the sequence, much had been forgotton and they really hadn’t had a full year’s worth of material in the first place.

  13. Canady says that nothing can upset suburban parents more than 4 by 4 Block, because all of the mom’s of band students get up in arms. And Math teachers often hate it because a student might go a year without Math, losing continuity. That system wouldn’t be as bad as our AB though. Our classes were expanded to 85 minutes, but then the number of classes were cut in half. So, with an 80% attendance rate the average time in class was cut to about 105 hours per year.

    The lack of contituity was devasting for Math teachers or teachers who taught critical thinking, analysis, and concepts that built on each other.

    Block was easier for everyone, at least until classroom managment problems became devastating. The effects on the extremes were more extreme. If you have 35 to 40 freshmen with discipline problems, it was impossible. But some teachers, like coaches, might only teach that many students in the whole day. (then when they moved sports to after school, coaches changed from being the greatest block lovers to Block haters)

    Teachers would teach for 55 minutes and try to run time offf the clock without losing control If you had small classes, Block could be a breeze, and you might only teach a couple of hours a day. Classroom transitions were reduced. It was a godsend for principals who had fewer passing periods, and in a pinch could dump 175 students on some teachers. I once got 247, and under our law that was not illegal under Block.

    Canady’s hybrid Blocks seem fantastic. They allow for instance an intensive schedule for students who fail after six weeks. Rather than let the kids fail for the rest of the year, he has Blocks where they can get back in their regular classes by January.

  14. Block periods at both schools I taught were 100 minutes–exactly twice a 50-minute period. I have no idea why your state, John Thompson, cuts 50 hours off the school year.

    I think the block scheduling mom of 4 is talking about–which was all I knew of before I started teaching–is absolutely insane.

    My main criticisms of blocks are the lack of daily contact, missing students for 3-4 days with weekends, and that quite frankly, a lot of students cannot deal with 80 minute classes. They get too bored and overwhelmed, no matter how ‘engaging’ the lesson is.

    I think it’s just different–although I do agree that five whole days of block is really long for the kids. At my student teacher school, they did one “traditional” day, and two block days (one even, one odd). Last year, my school was all block all the time–Wednesdays was only 80 minutes, the others were 100 minutes. You could tell when the kids ran out of steam.

    I teach traditional this year, and the time is much less forgiving. You have to plan much more rigidly. On the other hand, far more of the kids can stay engaged for the whole period, as it’s less than an hour.

    I’m not teaching history or English this year, and I think I’d miss block a lot more there.