8/19/15 ABSS’ block schedules get second look

ABSS’ block schedules get second look
Report shows traditional-calendar schools test higher
By Isaac Groves, The Times-News 8/19/15  
Reprinted with permission.      

   High schools in the Alamance-Burlington School System, and most of the state, have been on a so-called block schedule for decades now, but that system is getting a second look at the state and local levels.

   “I would really like to see some changes in the way we schedule that would benefit kids more,” said Mark Payne, a member of the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education and a retired teacher and band director.

   On a four-by-four block schedule, students take four 90-minute classes for a semester rather than six to eight classes a day lasting all year. The idea, said Kent Byrd, program director for secondary education at ABSS, is to cut the time students spend going from class to class, and give teachers time to get into their subjects in depth.

   There are signs it has not worked out that way.

   “Often, it’s teachers, who are teachers of mathematics or other technical subjects, complaining about not having enough time over the course of the year,” Byrd said.

   Payne said block schedules give students 135 hours of instruction in a semester versus 165 hours over a year in a traditional schedule.

   At its August work session, the school board saw a report from the state Department of Public Instruction comparing test scores for schools on different schedules.

   At first glance, the report shows a big difference in results among schools using different schedules and calendars, but those results do not show cause, said Steve Achey, ABSS director of accountability , research and evaluation.

   The report showed students in year-round schools had significantly higher test scores than in traditional-calendar schools, and high-school students in schools with a traditional schedule did better than in those on block schedules.

   Those numbers were based on all End of Grade and End of Course testing data submitted in the 2013-14 school year, which Achey said do not give a reliable sample. Looking at equal numbers of students achieving at similar levels gives a more reliable picture.

   “When trying to determine the cause of the difference, then you have to have a similar sample of students,” Achey said Tuesday. “So it’s really hard to draw a conclusion.”

   Achey said he expected the state would follow up with a more targeted study when the next round of test scores becomes available.

   “That’s really the big takeaway from those numbers,” Achey said. “It’s really worth doing a controlled study to find out what difference, if any, there is.”

   Payne said the block schedule was not a natural way for kids to learn.

   “You cannot cram all the information a child needs in 90 days, 90 minutes a day, five days a week,” Payne said at the board’s work session. “Slow and steady is the way.”

   The block schedule also makes it harder for students to participate in band and other arts classes, Payne said. Taking band all year would give a lot more band instruction than most marching band participants want or need.

   “That’s for someone who wants to major in music, not march around and make a big ‘W’ in the middle of the field someday,” Payne said.

   Superintendent Bill Harrison said he would discuss the issue with his cabinet and come back to the board with a plan for how to move forward. However, it worked out, he said, he wanted to make sure there were teachers involved.

   “I think this is a decision teachers would certainly want to be involved in,” Harrison told the board.