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Unintended Consequences

It has long been understood, though only more recently recognized, that there are inherent inequities in America’s public education system. While some are intentional, most have creeped in over time and have received little more attention than that of a nagging gnat. However, in recent years more attention is being paid to this intolerable reality.

During the most recent presidential election, we heard the democratic candidate decry that a child’s educational experience must never be determined by their postal zip code. Consequently, President Biden has support for public education as a cornerstone of his agenda. State and local officials have taken this sad, but true, reality seriously and have brought the examination area down to an even tighter geography: a child’s educational experience should not be determined or restricted because of the attendance boundary they reside in within the system. Districts have begun examining the differences among like schools in their purview, looking for common themes of both strengths and disparities that may require the attention of policy makers. Frequent topics include:

  • Do all kids at a given level (elementary, middle and high) have the same opportunities to access a common menu of electives?

  • Is there an equitable opportunity for students to access accelerated courses in like schools?

  • What about world languages, are the offerings consistent?

  • Do all kids at each level have a common curricular experience, for example discreet language arts and social studies versus a blended humanities approach?

Key to addressing these concerns is this: how is instructional time organized? Is it consistent? Does our current allocation of time advantage some students while disadvantaging others? All of this is important and critical work. It’s messy; involving compromise and trust.

A glossary of typical secondary (middle and high) schedules is in order here. Generally, there are two primary scheduling schemes employed in grades 6-12 in American schools:

  1. Traditional period schedule. In this schedule, students attend the same list of classes, generally between six and eight, daily for equal amounts of time that average anywhere from 40-50 minutes.

  2. Block schedule. There are many variations of this scheduling approach. But, generally, they all involve students engaging in six to eight content courses, but not all on the same day for meeting times of 80-90 minutes each.

In considering the question of instructional time, I took a look at the secondary level class schedules of the three largest, neighboring, school districts in Washington County, Oregon. My findings did not surprise me, suggesting that superintendents do, indeed, talk with one another.

High Schools: In all three districts, some form of a block schedule is employed. In one of the districts, it appears some variation of the type of block scheduling between the high schools is permitted.

Middle Schools: Middle school students in each of these district receive instruction in a traditional period schedule. One of the districts schedules eight periods per day @ 42 minutes each. The second district schedules seven period each day @ 45 minutes each. In both of these districts, the middle school schedule is standardized across the system. The third district appears to afford some autonomy to each of the middle school sites. I saw six periods @ 51 minutes and seven periods @ 43 minutes.

It’s clear that there are some instructional values expressed by my cursory examination of the scheduling decisions of these districts. They suggest a belief that high school students benefit from extended blocks of time to more deeply explore the topics being reviewed, to engage in meaningful discussion and discourse, and are best served by having to invest their energy on a limited number of subjects each day. At the same time, these decisions seem to bow to the assumption that middle school students, with their perceived short attention spans and general restlessness, do better with shorter instructional periods and the routine of every day being the same, rather that having to keep track of which classes on which days.

My intention here is not to be critical or to place any sort of blame. I honestly believe that the instructional leaders engaged in this work have a shared belief that the entire system is moving in the right direction.

Before I proceed, allow me to be very clear. I am not hiding behind the safety of retirement. Those who know me from my working days will easily attest that I never shied away from offering my reasoned perspective or objection as difficult topics were being discussed. That said, I must take exception to many of the assumptions that appear to have been in play as these decisions we being made, creating unintended consequences.

  • Assumption #1 - By promoting equality, equity is assured. By its very definition, equity frequently requires an uneven distribution of assets and resources (including time) to meet the needs of individual students. Boilerplate solutions are the opposite of assuring equity.

  • Assumption #2 - A standardized approach to time utilization is efficient and assures a continuity of experience for all students. I understand the efficiency of it all, Further, I understand that such an approach reduces the common looking-over-the-shoulder complaints like: “how come they get two electives and we only get one?” But, common experience offers no guarantee that the individual, personalized, needs of students will be met. Just because I can move across town and enroll in a new school that is remarkably similar to my old one is insufficient if my previous school was coming up short in addressing my challenges and meeting my needs.

  • Assumption #3 - One size fits all. By example, not every student in the system, grades 6-8, needs a double dose of math and science instruction. (Anyone reading this blog over the course of the past four years knows that no rebuttal is necessary.)

  • Assumption #4 - Allowing individual schools any degree of autonomy, even within a standardized system, is a slippery slope. Experienced site-based school leaders know from experience that no two schools, even with the same system, can be exactly the same. They need to be responsive to the neighborhoods and the societal mix that they serve. System leaders need to trust their site leaders enough to allow them enough wiggle room to address the social and instructional needs of these unique learning communities. “The schedule influences the choices that teachers make every day about the methods they use to teach a concept. It can constrain or free a teacher.” (The Hechinger Report, 2018) Having clear standards is one thing. That’s appropriate. But, an over reliance on standardization stifles our best intentions.

  • Assumption #5 - Middle school students and high school students learn differently. Therefore, they require different learning structures. I concede to the first statement. Young adolescent and older adolescent learners differ and often require dissimilar approaches. However, the concluding statement therefore, if accurate, would mean that fifteen of the twenty-one years I spend as a site-based administrator were a disaster. (I assure you they were not.) I served in two settings that educated students grades 6-12. We didn’t run two programs. All of the kids worked within a block schedule for both their grade specific core curriculum and their electives. Most often, electives and interest opportunities were cross-graded. And, yes - that commonly meant that middle and high school students were working together on a common challenge or experience. It was a beautiful thing! (Perhaps the topic of a future article.)

  • Assumption #6 - A traditional period schedule best prepares current middle school students for a smooth transition to high school. The tradition from middle school to high school is tricky at best. But, I fail to see how an immediate and jarring shift in instructional methodology supports a smooth transition. If, indeed, students learn best and can explore a topic more deeply in extended instructional periods (a belief I support and share), kids need the opportunity to be exposed to it prior to entering high school if we are to hold any hope that they will face this huge transition of expectations, responsibility and school culture with any measure of success.

It’s appropriate to include here the perspective of Independent School Management (ISM), an organization committed to supporting school leadership, when deciding how to best allocate instructional time.

Rule #1: Class length must allow successful delivery of information. ISM believes that the shortest worthwhile teaching period is 30 minutes at the elementary school level (without passing time). We recommend that, at the middle and upper school levels, every teaching period be a minimum of 40 minutes (also not including passing time). We believe these timeframes are the shortest possible for students to truly absorb information from a lesson.

How long is too long? Some teachers say it’s hard to keep students’ attention for more than 50 or 60 minutes, especially in middle school or 9th and 10th grade. But in most cases, this isn’t a student-based issue. More often, it’s a lack of training or tools for faculty members to teach in extended periods. Students can learn and grow in longer periods—given the right tools and strategies.

Rule #2: Time must be the variable, achievement must be the constant. Your schedule should flex to enable every student to succeed. After all, every student at your school [within your system] is mission-appropriate, and must achieve certain benchmarks in order to graduate. Your school [system] must offer every student the opportunity to do well—and time is a factor in this equation. If students aren’t succeeding in your current schedule, it might be time to reconsider what will work for your community.

Rule #3: The class function should match the length. A good rule of thumb is this: If you want your teaching period to be more content-driven, offer shorter classes. If you want your class curriculum to be more process-driven, offer longer classes. While neither is exclusive of the other, this is good to keep in mind when selecting the schedule that makes sense for your school [system].”

(I added the bold emphasis in Rule #3.)

There’s the crux of the dilemma. Time, and how it is allocated, is the variable resource in what we expect. I frequently quote Tony Wagner from his 2008 book, The Global Achievement Gap. “ The problem goes . . . to the very way we conceive of the purpose and experience of schooling and what we expect our high school graduates to know and be able to do.”

What do we expect of our students? What do we want them to know and to be able to do? Do we seek to perpetuate a tradition of content experts, or do we aspire for our students to be thinkers, collaborators and innovators; attributes derived from process-driven experiences? We’ll allocate resources (including time) accordingly.


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