Block Schedule

Recommendations of the Block Scheduling Committee appointed by the Cobb County School Board in 2008 to evaluate Block vs Traditional scheduling:

The Block Scheduling Committee met on Tuesday, February 12, 2008 to vote on recommendations.  In attendance were Chairmen Scott Bursmith and Thomas D. Harper as well as Committee members Lea Ellen Bartholomew, Angie Delvin-Brown, Elise Higginbottom, Jean Howard, Kristi Seagraves, Randy Turner and Stanley Wrinkle.  Renee’Cain and Lois Freeland were Committee members who participated in the review, but who were unable to attend the final meeting.

The Committee voted to make the following recommendations to the Board of Education:

(1) Any school which has utilized any form of Block Scheduling for the past three (3) years, and which intends to use the same or some variation of that system in the fall of 2008, should evaluate their schedule on the basis of the relevant criteria set forth in the 1999 Block Schedule Evaluation.

(2) The Board should mandate as part of the annual School Improvement Plan for each school an evaluation of programs and scheduling.

(3) The Board should direct the Superintendent to conduct an evaluation of all high school schedules and to compile, publish and maintain data regarding the academic impact, if any, of the scheduling systems currently in use in each of the schools.

Ms. Delvin-Brown and Mr. Wrinkle dissented as to Recommendations 1 and 3;

Mr. Turner dissented as to Recommendation 1 only;

Ms. Howard dissented as to Recommendation 3 only.

Thomas Harper: Block Schedules

Guest Columnist – Marietta Daily Journal

The Cobb School Board and its six-figure-salaried minions can claim with plausible deniability that the CRCT debacle was not their fault. Remediation of the failures, however, is.

Not satisfied with the state’s unilateral directive to ignore the results on one section of the tests, Cobb’s schools have now decided to ignore the student failures in the overwhelming majority of multi-failure cases and to promote the failing students on to the next level.

A recent study shows that, even after two failures on the CRCT exam, 80 percent of the failing Cobb students are still promoted under a “waiver” system. Given the fact that our schools are not “AYP compliant” under federal law, such a decision is incomprehensible. The entire system, as it is currently operated, will require further “dumbing down” of the high school curriculum for the still-deficient students who, by state standards, are inadequately prepared for the next level of academics.

In light of this fact, the primary question is what our school system will do to improve the performance of those same students in the future. They have the perfect model in Walton High School. Unfortunately, if the past is any guide, it is a model that will be ignored to the detriment of our children.

On all objective testing, Walton High School is the premier academic performer among Cobb County Schools. One of the keys to its success is the maximization of time in the core courses of mathematics, English, and the sciences. In a fact of importance to everyone but our schools’ leadership, these are the exact CRCT subjects in which the eighth graders were so deficient. Rather than Walton, however, our schools have chosen to emulate Osborne High School.

The 4×4 Block Scheduling system currently utilized by the overwhelming majority of Cobb County high schools (with the notable exceptions of the two most academically successful programs) originated at Osborne (for crowd-control, not academic, reasons) in 1994. It results in a reduction in potential hours of instruction from 165 hours to 132 hours for the core courses, including math and social sciences, where Cobb’s middle school students performed so poorly.

Ironically, in most Cobb high schools, if a six-period, 55-minute class day were adopted, the school year could begin in late September, rather than mid-August, and still provide the same amount of instruction for the basic math and social science courses in which Cobb students are proving to be so deficient.

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The Case Against Block Scheduling

By Jeff Lindsay
Updated May 3, 2008

Part 1: The Nature of the Problem


Block scheduling is a restructuring of the school day into classes much longer than the traditional 50-minute period.  In one common form, students have four long class periods per day instead of seven or eight.  A course that normally covered the entire school year could then be compressed into an intense half-year course.  Fewer, longer classes are said to allow new styles of teaching rather than old fashioned direct instruction.  Education is supposed to become less stressful, more relaxed, and more enjoyable, bringing a long list of educational advantages.  Many educators and parents see it as a recycled form of the Modular Scheduling concept which was tried and abandoned in the 70s and 80s.

Academic Harm: The Inherent Problems

Before presenting the findings of major scientific studies on block scheduling, let’s consider the “common sense” general objections that are made to block scheduling.  (Additional specific problems are discussed below.)  First, there is the fundamental problem of adolescent attention span.  Making a class twice as long usually does not enable twice as much material to be covered.  Many teachers are familiar with the short attention span of teenagers.  The problems are especially severe with Learning Disabled kids.  When a 50-minute class becomes a 90- or 100-minute class, what happens?  To maintain attention, less instruction and more “fun” activities are needed.  This “transformation” seems to be the greatest thing about block scheduling in the minds of some proponents, but in practice it means a watering down of course content.  Proponents utter the empty slogan “less is more,” meaning that less is covered but more is learned, but are unable to substantiate such rhetoric.  Another slogan states that block scheduling helps to eliminate “the sage on the stage” in favor of “the guide on the side,” but the “teacher as facilitator” concept rather than “teacher as instructor” is another unproven concept which, in fact, is at odds with the largest educational study ever conducted, Project Follow Through.

The second common-sense problem with block scheduling is retention.  With common forms of block scheduling, students take a full year of a class in one semester.  Many months may pass before they take the next course in the sequence or before they take important tests like the ACT, resulting in more time to forget what was learned.  Research data, discussed below, confirms that this may be a noteworthy problem.

Third, less total time is spent on core classes in typical block programs simply because 1 90-minute class has 10% less time than 2 50-minute classes.  Where this occurs, there may be extra electives possible during the school year, but spending less time on math, English, and other core courses would seem destined to contribute to the watering down of content.

Problems 2 and 3 can be avoided with modified Block systems.  For example, some schools are trying a modified Block with 4 courses one day and four other courses the next day, running year long to avoid retention problems.  But the fundamental limitation of attention span cannot be ignored.  My experience is that when motivated students are hungry for knowledge and are being fed by a motivated teacher, a class could continue for hours and still be effective.  But the realities of public education make this an unrealistic scenario.  Typical students already have difficulty maintaining interest over a 50-minute class.  Doubling class length seems likely to reduce the effectiveness of learning.  This limitation goes to the core of block scheduling and limits the academic results that can be obtained in the classroom.  This common-sense objection is also supported by extensive research on the spacing effect, as summarized in a review article by Frank M. Emptier and R. Farris, “The Spacing Effect: Research and Practice,” Journal of Research and Development in Education,” vol. 23, 1990, p. 97, as cited by R. Wild, “Science Achievement and Block Schedules,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, San Diego, California, April 20, 1998 (Dr. Wild’s paper is available as Word document, 85k):

The spacing effect — the tendency, given an amount of … time, for spaced [or distributed ] presentations of a unit of information to yield much better learning than massed presentations — is one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning.

Emptier and Farris offer the following summary of the importance of the spacing effect (pp. 97-101, as cited by Wild, 1998):

1st — The spacing effect is one of the most dependable and robust phenomena in experimental psychology.

2nd — The spacing effect is truly ubiquitous in scope.  It had been observed in virtually every experimental learning paradigm, and with all sorts of traditional research material.

3rd — The spacing effect has the distinction of being one of the most venerable phenomena in psychological literature.

Likewise, H.J. Walberg affirms the significance of the spacing effect (“Productive Use of Time,” in Timepiece: Extending and Enhancing Learning Time, ed. L.W. Anderson and H.J. Walberg, National Association of Secondary School Principals, Reston, VA, 1993, p. 6, as cited by M. Czaja and J. McGee in American Secondary Education, 23(4):37-39 (July, 1995)):

“One of the most dependable findings from psychology holds up in classroom research: that “spaced” practices over several lessons or study periods is superior to equal amounts of time spent in ‘massed’ practice (concentrated, possibly in one session).  Indeed, two spaced presentations or practice sessions are about twice as effective as two successive massed presentations of the same lengths.”
Major Scientific Studies Show Academic Harm

Block scheduling is said to do many positive things such as reduce truancy, make school less stressful, increase planning time for teachers, improve teacher-student relationships, and provide time for off-site work experiences at local businesses.  However, the critical issue is what it does for actual learning.  My desire for a focus on academic achievement has been criticized by some proponents of block scheduling, but as a parent, I feel that academic achievement is what public education is for.  The studies and trade articles that are used in support of block scheduling frequently base their conclusions on subjective criteria (e.g., many teachers enjoy it, kids seem to be having fun, the atmosphere is more relaxed, etc.).  However, proponents are unable to demonstrate academic benefits with hard, scientific data.  On the contrary, the largest scientific study comparing objective student performance in block classes with student performance in full year classes found that the full year (two semester) students outscored the block students on every measure.  Dr. David J. Bateson of the University of British Columbia studied 30,000 10th grade students in British Columbia (demographically similar to Wisconsin) who took science courses in year-long or semester-long blocks [“Science Achievement in Semester and All-year Courses,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(3): 233-240 (1990)].  Students in year-long science courses significantly outperformed both those taking science in the first semester and students taking science in the second semester.  (I suggest that typical high school students seem to learn better in small, regular doses rather than brief, heavy doses.  Heavy, concentrated learning may be great for highly motivated students, but the realities of short attention spans make fewer, longer classes a poor choice for secondary education.)  Furthermore, Bateson’s study suggests that first semester students had forgotten a significant amount of class material by the time they took the test at the end of the year, contrary to the popular myth that retention is not a problem.  Considering that typical block schedules cause a gap of three to thirteen months between consecutive classes, with an average gap of 7 months, I suspect that students may have serious problems in classes which rely on retention of material taught in the last course.

In another Canadian study, Drs. Dennis Raphael, Merlin W. Wahlstrom, and L.D. McLean examined the effect of block scheduling on mathematics courses in Ontario schools (“Debunking the Semestering Myth,” Canadian Journal of Education, 11(1): 36-52 (1986)).  They found that academic achievement was significantly lower under block scheduling and found either adverse effects or no benefit in student attitudes about mathematics (contrary to the common claim that block scheduling improves “attitudinal” scores).  They also confirmed that block scheduling resulted in fewer hours of actual instruction.  Overall, block scheduling was detrimental to student achievement.  Raphael’s findings were much the same as Bateson’s.  In a smaller study of science results, Raphael and Wahlstrom again found that traditional full-year courses resulted in better achievement in biology and chemistry classes, with no statistically significant difference for physics (Canadian Journal of Education, 11(2): 180-183 (1986)).  In contrast to Raphael’s study of math classes, however, attitudinal scores for science courses did show some gains due to block scheduling (more students said they enjoyed the courses or thought they were worthwhile).  The authors suggest that there may be some benefit of block scheduling for attitudes about science – in contrast to possible harms for science achievement.  Raphael’s work provides further scientific studies that show academic achievement in several areas (math, biology, chemistry) may be hurt by block scheduling.  As far as I can tell, neither Raphael’s nor Bateson’s studies have been mentioned by the advocates of block scheduling in selling the idea to school districts.  (Correction of Aug. 29, 1996: enough parents, armed with this web page and other resources, have been asking about the Canadian studies, that the primary opponents of block scheduling now must regularly deal with Bateson’s and Raphael’s work.  Fairly weak criticisms are used, such as simply saying that Canada has a different socioeconomic situation or arguing that the magnitude of harm isn’t very serious.  Parents, keep asking those tough questions!)  In most cases, districts seem to adopt the block scheduling program in ignorance of its effects.  That’s foolish and dangerous when dealing with the education of human beings.

Bateson, David J. (1990).  “Science Achievement in Semester and All-Year Courses,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(3) pp. 233-240.

“Abstract: The study investigated the effects of full-credit semester and all-year timetables on science attitudes and science achievement of grade-10 students in British Columbia.  All grade 10 students in British Columbia completed multiple matrix sampled assessment instruments in May of 1986.  These instruments provided background information, affective scores, and cognitive scores which were used to compare the groups.  It was found that, contrary to reported teacher perceptions of semester versus all-year courses, students in the all-year courses consistently outperformed both first- and second-semester students in the cognitive domains tested, and there were no significant differences in the affective domains.  The finding that second-semester students out-performed the first-semester students casts doubt on the reported teacher perception that knowledge retention is of little concern under a semester system.”

“Numerous studies and reports have cited teacher and student perceptions of changes which occur under alternate timetables…  More recent studies completed in Ontario and based on Actual outcomes have indicated that these perceptions may have little basis in fact (Raphael & Wahlstrom, 1986; Raphael, Wahlstrom and McLean, 1986).”

“A total of 30,116 grade-10 students completed the assessment instruments.  Of these, 19,195 (64.9%) were taking Science 10 in an all-year format, 5,277 (17.2%) completed Science 10 the first semester, 3,596 (11.1%) were taking Science 10 in the second semester, and the remaining 2,048 (6.8%) either did not take science in 1986 or were on another type of timetable (correspondence, trimester, etc.).”

“The results of this study show that at grade 10 in British Columbia, students who take science under a full-credit semester system [4×4 block] do not perform as well on multiple-choice tests of curricular-based science knowledge as do students who have taken the same course on an all-year basis [traditional].  Taken on a individual basis, no significant differences in the science attitudes of students on the two time-table systems were found.  However, there is a pattern that all-year students score consistently, but not significantly, higher than semester students on the affective scales.  These findings are in direct conflict with the perceptions of teachers involved in semester programs reported in previous studies.  The fact that the second-semester students consistently outperformed the first semester students also contradicts the reported perception that knowledge retention should not be a concern when utilizing a semester timetable.  It should be noted, however, that all studies cited prior to 1986 relied on teacher and student perceptions of outcomes…  In contrast, this study has used actual student outcome data as the basis for comparison.  It has shown that the actual outcomes are not congruent with expectations and perceptions and, as such, Raphael et al. (1986) may have selected a very appropriate title in ‘Debunking the Semestering Myth.’“

Raphael, D., Wahlstrom, M.W. and McLean, L.D. (1986).  “Debunking the semestering myth.”  Canadian Journal of Education, 11(1), 36-52.

Abstract: “Advantages claimed for semester organization of secondary schools were examined using data from a probability sample of 250 mathematics classrooms in 80 Ontario schools.  Achievement and attitude data were collected from 5280 students in the course of the Second International Mathematics Study, and it was determined that 94 of the classes were taught in half the school year, i.e., by semesters [4×4 block].  Teachers in semester schools were likely to report use of a greater variety of instructional materials.  Suggestions reported in the literature of better student attitudes and achievement were not supported, and performance of Grade 12 and 13 students in semestered classes was significantly lower than those in year-long classes.  Teachers in semester schools reported comparable coverage of mathematics content, but fewer hours of instruction in their courses.  Number of years of teaching experience was not correlated with student achievement in semester schools, but a positive correlation was observed in year-long classes.  Lower achievement in semester mathematics classes was observed with no advantage in student attitudes.”

Jeff Lindsay’s comments: Students were tested on several different mathematical areas: number systems, algebra (computation), algebra (other), equations and inequalities, analytical geometry, trigonometry, functions, probability and statistics.  In every area without exception, the year-long class average scores are higher than the semester-long class average scores.  This was true for students who chose math as their area of specialization as well as for students who did not.

The affective test measured student enjoyment of math.  There was no advantage gained from block scheduling in student attitudes toward math.  (End of my summary.)

“CONCLUSIONS: There may be many reasons for choosing a semester [4×4 block] organization for a school, but educational advantage in terms of student attitudes and achievement does not appear to be one of them–at least not in mathematics classes.  Instead of the more positive attitudes predicted, students in semester classes had either less positive or similar attitudes.  Mathematics achievement was, however, clearly greater in year-long classes.  None of the background measures available showed any difference in student, teacher, or school characteristics that could provide an alternate explanation for the achievement and attitude differences.”  The most parsimonious explanation is that students learned more mathematics in the full-year classes and developed at least as good an attitude toward the subject.”

Raphael, D. and Wahlstrom, M.W. (1986).  “The semester secondary school and student achievement: Results from the second Ontario international science study.”  Canadian Journal of Education, 11 (2), 180-183.

“In an earlier article (Raphael, Wahlstrom, and McLean, 1986), achievement results from the Ontario component of the Second International Mathematics Study (SIMS) were examined in relation to the claims of advocates of the semestered [4×4 block] secondary school.  While teachers in semestered Ontario schools reported greater variety in their teaching approaches, fewer hours of course instruction were reported.  Analyses revealed that students enrolled in semestered Grade 12 and 13 mathematics classes demonstrated significantly lower achievement than their non-semestered school peers with no difference in attitudes.”

“Ontario also participated in the Second International Science Study (SISS).  Biology, chemistry, and physics classes were sampled from 75 secondary schools, and students were administered achievement and attitude items near the end of their course.  Test booklets designed for the three science content areas of biology, chemistry, and physics each consisted of 30 international and 5 Canadian-designed items.  Unlike SIMS, where 136 mathematics achievement items were rotated through a class, students in SISS answered all of the 35 items in either the biology, the chemistry, or the physics booklet depending upon the class in which they were enrolled.  Attitude items designed to assess affective responses to the subject areas were administered at time of testing.  Principals, responding to a school questionnaire, indicated whether the school was semestered or on a full-year timetable.”

“Discussion: Consistent with the findings reported from SIMS in Ontario (Raphael, Wahlstrom, and McLean, 1986), achievement differences in biology and chemistry tended to favour students enrolled in non-semestered classes.  In contrast, however, the attitude findings from SISS indicated that students enrolled in semestered courses projected more favourable attitudes towards science.  Perhaps the view that the greater intensive study of a discipline seen in semestered schools promotes better attitudes has validity in the science areas, especially where teaching includes extensive laboratory sessions.”

Iowa State’s ACT Studies

Iowa State University in conjunction with ACT Inc. completed a series of studies in 2002 regarding the effect of the block on ACT scores in Iowa and Illinois.  The results show that the block may hurt ACT scores, as has been reported in the official Iowa State University news release dated July 1, 2002 (or see the same story at  One of these studies examined ACT scores for 568 public high schools in Illinois and Iowa, including longitudinal data for the two years prior to the implementation of block scheduling and four years after.  The studies were conducted by Donald Hackmann, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State, and Matt Harmston, Ann-Maureen Pliska and Robert Ziomek from ACT.  Here is an excerpt from the news release:

Block scheduling in schools may impact student achievement / ACT scores

AMES, Iowa — Student achievement may be impaired by certain models of block scheduling, according to a new series of studies by Iowa State University and ACT. . . .

Block scheduling is used by about 30% of high schools in Iowa and Illinois, according to a series of joint studies. . . .

One of the joint studies conducted in conjunction with the ACT staff investigated changes in ACT composite scores for 568 public high schools in Illinois and Iowa, including longitudinal data for the two years prior to the implementation of block scheduling and four years after.  This study showed that schools using the 4×4 semester model had markedly lower ACT scores in the first few years following implementation.

Schools using the eight-block, alternating-day approach [A/B] experienced slight declines in ACT scores, while schools using the traditional eight-period day showed little change in achievement.

Rural schools in both states using the 4×4 semester method fared especially poorly in the study.  The first years after implementation showed a marked decline in ACT scores, with a slight rebound in the fourth year.  Eight-block, alternating-day schools showed a slight drop in ACT scores.

Suburban schools and urban schools demonstrated somewhat similar results, but the numbers of these studied were small, making interpretation of the data more difficult.  In all cases, the decline in average student composite ACT scores after implementing the schedule change was beginning to level off after four years.

Look, if block scheduling is not helping students learn, why toy with it?  Why is there so much pressure from administrators to adopt it, if it’s not designed to help their students?  Please remind the administrators of their fundamental duty to the students, and urge them to resist this popular fad.  It’s great for administrators and their careers, I am told, but they need to understand that the risk to academic performance makes this an unwise “reform.”

Double Blocking: Exposing an Intrinsic Weakness of the A/B B.S. System

A trend in some schools is to use “double-blocking” for a few courses to ensure that students get exposed to the class everyday.

Here’s how “double-blocking” works, as explained by a parent in Texas:

Most of the schools I know about use an A/B block.  This means that on “A” day students attend four classes and on “B” they attend 4 different classes.  A sample schedule for a 9th grader might be as follows:  A1-English; A2 Math; A3 PE; A4 Theatre; B1-Social Studies; B2 Biology; B3 Elective; B4 Spanish.  This would be the schedule from August through May, resulting in a total of 8 credits for the year.

However, if the 9th grader is in athletics his schedule might be as follows: A1 English; A2 Math; A3 Science; A4 Athletics; B1 Social Studies; B2 Elective; B3 Spanish; B4 Athletics (again).  This would result in 7 credits per year (athletics counts as PE credit in the 9th grade and for the first semester of the 10th grade).

This is done in athletics and band so that the coaches and band director can see their students every day.  In the meantime the English teacher sees her students every other day.  Additionally, students who are doing poorly in Algebra are “double-blocked” in Algebra.  Sooooooo…. if you have a student who is in “double-blocked” in Algebra and who is in band and athletics, this student would receive 6 credits for the year.  Whatever might have been gained in terms of number of credits for that student by block scheduling is lost.

Now stop and think about this.  Why do band teachers and coaches want to see their kids everyday?  Because first and foremost, they are concerned with the performance of the child.  It is not enough to enjoy the classes or to have self-esteem about education: absolute achievement is demanded, and to obtain those skills, daily exposure and practice is known to be best.  If our primary focus was on absolute achievement in math, science, or other areas, wouldn’t we want daily exposure as well?

This is a condensed version of Part 1. Block scheduling is a major educational “reform” that is being implemented across the country in spite of serious evidence that it is harmful to education. These pages are the work of Jeff Lindsay, who has children in the Appleton, Wisconsin School District. Send your comments to <>.

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