"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Jay Mathews Attack on Block Scheduling

Testing industry insider and long time manipulator of public opinion, Jay Mathews, had a piece two pieces last week that give the editors of Washington Post reason enough to pull the plug on this guy. The sad fact is that Mathews has filed an impressive portfolio of editorials masked as news stories at the Post, and since no one at the paper cares enough about education to check out the facts or the rest of the story that Mathews does not report, they continue to let him do what he wants with impunity.

One of Mathews' target last week was block scheduling. Now for any story or innovation that Mathews wants to knock down or to promote, there is the ultimate criterion of test scores to consider, which serves as ironclad arbiter for any policy consideration. If there is no evidence, for instance, that whole grain bread for lunch increases test scores, then there is no reason to replace the Bunny Bread. Same with block scheduling: no evidence for increasing test scores, then let's go back to the six, seven, or nine lap race course that leaves students scatter-brained and exhausted at the end of the day. Of course, that is the accepted mode of societal management, is it not?

And how Mathews found a principal who would act the fool for him in a national newspaper, that's pretty impressive:
But Einstein Principal James G. Fernandez said he is unconvinced that block scheduling, used in his school for several years, raises student achievement. He suggested that the format might lead some students to drop out because of long classes. So why have so many schools adopted it? "Other than it was the fad, I'm not really sure," he said. He said he switched back to a traditional schedule because it allowed a longer lunchtime for one-on-one work with students and because it might help prevent students from dropping out.

"Show me some data that indicates kids perform better" with block scheduling, Fernandez said.
Well, Principal Fernandez, here is a link a piece in the Kappan offers several sound reasons that might have influenced your decision, had you chosen to let your decision be influenced. Below are a few of them that Jay Mathews didn't ask you about or tell you about, because when it comes down to it, he is an opponent of block scheduling because the College Board is an opponent of block scheduling:
It was difficult to schedule Advanced Placement classes in some block systems.
A few reasons to consider block scheduling:
  • greater flexibility in scheduling
  • opportunities for students to complete more courework
  • less time during day spent in class changes and routine management tasks
  • improved school climate . . . a more relaxed atmosphere
  • greater student/teacher rapport
  • instruction and curriculum improvement/innovation
  • more individual student attention from teachers
  • improved school discipline
  • more teacher planning time
  • more time for labs, vocational projects, art, band, writing, and research
  • less time needed for grading, more time to devote to teaching
  • more shared ownership of teaching and learning among students and teachers
In terms of tests, there have been no notable differences on standardized test scores among block compared to non-block. For those schools and teachers that seek to maintain lock-step authoritarian control, however, the block is a challenge. If you think it is hard to lecture teens for 44 minutes, try 88 minutes. Good teachers adapt--authoritarians resent the change, and blame block scheduling for messing up their day (as well as their one year of experience, repeated 20 times). That is why, I am afraid, that there is such a blowback in recent years toward the bad old schedule of the past. Authoritarian regimes breed authoritarian schools. And, then, there's the economics of testing to be protected, and that is where Jay Mathews comes in.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:27 AM

    I have no problems with block scheduling, as long as it's blocked for the whole year. That is, one school in our district does 1/2 year blocks. Kids take a year's worth of math in half the year and then no math in the other half. For math and languages, this seems to be a horrible idea. A lot of kids just need more time between concepts and more time to assimilate the information.

    I also think that block scheduling is the best thing to happen to great and very good teachers. They use that time wisely, break it up with activities, develop a sense of responsibility and wise time use in their students. With a bad or even just mediocre teacher? I think it's worse than shorter classes. Even a bad teacher can get an idea or two across in their 40-some minutes. Double the time and they're likely to have still only gotten across the same amount, but to have added in activities and tasks that add nothing to the learning. Or they've added a lot of video.

    I'm not sure from the list how block scheduling requires less time for grading and allows more time for labs, band, etc.?

    The biggest problem with all block or no block scheduling? It's the same problem I see everywhere. Everyone is looking for that magic bullet, that one change to a building, a schedule, a configuration of grades together, etc. that will *by itself* transform a school. And there isn't one. So, we spend and spend to force people to try out the newest best thing...only to find that good schools with good teachers are doing well and schools with problems...still have problems!