The financial crisis for Kansas education is causing some big schools to drop “block scheduling” and some small rural schools to move to a four-day school week. One of these is a good idea academically. The other is bad.
“Block scheduling” is an education reform that came to many Kansas high schools in the early 1990s. Instead of meeting each class each day, students attended classes every-other-day for double period blocks. Some teachers appreciated the longer time for lab work or theater practice. But the education reform was intended to force supposedly old-fashioned teachers to get away from lecturing. A double period was just too long for a teacher to lecture and this would supposedly force more cooperative learning and other group learning. And it was supposed to save the beginning-of-class housekeeping that would occur only two or three times a week, not every day.
But, according to research by Kansas teacher Timothy Johnson who surveyed Kansas teachers’ actual use of block periods in the midst of its popularity a decade ago, “only 27.1% of teachers agreed that student motivation increased and only 37.5% of teachers felt students became more responsible for learning.” And science teachers did not agree (only 16.7%) with block schedule advocates that it increased opportunities to team teach or spend more time with colleagues. A solid majority of teachers (68.7%) disagreed with “I complete more units of instruction.”
Today, mathematics and foreign language teachers can tell you that students in schools with block scheduling fall behind nearly a month per year. The reason is simple: It takes time to learn. Daily reinforcement is valuable.
Math and foreign language rely on everyday practice to nibble a slightly bigger problem or vocabulary, practice it, check it, and then nibble a little more. Block scheduling requires the student to take two bites at once every-other-day. It doesn’t work as well. Students need “incubation time” for concepts to sink in. Teachers need to correct the math or refine the accent and vocabulary each day. Students cannot run at double speed and bridge the missing days for these lock-step skills that build.
Schools that move back to old-fashioned classes-every-day to save money will also see their student’s performance rise, other factors kept equal.
However, some small rural Kansas schools under financial stress are considering moving to a four-day week. By lengthening the school day Monday-through-Thursday, the school can shut down the building on Friday. This saves heating and air conditioning and some bus transportation costs. It does not save salaries and that is the big expense.
The four-day school week is not new. Some rural western Kansas schools have been on a four-day schedule for many years. Those administrators and teachers will tell you that the students do not learn as much. It is the same problem as block-scheduling: the gap across the longer weekend means more forgetting time. It is too long a break from the daily progress made by study-and-practice each day. Like the big “fall-back” in learning that occurs each summer, the four-day week is a series of little “fall-backs” each long weekend.