Getting the Most Out of Block Scheduling

Guest post by Sedric G. Clark

As a young English I and Algebra I teacher, I always searched for best practices that would help my students succeed. One of the practices I encountered and embraced early in my career was 4×4 block scheduling. In fact, I completed my master’s degree paper on the topic and later chaired a committee for my district that recommended the implementation of 4×4 scheduling in all high schools.

That was more than 20 years ago. Since then, I have served as assistant principal and principal in five different schools in four different school districts—in two different states. I am now in my first year as superintendent, and hopefully, my last year as a doctoral student. When my doctoral adviser asked me to choose a topic for my dissertation, I once again turned to block scheduling. I wanted to see if block scheduling still offered the benefits that I thought it did at the beginning of my career.

In the 1990s, many schools abandoned the traditional “straight seven” or “straight eight” schedules in favor of the 4×4 block schedule. On a traditional schedule, students take seven or eight classes each day for an hour over the entire school year. In a 4×4 block, students take four classes per semester for approximately 90 minutes each day. When the fall semester is completed, students take four different classes during the spring semester. Some schools have also introduced modified block schedules and trimester block schedules, which function under the same idea of fewer classes each day for students. This scheduling arrangement allows students to take more than 30 classes throughout their four years in high school, ensuring that students meet their state’s Carnegie-unit requirement, which is normally around 23 or 24.

There are numerous advantages to block scheduling. The amount of seat time spent in 4×4 classes is an important feature of this type of schedule. Because classes meet for only one semester, the pace is quicker. But the 90-minute block allows teachers to dive deeper into the curriculum and instruction than they could during a 60-minute class, and it provides more time for teachers to incorporate collaborative activities and differentiated instruction. Another advantage to block scheduling is that teachers can offer more individualized attention to students since they see fewer students each day. And teachers have longer periods of time for lesson planning.

For students, having fewer classes each day gives them less information to process, allowing them more time to focus on developing skills and mastering concepts. Furthermore, students have less homework each night, which reduces stress and anxiety along with freeing up time for extracurricular activities and athletics. And block scheduling gives students more opportunities to pursue electives or career specialization during their high school years.

Block scheduling does have some drawbacks. Typically, the expense may be greater for districts depending on teacher allocation. Some subjects, like math and international languages, may work better in a traditional schedule; in these subjects, students are better off having daily instruction in small units of time in order to develop skills and gain mastery. Another potential drawback is decreased retention. For example, if a student takes an English class during the first semester of her sophomore year and then takes her next English class the second semester of her junior year, she will have had a full year gap between courses, which can cause her to forget what she has learned. Block schedules also can be frustrating when a student misses a class—it is harder to make up absences. Research is, at best, mixed on the effectiveness of block scheduling on student performance. Research is also mixed on how block scheduling affects advanced academics and programs such as Advanced Placement testing.

So how can school leaders know if block scheduling will work for their school? There is no silver bullet in education. Every decision we make as school leaders has advantages and drawbacks, and every program and initiative we implement has room for improvement. Here are some tips to help you consider whether a 4×4 block schedule is right for your school:

  • Start researching. There are numerous resources on block scheduling—a simple internet search will produce thousands of articles on the topic.
  • Talk to other leaders who have already implemented block scheduling, and if possible, visit one of these schools and ask to speak with administrators and teachers to learn about their experiences.
  • Get input from students, staff, and parents, and provide multiple opportunities for all stakeholders to talk about questions and concerns regarding block scheduling.
  • Provide professional development for teachers in order to share best practices for teaching in a block schedule.
  • Collect data and evaluate the impact of block scheduling.

What are your experiences with 4×4 block scheduling?

Sedric G. Clark is the superintendent of Gladewater Independent School District in Texas. He was the 2017 Louisiana State Principal of the Year.

1 Comment

  • Mike Duffy says:

    Around here a number of schools have the four period day, BUT the 90 days are every other day across the entire 180. n othe alternate days they have 5-6-7-8. So kids have the 4 or 5 academic classes, P.E. a counseling/study class and two vocational/elective classes. This 4 period alternative allows for homework in two to four classes daily. It addresses the problems voiced about the more intensive 90 straight model

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