Content

by Ronald Williamson

A school’s schedule is one of the most powerful tools a principal can use to shape the instructional program. The schedule can facilitate or inhibit opportunity for teacher collaboration and can provide teaching teams with the flexibility they need to vary the length of classes and to accommodate a range of teaching strategies. The schedule is a reflection of values and the design should be driven by those values and by purposeful and intentional strategies that will support accomplishing the things that are most important.

Scheduling priorities vary based on goals. If the goal is longer instructional blocks so that teachers can use an array of instructional strategies, then that becomes the priority. If the goal is time to schedule participation in extension/remediation activities, then that becomes the priority.

The best schedules are developed based on data about student performance, student learning needs, and curricular and instructional requirements. The schedule becomes a tool that teachers can use to address the learning needs of students and to provide a rich, engaging educational experience.

One of the most powerful instructional tools is the presence of longer, more flexible instructional blocks. Variations of block schedules have become the common scheduling model in many middle schools.

Some of the important factors to consider when constructing a flexible schedule that provides a strong instructional focus include:

Students

  • Extended time in content areas to provide for more in-depth study of topics and more hands-on activities
  • Opportunity for interventions—classes, programs, tutoring—for students needing additional academic support
  • Time to participate in cocurricular activities that apply content-area learning such as school newspapers, plays, service learning opportunities, and student-led conferences.

Teachers

  • Extended blocks for instructional teams and the power to adjust the time allotted to individual subjects
  • Flexibility to adjust time in order to differentiate instruction to meet student needs
  • The opportunity to vary grouping patterns to meet student needs and assure student success
  • Collaboration with a literacy coach or other specialized teachers.

Scheduling Alternatives

There are four ways to provide instructional flexibility (Williamson, 1998). They vary dramatically from the traditional fixed-period schedule that is organized around curricular departments where all classes are of equal length. Most fixed-period schedules minimize instructional flexibility and there is little opportunity for shared or collaborative planning.

The other approaches provide greater flexibility. They include various forms of block schedules, alternating day schedules, rotating schedules, and dropped schedules. The model a school chooses should be based on a thorough analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of each and should be aligned with school goals.

Longer instructional periods, called blocks, are created in a block schedule. Alternating schedules vary the schedule from day-to-day, commonly alternating days. The other two models include a rotating schedule that rotates the placement of classes from day-to-day. In this model, a class may meet at different times every day of the week. The fourth approach is a dropped schedule where one class is dropped so that other activities may occur. In one school, for example, two periods a week were dropped so that student clubs could meet. The classes that were dropped vary from week to week, minimizing the impact on an individual class.

While alternating, rotating, and dropped schedules offer distinct benefits, the model most frequently found in middle schools is a version of the block schedule.

Block Schedule

A block schedule is characterized by longer instructional periods. In many middle schools organized into interdisciplinary teams, the teams may teach a common schedule and may vary the length of classes they teach. In the example below, the team has a longer block of instructional time in the morning and afternoon. The team decides how to distribute the time among core classes.

Sample Teams Schedule

 

Mon

Tues

Wed

Thu

Fri

 

Core

 

Core

 

Core

 

Core

 

Core

 

 

 

 

 

Expl.

Expl.

Expl.

Expl.

Expl.

Expl.

Expl.

Expl.

Expl.

Expl.

 

Core

 

Core

 

Core

 

Core

 

Core

 

 

 

 

 

Longer instructional blocks provide teachers greater control over the selection of instructional strategies. Rather than being constrained by the limitations of a fixed period, teachers can select instructional practices that match the learning needs of their students. Blocks often release the creativity of teachers, no longer limited by a fixed period schedule.

Longer instructional blocks can also often positively impact school climate. Because there may be fewer class changes, there are fewer disciplinary referrals. When the block schedule includes fewer classes each day, it often reduces stress for both students and teachers.

Longer instructional blocks, when implemented as part of a teaming model, provide additional benefits. The team is encouraged to talk about how to vary the allocation of time among subjects and to flex the time for instructional purposes. These conversations build camaraderie between teachers and often lead to multidisciplinary connections between content areas.

A common misconception is that a block schedule must include long blocks every day of the week. In order to have each class meet several times each week, block schedules are often mixed with fixed-period schedules. The following example shows how longer blocks can be mixed with shorter class periods. In this school, the goal was to assure that every class met four times each week.

 

Mon

Tues

Wed

Thu

Fri

1

1

1

4

1

2

 

2

 

2

3

2

3

5

3

4

 

4

 

4

5

3

5

6

5

6

 

6

 

6

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday provide 50-minute class periods with each class meeting once. Tuesday and Thursday are used for 105-minute class periods with only three classes meeting each day.

Alternating Schedule

An alternating schedule, often called an “A” and “B” schedule, includes classes that alternate from day-to-day. A version of the block schedule, the alternating schedule generally provides longer instructional periods every day.

 

Mon

Tues

Wed

Thu

Fri

 

 

 

 

 

1

5

1

5

1

 

 

 

 

 

2

6

2

6

2

 

 

 

 

 

3

7

3

7

3

 

 

 

 

 

4

8

4

8

4

The schedule continues to alternate every day throughout the semester or year. In the example above, for the following week, classes 5, 6, 7, and 8 would meet on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday while classes 1, 2, 3, and 4 would meet on Tuesday and Thursday.

Rotating Schedules

A schedule that rotates changes the order of classes from day-to-day. When a rotating schedule is used, teachers and students report that the schedule changes their perception of one another and of the content area, often because both students and teachers perform differently at different times of the day. For example, in a traditional schedule, a class might always meet just before lunch but in a rotating schedule the meeting time would rotate throughout the day.

 

Mon

Tues

Wed

Thu

Fri

1

2

3

4

5

2

3

4

5

6

3

4

5

6

1

4

5

6

1

2

5

6

1

2

3

6

1

2

3

4

By itself, a rotating schedule does not provide longer instructional blocks, but when rotation is paired with other approaches, it can result in some schedule designs that support longer instructional blocks.

A team with two long instructional blocks might find those blocks scheduled at different times each day of the week, providing greater instructional flexibility.

Mon

Tues

Wed

Thu

Fri

1

2

2

3

4

5

6

1

2

3

4

5

6

1

2

3

4

5

6

1

2

4

5

6

1

5

6

3

3

4

Dropped Schedule

A dropped schedule is one where something drops out of the schedule so that something else can be added. In many middle schools, an advisory, activity, or seminar period is often added.

In one southeastern Michigan school, the student schedule included seven classes but only six met on any day for 60-minute periods. The classes rotated throughout the week, each meeting four times. This created two long instructional periods that were scheduled for intervention classes, large group student activities, and seminar activities with individual teachers. These periods were also used for teachers to meet for professional development and common planning. Some weeks, the teacher groups met by content area and other weeks, the meetings were interdisciplinary.

 

Mon

Tues

Wed

Thu

Fri

1

7

5

4

2

2

Seminar

6

5

3

3

1

7

6

4

4

2

1

Seminar

5

5

3

2

7

6

6

4

3

1

7

Four goals guided the development of the dropped schedule: 1) To have longer classes—60 minutes instead of 45 minutes, 2) To provide an opportunity for intervention classes for students, 3) To make time for teachers to meet, work collaboratively, and participate in professional development, and 4) To allow every class to meet as frequently as possible.

Final Thoughts

There are no perfect schedules, but a carefully planned schedule can include flexibility that can positively impact instruction. Understanding the needs of students and the professional staff and planning a schedule based on those needs will most likely lead to an alternative other than the fixed-period school day.

Providing flexibility in the schedule facilitates an instructionally rich program. Such a schedule must be complemented by other allotments including time for teachers to work collaboratively and to participate in professional development.

 

References

Williamson, R. (1998). Scheduling schools: Tools for improved student achievement. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Ron Williamson is a professor in the Leadership and Counseling Department at Eastern Michigan University.