Crafting the school’s master schedule is one of an administrator’s most important tasks, with ramifications that go far beyond assigning teachers and students to multiple spaces for varying time periods. In addition to reducing school management issues, master schedules can be a catalyst for instructional changes that boost student achievement by reducing failing time for students, balancing workloads for both students and teachers, and accommodating evidence-based instructional practices.

There are schools where teachers with shared responsibilities lack rotating daily and extended planning periods. Some schools assign students, particularly at the middle level, to eight or more teachers in a school day and 12 or more teachers in a school year. Who, then, really knows the students? In some high schools, students are assigned seven to nine classes that extend for 180 school days—a rigorous workload that is challenging even for students who are highly motivated, are organized, and have a strong support system outside of school. What if teachers had to prepare for eight different classes daily? This is where a master schedule becomes extremely useful.

The master schedule dictates the number of classes students attend each day, each semester, and each school year. It also influences the amount of time underperforming students remain in challenging classes and how content is delivered. There are schools with students failing classes early in the year, yet many of them must remain in those classes until the end of the school year. Some schools still have 36- to 42-minute periods, which dictate how content is presented and how time is spent. Imagine a physical education class with such short periods, where students have to change clothes each day. Consider science and band classes that require preparation and closing times.

School time is a factor over which administrative personnel have control, and its usage is largely determined by the master schedule.

Rather than basing a schedule on “tradition,” we now have the technology to build master schedules based on multiple data points. For decades, many secondary schools had six periods that varied in length from 50 to 60 minutes annually, and students needed only 16 credits to earn a diploma. Now, with multiple political initiatives to improve the quality of high school graduates, we have schools requiring as many as 28 credits for graduation—but few schools have increased the number of minutes in the school day to accommodate the increased credit requirements. Most just cut the “time pie” more thinly and offer classes in shorter periods. In states with strong unions, administrators historically had little input in determining the school’s master schedule. Over time, language in union contracts has changed from periods to minutes, which gives school personnel “wiggle room” in exploring various designs for crafting a master schedule.

Unintended Consequences

Master schedules are not immune to certain challenges. For example, the number of minutes designated to each class determines how many classes can fit into a school day. The number of classes determines how many movements students make, and the number of movements influences school management, such as the number of reported tardies and disciplinary referrals. The length of class periods also determines workloads of both teachers and students and how instructional time is used on a larger scale, such as employing project-based learning, using technology, completing writing assignments, conducting Socratic seminars, and providing student support. If students are enrolled in four classes at one time versus eight classes, they have fewer homework assignments to prepare, fewer texts and materials to transport, fewer projects and assignments to manage, and fewer classes to fail.

Classes such as band, physical education, and technology and science labs require a certain number of minutes for preparation and closure, regardless of period length. It is likely that more instructional time occurs in a science or band class that meets every other day for 80 minutes than a class that meets daily for 45 minutes.

A Student-Centered Approach

Students at all school levels have multiple differences. Nonetheless, in most schools, all students must follow the same bell schedule regardless of their assessed needs. It is possible, however, to have students follow different schedules within the same bell format. Some students need short-term goals established. These students often are overage and undercredited. Enrolling them in seven or eight classes, all running for 180 days, has never worked well. In their senior year, these students often end up with multiple recovered credits as a way to increase graduation rates, leaving them with questionable amounts of content mastery.

Students who lack the motivation to wait until June to be rewarded for work completed in October can be placed in schedules that allow them to focus on one or two classes for 15–30 school days. If they do not meet mastery at the close of that time period, they can be assessed on standards not mastered and then work on specific goals relevant to their assessed needs for the next 15–30 days. Such scheduling allows students to focus on short-term, scaffolded goals. A master schedule can allow students with lower motivation and organizational skills to have two core classes each semester along with two electives, which tend to have less homework. A semester block schedule also allows students who failed courses in the fall to repeat the courses during the following semester. A data-driven designed master schedule, combined with instruction that focuses on mastery, can increase the odds that vulnerable students succeed.

Guiding Questions for Administrators

Given the importance of the master schedule, principals should collect data on various student cohorts in their school. Then, they can examine their master schedule using the following questions for guidance:

  1. Do teachers who share responsibility for the same students have rotating daily and extended planning time?
  2. Do students have daily scheduled time during school hours for support?
  3. Must all students follow the same bell schedule regardless of what past performance and individual assessments indicate?
  4. How many students are teachers assigned during any period of time in a school year?
  5. Is the number of classes in which students are enrolled reasonable for those who have little to no support outside of school hours?
  6. Do class periods give sufficient time to engage students in authentic tasks?
  7. How many movements do students make during a school day, and is the time spent in the new location sufficient to justify the time spent moving?
  8. Are there any obvious minutes in the master schedule that can be used more effectively?

Robert Lynn Canady is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA.