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What Is High School Block Scheduling? Block vs Traditional Schedules

Updated on June 9, 2016

By Natashalh

Block Scheduling

If your student tells you he only has four classes to study for, he may be telling the truth. Unlike traditional high school schedules with 6-8 periods a day, many high schools today use block scheduling. Block scheduling has taken America by storm in recent years. School districts tout it as a fantastic way to offer increased instruction time and help students focus on their studies, but detractors say longer class periods are ineffective and promote less learning, rather than more. What, exactly, is block scheduling? And who really benefits from it: school districts, teachers, or students?

Bored high school student
Bored high school student | Source

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What is Block Scheduling?

With a traditional schedule, a student attends between 6 and 8 classes every day for 45-55 minutes each. With block scheduling, a student attends a fewer number of classes for a longer period, or block, of time. Instead of 7 classes that last 55 minutes each, a student might attend only 4 classes a day, but stay in each class for 90 minutes. There are several different types of block schedules. In fact, there are so many you could probably teach an entire major in college on figuring out block schedules!

In a traditional block schedule (not to be confused with a traditional schedule), a student attends the same 4 classes every day for 90 days. During the second semester, the student takes 4 new classes. Over the course of the year, the student takes 8 different classes.

In an A/B block schedule, each day of the week is designated an A day or a B day. Day A has 4 classes, and day B has 4 different classes. Two days for a given week can be designated A days, two designated B days, and the third a mixed day with 8 shorter periods, or the weeks can alternate between A/B/A/B/A and B/A/B/A/B. Either way ensures an equal amount of instructional time for A and B classes.

In a 4x4 block schedule, classes are divided into quarters. Some classes are only held for one quarter, or 45 days, but other classes take place over two quarters, or 90 days. A student attends the same four classes for 45 days, but then his or her schedule may change.

Confused yet? If so, you're not alone. Teachers and students, alike, find block scheduling difficult to keep track of. There are actually even more variants of the block schedule than the ones listed above, but these three are the most commonly used. For a comparison of traditional and popular block schedules, see the tables below.

Traditional Schedule

Semester 1
Semester 2
Government
Economics
French
French
Geometry
Geometry
Computers I
Computers II
Biology
Biology
English
English
PE
PE

Traditional Block Schedule

Semester 1
Semester 2
Government
Economics
French
Geometry
Computers I+II
English
Biology
PE

A/B Block Schedule

Monday/Wednesday
Tuesday/Thursday
Friday
Government
Economics
Government
Government
Econimics
French
French
Geometry
Computers I+II
French
Geometry
Biology
Computers I+II
English
Economics
Computers I+II
English
Geometry
Biology
PE
English
Biology
PE
PE

Why Block Scheduling Is "Good"

According to school districts, block scheduling is more effective than traditional scheduling because it offers students more instructional time. With fewer classes and less time during the school day devoted to changing classes, students are supposed to be able to focus and accomplish more.

School boards also promote the fact that, under a traditional schedule, a teacher is allowed two planning periods, but block scheduling only gives the teacher one. During the course of the year, a teacher with a traditional schedule is likely to teach five classes and have two planning periods. With a block schedule, each semester the teacher has three classes and one planning period. This means, throughout the year, a teacher has six classes and two planning periods. In other words, each teacher instructs an additional class. When applied to every teacher in a school, this means schools can hire fewer teachers.

According to a College Board study, using a 4x4 block schedule increases cross subject achievement. However, the College Board also states that this average could conceal worsening performance in some areas by masking it with increased performance in other subjects.

Instructional Time

Block Schedule
Traditional Schedule
90 minutes per class
50 minutes per class
x
x
90 days of each class
180 days of each class
=
=
8,100 minutes of class
9,000 minutes of class
Block scheduling offers at least 900 minutes, or 15 hours, less instruction time!

Block Schedules Offer Less Instruction

Unfortunately, block scheduling may be the biggest bill of goods ever sold to the American public. I know it's a bold claim, but the research, and basic math, back it up.

For starters, take the claim that students are given more instructional time. Unless a student takes a class every single day for both semesters, this isn't true. In fact, a traditional block schedule offers the equivalent of 3 weeks less instructional time, when compared to a truly traditional schedule! While the calculations to the right are based on a 50 minute class period, many schools actually use a 55 minute period, so the amount of instructional time lost is even greater.

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Research Shows Block Scheduling Does not Work

Block scheduling does not work well for several reasons. In addition to lost instructional time, as proven above, it is also an ineffective way to teach.

For starters, students simply cannot pay attention for 90 minutes. The counter argument is that classes must be broken up into three distinct, 30-minute periods with totally different activities in order to keep students engaged. Additional class time is lost when classes have to rearrange and change projects. Even with switching gears, it is very difficult to keep students engaged for an hour and a half - people simply aren't built to pay attention for that long. By the age of 12, most people have an attention span of 22 minutes, at most. This changes very little, even into adulthood. Some adolescents can barely pay attention for 15 minutes. How are they supposed to concentrate for 90?

Block scheduling produces obvious difficulties for classes, such as AP classes, that require a springtime test. If a student takes AP Calculus in the fall and takes the test the following May, he or she will score lower than a student in a full semester or spring semester class, unless significant remediation takes place. Students who take an AP class for two semesters of a block schedule have significantly more instruction time and score better, but can take fewer overall classes because the class takes an 'extra' spot.

While the exact reason is not know, a University of Virginia study involving 8,000 students reveals students who used block scheduling scored significantly lower in college science classes than students who attended a school with a traditional schedule. Several Canadian studies also show students who experienced block scheduling in high school score lower in introductory biology, physics, and chemistry courses in college.

As one researcher involved with the UVA study pointed out, college end-of-course grades stay with you for a lifetime and can have real-world consequences. Lower college grades as a result of block scheduling can negatively impact students for years to come. This study's results are interesting because block schedules are billed as particularly helpful for science classes. The theory is that 90 minute classes allow for longer lab times, which was supposed to improve science grades.

A/B block schedules may cause additional learning problems for subjects, such as maths and foreign languages, that need daily practice for comprehension and retention.

Block scheduling is also hard on teachers. As pointed out above, each teacher teaches more classes during the course of the year. Additionally, he or she basically has to come up with three lesson plans for each day. This may not sound particularly difficult for non-teachers, but those of you who are teachers know exactly how difficult block scheduling can be!

Is Block Scheduling the "Way of the Future?"

Block scheduling has been billed as the "way of the future," but some schools are already switching back to a 'traditional' schedule after experiencing the block schedule's failures. Even schools that have not totally given up on block scheduling are incorporating a mix of semester-long blocks and shorter, year-long classes. Sadly, in spite of the evidence that block schedules do more harm that good, schools across the country, and even the world, continue to contemplate and adopt the system.

I realize that some people may disagree wholeheartedly with my assessment that block scheduling is a poor choice. I know at least one teacher who is loves block scheduling. Sadly, neither teachers nor students benefit from block scheduling. The biggest beneficiaries are the school boards and budge committees. By having each teacher teach more during the course of the year, fewer teachers are hired and dollars are 'saved.'

What is your take on the block schedule? Did you attend a school with a block schedule? Do your kids? Please leave your comments!

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      rspin401 4 months ago

      Moving out of a district over Block Scheduling seems a little extreme to me!

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      Anonymous 6 months ago

      Its not a fad! You people are idoiots

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      Simora Scott 8 months ago

      My child attends a school with block scheduling and we are moving out of the district. He has ADHD and this is NOT what he needs to be successful with his academics.

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      Eric Raymond 9 months ago

      Your math is wrong, 90 mins a class for 90 days and you forgot times 2, you don't account for the full year when you only Account for 90 days of the year, 180 days by law you must be in school and therefore it'd be 16,200 hours to 9,000 hours for the school year totally and entirely a waste of money block schedule wasn't created by learners or students remember it was created by school systems so they can profit more from taxpayers by reporting more time in class

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      mary 4 years ago

      i kids should have 8 periods a day 7 classes and and a lunch. the classes would last about 45 minutes each.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      I love how people are either for or against block scheduling in a major way!

      I have to admit that I currently haven't slept in 23 hours and I'm a little out of it, but I feel like you must be assuming different school year lengths between the different types of scheduling. Maybe I'm looking at your comment wrong because I am very tired! I do, however, know that it is exceedingly difficult to keep 9th and 10th graders actively on task for 90 minutes studying history!

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      Mr.B 4 years ago

      The overall explanation of what Block scheduling seems accurate and fairly described. The 4x4 block schedule was a new scheduling type for me, and I have doubts how regarding how many schools implement it.

      Ms Hoover, does some mathematics to prove her point that there is less instructional time in each class. As a future mathematics teacher I like to look a little closer at the numbers before taking it at face value. While she is correct that students will be in a single class under block scheduling for 8,100 minutes in a semester 900 minutes less than 9,000 minutes in a year under a traditional schedule, it is important to look at the school day, year as a whole.

      Each day the students will have 4 classes under block scheduling, giving 32,400 in a semester and as there are two semesters, 64,800 total hours of instruction each year. Comparing this to the traditional schedule, there are 7 classes with each 9,000 minutes of instruction giving 63,000 hours of instruction.

      Therefore, Since 64,800 is 1,800 minutes more than 63,000, block schedule does give additional instruction time for students each year. So while Ms. Hoover was correct in stating that in a specific class there is less instruction time, over the course of a year students are in class longer, “basic math backs it up”.

      I agree that the time between classes can be a detriment to retention from year to year, however if students can not remember what they are being taught for 6 months to a year, what makes us think that they are retaining significant amounts 5 years out when they are no longer in school. School isn’t the goal itself, it is to educate for life.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      You're right - a lot of school administrators do not have classroom experience and don't realize that planning periods aren't just a second lunch break!

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      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Planning is so crucial to teachers in setting a good classroom learning environment and experience. Schools often see planning periods as a waste of time and hate to pay for this. If block time does not allow for adequate planning time, then it will see poor learning in students.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Wow - what a lot of different courses! There's no way I could keep all of those straight. It sounds like you'd at least figured out a way to teach AP courses so kids could still get the full-year instruction and have material fresh in their minds for the exam.

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      FreezeFrame34 5 years ago from Charleston SC

      At the high school I teach at, we run an interesting 4x4 schedule; we have year long A/B day classes, semester courses, quarter classes, early-bird, after-school, and we offer skinnies-two 45 minute blocks for certain AP courses, as well as dual-credit college courses; it can be enough to make your head spin! Great article!

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      It is true that different people mature and different rates, and some people are more advanced at 16 than others will ever be! It's too bad we can't somehow place people in grades and classes by a provable developmental age, rather than a calender age. I think being able to move people both 'up' and 'down' without it being a huge social issue would really help a lot of people. I observed at an alternative and special ed school where they grouped kids in the elementary grades by ability level. Kids who were chronologically in 5th grade but could do, say, math, at a 3rd grade level did better in school (obviously) and had fewer behavioral problems when grouped according to ability. Instead of feeling like they were behind and had to act out for attention, they realized they could to math. Some of these students actually 'caught up' to their chronological grade, in time, after going back to more foundational material.

      Glad you stopped back by!

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      Judy Specht 5 years ago from California

      I am with you about graduating early. I guess most kids are too. 75% of my eldest sons class could have graduated in their junior year, but they didn't. They did what you did.

      Though a good number of doctors we know graduated at 16 knowing they wanted to go to med school and it would be a long haul. One of my nieces is 18 and starting her junior year of college. She graduated a year ago, but was able to take concurrent college courses with high school. her junior and senior year.

      When I was 16 I was as mature as I ever got. At 18 I was beginning to see that I had the rest of my life to be a mature adult.

      The men in my life don't come alive until they hit college, then they flourish.

      I have thoroughly enjoyed chatting with you today.

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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      I don't know that staying in school until 18 should be mandatory, but I also don't understand why we have such a fixation about with graduating early. Why? What if you graduate super early (as some have) and then attend college and graduate by 18. Are you really an adult who is ready to move out, get a job, take on the world, etc? Developmentally, teen's brains aren't fully developed. I don't know that kids should actually graduate early. I hated high school, but I went all four years, got lots of ap credit, and went to college as a second semester sophomore. I stayed in college four years with scholarships and was able to take lots of electives, like four different foreign languages. If I'd graduated early, and I could have, I wouldn't have had the same opportunities.

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      Judy Specht 5 years ago from California

      Our 40th high school reunion was last weekend. We were the original trial class. Class of 72 was truly the experimental class. They experimented with whole word reading instead of phonics, when I got to HS we had the two fold block system. Until dad taught at my school he had a hard time believing what I told him about our scheduling. Fast forward 16 years an my own children entered high school each kid had a different form of the block system. The last kid had block trimesters. The block system is a nice concept, but most teachers don't love teaching enough to plan a 90 minute class. What I found is this really benefits the kids who hate school and aim to graduate ASP. It is just torture for the others who don't get the structure they need to succeed in a structured world. Legislators are working on a law in CA that says you have to stay in high school until you are 18. What will that do with kids who have enough credits to graduate when they are 16. My cousin, who is a teacher, has held many high ranking posts in the Ed system, is amazed that parents have given so much liberty to the education system. In our state according, to her, if it's a bad idea you can count on California teachers union to wholly adopt it.

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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you! Block scheduling always confused me because I never had it. Since my local school districts use block scheduling, I've had to study it in my grad education classes. Otherwise, I'd have never bothered to figure it out!

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      Karen Lackey 5 years ago from Ohio

      Great article. I could never figure out my step daughter's high school schedule and I decided not to try. She knew what she was doing and got her work done. However, I often questioned why she didn't have her class 'that day' but apparently I am old school and can't understand! :)

      Great resource and timely article for confused parents!

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Yes...but that's kind of the problem. The experience is more concentrated. If you drink straight orange juice concentrate, does it taste good? Is it maybe so acidic it upsets your stomach?

      People aren't designed to pay attention for 90 minutes, especially not kids, and the block schedule offers 15 hours less instruction time than a 'traditional' schedule. Less retention in class + less instructional time = less learning.

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      Rahul Masid 5 years ago from Kolkata India

      Block scheduling is a type of academic scheduling in which each student has fewer classes per day but each class is scheduled for a longer period of time.In one form of block scheduling,a single class will meet every day for a number of weeks,after which another class will take its place.In another form,daily classes rotate through a changing daily cycle.Blocks offer more concentrated experiences of subjects,with fewer classes daily.There may be a less regular rhythm of homework for any given class.

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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      I agree with you 100% GoodLady (as you can probably tell!). I also agree that school shouldn't just be about the book learning. There's such a focus on getting the end of year test scores today and everyone insists that the 'old' style of education must be changed because it's old. However, the rate of invention peaked in the 19th century and the people produced by the 'inferior' old style did things like invent rockets and take us to the moon. How bad could it have really been?

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      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      It's a fact that you can't absorb (and learn) information beyond 45 minutes. (Its well researched - and teachers and teaching bodies know that!). Children a lot less of course. I used to teach.

      If the student had a 45 minute class and then can do some homework around the learning then the extra time would be put to good use (after a small break). Any class lesson longer than 45 minutes would be like talking to a classroom of brick walls.

      Schooling isn't just about classes. It's also about being together, playing together, sharing the day. Social skills are a part of learning.

      Good topic.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for weighing in from the other side, Janis Goad and gmarquardt. I can see how having to adapt and change to different schedules could help one grow a teacher. With attention spans being as sort as they are, some teaching methods associated with block scheduling could probably be put to good use during a shorter class period, too! Were all those different schedules in the same district, throughout time, or did you move? That's a lot of changing around!

    • gmarquardt profile image

      gmarquardt 5 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

      In my twenty some year career, I've taught a seven-period schedule, a six-period schedule, the A/B block, the Accelerated block (traditional in your hub), and an eight period schedule with a “zero” hour. We finally eliminated the block schedules for financial reasons, as paying for seven periods is cheaper than eight per year. Either way, students learned and were rewarded for their hard work. I’ve had successes and failures under all schedules and can name a thousand positives and negatives about each one. All I can say is, I enjoyed the change, because it forced me to change how I taught, and in the end, that made me a better teacher.

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      Janis Goad 5 years ago

      My daughter liked block scheduling in high school, because there was more time to get stuff done in class, and less shuffling around, and getting settled in the new class. The downside for her was that the school didn't balance the schedules, so she often had four heavy academic courses on one day-Math, English, Socials, and a science,all with lots of homework--and four light classes on the other day--physical education, art, free block and her other academic subject (French). She was burned out from the heavy day and could barely wake up the next morning to get going again.

    • Natashalh profile image
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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Five periods total? Wow, that really isn't much instructional time! I can't believe they're putting it into the lower grades. Kids in elementary school can focus for 15 minutes or less. They just aren't physically/mentally capable of more in an academic setting.

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      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      My kids' school tried block scheduling in the middle school last year and has expanded it to the elementary grades this year. I don't have any idea how my 9-year-old will be able to focus on an hour and a half of math every single morning. Also, this year there is significantly less time available for science and social studies; last year they had four periods of each every week, and this year there are only five periods a week combined. There definitely seems to be a failure of logic somewhere in the system!

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      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you, billybuc! It's so "in" right now - a lot of people have really bought the hype. I'm not glad you and your students had to experience its failures, but I'm glad you realize it's a fad and a failure.

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      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      We tried it once in a school I taught at and it was a dismal failure. Your summation is very accurate and well written.