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TNLI: Action Research: Professional Development: Time on Our Side

Flexible School Scheduling on the Secondary Level with Implications for Professional Development
by Margaret Hoyt
Boston Public Schools
AUGUST, 1997

1. Position
2. Overview
3. Research Analysis
4. Recommendations
5. References

1. Position:

All eyes are on the success of America's public school children, but the focus is blurred. Are teenage Juan and Jane ready to enter the 21st Century under the current standards of American education? Media headlines tell you they are not. The personnel officer at the bank says they lack preparation for the world of work. College officials say they cannot handle higher level work and must be placed in remedial programs. As often is the case, teachers stand on the frontline of criticism, when in fact teachers are doing their very best in a system marking time with grandfather minutes instead of with digital precision.

Teaching is a dynamic process that constantly undergoes reassessment. The success of innovative and flexible scheduling for the purpose of improved teaching and learning hinges on a serious commitment to professional development. In order to implement the kind of change that comes with a flexible schedule, teachers must initiate new learning in concrete teaching methodology, classroom management, technology training and common planning strategies. To introduce interdisciplinary, project-based learning with the latest tools of technology, teachers need school based professional growth opportunities.

Never before has America enjoyed the enormous cumulative and pervasive breadth of knowledge and experience that public school teachers bring to the profession. Yet, the new challenges of a technological society in a current of social and demographic change demand that teachers constantly hone professional skills. How do we enable our teachers to prepare? Countries whose children measure highest in reading and math achievement set the pace for world standards. Japan, for example, recognizes the need for common planning time for its teachers and accommodates them by providing time built into the daily school schedule. The question on the American table is how we plan to make change effective for our students, our teachers and our communities. If teachers are being asked to change, they need opportunities to pragmatically prepare a common goal for better schools, and incentives for cooperation need to be nurtured.

2. Overview:
Is it any wonder that educators are scrambling to stem the downward spiral of student success by rethinking best practices for teaching and learning. According to the 1996 Report of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, schools have been structured for failure. Curriculum goals lack definition as students are placed on an assembly line, moving from room to room for short periods of time to cover challenging material in a cursory manner.

American children are being asked to compete in the 21st Century using a school model devised more than a half century ago. Since the advent of the industrial revolution, secondary schools have been organized into neat slots of 40-50 minute learning periods that start and stop with the ring of a bell, that compartmentalize teaching and learning into subject areas taught by teacher experts specialized in the field. All happens behind closed doors in the isolation of the individual classroom. Although the lecture format of the 40's and 50's gave way to open classrooms with student centered activities in the late 60's, the basic time frame has remained status quo...

K-5 classrooms largely continue to allow fluid time on task although ironically, some elementary teachers are adopting "specialist " practices of secondary models. Why is it that extended class time on the elementary level which so enriches curriculum and teaching strategies, and at the same time allows for interdisciplinary learning, seems to disappear in the secondary schedule, particularly in high school? Children lose out on the opportunity to make meaningful connections in their learning; natural curiosity becomes thwarted by compartmentalized thinking.

Education Reform in Massachusetts has mandated that time on learning must increase to 990 hours. If more time is to mean more learning, the critical question becomes how educators can plan for the increased time to offer better learning opportunities. If the quantity of time spent on task is not reinforced by the quality of the experiences, then the extended time will only be dismissed by the skeptics as another clever idea that lacked effective implementation. Lessons must be meaningful leading youngsters to: learn data, understand it, and then apply the information in the context of a complex society; understand how electronic research tools provide access to unlimited knowledge in a fast paced electronic age; and finally learn to work together in teams to solve real problems. These strategies are proven to help children learn better as they learn more.

What is flexible scheduling?...Planting the seeds of discovery...

Flexible scheduling means designing the length of periods in the school day to allow larger blocks of learning time for both teachers and students. In a broader sense, flexible scheduling means changing the configuration of the school day to allow for learning subjects in a thematic, interdisciplinary whole. The infusion of technology which offers an enormous access to information and the capability to manipulate data, becomes the vehicle to integrate various subject areas. The bottom line is that more time is scheduled for each subject area throughout the school day. In the most dramatic time change model, a different class may be taught on a rotating basis for the entire school day. In another example, courses are blocked into semesters and a class period meets two or more hours a day. In most secondary schools where they double the usual learning time on task, i.e. 45 to 90 minutes, the change is less radical. However, the key question follows: how is more time used for more effective learning?

What is Sound Pedagogy for the Time?...Professional development implication...

Longer teaching periods must be supported with substantial common planning time for teachers to effectively put interdisciplinary and project based teaching strategies into practice. Teachers need to model the learning environment themselves. Common planning time must be built into the school day so that teachers and students can work together in a fluid and dynamic classroom setting.

Experienced teachers bring the wisdom of their years and younger teachers offer the refreshing enthusiasm of discovery. What a powerful combination if only they would talk meaningfully to one another. In the advent of rapid electronic networks, teachers are connecting all over the planet. Why are they not connecting in their very own schools?

3. Research Findings and Analysis:
"Time on Our Side" uses action research based on four strategies:

  • Time and Learning" focus groups with about one hundred participants in a Boston area high school help frame the pros and cons of the debate.
  • "An internet survey, which reached about twenty respondents, outlines best practices for teaching and learning, the pros and cons of block scheduling, common planning time, and professional development.
  • Two case studies of the same high school which does not currently use flexible scheduling, but offers some perspective on the discussion.
  • Visits to schools and classrooms where extended time is being used effectively.
All teachers do not agree that extended time on task is pedagogically sound. Are we not putting the cart before the horse if we say that the day should be extended without really examining the way learning time is used? If our goal is to improve teaching and learning, then what kind of schedule really makes sense? Is the lecture format strictly a methodology of the past? Has project based learning replaced the open classroom? Are the semantics of defining "teacher" impeding the clearer grasp of what good teaching practices really are? As a result of focus groups, internet surveys and general readings, the debate begins to focus on a series of pros and cons which make up the essential components driving policy changes on the use of time in the school day.

PROS to Flexible Scheduling:

  • Extended time allows for project based learning to develop
  • Students produce tangible products
  • Portfolios reflect individual learning process
  • Teamwork emphasized
  • Greater depth and breadth of understanding subject matter
  • Teacher acts as consultant
  • Less time filing in the hallways
  • Opportunity for varied teaching strategies
  • Individualized evaluations one-on-one
  • Interdisciplinary teaching
  • Community Service Learning
  • Collaboration with community organizations and business world
  • Common teacher planning time
  • Experiental learning
  • Integrating technology
  • Cooperative, small group learning time
  • Field trips do not disrupt other teachers

CONS to Flexible Scheduling:
  • Student attention span is too limited
  • Students need daily exposure to subject matter
  • Teachers cannot lecture for such a long time
  • Homework should not be done in class
  • Students evaluated as individuals; report cards do not reflect group projects
  • The class from purgatory becomes the class from hell
  • Students can only learn one concept in math per day
  • Language and math studies require daily reinforcement to be effective
  • The teacher is expert so why focus so much on the student
  • Standards too demanding to present material in any other way but the lecture format
It is clear that there is no one right answer for every teacher or every subject in every classroom scenario. Given the graying of our teacher work force, it is folly to think that the schedule can be simply rewritten without a major intervention in professional development. Teachers must be lifelong learners. It is my contention that if they are presented with compensated, school based professional development opportunities which offer tangible and innovative teaching methodology, class management, technology training and common planning time, the extended time possibility will succeed. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?...

Nurturing Seeds of Change:
The most effective method to implement the kinds of changes being addressed is to build a consensus among faculty under the leadership of a visionary headmaster. Teachers who have the opportunity to feel a part of the change are more inclined to buy into the process and support it through the difficult adjustments. The resounding plea of experienced teachers is that they want to be part of the process rather than the process sweeping them away. The following strategies seem effective:

  • Allow colleagues who are effectively using innovative methods to join forces with those who are getting up to speed with the change. Teacher experts act as mentors to new teachers and assist veteran teachers with new skills.
  • Before changing the schedule, teachers need the option to "get out" and see what is working either through visits to other classrooms and schools, or time to surf the net and "talk" to other teachers in meaningful ways about education. Websites like Teachnet and NTPI (National Teacher Policy Institute) enable teachers to communicate in ways our grandfathers never dreamed.
  • Create a professional development resource center where teachers feel welcome to share in the vitality of whole school change with access to a professional library, bulletin boards, networks, teacher driven workshops and common planning space.
  • Bring in "experts" recommended by the faculty who can reach out to an identified team of teachers and build a meaningful collaboration around a relevant and real need. Classroom teachers can also step into the role of expert using their accumulated action research in the classroom to inform best practices.
  • Give teachers common time during the school day to collaborate on thematic, interdisciplinary lesson plans which enable teachers to combine a variety of traditional teaching methods such as lectures and testing, with cooperative/group problem solving, project oriented presentations, and the integration of technology.
Best practices: Two scenarios
  • An exemplary high school in Boston uses models of teachers not just as coaches, but as facilitators who not only impart knowledge, but support its application in creative group projects. The premise that people remember more of what they do than what they hear or see drives the methodology of the classroom. Colleagues in a seamless Cluster 8 teacher connection, k-16 collaboration which includes a local college, are making connections with knowledge, skills and applications. Technology is infused in the curriculum with students and teachers researching on the internet, while learning the language and process of electronic media and communications. This three year federally funded School-to-Work initiative is designed by teacher teams to prepare themselves and their students for the changing demands of the workplace.

  • Another pioneering group of Boston Community Service Learning teachers has developed a site based thematic unit on Building Utiopian Communities. This cross generational, interdisciplinary project-based curriculum includes water testing in chemistry, the history and literature of 19th century Transcendentalists, the biology of the wetlands and the neighboring environment, and use of media arts including television production, computers, internet, and photography as tools for assessment. A high school English class pairs with a fourth grade bilingual elementary class to generate a discussion on "What is a Utopian Community?" High school teachers help their students "learn by teaching" younger children. They show teenagers how to become responsible parents and better citizens by learning how to connect with their community. The group is funded annually for materials by Impact II, but they give of their own Saturdays, after school and on the phone to make this project work because it is in the best interest of children.
Innovative schools across the country are finding new ways to implement the flexible schedule. Teachers are building continuity of subject matter through thematic study. The extended time allows the class to probe a subject in depth, access technology as a means to learning more on the subject or using computers and video as tools for assessment. Students take pride in their individual accomplishments as part of the group collaboration and the final products which represent their teamwork effort. The flexible schedule breaks open the four walls of the classroom to the challenges of the workplace, helping students to make the connection between school and real world demands and responsibilities. These schools take care of their teachers by allowing common planning time to prepare these types of lessons which require different skills than have been true in the past. Teachers who talk to each other and to their community are being truly effective in these classrooms of the future.

The overwhelming result of the action research study demonstrates that if teachers are to teach in a new way, they must learn how. According to the recommendations of both National and State Commissions on Time and Learning, teachers must have regular school time for professional development and collegial planning. More than 90% of teachers surveyed felt that they were ready for change if they just knew how. The research shows a work force of dedicated professionals who daily go beyond the call of duty. If a teacher's school day never ends, why unlike most other professions would the teacher not be compensated for overtime? The most prized citizenry of this country, our youth, cannot be placed for the greater part of the day in the hands of a profession which is not supported with adequate compensation for its burgeoning workload.

If flexible scheduling is the way of the 21st Century, then governments, school boards and teacher unions must help students and teachers to design, develop, implement and assess this process. Furthermore, budgets must accommodate the increased time needed to implement higher standards and curriculum mandates. Though education is steeped in tradition, the qualifications of future Americans in the marketplace is in the hands of what policy makers decide today. Local, state and national educational policy makers need to think "out of the box" and boldly recognize the value and demands of a flexible schedule, and then budget for it.

Good business practice supports its employees. It is good business for educational policy makers to budget more planning and development time for teachers to achieve success with the new mandates for higher standards of learning. The evidence for improved teaching and learning will be better attendance, increased test scores, better portfolio products, ultimately higher grades and more prepared citizens to meet the challenges of America's bright promise. In the words of the immortal Andy Warhol, "They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."

4. Recommendations:
Local (with implications for state and national policy)

  • Support teachers to make site visits to model classrooms where change is working, or time to visit web sites on the internet. There is no better substitute for action research options.
  • Build professional development time into the school day. Create a teacher resource center that supports and nurtures the staff of every school with learning opportunities including curriculum, class management and technology training.
  • Build a significant block of time into the school day which allows teachers to collaborate on creating dynamic, interdisciplinary units around common themes using technology.
  • Introduce flexible scheduling which extends classroom time on subject matter, and allows for varied teaching methodologies including community service learning, school-to-career, and pairings with both business and community organizations .

5. References

"All Around the Block: The Benefits and Challenges of a Non-Traditional School Schedule," The School Administrator, September 1996

"Block Scheduling," Patricia Correira, MASC Journal, Spring, 1996

"Block Scheduling and High School Mathematics Instruction," Karen Sheingold, Ph.D. The Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 89, No. 9, December 1996.

"Focus" 21st Century Schools report, Boston Plan for Excellence, March-April 1997.

"Intensive Scheduling, An Interesting Possibility," John K. Andersen, Monticello H.S., Iowa.

"Japan Case Study," American Educator, March, 1997

"The Power of Innovative Scheduling," Michael D. Rettig and Robert Lynn Canady, Educational Leadership, November 1995.

"Prisoners of Time," Report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, April 1994.

"Report on Teaching and Learning," Donald Pellegrini, Headmaster, West Roxbury High School, December, 1995.

"Restructuring To Improve Student Performance," Clarence Edwards, Jr., NASSP Bulletin, 1993.

"Student Learning Time Regulations," Mass Department of Education, 1995.

"Taking Stock: Education Reform after Three Years; Key Report Findings," Mass Insight, Cambridge, MA, June 5, 1996.

"Technology Integration and Teachers' Professional Development," Karen Sheingold, Ph.D. Educational Testing Service.

"Timing is Everything: Blocks Ease School Climate," Education Daily, February 13, 1997.

Time & Learning Committee Report, West Roxbury High School, March 10, 1997.

"Time Matters: How Schools Can Change Schedules to Improve Teaching, Learning, and Student Achievement," 1996.

"Unlocking the Lockstep High School Schedule," Robert Canady and Michael Rettig Phi Delta Kappa, December, 1993.

"Unlocking the Power of Time," The Mass Commission on Time and Learning, Mass Department of Education, November, 1995.

"What Happens Between," Jay McTighe, Educational Leadership, December 1996/January 1997.

"What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future," Report of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, September, 1996.


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