Morning Poll: Middle School Block Scheduling

by ARLnow.com February 13, 2012 at 9:53 am 4,735 79 Comments

A plan to implement block scheduling at Arlington’s five middle schools has been greeted with resistance from parents.

Block scheduling allows extended classes for core subjects — like math and science — in order to increase instruction time. In a Washington Post article that termed block scheduling a “fad,” Arlington Public Schools officials said the system gives teachers greater flexibility for creative and personalized instruction.

School Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy, who installed a block schedule when he was the principal of a middle school in Fairfax County, said regular-length periods are too short for the kind of creative teaching needed. “We are doing a disservice to students to run them through a seven-period day with a 45 minute turnaround,” he said.

Margaret Gilhooley, interim assistant superintendent for instruction, said that, in elementary school, “if a class is not grasping a concept, you can expand the time.” With just 45 minutes in middle school, that is difficult to do.

Parents who oppose the plan contend that block scheduling will have a negative impact on certain types of non-core elective classes, like music, and that middle school students don’t have the attention span for a 90-minute math class. Also, say some parents, why should APS change a scheduling system that’s already producing good educational results?

The School Board is expected to examine the issue in May, while implementation of block scheduling is set for the fall of 2013.

From the perspective of either a parent or of someone who once attended middle school, what do you think about the plan?

  • JimPB

    What’s the data? How methodologically sound were the evaluations?

    If the methodologies are weak and the data inconclusive, ARLCo might usefully conduct the needed rigorous evaluation.

    • The two articles linked in the beginning provide additional background on the rationale for and against block scheduling.

  • Ty

    Wu tang clan ain’t nothin to mess with.

  • KalashniKEV

    …and if a student misses two consecutive days of school, it’s the equivalent of 4 x periods of instruction in almost all classes- nearly a week of school.

    • Vik

      You wouldn’t have the same 1.5 hr class on two consecutive days. You might have one 50 or so minute class every day, but the others are every other day.

    • Numbers Sense

      No it is the equivalent of missing two days of school. Classes are every other day. If a students misses one day then they miss equivalent of two days of the “A” classes. If they miss two days then they miss equivalent of two days of “A” and two days of “B”… the same as they would miss if they were out two days currently…

      Just saying.

    • Josh S

      It’s actually more complicated than that, since it would depend on which two days you missed and whether we’re talking sixth, seventh, or eighth grade.

      • Numbers Sense

        There are four blocked days in the proposal. If they miss two blocked days then it is two days worth of classes.

        It is that simple.

  • Andrew

    I don’t know if you call it block scheduling, but in high school, we had an A day and a B day which would alternate. Each day had 4 (or 5, can’t remember) different classes that were about 90 minutes in length. I really enjoyed it compared to the traditional 6 classes a day, every day. I thought it prepared me for college where you typically do not go to the same class everyday.

    • Stu Pendus

      Good point about getting used to the college schedule paradigm. When I was in 6th grade in Arlington, we had a morning session and then went to a different room/teacher in the afternoon, and switched out our books in our lockers between “classes”. It was good practice for what 7th grade and on would be like. This is back when 6th was still in elementary school.

    • April

      We’re talking about 6th graders here, college is a long way off.

      If parents like the idea of block scheduling, there are some great middle schools in Arlington which use it, like Kenmore. However, this plan mandates it for every school in the district.

  • Ballston

    We had this at my middle school and it was awful. 14 year olds don’t have the attention span to sit through 90 minute classes. Hell, even college students have trouble making it through 90 minute classes sometimes.

    • Andrew

      It is a wonder people make it through 8 hours of work a day. I guess once you hit a certain age your attention span increases?

      • dk

        Uh, yes. Your attention span does increase as you age. Have you ever spent any time with a 3 year old?

        • Josh S

          Obviously, the three year old reference is irrelevant.

          I think many 11-13 year olds can easily watch a 90 minute movie. Some probably read a book for that long. Some might even play a video game for that long. Or play a soccer game that lasts that long.

          The idea that they don’t have a 90 minute attention span is absurd. However, the burden on the teacher to come up with a lesson plan that can fill that time span is certainly higher than for one that goes 45 minutes.

          • Andrew

            While I agree with you on the absurdity of the three year old comment, I don’t agree witht he lesson plan argument. If a teacher can prepare a weeks worth of 45 minute lessons, why not two or three 90 minute lessons? Presumably, at the end of the year, the same ammount of material should/needs to be covered.

          • Josh S

            A 90-minute lesson plan is qualitatively different than a 45-minute lesson plan. And, while I don’t think that kids are fundamentally unable to pay attention for 90 minutes, I do recognize the chances are definitely greater in a 90 minute class that minds will wander. You’ve to take that into account in a way that you don’t when classes are over in 45-50 minutes.

          • Arlingtonian

            but the stuff you’re quoting is fun .. .school is not fun.

          • Kenny Powers

            Watching a movie or playing a game in no way compares to concentrated learning, plus it’s back to back 90 minute sessions all day long (with reduced gym time as proposed, I might add)- not just one single 90 minute session like soccer. So let’s not mix apples and oranges here. Ask middle school teachers in Arlington if block scheduling is age appropriate in middle school and they will say no. Other schools are moving away from block scheduling because test scores went down, not up as promised. As for folks saying it ‘prepares kids for college’ so does going to a bar but nobody says middleschool kids are ready for that. 11 year olds are not ready for college and should not be scheduled as such. The Superintendent is trying to make APS like Fairfax County Schools, ugh. When parents see what it does, watch them flee to private schools.

      • drax


        Nobody actually works 8 hours a day. They take break to, you know, post on ArlNow.

      • Swag

        How much attention are you paying to your job as you post this at 10:16 am?

    • Arlingtonian

      We had this at my high school. It was a huge joke. We had the same amount of instruction we always did and the rest was people goofing off or getting bored and restless.

      • Maria

        Did you make this comment on the other article about this? It sounds familiar. I’ll respond the same way I did then… if this was actually how it was and not just your perception (as students often THINK they aren’t supposed to be doing anything when, in fact, they are), it was not a problem with block scheduling; it was a problem with your teachers. There’s no reason block scheduling should lead to this type of instruction.

        • Josh S


  • Anon

    I had 2 hour block scheduling in High School – it was great, especially for math and science. So much more time to complete experiments. Also the long gym class meant you could actually play a full game. Seemed like less homework too because you don’t have that many classes in a day.

    • tommallan

      There is research that points to some positive effects when high schools change to block scheduling, for the reasons Anon describes. In fact Arlington has block scheduling at the high school level.

      Research into middle school block scheduling is much more mixed. There’s also much less of it. Indeed much of the research cited on the APS website to support the proposal is from high schools with block scheduling.

      The current proposal is for MIDDLE school students, who are very different from high schoolers in their needs, motivation, readiness, because of where they are in their development.

      Arlington parent concerns include the concern that the central staff appears to be applying a high-school appropriate program at the middle school level without concern for the developmental differences.

  • Frank

    Thw WAPO writer must be a teenager. Block scheduling has been around for a really long time. If you alternate dAys, then you get longer music classes, longer PE, etc.

    It’s a win-win for every class.

    • Arlington Parent

      Unfortunately, that is not the schedule proposed for Arlington middle schools. 6th graders would get their PE cut in half (every other day rather than the current every day), and band/orchestra is also cut to every other day for all 3 grades. That’s not a win-win at all.

      • Josh S

        But would class times increase for those classes?

        • Homeowner

          No, only the “core” classes would be part of the block, but not elective such as band, PE, etc.

      • dk

        Exactly. Block scheduling might be fine if it were truly alternating days, but this schedule does not. It devotes more time to some subjects while decreasing time for others.

        The research on the benefits of block scheduling vs. traditional scheduling is decidedly mixed, so it is curious that the administration is so doggedly pursuing this. Sometimes it seems like our superintendent is more interested in making his mark than in facilitating the operation of an effective, efficient school system.

      • Josh S

        When I look at the proposal on the APS website, that’s not what it looks like at all. It looks to me that the amount of time devoted to non-core subjects each day stays exactly the same. But instead of trying to cover all four core subjects every day, only a subset is covered on any one day.

        The schedule varies from sixth to seventh to eighth grade.

        Am I missing something?

        • Homeowner

          No, you got it right.

        • dk

          yes, you are missing something. For 6th graders, the core subjects (science, social studies, math) will get increased time per week, 284 minutes each week versus the current 225.

          Currently 6th graders take both an English class and a reading class. The reading class is a relatively recent requirement designed to help struggling readers get up to speed but applied across the board to all 6th graders. Right now, 6th graders get 225 minutes of English and 225 minutes of reading instruction each week. Under the block proposal, those will be combined into one class of 284 minutes per week. This is actually fine with me, since I have a student who reads well above grade level, but I wonder how this proposal squares with the previous desire/reported need to increase reading instruction time for many students. Maybe this compromise is the right amount, but it’s hard to know, especially since the administration address this question.

          PE is currently 45 minutes of PE five days per week. It is combined with health, so 6th graders get one quarter of health (with no PE time) and 3 quarters of PE. Under the block proposal, 6th graders will get 45 minutes of PE/health either 2 or 3 days per week, so possibly cutting the amount of PE/health time in half.

          The other big losers are foreign language, art, and music, which for 6th graders would be cut from 45 minutes 5 days a week to 45 minutes 2-3 times per week.

          • dk

            **that should say above “the administration DOESN’T address this question.”

          • Homeowner

            Except that foreign language isn’t offered in the 6th grade unless you were part of the FLES program in Elementary School. In that case you can take Spanish, but it comes at the expense of Reading. (But, only for part of the year.) In which, case you wouldn’t actually have less time in the combined lanaugage arts (reading and english).

            Confusing enough?

          • dk

            ah, you are right. Thanks for the correction.

      • Swag

        Well, until they add some SoLs for gym/band/art/etc, what do you expect them to do?

  • South Awwwlington

    Block scheduling does work. It’s quite amazing that the “Core” haven’t been in blocks for years now. The Arts and Humanities won’t suffer for this – it’s APS not the GOP.

    Are after-school rehearsals and practicing at home no longer expected? While we’re at it, should someone just play the horn for you?


    • Sally

      Block scheduling isn’t ONE thing. There are many different versions. Look at Montgomery County Public Schools. 38 middle schools, and some implement block, some don’t, and those that do implement their own models which they tailor to their needs.

      There’s block scheduling, and then there’s block schedulign, and then there’s block scheduling. So, which one are you pointing to that works? Sure, some do. This one has problems.

    • The arts would take a severe blow under this particular block scheduling model — thinking of block scheduling as “ice cream” and this model as “rocky road.” Other models might work much better for the arts – but not this one.

      6th grade is when music students learn their instrument – come together in an ensemble for the first time – and connect/stay with the arts. In this model – 6th grade fine arts at minimum are cut by 50% with every day rehearsals gone. Only 45 min classes too every other day – not the 71 or 90 minute class length. If you are a student with low math scores – you could be asked to drop even that music class to take remediation (less overall diversity in the arts). This model also does away with cross grade ensembles that eliminates an APS core goal – allowing for “differentiation of instruction” to best challenge the skills of a student – so there would be a 6th grade band, a 7th grade band – an 8th grade band – but the music would be dumbed down to the common denominator. No gifted music student in 7th grade could be challenged and allowed to play up with 8th graders.

      Very good music programs in Arlington will wither and students will not stick with it into high school.

      The details of this proposal are very troubling – why sacrifice, at minimum, a superb music program at APS schools – risking decreases in diverse student populations even participating in the arts – for a proposal which has mixed data outcomes at best.

  • Josh S

    I vote in favor.

    However, I tend to think that any schedule system you come up with is artificial and serves the needs of the institution more than it serves the needs of the kids / learning.

    It’s ten AM on a Tuesday, that must mean it’s time to learn history. If you’re eleven years old. If you are twelve years old, it’s time to learn science.

    I don’t think most humans work like that. It’s sort of an inherent weakness in organizing schools in the same way we organize factories.

  • justlurking

    Block scheduling at Yorktown H.S., for example, is only for the first and last two periods of the day, leaving three periods in the middle of regular classes every day. If the middle schools could model this, then the music program wouldn’t have to be affected.

  • Homeowner

    I currently have a kids in APS who will be impacted by this and attended one of the information sessions after this issue started blowiing up on the various emails and listserves. After thinking it over, I came away agnostic on the proposal. Clearly, there are pluses and minuses to both and a lot of the success depends on the teachers being given the time and training to properly lesson plan for the longer periods. Ultimately, my thought was that good teachers will do fine and bad teacher’s won’t. Some kids will also do better and some kids will do worse depending on learning styles.

    A lot the dissent seems to be driven by families who are very committed to band and orchestra and I totally respect where they’re coming from. Their kids will get a lot less class time and lose the ability to participate based on ability vs. grade level. The flip side of this is that right now if you take band in 6th grade you don’t get to take another elective. So, there are kids out there who skip band in order to try sometihng else. Most of them probably never go back. With a block schedule, there are more electives available in 6th grade, but less time is spent on each.

    • dk

      Can someone explain to me the rationale for the different 6th grade schedule? 7th and 8th graders would not have their PE, foreign language, art, or music time decreased. Why must 6th graders?

      I realize this doesn’t address concerns about combined grade electives.

    • Sally

      But look at the elective choice for 7th and 8th graders. With foreign language now “core” (and it’s a high school level class), 7th and 8th graders LOSE an elective. Yeah, the 6th graders gain one. The 7th and 8th graders lose. They lose on a lot of fronts: foreign language, electives, and yes, the music thing gets really messed up. But the proposed schedule starts with wrong assumptions: It assumes that 7th and 8th graders live on non-intersecting paths. But actually they’re in combined classes for all kinds of things: PE, included. So, to say that this proposal gives more flexibility when it cuts out all flexibility for cross-grade classes for 7th and 8th graders leaves me scratching my head. It just doesn’t deliver.

      • Numbers Sense

        Not accurate.

        6th grade gains another option because of the reduced PE. This is the first time students get to choose what they want to study. The FIRST time. If PE stays every day and the other period is a forced choice between band and the wheel (a taste of a bunch of different classes) then many kids actually never get to choose or try out something new. The proposed schedule lets kids have band and a sampling of other things because they alternate. That way kids can make a better choice in 7th and 8th grades because they actually have had a chance to take those classes. From what I have seen on the APES website and this thread… many parents are continuing to make the choice for their kids instead of allowing them to try out other things. Cross graded band is fine. I get the argument. If your kid is a brilliant musician or just really interested in music I can see the point. BUT the majority of kids don’t know in 6th grade what they are good at yet or even what the options to be interested in are… the flexibility is for the kids, I think.

  • Wilson

    The Washington Post article (Jay Matthews) got it right. Murphy is trying to fix a system that isn’t broken.

    • Louise


    • other side of the river

      That wouldn’t be the first time.

  • South Awwwlington

    Basic Block Scheduling from what I can recall (1989 – 7th Grade) went something like this for my Middle School:

    Each grade (7 & 8) divided into teams: A, B, C (add more if population dictates) on a six day cycle (allows for missed days due to weather, emergencies, etc without a repetitive loss of class time – ie, federal holidays always on Monday – you don’t always miss Art and PE.)

    Core curriculum (English, History, Math and Science) either before lunch, split or after (depending on team) – The team teachers would work with each other to adjust class times as needed between these, though rarely was it needed.

    Interdisciplinary classes are grouped opposite the core during the day. This means art and music can’t lose time to Math, only other Core classes can at the agreement of faculty.

    (As best I can remember it…)

    • South Awwwlington

      Seventh and Eighth grade…no Mr. Shady.

    • tommallan

      The poll question is a little general, given the specificity of the APS proposal and Arlington parents’ concerns.

      In order to vote in an informed and responsible way, please be sure to have a look at the particular APS proposal for changing from traditional to block scheduling–there are major differences between what this commenter’s middle school did in the 1980′s and what Arlington is proposing for middle schools in 2013.


  • Notimpressed

    Not a single initiative from Pat Murphy has improved instruction or test scores.

    Lets bring back the days of Smith when teachers were given autonomy and administrators didn’t breathe down our backs!

    • Wilson


    • dk


    • Nothingeverchanges


    • Louise


      • Jefferson


  • Guest

    I had block scheduling in middle and high school in the 90s. How exactly is this a “fad” if it has been around for at least two decades. I went to public school in one of the lowest ranked states for education in the country – how were we way ahead of Arlington County? It was pretty nice having only 4 classes to study for a night rather than 8. It definitely helped us to focus.

    • Josh S

      It’s Jay Matthews inserting his own commentary.

      Certainly not a fad. My high school experimented with block scheduling in the 1980s. I believe it was called modular scheduling at the time.

      • tommallan

        Please be sure to have a look at the particular APS proposal for changing from traditional to block scheduling–there are differences between what your high school did in the 1980’s and what Arlington is proposing for middle schools in 2013. The biggest difference is the age and developmental differences between high schoolers and middle schoolers.


        • Josh S

          Yeah, got it.

          It’s still not a fad. Which was the point of these two comments.

          • Instructional Change?

            Just b/c it has come and gone before, doesn’t mean its not a fad. Its just not a new fad…

          • Josh S


  • Instructional Change?

    I don’t see why we would expect to see any change in instructional practice if there isn’t a robust professional development program for teachers. We know what works in this regard: intensive, just-in-time, consistently implemented over long periods of time. And yet, there has been no substantive plan advanced to describe the professional development to be offered or where the money to pay for this will come from. Changing the schedule without changing how we support shifts in teaching and learning is pure folly.

    • Homeowner

      This was my biggest question after attending the information sessions. They’ve got a lot riding on getting the teacher’s trained up.

  • chipotle_addict

    I vote for, simply because of the massive amount of time wasted between classes. I’m not sure what the standard is in Arlington, as I went to school in Prince William & Fairfax County, but what I saw was a huge waste of time between classes.

    The lasty 5 minutes of class was generally wasted, because kids were just looking at the clock putting stuff away and basically not paying attention to the teacher at all. Then there was a 5 or 10 minute space between classes to go to your locker, change books, and walk to the next class. Then the first 5-10 minutes of the class was the teacher checking attendance and students getting ready. It honestly seemed like 20-30 minutes were wasted in-between each class. For gym, it was even worse, once you added in time to change clothes.

    With regular scheduling, 7 classes plus 1 lunch, there were 7 of these gaps wasting time. With the block scheduling we did in Fairfax county, there were 4 classes and a lunch each day, and only 4 gaps. Time was still wasted, but not nearly as much.

    All else being equal, having an extra hour a day of functional time instead of walking back and forth between classes is a huge plus to me. Vote yes for block scheduling!

    • Josh S

      What you describe is also a function of a system of education that is regulated by bells.

      Of course, the time wasted can be mitigated by good teachers. Not eliminated, of course.

      Also, all human activity involves some slack. Witness the posts here in the middle of the work day.

      Personally, I think all the debates over the merits of the proposal skip right past the most important question – which is why? I guess others have pointed this out. Arlington schools seem pretty good. Why change? What weakness is supposed to be fixed by this? If no weakness, then what that is already going well will go even better?

      Also, if we need to improve, aren’t there ideas that would be even better? Personally, I still vote for same sex schools after sixth grade. But that’s probably not allowed or is unconstitutional or something.

      • Numbers Sense

        Same sex classes are allowed.

        Look at math scores for middle schools.
        Look at the number of students actually finishing a three or four year foreign language in three or four years… many repeat in 9th grade because they do poorly in middle school language.
        Look at reading scores for middle schools.

        What we have now is not working. Change is overdue.

        What change is the question.

        Look at the poster on the APS townhall who says this proposal actually is giving the people (committees over the last several years) what they want. Just all in one place so they are conflicting.

        Pick what is important. Then go with a schedule to address what you pick.

  • Sally

    Read the fine print on THIS particular proposal and there are concerns: all 7th and 8th graders will have to take high school foreign language with accompanying high school exams (unless they get pulled for remedial reading or math); 7th and 8th grade electives are cut from 2 to 1 (what happened to their electives?); reading instruction for 6th graders is eliminated at a time when 6th graders are performing poorly on reading assessments; 90 minute class periods are proposed when most teachers we’ve talked to think 60 minutes would be more optimal; … if ArlNow wants to ask the more relevant question, it would be “Do you support THIS VERSION of block scheduling?” There are many different versions to be considered. This one has problems.

  • Maria

    When I was in high school, we had a very different type of “block” scheduling. We had 8, 56(ish)-minute periods and an 8 day cycle. On days 1 & 5, we dropped periods 1 & 5, going only to periods 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8. On days 2 & 6, we dropped periods 2 & 6, going only to periods 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8… and so on. I think I may be leaving out some detail that I can’t really remember (like when lunch was?), but that was the basic idea.

    It was a bit confusing to get used to, but once you figured it out, I actually thought it was pretty awesome. Not only did we get the extra time in each class (the difference between 45 & 56 minutes is surprisingly significant), but we got to have an 8th class versus the 7 around here.

    • Maria

      Oh and you still got to have some breaks from classes, but only every few days… not every other day the way “standard” block scheduling works.

    • tommallan

      We have a small model secondary school program that is part of APS called HB Woodlawn, that follows something similar to what Maria had in high school. In fact both middle and high schoolers have the same schedule in the same building.

      On the APS feedback forum some parents have suggested that Arlington apply that successful model to the other schools.

      Unfortunately that is NOT the model being proposed by APS for the 5 large mainstream middle schools, which features 76-93 minute blocks in certain subjects at the expense of the electives, including PE and the arts.

      • Numbers Sense

        PE and the Arts have less time in the model cited above too.

  • other side of the river

    Heaven forbid we actually do something like extend the school year beyond the 180 days minimum. We might get more instruction in that way.

    • Instructional Change?


    • Will they pay the teachers year round?

      Yes it is true that most teachers opt for pay checks to be spread throughout the entire year covering the summer, but their salary is set to cover the period in which they teach (a handful of teachers who take up summer jobs or have a working spouse who can cover the household needs only have their paychecks run during the months the school is operating, which means they get bigger checks with the summers ‘off’, but this isn’t the case for MOST teachers in the area). It’s hard enough to give the most qualified teachers a raise or pay them what they deserve because often they’re the younger and newer teachers who truly have a passion and have worked very hard to help improve the system while the “veteran” teachers are living off their tenure. I’m just saying… sure you can extend the year if it truly means better education for the kids, but it would cost a lot of money as the teachers are currently NOT paid FOR the time the schools are not operating even if they are paid DURING that time. Murphy would never go for it.

    • Tried

      Most school system have longer days than Arlington does…and no sports at middle school.


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