Gas station without pumps

2010 August 27

School starts next week

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:47
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My son starts high school on September 1.  We have a bit of a late start this year, because budget cuts have reduced the school year to 175 days.

I counted only 84 days of instruction in the first semester, and 4 of those are “minimum days”, which means that each class gets 80*1.5+4*1=124 hours of instruction per course.  The second semester looks like 87 instructional days, with 5 minimum days, for 128 hours of instruction, but some days may be lost to state testing (also AP testing in the higher grades).  For those with fast mental arithmetic, the missing 4 days are the final exam days at the end of each semester.

My son’s high school uses an “Excel Block Schedule” in which students take only 3 (or 4) courses each semester, but get 1.5 hours a day of each course.  This approach is good for science labs, theater, and art, where long blocks of contiguous time are needed for some of the activities.  It also cuts down on some of the time management and executive skills problems of managing due dates for 6 or 7 classes. The high school claims that the only problem they have seen is in some math classes, and they provide a slower track in algebra for students who need it.  I’m not worried about math for my son, but I think that there could be problems with retention of his Spanish, with 9-month intervals between courses.

I think the block schedule will work well for my son, who prefers being immersed in a few projects, rather than flitting from subject to subject, though I’ve heard from parents of ADD kids that it is very difficult for their kids to deal with the long class periods.  There is a reasonable discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of block scheduling by Lisa Doherty.


  1. The local high school that uses block scheduling (the other 2 don’t) is starting an “Accelerated Academic Program” this year. The kids will take courses at the local community college or UC when they run out of high school math. Their 4-year plan is at I don’t know much about it, since this is the first year for the program (and my son will probably go to a different high school). It looks like an intensive program.

    I have heard that some of the teachers in the block schedule program use the extra half hour of class to let kids do homework. Then, they don’t complete the textbook by the end of the semester. This is covered in the article you referenced under “The Illusion Covers A Need to Crunch”, but in some cases, the teachers either can’t manage dividing the number of lessons by the number of class sessions, or they can do the division but have learned that kids can’t manage 1.5 lessons per class session.

    Comment by Yves — 2010 August 29 @ 15:32 | Reply

    • The distinction between “class work” and”homework” is a fuzzy one. It is not at all unusual for a high-school class, even with short periods, to dedicate some of that time to individual work on assignments. College classes tend to minimize the in-class time, expecting adults to do individual work on their own. The high-school block schedule has students doing 22.5 or 30 hours a week in class, so there is only time for about 15 hours of homework in addition (compared to a similar university load, which has students in class for about 10-12 hours and expects 30-35 at home). See my post on <a href=""homework load.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 August 29 @ 16:35 | Reply

  2. 9 months off from Spanish is 9 months too long!

    Too long for math, too.

    I have this on the authority of my sister, whose daughter was on a block schedule during her freshman year….

    I had never heard of using the extra half hour for homework — I actually like that idea. You end up with supervised homework, right?

    Comment by Catherine Johnson — 2010 August 29 @ 15:41 | Reply

    • I worry a bit about the loss of Spanish, since language decays very rapidly if not used. His math understanding is more robust, I think. It would be different if he memorized math methods without really understanding them, as so many students do, but he has a good understanding of the patterns that underlie math and good problem-solving ability, so there is little decay and fast recovery. See my post <a href=""Math isn't memory work.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 August 29 @ 16:40 | Reply

  3. I went to two different high schools with block scheduling – one had 7 periods with the “7th” period class every single day and shorter. The other had the 4 classes per semester. It was very clear to me as a student, that 4 classes per semester led to more limiting schedules, obviously less material covered and more time spent reviewing at the beginning of the semester. I failed to understand how the ability to earn more high school “credits” made up for less learning in each class.

    And of course the school had only seen problems in math – it’s probably the only thing that they’re able to measure.

    Comment by hillby — 2010 August 31 @ 22:02 | Reply

    • There is no inherent reason why 3 or 4 intensive courses should result in less learning than twice as many courses at half the pace.

      i teach at a university that uses the “Dartmouth” schedule (though they don’t call it that): three quarters to an academic year, each having 10 weeks of instruction and a week of exams, with semester-sized courses crammed into the quarter. The courses generally have 35 hours of lecture in the 10 weeks, either as 3 70-minute classes or 2 105-minute classes a week. Students typically take 3 courses each quarter.

      The system does cause problems for transfer students and new faculty, as there is no time for a slow-paced warm-up for the first week or two, as many students have gotten used to in semester systems. It also causes problems for people used to traditional quarter classes, as about 30% more material needs to be covered. Once faculty have adjusted their course pacing to fit the material into the schedule, it works fairly well, especially for large-project classes where students need to focus on one thing for a long time, rather than dividing their time among many courses. I think the schedule is part of the reason why we have an unusually high undergrad involvement in research (another part is that we have an astonishingly low percentage of grad students for a top-100 research university).

      Because of my experience with the semester-in-a-quarter system at the university, I’m willing to believe that the 90-minute block scheduling at the high school can be productive, at least for those students with long enough attention spans.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 September 1 @ 08:31 | Reply

  4. […] semester. (Actually, he doesn’t want PE, but he is required to take it.) Remember, this is a block-schedule school, with only 3 or 4 courses a semester, so he has a full load with only 3 courses at a […]

    Pingback by First day of school « Gas station without pumps — 2010 September 1 @ 10:53 | Reply

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