They are trying to be nice about it and stick to talking calmly about facts, but Albemarle parents of high schoolers have come out with determination against the 4×4 class schedule, described as “semesterization” by parents, instituted at county high schools this fall.
Paul Halliday of Ivy, the father of one child at Western Albemarle High School and two at Henley Middle School, presented copies of a 38-page report prepared by their group, Citizens of Albemarle Supporting Education, to the Albemarle County School Board Oct. 28. Drafted by Halliday, a professor of history at U.Va. specializing in legal history, the report is a lucid and concise brief of educational research on the 4×4, data which, in sum, condemns the schedule to the ashes. CASE has also begun circulating a petition against the schedule that drew more than 400 cosigners in its first week.
“We’re trying to raise the tone and the content of the discussion,” said Halliday. “There was not much when [the 4×4] was implemented. A decision like this must be made on what empirical evidence says.
“Almost immediately, we [parents] found each other,” he said. “There was big interest at Western. We thought intuitively it couldn’t be right. And it turns out all your impulses were right when you do the study.”
Carmen Garcia, the mother of one student at Western and two at Henley (where she serves as PTO vice president), said she called former School Board member Brian Wheeler about the schedule policy change last spring. “My intuition said this doesn’t sound right. Wheeler said that this is what the experts were telling them to do, but he couldn’t explain it. He said there wasn’t going to be a vote. Then they rushed adoption without a public hearing. I read about it in the paper the next morning. It made me mad. Once school started and reality hit, we had to organize. Many parents tell me they are angry about the policy but feel powerless to change it.”
School administrators argued the schedule shift would save $800,000 by allowing 13 teachers to be cut without adding to class sizes. The 4×4 compresses classes that are traditionally yearlong into one semester. It was a speed-up-the-line move on some teachers who now have to teach six classes a year for their pay rather than five. Some teachers at Western Albemarle, admitting to feeling miserable but helpless, said they wouldn’t sign the CASE petition out of fear of reprisal from administrators.
The report, titled Semesterized Instruction of Core Academic Subjects in U.S. High Schools, A Review of Research in Education and Cognitive Psychology, punctures early favorable research on the idea, which was based on problematic grade point average data and surveys of school constituencies. It traces the faddish adoption of block schedules during the 1990s, particularly in schools in the southeast, in response to a federal report that asserted that scheduling might be a “design flaw in American education.” By 2004, 45 percent of American schools were on some type of block schedule.
Instead, focusing on longitudinal studies of exam scores of schools that adopted the schedule, the report found that data showed negative consequences in math, foreign language, science, English and history and that formerly excellent schools slumped into mediocrity after the switch.
“Semesterized instruction is less successful than yearlong learning in all school subjects. This affects all students, strong and weak,” the report states.
One study of 1998 and 1999 Standards of Learning (SOL) exam scores from 163 Virginia schools showed “that students on traditional schedules outperformed those on 4×4 schedules in both study years in virtually all subject areas. In some areas—English, history, algebra II, early world history and chemistry—the performance gap increased in the second year.”
An analysis of graduation exams results done by the Georgia’s state superintendent of education concluded that non-block schools outperformed block schools in virtually all areas.
In a 1998 study, the College Board looked at 190,000 Advanced Placement exams in calculus, biology, U.S. history and English literature, correlating results with schedule types, and found that “Students who are taught in compressed schedules score lower on all four AP exams than those who receive yearlong instruction.”
The report also details studies by the American College Test (ACT) and the states of North Carolina, Washington and Texas and the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario in Canada, which looked at tens of thousands of students, that all concluded negatively about the effect of semesterized instruction for all students.
The report says the reason for the 4×4’s failure can be explained by cognitive psychology and what’s called the spacing effect. Simply, learning is better achieved by “spreading episodes of study over a longer spell, rather than ‘massing’ them in intense closely clustered bursts—a practice generations of students have called ‘cramming’.” Cognitive research shows spacing results in more being learned, in it being learned more deeply (with greater ability to abstract and connect over different domains) and better retained for longer periods. “Spacing offers enormous benefits if we can design educational practices to harness them,” the report concludes.
The school board will address the report at its Nov. 16 meeting and CASE is trying to inspire a large turnout of parents.