Semesterized High School Classes Refuted at School Board Workshop

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Chuck Witt
Chuck Witt

Alarmed parents of Albemarle high school students now affected by the semesterization of courses—teaching what was formerly a yearlong class in less than half the time—filled Albemarle High School’s library Nov. 16 as county School Board members heard a damning report on research into semesterization’s outcomes from University of Virginia professors.

Four days later at White Hall Community Center, White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek and School Board member Barbara Massie Mouly hosted a town hall meeting where two dozen teachers, emboldened to speak out now that parents were mobilizing over the same issue, poured out objections to the policy’s consequences for students, themselves and to the mission of the schools. Teachers pointed to the decision to shift from a seven- to an eight-period school year, intended to give students more opportunity to take elective courses, as the root of the problem. Albemarle high schools switched from a six- to a seven-period schedule for the same reason in 1996.

The School Board’s workshop meeting began with county secondary schools director Matt Haas, formerly the principal of AHS, reviewing the board’s decision last February to switch the schedule as a money-saving measure expected to save $900,000. Teachers drew the short straw in the change by being obliged to teach six classes per year rather than their customary five. Haas said the budget alternatives were to increase class sizes, which happened through semesterization anyway, or furlough teachers. He reported on an unscientific October survey of school constituencies that showed that 65 percent of students agreed with the statement that semesterization “provides a high quality learning experience,” but only 30 percent of teachers and 32 percent of parents would go along with it. Haas said the high schools have schedule design teams that make such decisions. At Western Albemarle High School, he said, 42 percent of classes are semester-long and 58 are year-long. At Monticello High School the ratio is 78 percent semesterized to 22 year-long. Division-wide, 50 percent of science classes and 63 percent of English classes are now being taught on the semester schedule, he said.

U.Va. history professor Paul Halliday, who drafted a research report on semesterization for Citizens of Albemarle Supporting Education, the organization formed by worried parents, said CASE is for year-long classes in the core subjects, but acknowledged that in some instances semesterization is appropriate.

“CASE is for teachers,” he said, “I want them to hear this loud and clear. We want to reduce teacher burdens. When teachers flourish, our students will flourish.”

Halliday said that CASE had looked to cognitive psychology for solutions to the issue and called on the board to “channel energy into incisive thinking. Policy must be based on evidence,” he said.

He introduced U.Va. professors Robert Tai, a professor of psychology who is an expert on teaching math and science, and Fred Smythe, an education professor who is an expert on science education. All three of the professors addressing the board have experience teaching in high schools, Halliday noted. “These issues are not abstractions for us.”

Superintendant Pam Moran at the workshop on course scheduling.
Superintendant Pam Moran at the workshop on course scheduling.

Tai described a nationwide research study called Project Fix that examined high school science learning, looking at the relationship between high school preparation and subsequent college performance. The study had such a large sample of students that its conclusions are statistically valid, he pointed out. The study was conducted in 2004-05, after block scheduling had been instituted in some U.S. schools for 10 years, and controlled for socio-economic factors affecting students, he added.

“Evidence shows that there is not much difference in how teachers teach in terms how classes are scheduled,” he said, and that teachers would need “professional development” to adapt to a schedule change. But in terms of outcomes, the study shows that “traditionally scheduled students get slightly better [test] scores than block scheduled students.”

Hearing that, school board chair Ronnie Price, who meanwhile has announced that he will be leaving the board to take a job out-of-state, contended that there “is not a big difference from one schedule over another.”

“Block scheduling is sold as changing the world,” Tai answered, “but its impact is to make things worse.”

“We should invest in peer-to-peer tutoring,” Price suggested.

Tai agreed that having the willing cooperation of teachers in any change is important to its success, but repeated his main contention. “What I’m saying to you is that [the 4×4 schedule] changes the teachers’ lives and it’s not going to make things better. It’s going to make things worse and after that I’m not sure.”

Smythe, who said he has two children in county schools and that fact motivated him to become involved in the issue, called the Project Fix results “objective.” He told the board that his Ph.D. is in quantitative psychology.

Smythe said research in how people learn shows that “compression does not work as well as spreading out learning and that gaps in learning can hurt. 125 years of research on this question shows that for long term retention, smaller, repeated chunks of learning are better than fewer, bigger one. Spacing helps.”

WAHS PTO President Martha Fox
WAHS PTO President Martha Fox

Research on the effects of the summer vacation on learning, the only data on gaps available, “shows a range of outcomes,” he said. “No change at best and the loss of at least one month or worse. No factor but income differentiated this gap. Socio-economic factors affect the break. It’s really about reading because the math results are the same.” Math is not usually learned at home, he noted, but reading can continue over breaks.

Parents in the crowd, who have raised concerns over how semesterization can create long gaps between instruction in a subject, applauded when Smythe finished this point.

School board member Pam Moynihan seized on the implication of support for year-round school. “So are you saying a traditional eight-period day, full year, is better for everybody?” she asked.

“Across the board, students will do worse,” Tai answered.

“What’s best is regular instruction with spaces but not gaps,” added Smythe.

“There are 30 studies on this,” said Tai. “You add together small effects. The 4×4 is not better than a traditional schedule. We are not saying year-round school is a good thing. You could go as along as 12 months on a 4×4 schedule without coming back to the same subject.”

Board member Eric Strucko said that what he was taking away from their report was “take a semester course, make it a full year [9 months] and on every other day.”

Price, referring to the October poll results, said, “There is no evidence we are losing stuff.”

“Poll us!” someone in the crowd yelled.

Halliday said two questions are in play. First, how to organize the school year and whether subjects could be compressed into a semester. And, second, how to organize the school day.

“It’s hard to get clear evidence on how to organize a school week,” he said. “Semesterization’s impact is more significant because of its effects over the whole year.”

Strucko asked how colleges viewed semesterized high school schedules, noting that the common application used by many universities specifically ask students what sort of schedule their school uses.

“They view it as a troubling practice,” Halliday answered. “They consistently think the semesterized schedule is a problem for students coming to them.”

Smythe, who was an admissions officer for Georgetown University earlier in his career, added, “They want four years of everything in the core subjects. Three years won’t cut it and get you into the pool [for consideration].”

When the public had a turn to address the school board, WAHS math teacher Chuck Witt urged the board to go back to a seven-period schedule. “We’ve given up two weeks of instructional time by going to eight periods. We gave up weeks when we went to seven periods. English classes are dropping novels. Science classes are dropping labs. How do I get through the subject with two weeks less time? Teachers will tell you the quality is suffering as we move to eight. I think we should go back to what we were doing. You can adjust to a point, but not after that. We’ve given up 27 days of instruction in a class since we left the six-period schedule.”

CASE member Carmen Garcia told the board that so far 600 parents have sign the organization’s petition to repeal the 4×4. “I fail to understand how you can learn a year’s worth of a subject in a semester’s time,” she said.

Martha Fox, president of the PTO at WAHS, said, “Our whole PTO is very concerned. We want to stand behind our teachers. We hear of teachers crying. The new schedule has given them more students. I beg you to reconsider. The teachers at Western do not think the board knows they are the school’s most important asset.” She said teachers are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation.

When board members offered their response to the workshop, Harley Miles asked parents to start telling the board of supervisors how much more money the schools need.

Diantha McKeel told the crowd, “remember that we are also getting emails from people who appreciate the schedule.” She proposed that parents be given the choice of enrolling their child in either a semester or year-long version of a class. “There is no reason we can’t have that choice. We don’t have to choose semester versus year-long. It doesn’t have to be an either/or huge issue.”

Strucko said, “I want to be sure we made the right decision. It was not the way we normally do things. I thought the reaction was negative reaction to change. But better information has come forward and as the data gathered, I got concerned. Two-thirds of teachers are concerned about quality. Two-thirds of parents are concerned about quality. The preponderance of the evidence is negative. This schedule is a challenge for different kinds of students. Four hundred and fourteen colleges use the common application, which asks if a student uses a block schedule. Why do they ask that? What distinction does that question make? I am concerned about the amount of instructional time our students are experiencing. I don’t think the board can ignore this concern. We have to base our decisions on rationality.”

Stephen Kolesar said, “The primary stress is coming from the eight-period day. We don’t have the money to go back to the seven period day. I appreciate the effort to come up with a hybrid schedule. Next year, schools will get more flexibility.”

“I believe where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Moynihan. “When you get hundreds of emails, there is a real problem out there and we need to listen to the community. When we made the decision, we didn’t think about its implementation. If we allow schools to do their own scheduling, we are going to have problems. We need to be on top of it and be able to explain it to the community and I don’t think we could. We didn’t get community input before we made the decision. We need to listen to what the people want. The majority do not want semesterized classes and we need to listen to that.”

School Superintendent Pam Moran said, “We stepped outside our normal process for making changes. The reality is you face an adaptive change. You’ve got to engage your folks in the process. A seven period day limits our kids’ abilities to do electives.” She called on the parents at the meeting to support a bigger budget for the schools.

Halliday afterward called the meeting “wonderful. We got the session we wanted in February.”

Four days later at the White Hall meeting with Mallek and Mouly, Witt stressed again the significance of the lost instructional time and the pressure new teachers especially feel to concentrate solely on the Standards of Learning tests. “I’d like to see the School Board ask teachers about funding,” he said. “We’re being given technology we didn’t ask for and don’t need.” He pointed to a new grading software package, School Net, that is “causing a lot of problems.” Another teacher called the software “dysfunctional.”

“My main concern is the loss of teacher talent,” said another teacher. Our best teachers are leaving at an alarming rate.” She mentioned two that left WAHS after last year to teach in private schools.

Another objected to good teachers being called away from classroom duties to become “coaches” for other teachers. “The goal seems to be to get central office supervisors into the schools,” she asserted.

Another teacher called for all the coaches to be returned to classrooms.

One teacher said teachers would rather have more manageable class loads than a $350 bonus.

A veteran Albemarle High School teacher said, “Our budget adjustments have really hurt our students. Walk through the halls and you’ll see them crying, tired and overworked.” She got applause from the crowd when she said, “The third floor of the County Office Building is where the cuts should be made. Cut their positions and cut their pay. We need more transparency about how cuts are made, too. I would be livid if I had a child at AHS now.”

Teachers said that the opportunity to take electives was being used by students to sign up for study halls. Other students get their parents’ permission to simply leave school early for the rest of the year.

Strucko, who had come to listen from the back of the room, said soberly, “We have a problem.”