A multi-year effort to coordinate county middle schools’ schedules and coursework will be complete this fall when the last few schools fall into alignment, according to Albemarle County Public School’s (ACPS) Director of Secondary Education Jay Thomas. A key element of this project is the requirement that all middle schools offer eighth grade core math and English classes solely on an every-other-day schedule.
“When I started in this position six years ago, the middle school principals got together and said they were all over the place on things like bell schedules and course offerings and they wanted to be consistent, which makes sense,” said Thomas. “We wanted to have guaranteed viable opportunities, experiences, and curriculum regardless of which school you attend. The principals went back and talked to the teachers and they decided on an A/B [every other day for the whole school year] schedule for all schools.”
English and math classes had been taught differently between middle schools, and several (including Henley and Walton) have taught one or both of these core subjects in a “double blocked” format, meaning students currently attend those classes for 90 minutes every day for the whole year. The exceptions are high school classes offered in middle schools—such as algebra I, geometry, and world languages—which have been taught every other day to more closely map to high school pacing.
To achieve uniformity among all middle schools, division staff and school officials decided to mandate an every-other-day schedule for all eighth grade math and English classes, effectively cutting in half the direct instructional hours for those classes that had been double-blocked, like Henley’s.
“The principals got together and all agreed that we needed to have commonality,” said Thomas. “They considered the curriculum maps and pacing, and that’s where they landed.” He said the division’s middle school program is driven by operating principles and philosophies, one of which is that “middle school should be about experiences,” and he explained that the now-open alternate blocks in student schedules will allow for more elective choices. “[When] we’re double-blocking English and double-blocking math, the kids have no choice in their schedule. They say, ‘you’re pulling away the fun parts of my day.’”
Some middle school teachers have voiced strong concerns about the shift to every-other-day instruction, and their objections center on what students lose in the tradeoff. “This year [2022-23] I taught English every day—three sections, unleveled classes—all year long,” said Henley eighth grade teacher Andrew West. “I felt I had a lot of success, mostly because I am able to really know my students. I see them every day, check in with them and circle back if they’re having trouble. I’m not allowed to grade homework or really to even assign homework, so that daily contact is important to make progress.”
“Most middle school students do not have the executive functioning to prioritize the practice needed to be successful in an every-other-day class,” said Tory Selmer, eighth grade math teacher at Walton, where math 8 will be switching to every-other-day in the fall. “In our Culturally Responsive Teaching training, they say that research shows that once a student learns a new skill, they need to practice it again within 24 hours for retention. Isn’t that applicable to math and English?”
Thomas objects to the characterization of the new standard as a reduction of instructional time. “Taking math from every day to every other day sounds like I’m getting half the amount of math, but it’s the same curriculum being taught [under either schedule],” he said. In his view, the extra time spent in an every day schedule is redundant. “It’s just class time spent doing more and more of the same thing. When we look at researchers like Karin Chenoweth and people who write books and look at these issues, they say that more is not better. Just teaching the curriculum for twice as long is not going to move the needle.”
Henley principal LaRuth Ensley is an advocate for student “choice and voice” in the form of electives. “The goal [in switching schedules] is to make sure that students have more options to prepare them for high school and beyond, because high school is an every-other-day schedule,” she said. “We want them to be able to do some of the things they want to do, whether it’s photography, yearbook, arts, guitar, journalism, creative writing. Middle School is a time of exploration.”
But teachers are concerned that those choices won’t be available for many students. “Part of [the division’s] rationale is that students will choose to take electives that are, say, ‘writing-heavy,’ where they can learn real world things that will supplement the Language Arts content that they won’t be getting in English class,” said West. “But a lot of students don’t get their first choice because the classes fill up quickly, so they end up getting placed in other electives with no connection to core classes.” Worse, he said, is what happens to kids who can’t keep up with every other day pace.
“Yes, [this policy change] offers many students electives, but the struggling kids will not get to choose anything,” said West. “Their elective is a remediation course they’ll be required to take. Often those are our more disadvantaged kids, and that is in no way equitable.” Teachers worry that the every-other-day schedule will lead to a return of what they call “tracking,” or separating students into groups by academic ability. “Instead of the unleveled classes we have now, we’ll put all of the kids who are struggling—who often end up having behavior problems as well—into one remediation class, and they’ll be trapped there. It’s very frustrating.”
Thomas said that a system of extra help is integral to keeping every-other-day instruction on track. “If a child is struggling in math, we don’t need to slow down the curriculum for everyone,” he said. “We will hold kids accountable to the [grade level] standards and give them the support they need, teachers will teach the curriculum, and every school has some sort of intervention program where a child who is struggling can go for 45 minutes each day to get help.” There will also be remediation classes, called Core Plus, available for such students that will meet on the opposite or “off-day” from their instructional period. Students can attend Core Plus for all or part of the year, as needed.
Ensley estimated that, based on a variety of metrics, between 50 and 70 students would be recommended for remediation, which is 25% of the eighth-grade population. She said that in preparing for the upcoming school year, her team has been “very strategic” in its master scheduling for electives. “We have been able to honor children’s primary or secondary elective requests, for the most part,” she said. “So, most children who requested something are typically going to get their first or their second choice, and that’s pretty good.”
At a more fundamental level, teachers must decide what to pull out of their curriculum to move to every-other-day instruction. “I’m going to have half the amount of class time next year, and I’ll have to decide what to teach and what to drop,” said West. One item likely to be excised is Henley’s year-long “Change Project” for eighth graders, which challenged students to use several different research, communications, and language arts skills to produce a tangible plan to make a change for the better in their community. “That project took a ton of time and pulled in lots of skills in a hands-on way, but there’s not enough time now with every-other-day instruction. It’s more time efficient for teachers to just teach to the [SOL] tests.”
Anticipating the change to every-other-day change coming in 2023-24, Selmer and her fellow math teachers sped up the pacing of their classes last year to see if they could be reasonably completed in half the time. “We were able to cover it all in about three quarters, but that was a pretty tight pace,” said Selmer. “Now they want us to adopt a revised curriculum, which inherently takes more time, at the same time they’re cutting our time in half, with no choice?”
To be able to offer a variety of electives, teachers will have to develop and teach more classes each semester, which requires additional preparation and planning time. For example, in addition to teaching his English classes next year, West will teach two sections of a debate elective plus a Core Plus class. Yet Thomas sees upside potential here, too. “It’s going to be different work, not necessarily harder,” he said. “Some teachers may want to teach a different prep that they’re excited or passionate about, and that keeps the teachers rejuvenated as well.”
Selmer voiced her concerns at three School Board meetings this past spring, and wrote letters to division officials asking for data or other evidence supporting the switch to every-other-day instruction. “They sent me one research paper and I wondered if they’d even read it, because it supported my position, not theirs,” she said. “The research showed there was a significant positive difference for seventh graders who did math every day compared to every other day, and a smaller but still positive difference for eighth graders. So, there’s your math data, and they have not supplied any data for ELA [English and Language Arts]. More to the point, they have not supplied any data that shows offering multiple electives for middle schoolers to prepare them for high school is beneficial.”
The lack of research to bolster the policy has left teachers wondering how it was approved, and why they were not consulted about the switch. “There’s also a piece of the puzzle that has been talked about very little, which is what do the teachers need?” said Selmer. “At my request, the division sent out a survey two years ago to teachers but then never did anything with the responses. We never saw data from other schools about whether it works or not, and it was never discussed in a public meeting by the School Board.”
Henley has taught its math 8 classes in an every-other-day format for the past two years (though its ELA classes will not make the switch until this coming year). Principal Ensley said that math scores for its membership groups such as Black and socio-economically disadvantaged students have shown “a decent amount of growth” in recent testing, but official data is not yet available. “We have to be flexible and agile with teaching and learning,” said Ensley. “We have to be intentional about what we look to modify to best meet the needs of a 21st century learner.”
Selmer has begged the board to consider offering both formats—every-other-day instruction for advanced learners, and at least an option for every day classes for those who need or prefer them. “I started speaking up as both a teacher and a parent because I want to know that when I send my kids to school, they are getting the entire math 8 curriculum, not just having pieces of it picked out. To me, that’s a change to the curriculum, so the School Board could have put their foot down and said ‘no.’ They didn’t. Now I’m just hoping that someone comes to their senses and realizes that forcing all kids to have the same experience is not the right choice.”