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The Incredible Shrinking School Year

All in all, the combination of block scheduling and May SOL testing has shortened the time available for teaching and learning from 150 hours to less than 120 hours per course. The equivalent of 36 days.


Please understand that I make this claim from a commonsense perspective — as a veteran teacher — and not as a politician, educational bureaucrat or academic "expert." In a long and varied career, I've worked as a high school administrator, held political office and studied educational administration at the doctoral level. I understand that administrators, bureaucrats and politicians have their perspectives and agendas.

I also know that these perspectives and agendas too frequently have nothing to do with teaching kids. Whatever teaching and learning take place in our increasingly mediocre public schools, it is classroom teachers — not administrators, bureaucrats and politicians — who get the job done.

Our legislators regularly consult those who run our schools — mostly people who have long since left the classroom — but they seldom hear much from actual teachers. What follows is one teacher's opinion, but it might serve to illustrate what our legislators might learn if they listened to those who actually taught.

Around 1990, under pressure to increase the number of academic credits students could earn in four years, America's high schools began a rapid transition to "block" scheduling. The traditional high school class, meeting for 50 minutes each day, was replaced by the 90-minute block, meeting on alternate days.

At the time, administrators and their education-school allies made great claims for the block. In a few cases, these claims were justified, but for most classroom teachers, block scheduling represented a loss of precious time — reducing actual contact with students from 150 hours to 135 hours over the course of a year.

Administrators and experts assured teachers that by making more efficient use of their time, they could accomplish more with 10 percent less time. Most teachers found that the reverse was true.

Not seeing their students daily, teachers needed to devote more time at the beginning of each block to reviewing the previous lesson. Moreover, since few modern teens can stay focused for 90 minutes, teachers found that the latter portions of a 90-minute block were subject to the law of diminishing returns.

But dedicated teachers, as they always do, adjusted to the decisions imposed upon them from above. And new teachers, having no basis for comparison, accepted the block as the norm.

A few years after the widespread adoption of block scheduling, the political mania for standardized testing reached Virginia. By legislative decree, a week of teaching time was carved out of the school calendar for administering the new SOL tests.

By itself, the loss of one week was trivial enough. However, for administrative reasons, SOL testing was scheduled in early May — more than a month before the end of the academic year.

Naturally, good teachers adjusted, working overtime to prepare their students for the SOLs by racing to cover a year's curriculum in less than eight months.

However, the month after SOLs presented a novel challenge: Once SOLs were over, the typical classroom teacher found that students were virtually unteachable — and for good reason.

Having sprinted through the curriculum, with the focus on rote learning rather than the delights of discovery, most students justifiably felt that their academic work was done. After all, they'd taken the tests that everyone from the governor down to the building principal insisted were the only valid measure of their educational experience.

Besides, it was May. Youthful hormones raged. Lovely weather beckoned just beyond the classroom window. Young minds turned to the prom, Beach Week and the latest evasions of the local Ferris Bueller. No one felt like studying.

And the students had a point.

Small wonder that, for many teachers, the month after SOLs quickly evolved into "movie time."

School would go on for another month, but in realistic terms, scheduling SOLs in May meant that the final month was converted into a vestigial remnant — four useless weeks between the SOLs and summer break.

These lost weeks, plus the week of testing, effectively shortened the school year by four to five weeks, or 15 to 20 hours of instructional time for each course.

All in all, the combination of block scheduling and May SOL testing has shortened the time available for teaching and learning from 150 hours to less than 120 hours per course. The equivalent of 36 days.

Little wonder that veteran teachers believe that their students are learning less than students of 20 years ago. Little wonder that Virginia's universities must offer remedial courses to more and more of their entering freshmen.

Little wonder that, faced with a global job market, young Virginians are at an ever-increasing disadvantage compared with their European, Asian and South American competitors.

From time to time, a bold politician will propose that the school year be extended from 180 to 200 days in order to meet this global competition. While such an extension would be enormously costly, the idea merits consideration.

Before making that investment, however, perhaps we should consider reforms that would cost virtually nothing.

Let's restore the 36 days lost to inappropriate block scheduling and the premature administration of SOL tests.

Let's give our teachers time to teach. S

Frederick T. ('Rick) Gray Jr. lives at Bermuda Hundred in Chesterfield County. He's worked as an actor, high school teacher and lawyer, and has served as Virginia's secretary of the commonwealth.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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