Debate over high school schedules in Baltimore Co.

Don Rodricks, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, hosted his daily radio talk show on April 9 on WYPR (NPR in Baltimore), inviting Baltimore County Superintendent of Schools Dallas Dance and Wendy Flowers, a parent of students at a high school in the district who was speaking for Hereford Works, a group that opposes changes to the high school schedules that are expected to go into effect next year.

We reported extensively on the changes that Mr Dance says will happen. All options come down to high school with eight classes for the entire school year, not just six or seven classes, and definitely not four classes in the first semester of the school year, ending in January, and four in the second semester.

High school schedules in Baltimore County now vary widely. Several options are used, depending on the school:

  • Six, seven, or eight periods, 45–50 minutes, M–F
  • Four 90-minute classes, M–F, each semester (4×4 accelerated block)
  • Four 90-minute classes, alternating days (A/B block schedule)

Only three high schools in the district use the 4×4 block schedule—Hereford, Patapsco, and Kenwood—and the students and parents at Hereford have objected to the change. The only options available under the district’s new plan are (a) an eight-period day, (b) an A/B block schedule, and (c) a hybrid that uses an A/B block schedule on four days a week and an eight-period day on the fifth day each week.

Parents at Hereford have said they want a fourth option, that of a 4×4 block schedule, which they say has worked well at their school for 22 years, producing a near-100-percent tally of students who enter the workforce, the military, or college right out of high school.

Dallas Dance explains why the change is needed

Mr Dance said when he came on at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, the district was facing a few issues, including budget cuts that forced the laying off of some 200 teachers. In taking over, he said he focused on four objectives:

  1. Make equitable and effective staffing allocations, given that people account for 85% of the school system’s $1.4 billion budget
  2. Balance class sizes, which were sometimes as high as 35 or 40 students
  3. Maximize student course options, and eliminate some of the wide variance in options for students who transfer
  4. Address an average “27% mobility rate” at the high school level

His solution involved standardizing the course options at all high schools in the district so that students at all high schools could take eight classes, scheduled from August through June, and having all teachers teach six classes. The bottom line is that no matter which high school students attend, even if they arrive at a new school in the middle of the school year, they’ll be able to enroll in eight classes.

He says schedules don’t make a high school high-performing, since many high-performing high schools in the state and across the US have a variety of different schedules. “It’s just no research out there that says a schedule makes a school high-performing,” he said. What does make a school high-performing, he observed, were strong principals who could lead, good teachers, supportive parents, and “you have to have students who are determined to persevere based on the support they’re given.”

We need to point out that there’s no research to support the use of one type of schedule over another because of a diverse set of reasons. First, measured differences are small. Second, we can’t isolate the difference in schedule to determine how much of an effect the schedule difference has. For example, while Hereford students, who use a 4×4 block, pass Maryland’s High School Assessment in algebra, English, and biology at a rate higher than 95 percent, so do students at both Towson and Dulaney high schools, which use a 7-period schedule.

Then, Patapsco and Kenwood have lower proficiency rates on the HSA than either Towson or Dulaney. Students at Patapsco and Kenwood scored proficient on the HSA 88.5 and 81.3 percent in algebra, 89 and 81.1 percent in English, and 83.2 and 79.3 percent in biology, respectively, compared to Towson and Dulaney, which scored higher than 95 percent on all HSA exams.

Wendy Flowers explains why the 4×4 option should be available

Ms Flowers started out by explaining the positive aspects of the schedule at Hereford, which is a semester-based 4×4 accelerated block. “Our students focus on four things at a time,” she said. “They take their finals in January. They move to four brand new classes for the next semester, which has been very successful for all of our high school students.”

Then the propaganda started.

She said unless students had a semester-based class schedule, they wouldn’t be able to take some advanced classes. “Our accelerated students who want to double up and get to AP calculus, that means they have to take four years’ worth of math to get there. They can only do that with a semesterized class, because you can’t take math classes concurrently. They’re foundational building-block classes.”

In fact, thousands of students who attend high schools without a semester-based schedule take AP calculus all the time. Some take two AP calculus courses while they’re still in high school. Ms Flowers’ statement is simply false as it stands.

However, her point has to be well taken. A 4×4 block will allow students who are struggling after middle school to catch up, say by taking an algebra review class first and then algebra II in the second semester of their freshman year. They would then be at the same level as their peers entering sophomore year. Especially for struggling students, slowing down and focusing on only four classes at a time instead of eight makes a difference.

There is, however, no benefit to high-achieving kids of using a 4×4 block, according to controlled studies. Most research, in fact, supports exactly the opposite claim.

“Average and high achievers, who were satisfied with their achievement and believed school is important, had the highest levels of school functioning and the highest support for [A/B] block scheduling,” wrote Gregory J Marchant and Sharon E Paulson in “Differential School Functioning in a Block Schedule: A Comparison of Academic Profiles,” published in the April-May 2001 edition of The High School Journal, referenced here on the website of the Johns Hopkins University, and cited by at least 28 other peer-reviewed research articles.

Studies like the above take the whole of high school into account. Other studies, which do not distinguish between high, average, and low achievers, tip the balance slightly in favor of the 4×4 block, compared to the A/B or “block-8” schedule. Hereford Works needs to reframe its argument in order to take this into account. However, studies that favor one schedule over another have a tendency to use standardized test scores, and the validity of those tests for this purpose has not been shown.

The simple fact is, high-achieving students tend to advance just as much on a 7-period schedule as they do on a 4×4 block schedule. The A/B block schedule combines the benefits of making the school day more diverse and of lengthening class periods, so although we support Ms Flowers’ statements as they refer to struggling students, who don’t benefit much from an A/B schedule compared to other types, we cannot stand behind them for high-achieving students.

Furthermore, Ms Flowers’s use of irrelevant statistics involving rankings casts a shadow on the entire Hereford Works advocacy position. It’s unethical to use ranking statistics when comparing one school against any other school, and Voxitatis will not provide a forum for bad-mouthing of other schools, even if it means promoting the exceptional quality of one’s own school.

Ms Flowers also called Mr Dance’s use of the average mobility rate into question. She said the 27-percent number refers to the total mobility, including 53 different “condition codes” for mobile students. Only two conditions, she said, referred to students who move from one school to another in the same district. “The S3 consulting group [which did the study for Baltimore County Public Schools] was given false, inaccurate data,” she said. Other students included in the number may have been those who were arrested, moved out of state or out of country, transferred to an alternative school, etc.

Going back to irrelevant statistics, Ms Flowers then said, “23 of the top 25 schools in Maryland use a schedule that Dr Dance is eliminating from Baltimore County next year.” My response: Define “top.” “They are the best proven schedules available in the state of Maryland,” she added. Unfortunately, schedules are neither proven nor disproved on the basis of a high school’s performance, even if we could accurately measure “performance” of a high school. There are simply too many variables that go into any assessment of a high school’s quality, and Mr Dance mentioned some of those in his part of the discussion.

Also, who cares what the “performance” of a high school is? The fact is, a high school is as high-performing or as low-performing as each individual student makes it. We regret that Hereford Works has not framed its argument successfully, but at this point, I stand where I did when this decision was first announced: I think the change will be non-negative for any actual student, and it will be positive for some. Whether that’s 27 percent or just a few, it still does no harm.

The problem involves the communication strategy of Baltimore County Public Schools. Parents understandably felt blindsided by the announcement and had a knee-jerk reaction to it. The fact that Mr Dance wronged them by not opening his office to them prior to announcing it in a newspaper, though, does not make the change itself a bad thing.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.