Several weeks ago we posted an article asking questions of PWCS officials regarding their plan to implement block scheduling in county Middle Schools (see here). At the June 2nd school board meeting PWCS MS officials were asked to answer questions from school board members regarding the change.
School board members – it is not sufficient just to ask the questions. You must also pay attention to the answers and challenge district officials to clarify when they fail provide direct answers or meander off topic.
Block scheduling will be implemented in four, maybe three, more Middle Schools next year. The three “for sure” schools are Pennington, Lake Ridge, and Grand Park. Marsteller is the 4th school, though block scheduling at that school appears to be undetermined. According to district officials, the community appears to support block scheduling because “only 6 parents” complained.
As is pretty much expected now, the confusing and contradictory responses provided by PWCS officials and MS Administrators leave us with more questions than answers and a general impression that officials in our county are either unwilling or incapable of planning and evaluating programs they implement with empirical metrics.
We applaud school board members Gil Trenum and Lisa Bell for asking district officials to explain and justify the program. We were very disappointed in the “answers” provided. Here are some of the highlights and “answers” to the questions we hoped would be asked.
Why are we moving from traditional to block scheduling?
We felt this was a pretty basic question for which a simple answer would be readily available. It was neither. Our best guess, based on the response from PWCS officials, is that we’re implementing block scheduling because the Middle School leadership team thinks it will work and Loudoun has an across the board block schedule.
Some of our schools already follow block scheduling. What empirical evidence do we have from those schools that following a block schedule has improved student learning? By empirical I mean test scores, not anecdotes.
This was another question we felt should have had a readily available straight forward answer. Yet district officials couldn’t even provide a consistent answer as to which MS’s had been following block scheduling and no empirical data was provided.
First, Dr Puttre stated that 8 PWC schools followed a block schedule in the 2009 / 2010 SY – Beville, Godwin, Woodbridge, Stonewall, Rippon, Porter, Gainesville, and Fred Lynn – and only Woodbridge MS followed a block schedule the previous year (the 2008 / 2009 SY). Yet, when the Principals spoke we were learned that Porter has been following a block schedule for the past 3 years and that Lynn has had an extended math block for three years. So we have two schools, maybe three if you include Lynn for math, with data going back more than one year to evaluate the impact of block scheduling on student learning.
What do the data indicate? We have no idea. District officials didn’t provide any metrics. Two or three PWC schools have followed a block schedule for more than one year. A reasonable person would assume that district officials would examine test results in those schools to ascertain what effect block scheduling had on student learning before expanding the program throughout the county. In lieu of the fact that the head of MS’s in the county couldn’t clearly articulate which schools had followed a block schedule for more than one year, it’s pretty safe to conclude that district officials haven’t even bothered to look.
The Woodbridge Principal did relay a story about a teacher who had 15% of her students pass the SOL last year, before block scheduling, and 77% pass this year, after block scheduling was implemented. He implied that block scheduling was responsible for the increase. Honestly, any teacher who has only 15% of her students pass the SOL either had a really bad group of kids, had a really bad year, or shouldn’t be teaching. I can’t help but wonder what percentage of her students passed the SOL two years ago.
So, to conclude, PWCS has decided to implement a county wide block schedule at the Middle School level with no idea whether block scheduling has improved or undermined student learning.
If a student is out sick one day and misses his / her Science block, he /she won’t have another Science class to make up missed work for several days. What plans do we have to help students cover the material they missed?
This is a more difficult question and is a major concern for parents. Based on Dr Puttre’s response, it should also be a concern for teachers. Dr. Puttre stated that students would keep up by looking at their assignments in School Fusion and through direct instruction provided by teachers after school and at lunch. Teachers, apparently, will be expected to meet with students who miss class during lunch and after school and will be required to update School Fusion daily so that students know what was covered.
This is a new program in many area schools. Block scheduling has been tried in other districts with less than favorable results. What are we doing differently which we believe will result in an increase in student learning and what plans do we have to monitor the program and adapt it if test scores do not improve or decline?
District officials weren’t asked about less than favorable results in other school districts.
No specific plans for monitoring the program were provided. Dr Puttre stated, “we have to look at what we’re doing, analyze it, where is it not working, why is it not working, and then work with the leadership to see what we can do to remedy that situation.” We’ve had block scheduling at two, maybe three, county schools for several years now. Yet district officials were unable to answer basic questions with empirical evidence from those schools about the effect of block scheduling on student learning. We have no idea whether block scheduling has or has not improved students learning at those schools. If the district didn’t examine anything at those schools, why should we expect that they’ll do it when the program is at 11 or 12 schools?
We’ve heard quite a bit from district teachers about this program. Many of our teachers are concerned that the program will reduce student learning and retention, especially in foreign language classes which require exposure for fluency. Other teachers are concerned with strategies for keeping student’s attention as teenagers have notoriously short attention spans. What are you doing to address these concerns?
The effect of block scheduling on foreign language classes was not discussed.
School officials stated that teachers will be attending professional development classes which will help them learn how to adapt their daily schedules to keep their students attention. Suggested methods of keeping students attention included – going outside to run around, moving to different parts of the building, and going to the computer lab or library.
What effect will block scheduling have on preparing students for the STEM program when science instruction will have been reduced by almost one full quarter and science class sizes will increase?
The answer appears to be that the Directors of Specialty Programs and Science believe they have it covered. That, while the total amount of instructional time for science will be reduced, the objectives and curriculum will not change and math instruction will include science. Class sizes will increase but will hopefully go down in 2 or 3 years when we have more money to hire more teachers.
Do we expect that the increase in math instruction time, especially for those students in extended math, will result in a lot more students being ready to take Algebra in 8th grade?
The answer, I think, was that the objectives and curriculum will not change. The additional time will better provide students with the problem solving and independent thinking skills they need to succeed in the 21st Century and will provide opportunities for additional instruction for struggling students.
What about feedback from the community? We assume that people are happy if they’re not complaining. How many complaints have we had about the program?
According to Dr Puttre, about 6 complaints have been received from parents.