“It’s just a ‘bell schedule change,’ that’s all so there’s no need to involve the school board.” That’s how PWCS central administrators charged with overseeing academic programs described the leap into universal Block Scheduling throughout PWCS Middle Schools.
Just a “bell schedule change?” Hardly.
As we found out last Wednesday night at the PWCS Board meeting, yet another sweeping change in our school system is underway… and the PWCS Board is once again asleep at the wheel. The Superintendent’s staff is busily implementing yet another innovative program – without a written formal plan to outline goals and objectives, strategies for attaining objectives, procedures for evaluating effectiveness, and costs – that affects tens of thousands of students and their families. Yet the PWCS Board didn’t even know this was going on. So they scrambled to put the topic on the agenda ostensibly to find out just what major changes are afoot in PWCS middle schools…only to find that there is no coherent formal plan behind the major shift in academic instruction in our schools.
Block Scheduling entails increasing classroom time for certain core subjects up from the normal daily ~45 minute classroom period to ~90 minutes for some subjects. Hence students do not receive instruction in all core middle school academic courses each school day. Instead the increased time allotted for some courses results in a staggered approach where children in middle school don’t have all courses each and every school day – the delivery of the middle school curriculum is “staggered” on alternating days much as is the case in high schools and major universities and colleges. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Who knows – certainly not PWCS.
You see, the PWCS Board has issued formal Policy addressing such sweeping academic program changes and complementary Regulations governing the implementation of innovative programs like “Block Scheduling.”1. Yet once again, the PWCS central administration has simply decided not to comply with the regulation…and the PWCS Board has been asleep at the wheel while it’s been quietly infused in our schools. It’s a great arrangement – Dr. Walts’ staff can do what they please with the tens of thousands of children in Virginia’s 2nd largest public schools divisions knowing full well that the PWCS Board won’t provide the oversight or demand any measure of accountability whatsoever for the success or failure of the innovations/experimentation undertaken by staff.
Is Block Scheduling a good or a bad thing? Who knows – for PWCS has NO formal plan – just good (perhaps) intentions. And therein lies the problem. The hourlong discussion at the 2 June Board meeting was certainly revealing. Yes Block Scheduling is a major philosophical and programmatic change to PWCS middle schools… a major change without any formal plan. For those who are interested in the presentation, a transcript of the discussion is attached at the end of this article. Some of the dialogue is extremely revealing.
That aside, the “idea” is that PWCS will increase mathematics and language arts instructional time to 90 minutes each day the classes are taught. Science and social studies will be affected yet it was not possible for the staff to answer Board member questions when asked what the affect would be on other subject areas in terms of decreases in academic instructional time. Thankfully (for staff) the Board members weren’t interested enough in pursuing such answers. So what exactly is the rationale behind moving to Block Scheduling in PWCS Middle Schools? As best as anyone could tell from the rambling discourse Wednesday night, the elements might entail:
- Increasing Middle School math and reading SOL scores
- Embracing “21st Century Skills” – a trendy phrase these days with no definition of what “21st Century Skills” actually are
- Increased student participation in Algebra and Geometry in middle school
- “Deeper learning” – another trendy phrase in PWCS
- Reduced discipline issues by minimizing student movement in the schools
Truthfully, who knows what the real goals and objective are, for again there is no plan…just good intentions and feelings. And that’s where the Board is derelict in its duties. The board asked some very direct questions of the staff regards Block Scheduling…and got no concrete answers in return. What are the specific goals of this change and how are they to be measured? Blank out. Is this program succeeding and what are the measures of success? Blank out. What data is being collected and what does it reveal regards the success or failure of this institutional change? Blank out. What is the specific change to the number of instructional hours for ALL middle school core academic subjects under Block Scheduling versus traditional scheduling? Blank out. Is there any sort of formal written implementation plan for this innovative program? Blank out!
PWCS apparently has a growing aversion for accountability in academic programs, and what better way to avoid accountability than to simply choose not to follow the Innovative Program Policy and Regulations put in place by the PWCS Board. That’s certainly the case with Block Scheduling. Whether it’s a good or bad program and succeeds or fails just doesn’t seem to matter to the PWCS Board. If it did they’d actually do their J-O-B and ensure compliance with the policies and regulations they’ve approved. Yet for whatever reasons this group of eight elected officials just can’t be bothered with academic programs that impact tens of thousands of children in Prince William County. So what we saw Wednesday night was the act of “going through the motion” of looking concerned and asking questions knowing that whatever was said in response would be “ok.” Notably, not one of the board members followed up with additional questions once their original queries went unanswered.
It appears there’s a good reason Superintendent Walts sits at the head of the School Board meeting dais – he is apparently the de facto Chairman of the PWCS Board and his staff is unaccountable for compliance with Board Policy and Regulation. And as Mr. Milt Johns – actually elected Board Chair – said at the end of the rambling presentation on middle school block scheduling Wednesday night, “Moving on then…” Yes Mr. Johns, if you and your colleagues are too disengaged to insist that major changes and innovations in academic programs in PWCS be undertaken in accordance with those Policies and Regulations you approved and were elected to uphold, then perhaps it is indeed time you were “moving on.” Our children, all children, deserve better stewardship of our public schools in Prince William County.