Fewer classes, bigger classes Teachers, students like four-period day, but crowding a worry

November 29, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The four-period class schedule initiated three years ago in Howard County's high schools is working well, but it has resulted in larger classes, a new school system study has concluded.

The evaluation of the first two years of the schedule found that teachers and students generally preferred 90-minute class periods, although about one-quarter of instructors were concerned that they had too little time to teach everything required in the curriculum.

Under the new schedule, academic classes have increased by as many as six to eight students, often to 32 or 33 pupils, teachers and administrators say.

The study warned that "continuing years of teaching very large classes risk compromising quality instruction.

"Failing to address this problem has the potential for long-term negative consequences for teaching and learning," it said.

Six of Howard County's eight high schools have switched to the four-period class schedule in the past three years. The two high schools scheduled to open next fall also are likely to adopt it.

Students earn more credits while taking only four classes per day than they did in the traditional six- or seven-period schedule.

The schedules at five high schools -- Atholton, Glenelg, Hammond, Mount Hebron and Oakland Mills -- permit students to earn up to seven credits per year by alternating three 90-minute classes one day with three other classes the next.

Pupils also take one shorter class each day, lasting about an hour. A sixth county high school, Howard High, uses a variation of the four-period schedule that is frequently likened to a college schedule: Students attend four 86-minute classes every day for a semester.

They take a different set of four classes the next semester, permitting them to earn up to eight credits per year.

Howard's version of the four-period schedule is the one used most often by school systems nationwide and elsewhere in Maryland. Other area school systems trying a four-period schedule include those of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties.

The report, presented to the school board last week, surveyed all Atholton and Howard teachers and 12th-grade students last school year and sampled the opinions of freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Atholton and Howard were the first two schools to adopt four-period schedules.

The vast majority of teachers and students approved of the change and cited several instructional benefits, the study said. But they also worried about the larger classes and diminished teaching time that resulted.

In the new schedule, students take more classes, but teachers are not assigned any additional ones -- meaning that more students are in every class.

The study found that most teachers believed the larger classes would hurt effectiveness, said Phyllis Utterback, the county's supervisor of assessment. She urged that steps be taken to address the bigger classes before they take their toll on quality instruction.

The four-period day also reduces the amount of instructional time for each class by about 30 or 40 hours per year, and the survey found that some teachers did not believe they were able to cover the entire curriculum.

"That's troubling to me," said school board member Stephen Bounds. "That's a significant enough chunk of teachers that it's not just a few malcontents."

Dr. Utterback and Associate Superintendent James R. McGowan said the problem is something they're looking into and hope to address through better staff development.

The study determined that attendance rates at Atholton and Howard rose with the four-period schedule and that student test scores and grade-point averages at the schools remained about the same.

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