School report sees disparity in schedules

Teaching time varies under systems used in high schools

Up to 36 hours lost a year

Assessment suggests choosing one method

Howard County

March 25, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The idea was to give students more courses over their four-year high school careers. More courses would equal more academics and, as a bonus, more choices for electives, such as foreign languages or fine arts.

But the Howard County school system is finding out that drastically changing the district's high school schedules eight years ago ultimately turned more into less.

A report released by the district's director of assessment, Phyllis Utterback, shows that when high schools stray from the traditional six-period school day, students can lose up to 36 hours of instructional time per year.

And a majority of teachers said that in some of the more popular schedules - such as the much-praised 4-by-4 block schedule used in the district's prized magnet schools - teaching time is so abbreviated that they don't feel they can adequately cover a course curriculum.

With that information in hand, Utterback recommended at a school board meeting last week that the district standardize the schedules used by the high schools.

No sooner had she said it than a half-dozen high school principals rose to denounce the idea, crying out for community choice and school autonomy.

"I just caution you tremendously to be very, very thoughtful and cautious as to how you approach this," said Scott Pfiefer, principal of River Hill High School, which has a 4-by-4 block schedule in which students take four courses a semester. "We have six models because we have tried to be very responsive to the individuals of our communities."

After the stream of opposing principals, board members stalled for more time by passing the problem to Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.

O'Rourke has promised to look into the matter, but not before admonishing board members, staff and television viewers to remember that "correlation does not mean cause and effect."

At the meeting, Utterback agreed.

"All this report attempts to show is that there are differences," she said. "And in no way is it intended to show that the schedule is the reason for any of these things."

But the report - a lengthy, unabridged account of the experiences of 1,160 parents, 551 staffers and 9,321 students with the county's various high school schedules - says differently.

"Having a mix of semesterized schedules and yearlong schedules in the same school district does not serve the needs of all students and staff members throughout the system," the report concluded.

"There is inequity among the school schedules with regard to amount of student instructional time and teacher planning time as well as the number of credits that can be earned," the report says.

The conclusion: A committee should be formed to determine which schedule should be used in all the county's high schools.

For many in the school system, diminished class time and uncovered curriculums are enough to suggest that Utterback may be the one who is the most right.

"It turns out," said Joe Staub, teachers association president, "kids are getting more hours but learning less in each."

Four basic schedules are used in the county's 10 high schools, with two variations of the four.

Only Columbia's Wilde Lake High School schedule resembles the traditional six-period day that the parents of today's teen-agers probably remember - the same 45- to 50-minute classes every day, at the same time each day, all year.

The other schedules vary from that old-school model. Some of Howard's students have different classes every other day; some have a new set of classes halfway through the year. Some classes are about an hour; others are closer to an hour and a half. In at least one high school, students not only have a mixture of shorter and longer classes but also have classes at a different time each day.

It isn't unusual in the region for high schools to have multiple schedules: Anne Arundel, Carroll and Baltimore counties, as well as Baltimore schools, use at least two models.

But many parents and students have complained that the cocktail of schedules in Howard County is dizzying, especially for teen-agers transferring from one high school to another. Students have a hard time adjusting, parents have said at board meetings, and to make matters worse, nearly 500 students told Utterback they lost credits in a school-to-school move.

Utterback's report is significant because it is the first time teachers have formally expressed reservations about scheduling.

Among other findings in the report:

At 55 minutes a class every weekday, Wilde Lake's schedule - called a "six-period plus" because students have the option to take more courses - gives students 165 hours of classroom time per year in each subject.

Students at Howard and the magnet Long Reach - in a four-course-a-day, semester schedule - are in class a total of 129 hours a year, even though their daily classes are a half-hour longer or more.

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