School Schedules

Survey Offers Strategies for Unlocking Schools from Traditional Time Structure

Most schools are running on the same time structure that has driven education for decades: years that start in August or September and end in May or June and days that begin around 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and end around 3 p.m. and are divided into 50- to 60-minute periods. Could a shake-up of the school schedule lead to better learning outcomes? That's the subject of a recent report produced for a project called Unlocking Time, which serves as an online hub for resources related to time in school.

The analysis in "Time for Change? Findings from a Survey of Time Use in Schools" used data collected from three sources: a survey of 3,758 schools about how they structured student time; a survey of 4,155 school staff members from 202 schools about how time is used in their schools; and 155 "master" schedules over two to three years from 52 schools, culled through implementation of Abl Master Schedule, a software-as-a-service offered by Abl, which also produced the Unlocking Time website.

Among the findings:

  • More than seven in 10 secondary schools (72 percent) still operate on a traditional five-to-eight period bell schedule, and nearly nine in 10 (86 percent) elementary schools use the standard period or homeroom schedule, in spite of schools' broader adoption of personalized learning that could show better outcomes when there's more flexibility in units of time and less emphasis on "seat time."

  • Almost every school (99 percent) continues to give students the summer off even though some research has suggested that "learning over the course of the school year recedes over the summer," and that "low-income students of color are more negatively affected by 'summer slide' than their more affluent counterparts."

  • Nearly three-quarters of classes (74 percent) are less than an hour long, and just 18 percent of respondents said that they had at least some classes arranged in 61-90-minute segments. Likewise, five percent of schools used "rotating periods," shifting when specific classes take place, and locking out students "who consistently miss afternoon periods for sports."

Why is it so hard to change up the schedule in ways that could improve student learning? As the report noted, for schools and districts, there's a "perception that the tradeoffs and challenges to make changes are too great. Typically changes to calendars or bell schedules require years to navigate everything from analysis of the logistics of change to gaining buy-in and support from educators and families, not to mention approval from school boards. When faced with many pressing priorities, district leaders may choose not to invest the time, resources, and political capital in pursuing changes related to calendars and schedules."

The report offered numerous recommendations to overcome the hurdles posed by changes in the school schedule. For campuses that run that traditional bell schedule, for example, the researchers suggested:

  • Using of a "flex time period" to let students spend more time on individual needs;

  • Testing out the use of a "modified block," "rotating periods" or a "flex schedule";

  • Applying formative assessment to regroup students on a regular basis and focus teaching on shared needs of smaller groups--even if class periods can't be changed; and

  • Trying trimester terms, to mix up the schedules and coursework more frequently.

For school and district leaders interested in considering other models of school scheduling, the report advised them to start with an audit, to help them comprehend "how their schools are using time and scheduling students to understand equity, access, and whether that time is meeting the needs of all students." The report also advised them to survey teachers and other instructional staff "about how time is being used now to guide decision-making about changes to prioritize."

The report is openly available on the Unlocking Time website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.