Stuck between a block and a hard place

Dec. 9, 2004, midnight | By Samir Paul | 19 years, 4 months ago

4x4 block scheduling wrongfully abandoned by MCPS without the community's input

Northwood freshman Cory Jones can finally play on his school's JV basketball team. That's because after failing algebra and being ruled ineligible last year, the newly-elected co-Captain is re-taking the class and has managed to earn a high C—a grade that his parents say hasn't stopped improving. But all that may change next fall when MCPS pulls the plug on one of the best programs it has started in a long time.

Since the much-anticipated opening of Northwood this year, the school has been running on 4x4 block scheduling, a system in which students take four full-year academic subjects in a single semester. Jones and many other students who performed poorly under the even/odd-day block scheduling or the traditional seven-period day have benefited from the new class format.

In a decision praised last year by the Northwood community, the County implemented the schedule as a pilot program at Northwood so that the school system could collect data and decide how successful the approach was. But after only two months, MCPS chose to terminate the popular scheduling system at the end of next semester, despite its obvious success: Forty percent of the school's student body is on the honor roll after the first quarter and only 15 percent are ineligible for extracurricular activities—compared to Einstein's rate of 37 percent last spring. MCPS made the choice blindly with no data, no community input and no common sense.

Dropping the ball

Northwood had barely seen the first fruits of the program when MCPS informed the school early last month that the scheduling system would have to go even though students' improvement reflects the success other schools have had with 4x4 scheduling. Among the strongest reasons in favor of 4x4 scheduling are: students' focus spread less thinly; more time spent on instruction and less on dull classroom administration; and more continuity in lessons.

Compare these reasons for keeping the new schedule to the justifications given to the Northwood community for the removal of 4x4 blocks, and it's obvious that MCPS has dropped the ball.

The County's first reason for removal has been that its computers cannot handle the different scheduling software that a 4x4 format requires. The computer system necessary would be "very costly," according to Community Superintendent Stephen Bedford. But if MCPS can afford to spend $15.3 million on new computers every four years, it can certainly afford to support software compatible with a scheduling system that works.

MCPS' other main concern was the difficulty of accommodating students wishing to transfer to or from Northwood mid-semester. Though registering transfer students mid-year could be difficult under a 4x4 scheduling system, Northwood parent Mary Herman points out that the Downcounty Consortium's (DCC) greatest asset is the variety of schools available. To avoid scheduling difficulties, transfer students could instead register in any of the other four DCC schools for the remainder of the year and then apply to switch to Northwood the next September.

Compelling studies suggest that scheduling systems like Northwood's work. Research conducted by the University of Virginia has tied block scheduling—especially 4x4 blocks—to higher GPA, lower failure rates, fewer dropouts, more college enrollment and higher SAT scores. An informal Silver Chips survey of 100 Northwood students conducted on Nov. 30 also showed that of the 60 students who came from a middle school that used block scheduling like Blair's, 58 cited 4x4 as a "significant" improvement from their previous schools' block systems.

And there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence from schools all across America: One Pennsylvania high school saw a nine percent increase in the number of students who earned a three or higher on Advanced Placement exams. A California high school reported that with 4x4 scheduling, 60 percent of its departments had fewer dropouts; 34 percent of students who failed classes could take the courses again the next semester to try for credit, according to J. Allen Queen, author of The 4x4 Block Schedule.

Many parents wanted their children to attend Northwood largely because of the potential of a 4x4 block schedule and a teaching staff that knows how to use it. "Most of us were pretty shocked at the decision, because for a lot of people, it was a major reason why we picked the school," said Northwood parent Eric Brenner. But with the program gone, more students will be drawn to Blair, and the last thing Blair needs is more students.

A blind eye to the community

Even more disconcerting than MCPS' abrupt dismissal of Northwood's working plan is the unilateral manner in which the decision was made. County officials saw no data prior to making the call—the scheduling program was nixed before first quarter grades even came out—and MCPS asked neither Northwood staff nor the school community for their opinions on the matter.

Because Northwood will grow in size in upcoming years, Bedford said, the school was able to implement the 4x4 schedule without considering the effects of the program on other MCPS offices. Bedford claims that as more students attended, however, it grew "more apparent" that block scheduling would not work.

But "more apparent" is difficult to measure, and we cannot be sure that 4x4 really would not have worked. The purpose of the pilot program was to see if a 4x4 schedule would be effective in Northwood. Until an extended study examines the results of 4x4 scheduling at Northwood, the County should continue the pilot—if not only to gather statistics, then to support the community. A whopping 87 percent of students said that block scheduling was "significantly" beneficial for them, and none said that it was noticeably detrimental to their studies, according to the same Silver Chips survey. The school's SGA has circulated a petition calling for reinstatement of 4x4 scheduling, and similarly, Northwood parents are preparing to apply pressure to MCPS.

If MCPS is serious about building up the DCC, its individual schools and its programs, it needs to start acting as if that is the case. The County could use a lesson in high school administration: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Tell MCPS to reinstate Northwood's 4x4 block scheduling. Email the Board of Education at

For more information on Northwood's 4x4 blocking click here

Samir Paul. <b>Samir Paul</b>, a Magnet senior, spent the better part of his junior year at Blair brooding over everyone's favorite high-school publication and wooing Room 165's menopausal printer. He prides himself in being <i>THE</i> largest member of Blair Cross Country and looks forward to one more … More »

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