What kind of schedule does proficiency learning demand?

With the advent of Act 77 one question that many Vermont schools are asking themselves is: what type of schedule best supports proficiency learning?

Proficiency learning, after all, rids schools of seat time requirements, replacing them instead with simple, bottom-line subject area proficiency requirements.  The familiar phrase under this new system is, “Learning is the constant and time is a variable.” This surely implies that our daily school schedules must change — perhaps radically.  Yet few Vermont schools have actually changed their schedules. Nor have many schools in the other states that have tossed seat time requirements: Maine or New Hampshire. There are two classic high school schedules, and most schools in New England retain some version of one or the other: either a traditional, 7- or 8-period, 46-55 minute-long classes, or 65-90 minute-long, four period “block” schedules.

I must admit, up until this year, when, as part of my fellowship, I stepped up to co-chair the committee tasked with overhauling the schedule, I knew next to nothing about the subject.  Since we started meeting a month ago, I’ve gone straight down the rabbit hole of scheduling research, spending my time poring over old books, journal articles, and other schools’ schedules. What has surprised me most has been how fascinating it’s all been. I think that this is the mark that you have chosen the right profession: when you actually enjoy learning about the esoteric details, the nitty-gritty of whatever it is you’re doing. A kayak coach I knew once called this true enjoyment, “fascination with the process.”

What’s most interesting is that I finally feel as though I’m understanding the structures that have shaped my daily work for so many years without my knowing it. It’s like when you become a parent yourself and your own parents begin to explain their own parenting decisions — the philosophies and expectations that invisibly but powerfully shaped your own upbringing. Suddenly you’re on their level. I had no idea the debates that have been raging for generations about the use of time in schools. Now, finally, I’m starting to understand the limits I’ve been operating under for so many years in the several schedules I’ve been part of. It’s tremendously liberating. 

A year ago, when I was applying for my current fellowship, an interviewer asked me if my school had a “block schedule” and I stumbled over my words because I did not know what this was.  In fact, I even struggled to remember precisely how long our daily periods were. Now, almost a year later, through educating myself, I have become almost fluent in the foreign language of school schedules.  When I look at a school’s day, I can almost immediately divine exactly what is going on, what is being prioritized and what is not, and speak with the cut-to-the-chase jargon of a car mechanic speaking about cars or an accountant speaking about finances: “Oh, that’s a skinny Monday set up with an A/B block the rest of the week and an alternating thirty-minute intervention / advisory after lunch.”

I have learned the fascinating political history behind school schedules too.  The traditional, factory-model schedules of the mid-20th Century soon gave way to more experimental flexible schedules of the 1960s and 70s, before returning to traditional in the wake of the post-”A National at Risk” 1980s, and then morphing into block schedules during the 1990s and 2000s.  

But where does that leave us today with proficiency learning?


The notion of time being a variable implies a flexible schedule.  The elephant in the room is this: It might be very well possible to graduate in two years instead of four.  Or it may mean that other students, who might have snuck across the graduation stage simply on their daily compliance and work habits, will be newly exposed, taking five years instead of four to solidify truly proficient skills.  We’re not, in a basic sense, sure exactly what will happen. But we do have a feeling that we’re going to need something different in our schedule, something that more honestly reflects the flexibility the system demands.

What sort of schedule do we need?

One school of thought, perhaps the most radical, says that now is the time to “blow up” the traditional grammar of school — not only the traditional daily use of time, but the yearly use of time (semesters) and the division of traditional subjects in various separate classes.  Proponents of this approach are often interested in models like the one used by Colorado College. Here students take just one class at a time, for four to six weeks, all day, every day. Then they have a few days off, before starting another. The classes are project-based, interdisciplinary (team taught by several teachers), with work done in teams, often outdoors or at least outside of a traditional classroom.  “Intensives” they’re sometimes called.

Advocates of this approach feel that true proficiency learning is multi-disciplinary, student-centered, and project-based.  Behind their reasoning, I believe are several ideas:

1.  Proficiency learning prioritizes skills over content.  Instead of requiring students to be able to name the historical eras of American history, they must be able to solve problems and to communicate.  Content’s taught in a classroom, but skills — especially the sort of “real world” skills proficiency aims at — are best taught outside in the “real world.”

2.  Going along with that, proficiency learning is biased toward doing, rather than knowing.  It’s designed to measure the performable (“performance indicators”), the demonstratable.  Think of it as the part of your driving test where you actually have to drive.

3.  Because there are now flexible pathways to pursue learning, students should be allowed to roam free from traditional curriculum to demonstrate proficiencies in new ways.  Not just some students but all students should be able to do this say advocates.

On the other side of the spectrum, the most traditional thinkers believe that a school’s schedule should stay largely the way it is, with one exception: it should allow for periods of flexible time (“flex time”) to reperform, to reteach, to personalize instruction as demanded by proficiency learning.  Advocates of this approach generally prefer one of two ideas: either a daily period of flexible time for students to meet with teachers, or a weekly “flex day” allowing for the same, in longer blocks.

Behind this reasoning, I believe are several different ideas:

1.  Owing to a variety of administrative and logistical realities, classes themselves should not attempt to be variable lengths of time.

2.  Student-led teaching, project-based learning, and other pedagogies implied in proficiency learning are very possible to conduct well within a traditional classroom setting, and in fact should be taught here, owing to the above-mentioned variables and realities of running a large school.

A number of schools in New England already incorporate 30-minute flexible daily periods (often called “Callback” or “Flex Block” when students can check in with teachers) — with varying success.  A few schools already employ flex days, during which students can work on remediation or enrichment or proficiency based project learning. (One influential model seems to be the one coming out of Baxter Academy in Portland, Maine’s first charter school, called Flex Friday, during which students work on “student-managed, long-term projects that are relevant to each student’s interests and goals.”)

A final idea about how to divide time comes from proponents of something in the middle of the previous two approaches.  These advocates promote a schedule in which the length and frequency of classes themselves are flexible from day to day or week to week.  There are two ways of doing this:

1.  The “team” model — in which four or five content teachers teach on a team together and are thereby free to combine together for projects or to set the schedule flexibly depending on what each class is doing.  This approach, while popular in many middle school models (often called the “core” model) tends to only work in high school for freshmen, owing to the number of electives and tracked classes.

2.  The flexible schedule, which was tried extensively in the United States in the 1960s, often called a modular schedule, or a flex-mod schedule.  In this set-up, the day is divided into short 30-minute “modules” and each class can elect how much time it needs weekly: 30 minutes, 60 minutes, or 90 minutes.  

The flex-mod was no joke.  By the early 1970s, it had been adopted by as high as 15% of all American high schools.  But ten years later, it was almost gone, largely due to several questions that lurk behind any such flexible use of time:  

1.  To what extent can students, particularly less academically motivated students, handle unstructured free time during the class day?  

One of the reasons cited in the article above for dropping the flex-mod was student “abuse of time.” And one of the big questions of the flex-mod was how to supervise large numbers of students in order to free up teachers to meet individually with small groups or with individual students.  Do you let them roam the halls? Put them in study halls in the library? Supervised by whom?

Most adults I know, for example, struggle to be productive during their free time.  Yes, we may tell ourselves that if we only presented more interesting lessons and projects to students they would use their time well, but again, even adults shirk their responsibilities in favor of time-wasting diversions, and many of us, I believe, deep down crave some kind of deadlines and “supervision” to force us to get down to business during the work day.

2.  How many logistics can you make teachers responsible for before they get burned out?  

Most teachers I believe, and I surely count myself in this, are fairly amenable to the time constraints we’re given.  I’ve taught in 45 minute blocks, and I’ve taught in 90 minute blocks. I can make it work. But the idea that teachers will be responsible for crafting lessons fitting into different blocks of time each week, I believe, is to hand already busy teachers another logistic that they don’t need.

This gets to the larger point as well: managing 800 teenagers and 65 staff in a single building requires some level of predictability and organization.  We beat up on schools for batch-processing, for being too regimented, but the fact remains that schools require some level of structure and supervision.

In the end, I don’t think anyone has the answers about what the new proficiency system will require in our use of time during the school day.  But it remains an exciting time in Vermont to explore fundamental questions that have captivated the minds of educators for many generations. I never thought I myself would become so captivated by something so seemingly pedestrian as scheduling.  But we value what we give time to — and so far from being a dry study of minutes and hours, scheduling is truly our utmost expression of philosophy and values.