Pisoni: Changing How Schools Draw Up Their Schedules Can Make Classes Fairer and More Equitable Next Fall. 4 Things to Consider

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As educators across the country struggle to wrap up the current COVID-ravaged school year, administrators and schedulers are hard at work determining what the 2020-21 school day will look like for most students. 

As they do every year, they’re deciding what courses will be taught and who will teach them. And, as they are every year, they will be challenged to evaluate difficult trade-offs that can result in limited access to rigorous coursework for some students, or inexperienced teachers being paired with the neediest learners. 

But this year, a growing number of district leaders are looking to add courses and sections to accommodate instructional loss as students return to school with new needs and very different experiences. Some fear that the challenge of scheduling will be compounded by heightened concerns about health and safety — and the fact that some students and teachers won’t return to school at all.

That dynamic creates risks of exacerbating inequities through the unintentional sorting of students. But it also presents a profound opportunity in an era when 72 percent of secondary schools still run on a traditional bell schedule. Re-examining the use of time and space may present opportunities to address persistent equity gaps.

Here are a few ways districts can leverage this unique opportunity to reimagine the structure of the instructional day:

Create more flexible schedules. Allow teams of teachers to share cohorts of students and provide longer blocks of time in which to teach them. Schedules that allow for team teaching, back-to-back periods and integrated curricula help students make connections between ideas and skills across content areas. Project-based and experiential hands-on learning are best suited to flexible schedules, which in turn give teachers more latitude to support students by providing individualized instructions and meeting them where they are.

Simplify course catalogs. Schools often create multiple levels of each course to sort students based on proficiency. In some schools, it’s not uncommon to see five levels of freshman English or math alongside general education requirements. Course catalogs are also often filled with one-off elective courses with unfilled seats, which draw critical teaching resources away from core and college-ready courses. The combination of course levels, electives and prerequisite requirements can result in de facto (or shadow) tracking of students. When budgets are cut, that risk is exacerbated, as schools are challenged to reduce the strain on teachers by reducing the number of distinct courses they must prepare for each day.

Against that backdrop, students can be denied access to core classes, or an important support class, when demand exceeds the supply of available seats. 

Electives, of course, play an important role in enriching the educational experience. But district leaders know that the complexity of course catalogs can have an outsize impact on who has access to what courses as resources are redistributed during periods of economic scarcity. They understand that school leaders may be forced to decide whether it is more important for 30 students to get into an intervention or credit recovery program than to get French 5. 

These aren’t easy trade-offs. But simplifying a course catalog can lead to more effective resource allocation. It can be a lever for addressing inequities manifest in course schedules.

Boost enrollment in advanced courses. Actively recruit students to enroll in advanced courses. Enrollment in these classes should mirror the demographics of the school’s population; students from demographic groups that have been historically underserved may not see themselves as belonging in advanced courses and need additional support. The need to catch students up from COVID-19-related deficiencies provides ample air cover to shift resources toward creating support classes and changing that perception. 

Chart your own course. Many schools will have more autonomy to incorporate creativity, flexibility and innovation in scheduling in the absence of firm guidance from their district or state. Now is the time to design simulations to experiment with alternative bell schedules, in order to identify blocks of time that can be used to meet new and emergent needs as students return to school.

Schools often start scheduling each year by copying the previous year’s schedule and making minor adjustments based on courses requests and staff changes. The complexity and challenge of creating schedules means there is rarely an opportunity to play with different scheduling scenarios. 

Modern digital tools allow schedulers to virtually test different schedules to see what the implications would be for needed resources and student access to the courses they need. 

Schedules can experiment with eliminating certain prerequisites, which could ease barriers to college and career pathways. They can model the implications of blended or hybrid learning — which integrates online and face-to-face instruction. Such an approach enables students to benefit from courses outside the confines of the classroom or school day to reduce the strain on educators and class sizes. Alternative bell schedules can help school and district leaders create more dual enrollment opportunities where students take some courses off-site at a college campus. Similarly, those schedules may uncover opportunities for students to perform homework assignments with teachers at school, while focusing time on sustained reading or other activities at home.

Making these changes will take courage. Leading a district is one of the hardest jobs in America, and it has never been harder than right now, when educators are being forced to pivot faster than a Silicon Valley startup. In times of crisis, it can be easy to fall back on what we know. But this opportunity born of crisis offers the chance to expand access for all students, especially those who have been historically underserved, to courses that correlate to college and career readiness.

Adam Pisoni is founder and executive chairman at Abl (Always Be Learning), a San Francisco-based company producing a dynamic school scheduling platform that makes it easy to design and manage the daily life of a school.

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