Deeper Learning, Reduced Stress

Summer 2012

By David C. Flocco

In the middle of my doctoral coursework in the spring of 2002, I had a discussion with the head of the upper school at Montclair Kimberley Academy (New Jersey) about a potential dissertation topic that would benefit our community. In no time at all, the conversation turned to the daily schedule. It wasn’t working well. Students weren’t spending enough time on task, there were too many interruptions and early dismissals, and teachers were delivering material with little variety or depth. As dean of students at the time, I was also concerned that our students’ lives were too frenetic. There was little time to stop and reflect. As one junior described it, they were like “hamsters on a wheel” — only worse, since hamsters at least have a choice to run or not. I was becoming increasingly concerned about the toll this pace was taking on their health. 

It didn’t take long for us to decide that research on the daily schedule, and its effects on the life of students, would best serve the school’s interests. In the months to come, I was excited about my dissertation’s focus. However, I couldn’t imagine just how valuable this research would be, and how deeply it would change the school community for the better — and in ways we could not have predicted.

For us at Montclair Kimberley Academy, the research has not only led to a dramatic change in the school schedule — in brief, a shift from seven 50-minute periods per day to four 75-minutes periods per day — but also to reduced student stress, increased faculty engagement, and significant academic gains for students. 

The Research

In the spring of 2002, I began my dissertation studies in Seton Hall University’s executive Ed.D. program. The base coursework took two years to complete, and then I began my doctoral research on school schedules and how they impact student perceptions of stress. In particular, the literature review focused on: (1) the ­over-scheduling of our high school students and how that may lead to higher amounts of student stress; (2) the dangers of stress and how it can undermine health and lead to destructive behaviors; (3) the relationship between school schedules and other structured time (such as co-curricular activities); and (4) scheduling in America’s high schools, particularly the recent attention given to block scheduling and other alternatives to traditional schedules. Missing from the existing research was how school schedules impacted student perceptions of stress; hence, the importance of the new research.

Following the literature review, I completed my research using both quantitative and qualitative measures. For the quantitative research, I used a 34-question instrument from Mind Garden, Inc., The School Situation Survey, which I have also used for two studies completed since the publishing of the dissertation. For the qualitative research, I completed interviews of 60 students.

The goal was to compare the stress levels of sophomores and juniors at two independent day schools in northern New Jersey. One school, Montclair Kimberley Academy (MKA), as noted, incorporated a more traditional schedule of seven 50-minute periods per day over a six-day rotation. The other ran a more progressive modified block schedule combining one day of 40-minute periods with two days each of 70- and 100-minute periods, spaced throughout the remainder of the week. I administered The School Situation Survey to 60 sophomores and juniors in each school, and then met with about half that number for the qualitative interviews. 

In essence, I discovered that the schedule most certainly could impact student perceptions of academic stress. Controlling for school type, profile, and rigor (including standardized test scores and grade point average), the perception of academic stress reported by students in the school with the modified block schedule was significantly lower than that reported by students at MKA.

With the research in hand, I could now help MKA begin a detailed schedule investigation.

Investigating a New Schedule

In August 2004, I presented my research results to the upper school faculty, with the recommendation that we consider a schedule that would better serve our mission. In particular, I suggested a schedule with four ­80-minute periods per day with an eight-day rotation — since the research indicated this might be the best option for us. To investigate this concept in detail, we then formed a schedule committee with representation from each academic department. I made the conscious choice not to populate the committee only with people who favored such a change. It was important to have some critics on the committee in order to not only hear their perspective, but also to generate buy-in from the faculty.

It was also important for the committee to create a transparent process in which the faculty felt included. Ultimately, this change would affect them the most, and if they weren’t willing to change the way they taught, the schedule would inevitably fail. Developing collective ownership among this talented and seasoned group was my leadership challenge — and integral to the success of any potential change. 

We began by surveying the faculty to gather their thoughts about what worked and didn’t work with the current schedule. In addition, the faculty provided the committee with their thoughts about what a new schedule should provide in relation to time and what factors should drive our decision making when creating a new schedule. In the end, the three most important aspects of the existing schedule that worked for our faculty were the rotation, free periods for both faculty and students, and the dropping of some periods each day. More important, the three aspects of the existing schedule that didn’t work were the amount of class time lost to early dismissals (particularly for athletes leaving for games), limited flexibility for students to take two courses in the same discipline, and the inability to vary the way the faculty delivered instruction. 

Eighty-one percent of the faculty believed that a new schedule should primarily increase the teaching time within a period of instruction (and, thus, the depth of that teaching) and reduce student stress.

Committee members then began their own research of schools running schedules with longer periods. We identified a dozen throughout the country, made phone calls to each with a specific set of questions, and visited two schools in the immediate vicinity of ours. We found mixed results. Some schedules were working well, some not so well, all of them different from one another. Some of the schools changed for practicality sake — they needed to do so in order to accommodate the number of students in their school or program. Not one school we spoke with had any relevant research to indicate the success (or lack thereof) of the schedule.

Building a New Schedule 

In the summer of 2005, a subcommittee of the schedule committee spent a week building a schedule for the school. On the committee were the academic dean, chair of the fine and performing arts department, the assistant dean of students and science teacher, foreign language department chair and scheduler, mathematics department chair, and me (as the assistant head of campus and dean of students). 

Armed with my dissertation research, faculty input, notes from schools contacted, and a blank white board, we built the schedule that best worked for us. The result was an eight-day rotating schedule of four 75-minute classes per day with five-minute passing times and two common periods: a 30-minute extra help session now known as the common work period (CWP) and a common meeting period for advisor group, school meetings, club and class meetings, and so on.

Together with the rest of the research we compiled during our year of investigation, the recommended schedule was presented to the upper school faculty in September 2005 for their feedback. For the remainder of that year, there was plenty of healthy dialogue about the impact this schedule would have on our community. The loudest critics were those who believed that, because we were losing contact minutes, we were losing instructional time. The music faculty were also concerned that a schedule that didn’t allow them to see students daily would undermine the content and quality of their program. 

To address the “time lost” issue, we compared the gross minutes and the net minutes of each schedule. The key lies in the amount of time it takes a student to transition from one class to the next, not only physically, but also mentally. According to Independent School Management (ISM), the average time needed for a high school student to transition mentally from one class to another is 13 minutes. Using that number, we calculated the net hours difference between our old schedule and the proposed one (see sidebar on page 67). 

As you can see, even though there are 300 more contact minutes per semester in the old schedule, there are also 312 more lost minutes in the old schedule due to transition. As such, the amount of net teaching minutes goes up, albeit negligibly, in the newly proposed schedule. So, the concern that teaching time would be lost in the new schedule was unfounded. 

During the remainder of the school year, we made visits to schools more like ours — independent schools in the Northeast that were running a schedule similar to the one we proposed. In addition, we needed to address the concerns of the music faculty who felt their program was going to suffer in this new schedule. In the end, there were no major changes made to the proposed schedule, although we did seek alternatives. We were still looking for schools using a schedule similar to this one to prove achievement gains. We couldn’t find any. Ultimately, the faculty were forced to vote on this new schedule with the information at hand: student perceptions of stress would be reduced, teachers could vary their teaching methodology, and the frenetic pace of life would be lessened. 

When it came time for a vote, close to 80 percent of the faculty voted in favor of the change. We also agreed that implementation would be in the fall of 2007 in order to give us 18 months to prepare. Why so much time? Among other considerations, in order for this schedule to be successful, we had to be willing to change the way we taught. We recognized that we couldn’t teach in 75 minutes the same way we taught in 50 minutes. In addition, during our visits to other schools, we heard that a longer implementation period to get faculty ready was better than a shorter one — and worth the time and money spent on professional development. 

Personally, because of our great faculty, I felt very comfortable about the change in schedule. I knew they would embrace the challenge and alter their teaching in order to make it work. And they did not disappoint. In fact, they went above and beyond in the preparation for and execution of their responsibilities.

Implementing the New Schedule

I became head of upper school in July 2006 and our first order of business was to create two committees for the implementation of the new schedule: the steering committee and the implementation committee. Each had its own purpose. The steering committee was responsible for guiding the implementation process from beginning to end, including but not limited to communication, policy formation, and publications. The implementation committee was responsible for determining the nuts and bolts of the implementation, creating measurements for success and professional development opportunities for our faculty.

The most important constant during the implementation phase was professional development. To that end, we created a new position, coordinator of faculty development, whose sole purpose was to aid the assistant head of campus (who was also responsible for the implementation of this schedule) in preparing the faculty to teach in 75-minute periods. We invited educational consultants to help our faculty learn to incorporate different teaching strategies into their classrooms. We invited teaching faculty from schools who teach in longer periods to work with our faculty, department by department. In addition, we encouraged every faculty member to visit schools in order to see longer classes in action. During the 18-month implementation phase, close to 85 percent of the faculty took advantage of these professional development opportunities. 

In addition to faculty development, it was essential to spend a school year running the old schedule, but preparing for the new one. In other words, every decision that we made in the year prior to implementation was vetted with the new schedule in mind. Also, one of the implementation committee’s tasks was to identify a series of metrics to measure the success (or failure) of the schedule. What happened to stress levels? Grades? Absences? Sickness? Homework? Did students like it? Did faculty like it? In order to find the answers to these and many more questions, we needed baseline data from which to work. 

We used several quantitative measures to gauge the impact of the new schedule on our students: grades (and, therefore, standardized test scores to make sure grades didn’t rise due to grade inflation); the number of lost minutes of academic time because of students leaving early, particularly athletes (one of the biggest challenges in the old schedule); and the rise (or fall) in GPA from 10th to 11th grade, typically considered the most challenging academic year for high school students. 

Another major component of the implementation phase was communication with all constituents in the community: students, parents, faculty, and board members. The new concept was rolled out to parents at back-to-school night a year prior to implementation. Students were introduced to it the following day. Afterward, we held several informational evenings for students and parents so they could learn about the schedule in greater detail, our reasons for making the change, the research behind it, and our implementation plans. A full presentation was made to the board, as well. 

Our parents’ greatest concern was that this schedule would mean a decline in academic rigor. As one parent said, “If you’re not meeting the students as often, how can the program maintain its rigor?” Our charge was to convince them that less contact didn’t mean lower expectations. We presented them with the time study shared with the faculty and our plan for professional development. The information seemed to quell some of the fears, but there were still a few naysayers. We could only hope that they’d see the value of the new schedule when in practice.

All of our planning prepared us well for implementation of the new schedule in September 2007. We were confident that we had done all we could to train our faculty and students for this transformative change in school culture. I recall saying to a group of parents just prior to the opening of school that we “weren’t going to be surprised by anything.” And we weren’t… except for the positive impact on achievement. 

The Impact of the New Schedule

To measure the impact of the new schedule, we analyzed grade distribution, GPA change from 10th to 11th grade, standardized test scores, “lost hours” for athletic dismissals, and perceptions of academic stress. For each of these measures, we compiled data for the three years before the schedule change (2004 to 2007) and the three years after (2007 to 2010). In sum, all measures signal that we have hit a home run.

Our examination of grades under the new schedule indicates 17 percent more grades earned in the “A” range and 45 percent fewer in the range of “B-” or below. The study incorporates grades in the five academic majors, totaling more than 12,000 grades for the six-year study. In the old schedule, approximately 46 percent of students’ GPA’s went up from 10th to 11th grade. In the new schedule, approximately 64 percent of the GPA’s improved. Broken down by gender, girls seemed to benefit the most, with a 49 percent increase in the number of GPA’s rising. Boys experienced a jump of 37 percent. Even more interesting is the performance of students across quartiles. In the shift from the old schedule to the new, 21 percent more students in the first quartile improved from grades 10 to 11; 33 percent more in the second quartile; 43 percent more in the third quartile; and 33 percent more in the fourth quartile. 

For a school leader, such results make you wonder if gains were being realized due to the new schedule or to grade inflation — the latter of which would be disastrous for our students and our school’s reputation. Finding the answer to that question became our next order of business. In order to do so, we examined our results on two sets of standardized tests: AP exams and SAT subject tests, the two most heavily used external, objective tests taken by our students. Keep in mind that the trends discovered through this research cannot necessarily be linked to the schedule, but they would give us a strong indication as to whether or not the achievement gains were a result of grade inflation. For both tests, we measured volume (close to 1,000 AP exams and 1,300 SAT subject tests) and results. 

There was a 10 percent increase in the number of AP examinations taken in the three years after the schedule change. A modest across-the-board improvement of 5 percent on the average score occurred, but more telling is the fact that the number of students obtaining scores of 4 or 5 on the exams jumped 18 percent under the new schedule, a statistically significant number. 

There was an astonishing 47 percent increase in the volume of SAT subject tests taken within the years of our study. We attribute that increase to a greater awareness of the importance of these tests for our students and more accountability by departments to provide families with accurate information as to the most optimal time to take these tests. Given the increase in the number of tests taken, the slight performance gains were statistically insignificant. As such, I believe that the achievement gains are a result of good teaching and learning and the availability of teachers — not to grade inflation.

One of the most criticized elements of the old schedule was the amount of lost classroom time our athletes, in particular, experienced as a result of leaving early for athletic contests. Because of the new schedule’s design, a significant amount of academic time was saved. In the old schedule, the academic day ended at 2:50 p.m., which meant an athlete departing at 2:25 p.m. for an away game missed 25 minutes of a 50-minute class. In the new schedule, the teaching day ends at 2:25 p.m. The same student, who would have missed 25 minutes in the old schedule if dismissed at 2:25, misses no teaching time in the new schedule. In total, an average of 83 percent less class time was lost as a result of this change — a staggering figure. Not only does missing less class time mean more time on task and greater engagement for the student, it is also much less disruptive for the teacher and the others still in class.

Students experienced a decrease in perceived stress levels in the new schedule, as well. The School Situation Survey (SSS) served as the baseline quantitative instrument throughout all three studies. Sophomores and juniors from three independent day schools in metropolitan areas in the Northeast were surveyed. School profiles were similar and 100 percent of all students surveyed were on college tracks. 

In 2003, 120 students took the SSS as part of my dissertat ion research: 60 students who were operating in a schedule with longer periods and 60 students in our school, which at the time ran a more traditional 50-minute-per-class schedule. Students in the schedule with longer periods experienced less stress at a statistically significant level.

Comparison of Schedules 

 
Classes meeting 5x cycle

Old
Schedule

New
Schedule
New w/CWP 
Minutes/class period 50 75 75
Class periods/cycle 5 4 4
Contact minutes/cycle 250 300 330
Cycles/semester 12 9 9
Contact minutes/semester 3,000 2,700 2,970
Lost teaching minutes/period 13 13 13
Class periods/cycle 5 4 4
Lost teaching minutes/cycle 65 52 52
Cycles/semester 12 9 9
Lost teaching minutes/semester 780 468 468
Net Teaching minutes/semester 2,220 2,232 2,502
Semesters/year 2 2 2
Net Teaching minutes/year 4,440 4,464 5,004
Minutes/hour 60 60 60
Net Teaching hours/year 74 74.4 83.4


In 2006, I expanded the research to four schools and more than 600 students. Two of the schools ran a ­schedule with 70-minute periods. The other two schools, one of which was MKA, ran classes of 50 minutes or less. Similar to the 2003 results, 

students in the schedule with longer periods experienced less stress in a statistically significant fashion. Stress levels at MKA went up slightly between the 2003 and 2006 surveys. 

In 2009, I again surveyed students in two schools: MKA, now incorporating a schedule with longer periods, and the other school from the 2006 study that used the more traditional schedule. Once again, students in the schedule with longer periods experienced less stress than students in the more traditional schedule. Stress levels at MKA went down and stress levels at the other school actually rose between 2006 and 2009. 

After three separate studies and close to 12,000 students surveyed, it is clear to me that the schedule can and does have a significant impact on the levels of stress students perceive relating to their school day. 

Conclusion

For MKA, the new schedule has changed the way we deliver instruction, slowed down the pace of life, reduced stress, made teachers more available, and improved student achievement. With the implementation of our 1:1 learning initiative (all students received laptops in the fall of 2010), teachers have even more tools at their disposal with which to vary instruction. Moving forward, our plan is to continue to survey students and faculty to make sure the schedule is continuing to serve their needs and achieve similar results. 

In my mind, the gains we have seen at MKA are tied directly to a combination of students being able to delve into the work at a deeper level and the availability of teachers for extra help. An astonishing 93 percent of the students, when surveyed, reported that their teachers were available to them — up from 70 percent in the year before new schedule implementation. Those opportunities for extra help are invaluable to our students’ academic progress as they navigate their courses, particularly as the material becomes more challenging in high school. Equally important, the atmosphere that the new schedule has helped to engender has made our students feel a little less like those hamsters on a wheel.
Author
David C. Flocco

David C. Flocco is the upper school head at Montclair Kimberley Academy (New Jersey).