Instruction-Driven Scheduling: Using Time as a Powerful Resource

By Horace Williams and Melanie Pondant

Educators are conditioned to see the school day in a certain way: it starts at a set time in the morning, ends at a certain time in the afternoon, and it has time for each subject—whether 40, 50, or 90 minutes. In some cases, schools adopt new types of schedules—such as block schedules—as they gain popularity. Either way, the school day is set. We mold teaching and learning to fit whatever time frame or structure we’re given.

Historically, this was our district’s approach. Our district prides itself on offering its diverse student body a variety of opportunities, including IB, Early College, and award-winning athletics. Many students are doing just fine in our traditional middle schools. But too many aren’t. The majority of our middle school students “approach” grade-level standards, but too few “meet” or “master” those standards.

“What Could We Do?” ― Changing the Perception of Time

Most of the time, discussion about time management begins and ends in the classroom. This isn’t surprising, as there’s typically a set amount of time available, a specific schedule by which to abide, and teachers must figure out how to teach all the content within that schedule.

But this is a heavy lift and teachers felt significant pressure. They need time to create and find standards-aligned lessons, analyze student work, and match instruction to student needs and strengths. In our previous schedule, our schools allocated 45-90 minutes per week for Professional Learning Communities, which was the right intent, but we found it was not the right amount of time for teachers to leave their classrooms and have meaningful conversations.

We were in a vicious cycle: wanting to better support teaching and learning, not having enough time to do so, and not having the option to add more time.

But what if we could look at time as a resource to be managed more efficiently district-wide, not just in schools and classrooms?

We were introduced to Dr. Marilyn Crawford and School by Design (SxD) in 2017—and they, in business terms, “disrupted” how we view time. Dr. Crawford prompted us to ask ourselves: Why are our middle school schedules the way they are? Our answer—“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it”—is a common one, and it wasn’t working anymore.

Instead of jumping straight to “What should we do for our middle school schedules?”, we needed to take a collective step back to take in the big picture. We had to ask, “What could we do?” (See this Harvard Business Review article for more on this idea). What are unexplored possibilities for how we can use our given resources—time, staff, students, and courses—to design schedules that maximize time for teaching and learning? Important questions to ask included:

  • What are the impacts of different base schedules on our class sizes and staffing numbers?
  • How could we align schedules across schools to fit the reality of shared staff while allowing schools to make their own schedule choices?
  • How could we balance the amount of time courses meet while finding time for teachers to plan for improved instruction?
  • How much PD time do we really need?

What We Learned About Time

We uncovered a number of ways that we could move from schedule-driven instruction to instruction-driven scheduling—without adding to our budget. With the analytics we had available through SxD, we were able to uncover hidden opportunities and we gained a new perspective. Here are just a few design decisions we explored:

  • Disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary team structures, with teachers organized by department as opposed to connecting multiple disciplines to deliver instruction;
  • Balancing the need to focus on core tested courses while giving students access to a rich variety of electives;
  • Designing supports for all students, not just special education students; and
  • Developing strong PD programs so teachers optimize the time they have to improve teaching and learning.

The scenarios didn’t give us the answers: they allowed us to uncover the numerous hidden possibilities. They set up clear choice points for our leaders and school teams to think about, play with, and decide based on what made sense for our district and individual schools.

What We Did―And Are Doing―About Time

We’ve changed how we use time, but, more importantly, we’ve fundamentally changed how we think about time. We’ve turned our annual budget cycle into continuous improvement for resource use that supports—not constrains—teaching and learning. We developed internal experts at our middle schools charged with strategic scheduling. We don’t have “school models,” but a dynamic process in which time shifts as needed and schedules change annually based on teaching and learning priorities and needs.

Going into the 2018-19 school year, here’s an example of the schedule emerging at Judson Middle School:

  • 140 minutes of STEM (Math/Science) and 140 of Humanities (ELA/Social Studies) at the beginning of each day with flex blocks that allow teachers to group and regroup students based on needs, strengths, and interests. The flexibility supports use of interdisciplinary units incorporating multiple standards and instructional strategies that require more continuous time.
  • A full professional day each week for subject area teachers across grade levels.  This provides significant time for teachers to analyze student work, develop strong lesson plans, align curriculum across grades, share instructional and classroom strategies, and contact parents.
  • While teachers are in their PD day, students take elective classes such as art, engineering or computers.
  • Grade-level conferencing time is available to plan across the curriculum.

Getting Started ― And Keeping the Momentum

We can’t give our schools more time, personnel, or money—the three things they want. But we’ve discovered ways to help them make the most of what they have. Based on what we’ve learned, here’s some advice we’d give to district leaders who want to rethink the use of time:

  • Build the capacity of staff who can connect resource data to instructional visions.
  • Provide images of responsive scheduling and give people time to think.
  • Be sure to think through scenarios and play with a range of resource options. Don’t just lock in on the first option or think that the first opportunity is “the answer.”
  • Use resource analytics as a strategic process, not a one-time event. Resource analytics propels ongoing improvement that can’t otherwise happen.
  • Be open to new discoveries―there are opportunities you may not have seen before, but working with a strategic partner can present new possibilities.

We’ve learned a new way of thinking about resources that opened up insightful opportunities to improve teaching and learning in our district without becoming bogged down in budget constraints. Working with Dr. Crawford and School by Design showed us just how much untapped potential exists when we focus on our goals and analyze how we are using all available resources to meet them. As our teachers and students will tell you, we have been able to make important changes by using resources on hand. We are free to think and act on different possibilities.

For more, see:

Horace Williams is the Assistant Superintendent of Campus Accountability for Longview Independent School District in Texas. Melanie Pondant is the district’s Director of Secondary Curriculum and Instruction. Follow the district on Twitter: @LongviewISD

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