The Chinese Fire Drill

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Seven Period Day: A Myth of Productivity

Two years ago, my high school was the only one in our county that still used the antiquated seven-period day.  At the time, I assumed that it was only a matter of time before we joined the rest of our county and moved forward into the next century.

Then our governor changed the funding formula for all of the state's public schools.

Then the economy imploded.

During the first two waves of budget gloom, most of those county rivals have reverted BACK to a traditional, seven-period day.  In the newspaper reports covering the board meetings, the trustees tossed around the same, tired arguments in support of the switch-back: namely that students would get more day-to-day attention with their teachers, and that a regular routine would consequently improve both many of the social problems in the hallways and most importantly improve (you guessed it) test scores.  What they begrudgingly  mentioned, because they didn't want to be called out on their posturing, was that it was also going to be a LOT more cheap (which I mean in every sense of the word).

If my kid is in grade school or middle school (or if he's in high school and he still needs diapers), then I suppose a rigid, daily routine makes a lot of sense.  But I can never understand why our school (and most public schools for that matter) always adopt this "if it's good enough for the little kids..." attitude when it comes to high school, specifically upperclassmen.  Juniors and seniors don't need daily monitoring and hand-holding.  They need only the few classes left on their docket prior to graduation, and then they need to be left alone.  If they can manage their down time well by working or studying, great.  If they can't, then it's better to let them fail and learn the hard lessons now rather than AFTER they've ponied up thousands for tuition, room, and board only to be trapped by their own impulsiveness.

Of course, at the high school level, we can make efforts to show and teach these students how to manage that free time.  We can expand and modernize our libraries and study areas so that students can learn to complete papers and research on their large chunks of down time.  In other words, we can teach them to work independently.  We can also expand and modernize our cafeterias and make them resemble the dining areas in many college quadrangles, but if zealous administrators get carried away with this "training" and simply swap a traditional version of the full-day docket for a modified version, then forget it.

The bottom line is that most of us learn from failure...period.

Besides poorly preparing college freshmen for the impact of life in the college setting, the seven-period day is largely responsible for these major flaws in public education as well:

First, at many high schools, kids like to call the "down" days, "free days."  The term is an anathema to many of us...the very idea of taking a day off to sit and play on the computer is both unprofessional and improper.  But it happens all the time, and I am certainly NOT among the innocent, either.  In my case, I have to take days off to grade.  As I pointed out in an October post that has apparently become my flagship article, grading "real" college-prep papers takes an enormous amount of time.  I simply can't go home, clean and cook and then clean again, do the laundry, take care of my children's needs, and complete three hours of grading every night.  On a good night, I can run over the local college library, get away from home distractions, and complete maybe two hours' worth of work.  Most nights, however, aren't conducive to that.  Most nights are chaotic.

Secondly, as a result, most teachers don't make their students write.  Simply put, they have no positive motive to do so.  If they do assign large amounts of writing (as some of us do), they fall behind and find themselves facing the heat from students who want their papers back, parents who want their children's grades updated, and administrators who just want the heat off their backs.

Finally, facing such pressures, most teachers rely on "easy to grade" assignments and busy-work activities that are more designed to kill time than actually teach anything.  Remember the push a couple decades ago toward "Cooperative Learning"?  Group Work, as we eventually called it.  While the motives behind its creation may have been altruistic and noble, the reality is that it's mostly used as time-killer.  It's a classic case of "I've got way too much to get done, and I've had zero time to plan anything to do today."  I saw how it was used before my career began.  When I was observing a high school classroom as a college student, one full time teacher put his class in small groups, had them write short paragraphs, and turn them in at the end of the period while he worked on a grant he was required to complete.  Once the students left the room for seventh period, he took the stack of freshly collected papers and threw them in the trash.

Worksheets, book questions, multiple-choice tests...all of those "activities" have one ulterior goal in mind: survival.  Besides the poor assignment quality, most teachers struggle to develop and implement clever and creative lesson plans that would inspire young people and encourage learning.  For one thing, the current climate toward "data-driven education" doesn't allow for much risk-taking.  Furthermore, as the broken record keeps saying, there is simply no time.

The seven period day simply doesn't give most teachers time to assign and grade the quality assignments that students will face in college, and does nothing to encourage creative and thought-provoking lesson plans.  It should be little surprise that many students, therefore, often claim that high school did virtually nothing to prepare them for a post-secondary education.

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