Making School Scheduling More Strategic
A task often left to an assistant principal would benefit from collective attention and expertise
BY NATHAN LEVENSON/School Administrator, May 2018

Nathan Levenson (standing), managing director of District Management Group, presents on strategies school districts use to build student-centered schedules.
"I love our schools’ schedules! They are a powerful lever for helping students and teachers alike.” In hundreds of conversations with superintendents and principals across the country I have seldom heard people get this excited about their school day and school year schedules. Far more common are the laments along the lines of “The schedule doesn’t allow for …” and “There just isn’t enough time in the day for .…” Most school schedules operate as uncomfortable compromises between undesirable tradeoffs.

Despite the complexity of creating school schedules, the task is often left to principals or assistant principals to do the best they can. This contrasts dramatically with how school districts manage their other scarce resource: money. Operating budgets are built strategically, involving collective wisdom to link spending to priorities over dozens of meetings while corralling much expertise along the way. Treating schedule creation as strategically important, as building the budget is treated, can lead to schedules that are worthy of awe and appreciation.

Guiding Priorities
Making scheduling a strategic effort has three key measures.

» School and district priorities must guide the work.
Actually having a rank-ordered, written list of what matters most helps guide the inevitable tradeoffs. In elementary schools, for example, is common planning time, daily intervention or the elimination of student pullouts during core instruction most important?

What’s not on the list sends an important message as well. Few discussions of what matters most include maintaining last year’s special rotations or offering art on Tuesdays; yet in observing many dozens of principals build their schools’ schedules, the specials — typically art, music and physical education — often trump nearly all else.

At the secondary level, the form of the schedule, not the substance, sometimes gets too much attention. Questions about switching to a block schedule or dropping the block schedule or deciding between seven periods or eight are sometimes treated as strategically important. Research says they are not. What is scheduled matters much more than the configuration of the periods.

» Scheduling should be a joint effort between central-office leaders and school-based leaders.
This is not a vote for or against site-based management but a nod to the reality that only district leaders have the clout to remove some obstacles that prevent school-based staff from building great schedules.

What seems an insurmountable obstacle at the school level can be overcome easily by the central office. One principal I worked with was disappointed that she couldn’t have daily grade-level intervention periods that allowed students to be grouped by like needs across multiple classrooms. Building a robust intervention program was a top priority, but the schedule just didn’t allow it. When probed why, she responded, “My PE teacher comes at the wrong time, so does my speech therapist and the requirement for morning meeting — all of these get in the way.”

While the principal had to schedule around these constraints, the assistant superintendent easily made the necessary changes to the schedules of the shared staff and gave permission to shorten morning meeting. “It’s a miracle,” the principal said, looking over the new schedule, but actually it was just cross-level teamwork.

» Phase changes in over a few years.
Most people appreciate the familiarity of routine. Teachers are no different.

Having watched many schools consider changing their schedules to better meet student needs, what often has gotten in the way is over-respecting or under-respecting history. Big changes, announced on short notice, can lead to huge pushback and the abandonment of promising plans. Sometimes just the fear of pushback leads to principals self-censoring great ideas.

One school district found a thoughtful middle ground as it revamped the high school schedule. Collectively, the district staff set priorities and drafted the best possible schedule assuming none already existed. They then mapped a multiyear phase-in, starting some changes immediately, others in a year and still other aspects a few years out. Treating scheduling as a multiyear plan allowed time for folks to adjust, time for working out the details and ultimately allowed for bolder change.

Leveraging Benefits
While the three ideas above apply to all types of school schedules, three others, in particular, represent common, high-leverage opportunities.

» Elementary master schedules can support best literacy practices.
Many districts place a high priority on early literacy, but based on reviews of school schedules from nearly 100 districts, it seems most elementary schedules unintentionally undermine some best practices by interrupting reading blocks, limiting intervention time and pulling students from core reading instruction for other services (at the cost of core instruction).

Few schools like these deviations from best practice, but they believe they are unavoidable. Fortunately, nearly every school can achieve 100 percent of the best practices promoted by the What Works Clearinghouse and the National Reading Panel with no added cost and without a longer school day.

A tale of two schools in Arlington, Mass., was eye-opening for me. One school had it all. Common planning time, uninterrupted reading blocks, daily intervention and special education services and English language learning pullout that didn’t disrupt core reading and math. The school leader conducted regularly scheduled data team meetings.

A similar school in the community wanted all this but didn’t have enough staff, time or classrooms to make it work. The surprise, however, was that these two schools were actually the same school, just a year apart. Nothing had changed except an expert scheduler helped create the schedule one year and the building principal created the other.

» Proactively planned staff schedules can expand the reach of social, emotional and behavioral supports.
Virtually every district is struggling with increased needs for social, emotional and behavioral supports, and few budgets can afford a significant increase in staffing to address the challenge.

Proactive and collaborative staff scheduling can help. Turns out that most social workers, school psychologists, counselors and behaviorists make their own schedules — neither to their benefit nor their students’. A review by my firm, District Management Group, of nearly 30,000 staff schedules from approximately 100 school districts found these highly skilled and talented staff spend the majority of their week in meetings or doing paperwork rather than working with students.

On average, social workers spend less than a one-third of their day with students, the study revealed. By building schedules as a team and helping to streamline meetings and paperwork, some staff can double their contact time with students without lengthening their work week. In one Connecticut district, school psychologists were able to more than double their time counseling students by asking one question over and over: “Would students be better served if this meeting, assessment or report was shortened a bit so that I can have more time to be with students?” They were able to maintain 100 percent compliance and do more of what they love most — helping students.

» Align high school schedules to support 21st-century visions.
High schools nationwide are being reimagined, but their schedules aren’t always changing as fast as their vision. Many schools are prioritizing personalized learning, externships, dual-credit courses, electives covering a wider range of student interests and daily interventions for students who struggle.

These new concepts need new schedules and even a new definition of what is a schedule. Should online classes and independent study even be assigned a classroom, a period and a teacher? In many schools, policy and scheduling practices say yes. One high school I visited assigned students to study halls because the online classrooms were full. Few saw the irony that this course could be taken anywhere, any time. Their policy requires a teacher to be assigned to all credit-bearing courses, and their practice required students to be in the classroom of the teacher of record.

As the student day interacts more with the outside world, including nearby universities and local business and industry, some longstanding K-12 practices are creating friction for the outside partners. When one district tried to arrange externships for its students, many willing partners declined because the school’s six-day rotating schedule meant that students would come on a different time each day and a different day each week, which played havoc meshing with the partners’ weekday 9 to 5 schedule.

Gaining Interest
The good news is that more and more school and district leaders are thinking strategically about scheduling. I have been heartened to see school systems setting non-negotiable expectations for school schedules such as no pullouts during core instruction in reading or math or requiring high school schedules to find time and staff for interventions for all students who need them first rather than shoehorning in as much as the leftover spots in the schedule allow.

Some districts, even very large ones, have conducted top-to-bottom reviews of current schedules to compare and contrast what they have to what they want. This has been a powerful catalyst for change.

The other encouraging trend is more districts are shifting scheduling to a “team sport,” bringing together principals who share staff and school-based staff who share students to schedule collectively, at the same time in the same place, for greater coordination.

But the greatest reason for optimism is seeing the increased achievement and expansion of services that more strategic schedules are making possible.

NATHAN LEVENSON, a former superintendent, is managing director at District Management Group in Boston, Mass.