Make Scheduling More Strategic

Improving equity and outcomes without added time or staff.

Topics: Middle Level

“We just need more time!” said one principal. “We just need more staff!” said another. These are the most common responses I hear when I advise middle schools on improving school schedules. Here is what every strategic scheduler knows: Creating schedules that improve equity and student outcomes is not about adding time or staff, but instead about using both differently.

Here are three proven, practical strategies to help you make your schedule more strategic and supercharge student learning:

Prioritize and Protect Core Minutes

Every middle school principal can tell you that time spent on core instruction is important, but knowing is different from doing. One district I advised scheduled 60 minutes of math for fifth grade, and 45 minutes for sixth. You might be asking, “What’s the big deal—it’s only a 15-​minute difference, right?”

Think about it this way: A middle school student with 45-minute periods receives a total of 135 hours of math instruction per year, when—just a year earlier as an elementary student—they received a total of 180 hours of math instruction. This is the equivalent of 45 fewer days of math instruction at the middle level—all from “only” a 15-minute difference!

As you design your schedule, reserve at least 50 percent of the day for core instruction. Protect blocks of time for core as you build your schedule, which might mean capping the number of periods in a day, reducing transition times, or limiting activities such as advisory to one or two a week instead of daily. Research shows that the more time students spend on a subject with a skilled teacher, the more they learn. Any strategic schedule should prioritize core minutes for this reason.

Schedule Intervention as a Course

A popular strategy in middle school is to create an all-hands-on-deck flex block during the last period of the day for all students to, in theory, get what they need to catch up or move ahead. This is a case in which reality seldom matches good intent. Flex blocks provide extra time (a plus), but many schools struggle to use the time in a way that aligns with best practices in providing direct, high-quality instruction focused on foundational skills.

A better, more strategic option is to create content-specific intervention courses to which students are assigned based on need, typically on a quarterly basis. Each course should be taught by a content-strong teacher, with a course code and a grade attached to it.

Achieving this might mean investing less staffing in co-​teaching (which does not provide actual extra learning time for students), or moving away from “double-blocking” a subject such as English Language Arts (ELA) to give all students two periods of ELA instruction (which can be unproductive for students who are not struggling).

Equity demands that every student gets what they need, even when some students need more of something than others. Providing extra-time intervention to students via structured, content-specific courses instead of relying on ad hoc supports during a flex block is a way to accomplish this.

Offer Voice and Choice

Knowing students’ interests and creating opportunities in the schedule to give them the voice and choice needed to pursue those interests in middle school is one of the best ways to build student engagement and supercharge any schedule.

Student voice means students get the opportunity to determine what non-core course options are available. How can you incorporate voice into the schedule? Ask students what they want! Survey them to learn what classes or units they enjoy the most or what interests them outside school. Their responses can help inform what new classes or units to offer or what classes or units might be sunsetted.

Student choice, by comparison, means giving students the opportunity to choose from a set of course options for certain non-core subjects. Two common approaches are:

Bounded choice. Students are required to take classes in certain subjects, but they can choose which they take. For example, a student might be required to take an art class, but they can choose from watercolors, digital art, or art as social protest.

Scaled choice. Allow students to experience more choice as they progress through middle school. Students may rotate through a required set of exploratory classes in sixth grade, for example, while in eighth grade they can choose to go deeper into selected subjects.

To help facilitate either level of choice, consider running mixed-grade non-core classes.

Strategic scheduling is about using time and staff better, not more of either or both. Consider the strategies outlined above to increase your school’s commitment to providing students equitable access to an engaging and rigorous middle school experience.

David James is managing director of New Solutions K12 and a former middle school administrator.