When parents convinced state officials to investigate instructional time at Portland Public Schools, it raised doubts about high school “block” schedules across the metro area.
The state’s largest district says students get enough instruction overall — but Portland officials concede that individual courses don’t meet for enough hours. That’s a problem that also appears to plague high school schedules, beyond Portland’s borders.
Portland’s schedule is built on 90 minute blocks: four periods on one day, four different class periods, the next. Students are seldom in class all that time, and since the schedule started three years ago, parents have complained about the long stretches of free time.
Lincoln High math teacher Chuck Slusher sees good and bad.
“It gives you a 90-minute period that you can have students be more reflective and thoughtful about the work they’re doing. The pace is better. But the drawback is, there’s not as much instructional time over the course of the year,” Slusher says.
That lack of instructional time is at the heart of a complaint Portland parents filed with the state recently.
School administrators contend the exact amount of time spent in a classroom matters less than what students are learning.
Teachers at Portland’s Lincoln High argue it’s hard to separate the two.
Fred Fox’s 20th century history class blends lecture, writing, and discussion, in one period. He says it’s hard to cover everything.
“They’re being asked to do too much, in too short of a time,” according to Fox.
Teachers say they’re compensating by increasing work outside school.
Math teacher, Chuck Slusher, says it’s hard even on the best students.
“They manage — they can take care of themselves, academically. But it comes at a price, for sure. I really see them stressed out and exhausted,” Slusher explained.
Lincoln High offers the International Baccalaureate for its highest achieving kids. Slusher says IB standards have gone up, time has gotten tighter — and it’s making IB too tough for some.
“I think there are probably some kids who traditionally might have been ‘full IB’ students, that choose not to, because, they see how difficult it is - and part of the difficulty is just, I think, the lack of instruction time.”
But Slusher says the compressed schedule falls hardest on students who are falling behind. Slusher’s colleague in social studies, Fred Fox, agrees.
“The lower-performing students are the students who struggle the most, because we have to keep moving forward, and if they get behind, they don’t have the skills and the experience to get caught back up.”
State regulations call for high school classes to offer 130 hours of instruction.
State officials are now investigating whether Portland’s high school schedule meets that requirement.
The district hasn’t offered an official response yet, but here’s a preview from spokesman Robb Cowie.
“We do acknowledge that currently, classes at most of our high schools are not meeting the 130 hours, as defined in the state rules,” Cowie said.
Cowie says the district responded to parents’ concerns before the complaint. They added high school teachers, this year, for instance.
Parent Tracy Barton says the district has made progress, but not enough.
“We felt that the pace of acceleration just really had to increase. And that’s why we went to the state,” Barton says.
The district emailed the state last month, suggesting that 130 hours was more of an “option” than a requirement.
But in an email to OPB, Oregon’s Department of Education said the 130 hours are an option that a district “must offer students.”
The rule raises questions for more than Portland’s high schools.
Susan Stark Haydon is with the Tigard-Tualatin schools.
“When we did the calculations, it looks like we fall short,” she says.
John Bridges supervises accountability for Beaverton schools.
“Some of our schools that are on the block schedule, or alternative schedule, don’t meet that 130 clock hour requirement,” Bridges admits.
He says Beaverton reaches the time requirement, in some cases, with what students do outside class.
“We’ve had teachers document how they are meeting the 130 hours, even though a student’s rump is not necessarily in the desk in the classroom for 130 hours. So, there are outside learning activities like music performances, or homework, or coming to the see the teachers during tutorial period,” Bridges said.
Incorporating homework makes some sense to teachers at Portland’s Lincoln High.
Math teacher Chuck Slusher often assigns instructional videos outside class, and reserves class time for students to work on problems. It means Slusher often floats desk-to-desk, checking student work.
But Slusher says class time is essential for struggling students to get the help they need. And it’s not clear that state or IB officials view instruction outside class as counting toward time requirements.
Portland administrators are focusing now on adding school days to help reach 130 hours. It’s part of bargaining with the teachers union.
The district hopes to announce soon possible schedule changes for next fall. Moving away from blocks altogether is one idea.
History teacher Fred Fox says he’d like to see days added to the beginning of the school year. He says adding days in June doesn’t help students as they prepare for high-stakes tests in May — like IB exams and new state assessments coming next year.