I work at the Urban School of San Francisco. I have much experience in the block schedule (many years). In this message, I will answer some of the questions that have been asked about block scheduling, and comment on some of the statements that have been made. In the following one, I will re-post a description of our schedule and some comments on it.
> Can the students process as much material in a semester in block > as could be processed i n the typical yearly schedule?
The answer is yes, in one sense, since our students end up going to many competitive colleges and function well there. However, to be honest, our goals are not to "process" large quantities of material. You have to decide to cover less, but more in depth. This is a bit of a problem for our AP classes because of teaching to an outside test. But otherwise, it provides the kids with a much more thoughtful education.
It is of course easier to do projects and labs in the block system. This in turn has substantial advantages from the point of view of motivation.
> what works best may depend on the course content, the > audience, and the teaching style
Unfortunately, schools cannot easily have blocks for some teachers and courses, and traditional periods for others. So it becomes imperative to evaluate this question as a policy decision for the whole school. Such an evaluation is difficult to do objectively, since teachers always tend to favor the status quo -- it's a lot easier to continue teaching in the format you are accustomed to.
Of course, the question in the end is not what is best for the teacher, but what is best for the student. But to make any changes, teachers have to agree. At my school, schedule changes are discussed by the curriculum committee and approved (or not) by vote of the faculty. Using schedule changes to force teachers to do things is a real loser.
> Science and art teachers wanted to institute it > wholesale. Foreign language teachers were the most resistant
There is no doubt that block scheduling works very well for science and art. At my school, foreign language teachers feel that shortening the period from 75 to 70 minutes, which we did last year, was a big loss. Their feeling is that long periods contribute to immersion in the language. (Our language courses include much conversation.) For history and english, in addition to discussions, they are able to do in-class writing, watch movies and discuss them, and so on. For math, we can do both group work and whole-class discussions in a typical day, and many more labs with manipulatives or technology than we would in a traditional schedule.
> The difficulty, for everyone, was in the lowest ability classes.
I cannot comment on this based on my own experience, since our classes are not tracked. But I have heard good things about double-period algebra classes for lower tracks in Texas. It's entirely a question of how you use the longer period, which gives you the opportunity to bore the kids for longer with lectures and drills, or the opportunity to get them engaged with lessons involving cooperative learning and labs.
Specifics of the Urban School schedule in next message.