Strategies for mastering school schedules
As a math teacher at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, Sheldon Vleck didn’t give much thought to the master schedule.
“I never saw it. The only thing I’d see were kids sitting in front of me,” he says. “You’d take a look at a kid and say, ‘Well, this kid is really good. How come he isn’t in the honors class?’”
It was only when Vleck became the school’s master scheduler that he first appreciated the intricacies involved. With 2,100 students, Truman is one of the larger public schools in New York City, and Vleck now had to put students into the courses they needed to graduate.
The master schedule represents an important but underappreciated system that determines what students learn, who they learn from and who they learn with. It even determines if they make it to graduation.
SIDEBAR: Student-centered scheduling
Typically, the process goes something like this: Students request courses, but they may not know which courses they need. Counselors also pick courses, but they may have hundreds of students to support. Requests get loaded into scheduling software, along with teacher availability and other constraints.
You press a button and, voilà, the computer generates a schedule that tries to give students what they asked for—or at least a seat in a classroom for every period.
But believers in the power of the master schedule say it’s not just a logistical puzzle. As a means of improving outcomes for students and of promoting equity, it rivals instruction or school culture in importance.
Commitment to convenience?
“The master schedule is not just a time management system, it’s a belief system,” says Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, an advocacy organization for underserved students. Chenoweth, who also wrote Schools That Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement, says schedules should be based on what’s best for students, not what’s most convenient.
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: List of master scheduling software providers
(When her own child’s school switched to a block schedule, the principal told her it was meant to cut down on the number of times students were in the hallways. “That’s not a commitment to student success; that’s a commitment to adult convenience,” she says.)
In Schools That Succeed, Chenoweth writes about a low-performing high school in Los Angeles County with so many low-level math courses that some students waited four years to take algebra. A new principal took one look at the master schedule and eliminated those low-level courses, sending everyone straight to algebra and offering plenty of support classes and after-school tutoring.
Today, Chenoweth says, more of the school’s students pass algebra, graduate high school and attend college.
“It’s not just the master schedule, but that system underlying the instruction has to be in place in order for instruction to come through,” Chenoweth says.
In the Bronx, Vleck quickly found that one of his biggest problems was that his software created the teachers’ schedule first. Then it tried to fit in student requests, leaving hundreds of students with incomplete schedules.
About four years ago, he switched to a program developed by USA Scheduler that builds teacher and student schedules simultaneously, with a much higher success rate.
According to data from the New York State Education Department, Truman’s graduation rate rose 10 percentage points from 2014 to 2017—an improvement that Vleck attributes partly to better scheduling.
In the summer of 2017, Cheryl Hibbeln was hard at work on the master schedule for a 2,200-student high school in San Diego. Hibbeln, executive director of secondary schools at San Diego USD, had seen things in the schedule that gave her pause.
For example, English learners were assigned to French classes instead of English classes. There were many PE classes with only 10 students. Ninth-graders were assigned to a less rigorous earth sciences course based on their performance in middle school math, instead of being assigned to a more rigorous physics course and given extra help in math.
To Hibbeln, these weren’t minor oddities but decisions that could do lasting harm to students. The last example—putting students into classes based on what they can’t do, instead of what they could do—might determine their acceptance into a four-year college.
“So the moment in ninth grade that that decision was made about them, it changed their whole life,” Hibbeln says.
In her master schedule, students who weren’t reading at grade level were placed in small classes at the beginning of the day with the most effective teachers. She put students who were in one advanced course into two or three more; created a math class taught in Spanish for native Spanish speakers; and found time for teacher collaboration.
But it wasn’t easy. Hibbeln poured over data, moving in and out of various computer programs. “I was questioning whether I wanted to stay in my job any longer—hand scheduling this school,” she jokes.
It was around that time that the district started working with the software company Abl, which creates master schedules based on school goals, such as maximizing co-teaching or creating small learning communities. The software also allows users to zoom in to see the placement of certain courses within the school day.
San Diego piloted Abl’s software in two schools during the 2017-18 school year. At Roosevelt International Middle School, Principal Christina Casillas set out to create more diverse class rosters and to reverse the unintended tracking of English learners and students with IEPs.
She also wanted to add more opportunities for intervention, to build in more time for teacher collaboration and to expose all students to rigorous coursework—not just those already identified as gifted and talented.
The changes did not require the hiring of new staff.
Casillas says Roosevelt’s 2018-19 master schedule reflects all these goals.
“If we’re all about closing the achievement gap, we have to look at the opportunity and access gaps in order to ensure there’s opportunity, access and equity for each and every student,” she says.
‘I can’t waste one moment’
Intentional scheduling isn’t just for middle and high schools.
Ashanti Foster, a former middle school assistant principal, knew the puzzle of master scheduling when she became principal at Thomas Stone Elementary School in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.
She turned scheduling into a tool to create learning environments that meet individual students’ needs and to coordinate classroom instruction to make better use of resources.
In her first year, she moved teacher collaboration time—when teachers can get together to plan lessons, to analyze student data and to receive professional development—from after school to during the school day. To make time for it, students get an extra specials block.
For the 2018-19 school year, she staggered reading time in classrooms so that reading specialists don’t have to be in two places at once.
And to address behavioral problems, she added conflict management classes to the school’s specials rotation, in addition to art, music and PE. This led to a significant decrease in suspensions, she says.
Foster also weighs in on class rosters, considering which students can learn together without distractions, and which teacher teams would be most effective.
In second through fifth grade, Thomas Stone Elementary School’s teachers work in pairs, with one teaching reading and social studies, and the other teaching math and science.
“The pairings are crucial, and the whole grade-level mix is crucial because if two teachers are oil and water, there’s no need to give them that hour of collaborative planning because they’re going to sit there and not get along,” Foster says.
“I only have a 180 days to get it right, and so I can’t waste one moment.”
Abby Spegman is a freelance writer based in Washington.