Most of the next class of ninth graders spent half of their middle school lives in an altered educational environment. And, as a result of the pandemic, many tenth and eleventh graders will need extra support to graduate on time.
That’s why the time is now to adjust practices that work better for students and for teachers — beginning in ninth grade. Recent data from the Center for High School Success makes it clear that ninth grade students with fewer courses to manage during each term stay on track at significantly higher rates.
The “9th Grade On Track” rate captures and reflects this phenomenon. A ninth grader is considered to be on track for high school graduation after completing one quarter of the credits needed and not failing more than one class. Students are four times more likely to graduate from high school if they are on track in their freshman year. But ninth graders are also three to five times more likely to fail a course than students at any other grade level, and students across all achievement levels experience a decline in their grade point average from eighth to ninth grade.
The reasons? Students in ninth grade are less well known and supported by adults, they feel overwhelmed by the number of transitions they must make daily, and they are unable to effectively manage the increase in their course schedules once they get to high school — partly because of their underdeveloped executive functioning capacities.
At the Center for High School Success, a program of Stand for Children, we work with 155 high schools in six states. An analysis of the performance of ninth graders in our partner schools this pandemic year, when many schools adjusted their schedules, surfaced this striking but not surprising result: Schools that have changed their schedules from eight 45-minute classes per day over two semesters to four 90-minute courses per day over four quarters saw significant differences in their 9th Grade On Track rates.
Switching to a so-called 4×4 schedule allows students to earn a semester’s worth of credits per course each quarter. By reducing the number of courses per day and increasing the length of each class, students and teachers have more manageable schedules, fewer transitions, more opportunities to build authentic relationships and the ability to cover course content in greater depth.
One school in our network, Poudre High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, decided to make the switch to a 4×4 schedule this year because they were looking for ways to make remote learning more successful for students, especially the incoming ninth graders. The staff wanted to find a way to help kids focus and reduce the number of transitions. They implemented the new schedule, and they’re not going back to the old ways this fall. Kathy Mackay, the principal of Poudre High School, said this about the response she got after adopting the 4×4 schedule: “In our surveys of teachers, students and families, there were themes that came up. Like, most of our teachers really liked the block [the 90-minute classes]. I think it felt like a more manageable workload in terms of grading and things like that. The bulk of our students liked it because it was a more manageable caseload, and teachers were able to develop relationships with kids a lot quicker, so they loved it.”
The time is now to adjust practices that work better for students and for teachers — beginning in ninth grade.
We analyzed ninth grade performance data from 76 partner schools across Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington, and our data showed that students in 4×4 schools had 9th Grade On Track rates 11 points higher than their counterparts at non-4×4 schools. This trend was observed in both high-poverty and low-poverty schools.
It was also noteworthy that the substantial 9th Grade On Track performance difference between 4×4 and non-4×4 schools and students applied for all racial groups as well as for English language learners (66 percent to 45 percent), special education students (70 percent to 55 percent) and students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (75 percent to 55 percent).
Finally, we found that the performance difference applied to other indicators of success. Schools that followed a 4×4 schedule on average had a higher proportion of students with above 91 percent attendance and a higher proportion of students with a 3.0 or better grade-point average.
These outcomes are consistent with research that points to the positive impact of block scheduling on grades, improved student-teacher interactions, reduced disciplinary issues and positive teacher perceptions.
Creating a 4×4 schedule is more than a technical change. Ongoing professional development is essential, especially in how to use the longer periods effectively. In addition, modifications have to be made to accommodate students taking dual-credit courses.
Overall, the substantial benefits we saw from 4×4 scheduling across a large number of high schools, coupled with previous block scheduling research and adolescent brain development, strongly argue for more widespread 4×4 scheduling. This form of scheduling stands out as one of the most effective pandemic adaptations, and it should become part of the post-pandemic new normal. It’s an important, doable way for schools to reduce students’ cognitive loads, support their emotional well-being, give them more individualized attention and help them stay on track. We hope our recent results will guide the scheduling decisions of every school administrator across the country as they prepare for a strong return from the pandemic.
Kaaren Andrews and Habib Bangura are leaders at Stand for Children’s Center for High School Success.
This story about 4×4 scheduling was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.