Public Comment

A More Personalized Education is Good for All Students

By Carol Lashof
Thursday December 04, 2008 - 09:57:00 AM

On Dec. 9 the Shared Governance Council at Berkeley High will consider a proposal for restructuring the high school. The redesign plan includes an alternating block schedule with four 80- or 90-minute class periods a day, a 30-minute advising period twice a week, and a daily “Academic Support and Community Access Period” for most students. The goal of the plan is to increase personalization. If it is approved by Shared Governance, the proposal will move to the School Board for consideration. 

As noted in the Daily Planet of Nov. 26, reactions to the proposal have been mixed. Most parents and teachers acknowledge the value of advisories and of additional academic support time for at-risk students, but many also worry that the proposed restructuring will take opportunities away from successful students. As a parent of two high-achieving daughters (BHS ’05 and BHS ’09), I believe, on the contrary, that the redesign would be a great boon for all our students, including the highest achievers. 

Admittedly, the schedule change, in order to increase teacher-preparation and professional development time, significantly reduces the time students will spend receiving instruction. If the district could afford to hire additional teachers or compensate teachers monetarily for working a longer day, then perhaps this reduction could be avoided. Unfortunately, we can’t afford it. And we cannot ask the faculty to take on new responsibilities and adapt to a new schedule without giving them the resources to do the job right.  

Fortunately, reducing the time teachers spend delivering curriculum to a classroom full of students does not necessarily reduce the time students spend learning the curriculum.  

An alternating block schedule would allow students to spend more time on each subject on a given day and to experience fewer transitions, thus giving them more opportunity to absorb what they have learned. A flexible support/access period—in which students could study or tutor, take an extra class, participate in science labs or orchestra rehearsals, or pursue internships and community service—would make it easier for students to manage demanding course-loads and extracurricular activities. For example, students in AP science courses are typically required to attend two to three labs per week in either zero or 7th period; attendance at 7:30 a.m. labs is notoriously low and many students cannot attend afternoon labs because of sports or other after-school commitments. Moving these labs into the school day would surely boost attendance and therefore achievement. In addition, students in many AP and Honors classes are required to put in a certain number of hours each quarter tutoring their peers, which typically results in a mad rush at the end of the grading period as would-be tutors try to squeeze out time from their numerous other activities and find tutees in want of tutoring. Often they end up exchanging “tutoring” with their friends. This well-intentioned requirement becomes a pointless exercise. With a flexible period in the school day, advanced students could work in lower-level classes under a teacher’s supervision and provide meaningful assistance. Both high-achievers and struggling students would benefit. 

Perhaps most important, the opportunity to structure some part of their school day to meet their own needs would better prepare students to take responsibility for their education as they will have to do in college. A typical BHS student now spends 1,650 minutes in the classroom every week, exclusive of zero and 7th period classes. A typical college student spends significantly less than half that time receiving instruction from a teacher, about 750 minutes per week, and the collegiate academic year is typically several weeks shorter than the K-12 school year. Our children go from being heavily scheduled and monitored all day in high school to needing to make their own choices in college. No wonder so many college freshmen report that their greatest challenge is learning to manage their time. 

Since advisories are primarily designed to promote a college-going culture, some parents wonder whether they would have any value for the many students who are already immersed in such a culture. I believe they would. By participating in a heterogeneous community; learning about the many options available for higher education; and exploring their own goals, talents, and interests; students could gain valuable perspectives not only on the college search process but on the educational journey itself. One needs to look no further than the Berkeley High Jacket to see how urgently cultural transformation is needed. In the November 21 issue, Kasimir Brotz, discussing the college admissions process, writes: “No one really has to take five AP classes in subjects they aren’t even interested in [. . .] do they? But they do, because any edge, anything that makes you look impressive or a cut above the rest is something you should be doing—have to be doing—because how else are you going to get into Harvard?” In the same issue, Luke Davis reports that many students see cheating as necessary and worthwhile. He quotes an anonymous sophomore as saying, “with all the pressure that is put on students today to succeed and get good grades, it’s hard not to cheat.” In short, many of our students have come to believe that success means good grades in AP classes, whatever the personal cost and regardless of whether the grade reflects genuine engagement with and mastery of the subject. We owe it to them to challenge this self-destructive belief. Advisories could provide a means to do so. 

So, yes, we need to restructure Berkeley High to boost achievement among low-income and minority students. But high-achieving students need a more personal and flexible education too and they too will be helped by the redesign. Some school leaders have protested that there is not enough time and not enough money to implement the proposal. Maybe not. But there never will be. So we had better get started now and do the best we can—for the sake of all our students.  


Carol Lashof is a Berkeley parent.