Across our country, millions of Americans embraced President-elect Obama’s message of change. They embraced this idea because they knew America could do better. Today, Berkeley High School is also ready for change. We support the Berkeley High School Redesign Plan because it will improve academic achievement for all students by providing personalization through a student advisory program, increasing time on task in academic and elective classes, providing greater student support services, and improving teacher quality through increased opportunities for professional development. Moving to a block schedule is a fundamental component of this plan.
Recently, Berkeley’s progressive tradition drove the City of Berkeley and the Berkeley Unified School District to pass the 2020 Vision for Berkeley’s Children and Youth. Its goal is to empower all children, regardless of race, ethnicity and/or income, to achieve equitable outcomes, with no proficiency differences, by the year 2020. For too long, our educational system has not served its students as well as it should. We need to bridge the educational gulf. We cannot continue doing things the same way and expect different results.
Studies show that improving the quality of teaching is the most significant factor in improving student achievement and preparing students for college. We acknowledge that there is a range of effectiveness of teachers at Berkeley High School, but to improve teacher performance, we need strong professional training. Berkeley High teachers are like talented players on a basketball team without time to practice together and with minimal coaching. Quality professional development includes time for teachers to share and plan lessons together, learn new instructional strategies for working with diverse groups of students, develop content knowledge, and become quality student advisors. Teachers should be held accountable for quality instruction, but we must be given adequate support. This plan gives teachers the resources needed to create more engaging lessons and improve academic success for all students.
Our goal is to educate and challenge all of our students and move away from the factory model of schooling. All our students need to be prepared to succeed in college. The proposed block schedule actually resembles a college schedule since students would take a limited number of classes each day with more focus and in-depth learning. Recognizing these benefits, some of the top high schools in the nation, including Phillips Exeter Academy, Cambridge Rindge and Latin, and San Francisco’s Urban High School, use a block schedule. Moreover, all Berkeley middle schools have moved to a block schedule, so students are already familiar with this model. In our global economy, education, business and community leaders are looking for critical thinkers, problem-solvers, collaborators, communicators, and analyzers. We need a different system to develop the skills that colleges and the 21st century workplace demand.
In the current schedule, much of a teacher’s day is spent in transition; welcoming students to class, introducing a topic or activity only to hurry students out the door as we shout out that night’s homework assignment. A block schedule will allow us to cover the material in more depth due to the reduction in transitions and increased time to develop innovative teaching strategies. A daily math lesson might include a warm-up activity, lecture on a new concept, a problem-solving group activity, student presentations, and introduction to the homework. Our current schedule doesn’t allow enough time to complete this kind of lesson in one session, even though it’s the kind of lesson that works best in schools around the country and world with high math achievement.
Opponents of the Redesign Plan argue that the proposed schedule would lead to loss of instructional time. It is true, there will be some loss in instructional minutes—however, schools that have moved to a block schedule have reported an increase in time on task and in learning, which are more important than the number of minutes a student is physically sitting in a classroom. The cost-neutral Redesign Plan focuses on the quality of teaching, not the quantity. The Academic Support and Access Period will provide additional tutoring for students who are behind and opportunities for study groups for challenging Honors and Advanced Placement courses, giving students increased time in the day to get individualized support based on their needs.
Opponents also argue that bad teaching is the reason we should not change the schedule at BHS. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that there is a national teacher shortage and that about 30 percent of teachers, mostly new and highly-prepared teachers, leave BHS each year because of the lack of support and a system that does not enable teachers to grow and excel. A number of great teachers, many in their first five years, have expressed that the Redesign Plan is what it would take to keep them teaching our students at Berkeley High.
We share the belief of a diverse group of teachers at BHS that the Redesign Plan will improve the academic achievement for all our students. All students deserve individualized attention and support in meeting their academic goals and preparing for college, including a schedule and system that makes individualization possible. We should move away from a system where only some students have access to private college counselors while others have limited time to talk to a professional about their future plans.
We came into teaching because we believe education is the most important factor in creating social and economic equality. We want to make a difference with all of our students by helping them learn the mathematical thinking they’ll need to succeed in college and beyond. We LOVE what we do. As undergraduate math majors with graduate degrees from Stanford and UC Berkeley, our college peers would ask why we would “waste” our math degrees on teaching. Our response: “Who do you want teaching your children?” We are proud to teach at Berkeley High School and believe that all students deserve highly qualified and prepared teachers, personalization, and access to a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum. A Berkeley education should be nothing less than the best.
Amy Burke and Jessica Quindel are Berkeley High School math teachers and co-teacher leaders of the Math Department.