Middle School Schedule Change Provokes Strong Reactions
The Central Bucks School District superintendent and head of the teachers' union weigh in on what the changes mean for students and staff.
When the last round of PSSA scores came out, Dr. Robert Laws gave his administrators a task.
“I said, ‘Find the districts that scored better than us, and tell me why,’ ” the Central Bucks School District superintendent said Wednesday.
Not many districts scored higher than Central Bucks, one of the top-performing districts in the state. In those that did, though, Laws said, the difference was clear.
“The districts that out-performed us have longer middle-school periods than we do,” Laws told DoylestownPatch. “Hatboro Horsham has 90-minute middle school classes, and they scored better than us in math.”
Central Bucks already had been discussing the idea of lengthening the time middle school students spend in class, Laws said. The district made the change official at last week’s school board meeting.
Starting in the fall, CB middle school students will take six classes instead of seven, and each class will last 56 minutes rather than the current 46 minutes, Dr. Nancy Silvious said. She is the district’s assistant superintendent for secondary education.
The changes follow similar changes made about 15 years ago at the high school level, when the number of classes was reduced so the classes themselves could be lengthened. The move has proven resoundingly successful, Laws said.
“One of the international criticisms of the U.S. curriculum is that it’s a mile wide and an inch deep,” Laws said Wednesday. “Our block scheduling has shown that when we are able to do things in depth, our students benefit. SAT scores have risen every year since the beginning of block scheduling. And feedback from teachers and students is overwhelmingly positive.”
The teachers' union, though, is watching the move warily.
Keith Sinn, a science teacher at CB East and head of the district’s teachers’ union, said the new schedule likely will reduce demand for certain classes, thereby leading to layoffs.
“Obviously, we’re very concerned about the loss of talented teachers and the changes in the program and the opportunities offered to our students,” Sinn said Wednesday.
Implications for Art and Music
When the new schedule was announced last week, parents and the community immediately had questions. What would this mean for electives, like art and music? Some wondered if it was the first step toward eliminating those programs.
Silvious, though, said the new schedule actually allows students to take more art or music, if they want.
Under the current system, all middle school students are cycled through special subjects, Silvious said. Each quarter, they must take a different special subject, including art, music, physical education and health, computer applications, tech ed (industrial arts) and family and consumer science (home economics).
Now, the subjects truly will be elective, the administrators said.
“Music is a winner in this plan, a big winner,” Laws said. “Let’s say I’m in 8th grade. In today’s schedule, I was forced to take a quarter of family and consumer science. Now, I can take another quarter of music. I can focus on the area I want. It’s all about choice. If you want to declare yourself in art, you can take more art, or more family and consumer science if you want to be Paula Deen.”
But Sinn argued that narrowing a child’s focus too early restricts his opportunity to explore subjects he doesn’t even know that he likes yet.
“I have a daughter in middle school at Lenape, so this isn’t theoretical to me,” Sinn said.
“Sixth graders are going to have to decide, do I want to focus on art, or do I want to focus on music?" he said. "It’s early specialization at an age where you should have them exploring their interests and talents. I think that that’s a concern.”
Others shared that concern.
“Cutting down on electives doesn't improve education,” one woman wrote on our Facebook page. “It just narrows it.”
Does This Mean Layoffs?
Teachers had questions about the new schedule, too. Fewer classes might mean fewer teachers. Were some of them going to lose their jobs?
Laws said Wednesday that the district is eliminating only one course offering – computer applications.
The subject has become redundant in a district where elementary students learn to use PowerPoint and do word processing, Laws said. Skills previously taught in computer applications will be folded into other classes, he said.
The seven or eight teachers who teach computer applications will be reassigned, based on seniority, to other subjects, Laws said. Some may be furloughed – laid off, with the possibility of being recalled if a position opens up.
The superintendent denied that cost savings was the main impetus for the schedule change.
“There’s been a lot of talk that this was done for economic reasons. I can assure you this was not the reason,” Laws said. “Although, everything we do today, we look at from an economic perspective. Why do we do that? Because every year, I’m looking at making up $10 million just to get to the base point.”
Besides the computer applications teachers, Sinn said it is unclear which other special subject teachers might be let go. They won’t have a better idea of that until kids start requesting classes this spring.
“Teachers are notified, usually later in the spring, what their teaching assignments will be,” Sinn said. “But if we’re going from five major (classes) and two specials to five majors and one special, I would imagine that will create a reduction in staff.”
Protecting the Core
As the amount of revenue coming in to the district in recent years has fallen, Central Bucks administrators and board members have started talking about “protecting the core” - focusing on main academic subjects such as math, English and science.
Everything else seems to be on the table.
In January 2011, the school board cut German from the middle school level.
Volunteers have formed the Central Bucks Sports Commission to study ways to keep funding sports fields, facilities and programs.
And while this latest scheduling move doesn’t eliminate electives, that possibility may still loom ahead. Just listen to Laws’ words.
“There is no concentrated effort to get rid of the specialists at this point in time. We value the specialists; we want to keep them,” Laws told DoylestownPatch. “Will Pennsylvania end up like California, with no music or art classes? I don’t know. That’s a question for the governor.
“But I can tell you if the resources continue to decline, choices will have to be made,” Laws continued. “We know our kids can get private music lessons, or private art lessons. But very few places are teaching them calculus.”
Teaching to the Test?
In her presentation last week to the school board, Silvious noted that focusing on core academic subjects will better prepare Central Bucks middle schoolers for the Keystone Exams, new state-mandated tests that will be part of the graduation requirement in coming years.
Readers of DoylestownPatch bristled at the notion that CB was eschewing the arts to focus on a standardized test.
“Teaching to testing mandates produces many more problems and does not produce a more intelligent student,” wrote one reader.
“Why do we always have to put test results before education?” asked another.
Laws said district administrators have been hearing the same criticisms all week. But they miss the point, he said.
“Too many people are saying it’s all about the test. It’s not. But this is a business also,” Laws said. “Don’t tell me don’t worry about the test. Because that’s how schools in Pennsylvania are measured. I didn’t decide that, the state did.
“If Central Bucks has low test scores, what do you think is going to happen to quality of life around here?” he continued. “There’s not a person walking through Doylestown that says, ‘Don’t worry about the tests; lower those test scores and lower my property values.’"
The district has put together sample schedules showing what the course load would look like for students under the new scheduling program. We have uploaded the information here, but the documents also can be viewed on the district's website.