Student scheduling is fundamental to school operation. Unfortunately, the process of crafting these time matrices has been likened to conquering the Rubik's Cube. Here, we’ll explore three rooted-in-research ways to bring clarity to the process.
First, let’s establish a common language about what student scheduling is and does. “A school’s master schedule,” explains Education Resource Strategies, “defines which teachers meet with which students for how long, and about what topics. The priorities it represents, whether explicit or implicit, are a critical aspect of defining how learning takes place in the school.”
We’re likely familiar with the bones of student scheduling:
- determine learners’ unique socio-academic needs
- allocate resources in ways that best facilitate student growth
- merge these elements together under given time constraints
Whether planning for a self-contained Kindergarten classroom, middle school electives, or a high school master schedule, coordinating so many moving parts can be a complex undertaking. So, how can we begin to streamline this process?
1. Find your (student-centered) focus.
Before diving into the details of student scheduling, it is important to ground down into a guiding purpose and vision for the work. In this case, we’re considering several important questions: Who are we serving? What non-negotiable student achievement toward which are we aiming? How do we best support learners from a scheduling standpoint?
Let’s apply an architectural lens to this puzzle. Collectively, we’re charged with the task of building sound socio-academic homes for our students. Of course, we recognize that quality construction requires a firm foundation (our purpose) and carefully engineered framing (student scheduling). How and how often students interact with school resources- including time, highly qualified staff, and targeted learning materials- can influence one’s entire potential. With this in mind, it’s important that we get our scheduling priorities right.
Honing in on our purpose requires familiarity with our students, staff, relevant data, and best practices. For example, we might consider Daniel Pink’s research on prime times for content learning across various age groups where elementary students perform analytical-type tasks better in the morning as opposed to secondary students who are sluggish in the morning hours and perform best in the afternoons. We may explore the implications of our scheduling decisions on students’ mental well-being where changes and disruptions to schedules increase student stress and anxiety. We might explore how flexible scheduling can enhance academic outcomes for emergent bilinguals. We may reflect upon where and how teacher agency is reflected in the processes of school-wide scheduling.
With our focus established, it’s time to put these insights to work. “Once a school reflects on its priorities, considers its options, and selects the best schedule components, they can create a master schedule. The end goal is to utilize a school’s assets to the best educational advantage of the students.” (NCTE Talk, 2018)
2. Root out equity gaps and commit to fixing them.
Student scheduling, like many of education’s long-standing practices, is colored by inequity. Recent studies reveal that the students who are most in need of support “were more likely to be scheduled in larger classes with less experienced teachers, [are] significantly underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses, and are often separated from other students throughout the day because of how their intervention blocks were scheduled.” (Pisoni & Conti, 2019; Hibbein, 2020)
Brave leadership requires us to enter these spaces and make room for authentic conversation. What are the intended or unintended consequences of our scheduling with regard to equity and inclusion? Where does segregation present in our scheduling? Where is over or underrepresentation of any one group evident (students of color, emergent bilinguals, or special education, for example)? Which students have the most (or least) access to highly qualified teachers and rigorous, culturally responsive instructional materials?
Energy invested in exploring schedule-driven inequities is well worth the effort. Of course, there’s some up-front work to do here (bias-awareness and antiracism training, for example). But once underway, this step will actually save time. After all, preventing fissures in students’ constructs of learning will reduce time-expensive repairs down the road. These efforts also help ensure that we’re in alignment with our Step One vision and priorities of creating a student-centered focus and honing in on what works best for all student populations. Digging in now diminishes the likelihood of backtracking later and accelerates momentum toward student graduation and 21st-century success.
3. Put innovation to work for your team.
For many of us, thoughts of student scheduling are tethered to images of Post-It notes and sectioned whiteboards. Fortunately, ed tech has caught up to the student-scheduling struggle. Adam Pisoni and Diane Conti, detailing Hoover High School’s shift to a more equitable and efficient scheduling process, share: “The proliferation of student information and learning management systems means that the data that districts need to understand, and perhaps re-think, the allocation of resources is no longer trapped in file cabinets and magnet boards.”
An ever-expanding number of tech-based options can help us creatively and efficiently solve for student scheduling variables. Site-implemented software usually enables a high-level of customization. Class Composer, a class list creation tool for elementary schools, allows administrators to create customizable identifiers that can be assigned to individual students. These identifiers can then be accounted for on its Digital Data Wall when placing students into classes.
Most ed tech matrices also have the built-in capacity to consider multiple lenses of equity and inclusion. “Evaluating the implications of schedule or operational changes—and making the changes themselves—has gone from aspirational to feasible,” Pisoni and Conti continue. “With the right tools and data, districts can rethink school operations from a data-informed, equity-focused lens.
The most direct path toward simplifying student scheduling is to let intuitive technology do the heavy lifting for us. To be clear, this doesn’t mean a more hands off approach- but it does signal a more efficient one. When the nuts-and-bolts component is streamlined, we can reinvest that energy into other parts of the process, like diminishing unintended barriers created through scheduling. Not to mention, less time wielding Post-It notes means more time spent where it most matters--with our students.
Student scheduling is a complex process, but it shouldn’t be an overwhelming one. When we’re clear about where we’re going (and we have the right tools in place to help us get there) the process becomes not only manageable, but rewarding. After all, shares author Cheryl Hibbeln, “master scheduling, when done well, is the greatest tool in our belt for aligning structure, instruction, and culture.”
What’s worked for you? We’d love to hear your thoughts and tips on student scheduling!
Resources & Continued Reading: