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November 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 3

The 4x4 Plan

A new kind of high school schedule promotes student learning, enhances conditions for teachers, and increases connections with higher education and the world of work.

Armed only with a scheduling innovation—the four-period day and semester-length courses— secondary educators and students can recreate a public school system. The 4x4 schedule—also called a 4x4, 2x4, semester, and semester-block—has spread by word of mouth, producing a grassroots movement from school to school.
Within four years, 192 of North Carolina's 300 high schools adopted the schedule. Since the 1993–94 school year, the number of 4x4 schools in Virginia has grown to 58 (Rettig 1995). Many states now have at least one 4x4 high school, and the movement is spreading rapidly.
At Orange County High School, we've used the 4x4 schedule since 1993–94. The school day is made up of four blocks of 90 minutes each. By doubling the length of class periods, students complete the equivalent of four 180-day courses every 90 days. After the first session ends, students take four new courses in the second 90-day session.
Depending on the kind of schedule a school is using, adoption of the 4x4 does not necessarily require increases in staffing or class size or larger facilities (Edwards 1993). Schools currently using a seven-period day can easily convert; those using a six-period schedule have adequate facilities but need approximately a 10 percent increase in staff to avoid increasing class size.

A Simpler Schedule

The 4x4 has many advantages over the traditional high school schedule. For teachers, the 4x4 provides a more manageable schedule. Teachers in schools using 180-day courses with either a traditional or block schedule teach five or six classes of 25–30 students at a time. In a 4x4 school, they teach six classes, but have only three each semester with no more than 75–90 students at a time. In addition to fewer class preparations and fewer students per semester, 4x4 teachers can devote 25 percent of their day to planning instruction.
For students, the approach also offers a simpler, more practical schedule. Although they take only four classes at a time, students earn up to 8 credits per year and 32 over four years of high school. This eight-semester sequence gives students twice the opportunities to complete required courses as the four-year, 180-day schedule.
For example, a student who fails freshman English at the end of 9th grade can repeat it in the fall and rejoin his or her classmates in English 10 the following spring. Seniors who fail a required class in the fall may even be able to retake the class in the spring.
Students also gain time to acquire the prerequisite skills to succeed in a rigorous high school program of study. A sophomore, for example, still has time to complete the traditional algebra 1, algebra 2/trigonometry, geometry, pre-calculus, and calculus sequence. In a worst case scenario, a junior still has time to earn four credits each in English, math, laboratory sciences, and social studies.

High School Plus a Year of College

In developing our school program, Orange County High wanted to upgrade the quality and level of education available to our students. Our goal was to have every student accepted into a postsecondary program or employed in an entry-level position.
Initially, increasing the number of credits required for graduation seemed the best way to ensure that students used the additional time rather than graduate in three years (Edwards 1993). More of the same, however, even if provided more efficiently, is not a significant improvement. This reality led 4x4 advocates to a major breakthrough: with one minor policy change, the education system almost remakes itself.
Allowing students in a 4x4 high school to complete a two-course sequence of study within the school year radically alters the dynamics and focus of school. Students who move through the program at their own pace can work to reserve time in their third and fourth year for the career training they want. To save enough time, students have to learn well and complete their classes in a timely fashion.
Using existing programs only, 4x4 schools can offer every student a year of postsecondary study in addition to a full high school program. Postsecondary study is readily available through International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, commercial schools, apprenticeships, employers, and online schooling (Edwards 1995b). Internet high school and college courses give every student and every school access to an unlimited array of educational opportunities without scheduling conflicts.
Providing these exciting options for all students, however, does not substitute for their high school studies. Before beginning coursework, students must complete the prerequisite high school classes and be admitted by the postsecondary institution (Edwards 1995a).
To complete the first year of college during high school, students in a 9–13 school have several options. Those seeking admission at more competitive colleges may elect a 23-credit advanced studies program, including 5 double-credit yearlong Advanced Placement courses. For example, they could take AP U.S. history and AP biology their junior year and AP English, AP calculus, and an AP foreign language their senior year. (Figure 1 shows a sample program.) Depending on the college's policy, students who score 3s or higher on AP exams could be admitted as sophomores.
[figure currently unavailable]
Students seeking an associate degree or admission at a less competitive in-state school may elect a dual high school/college enrollment program (see fig. 1). With dual enrollment, the student's grade in the class, rather than a single examination score, determines the credit earned and whether it is transferable. A student's third-year schedule may include six semester-hours each of psychology and biology. In the fourth year, the student might take six hours of pre-calculus and economics.

Future Scholars

As Orange County High educators were looking for ways to help students take advantage of these new opportunities for postsecondary study, we made an interesting discovery: The cost of postsecondary study, in many instances, is no more than the cost of staffing a high school class.
Using the school division salary scale, we calculated the per-pupil staffing cost for 24 students (the local community college cap). Dividing annual salary plus fringe benefits by the six periods taught, we found it costs $4,903 to pay a beginning teacher to teach one high school class; the cost of tuition and books for 24 students in a three-semester hour community college class is $4,848. If the high school class were taught by a teacher at the top of the salary scale the cost of staffing increased to $8,030. Using an average teacher pay of about $7,200, we came up with an amount of $300 per pupil ($7,200 divided by 24).
In 1994–95, we pioneered Future Scholars, a program to help juniors and seniors who meet certain criteria pay for tuition and books in college classes taken in lieu of high school classes. Our initial effort awarded seniors up to two $100 scholarships based on grade point average, attendance, and behavior. The second year, we awarded up to three $140 scholarships to seniors and up to two AP scholarships to juniors. We freed up funding to launch the program by eliminating remedial summer school, which is no longer needed with the 4x4. Ultimately, eligible students should be able to earn up to six scholarships each year, for a total of $3,600. Thus, without increasing costs, every high school student can earn a “free” year of postsecondary study at accredited institutions.
Participation in postsecondary classes has increased significantly since our move to a 4x4 schedule and creation of the Future Scholars program. In 1992–93, only five students participated in the dual-enrollment program, and enrollment in AP classes was 57. Our first year with a 4x4 schedule, more than 40 students signed up for community college classes; enrollment in yearlong AP classes held at 56. In 1994–95, when we introduced the scholarships, we had 80 dual-enrollment and 70 AP students. For 1995–96, the number and amount of the scholarships increased, and requests for dual-enrollment classes rose to 150; for AP, they grew to 83. Over the last four years, the number of seniors taking two or more postsecondary classes off campus has risen from 5 to 26.
After initiating Future Scholars, we experienced a huge shift in the GPA of scholarship recipients. The first year, 38 of the 113 eligible seniors earned a 3.0 or higher; the second year, 65 of the 123 eligible seniors had at least a 3.0. After we expanded the program the second year to offer AP scholarships for juniors, 84 of the 134 eligible juniors earned a 3.0.

Career Entry Profiles

What about students who don't plan on continuing to higher education? The 4x4 schedule is also a useful tool for addressing their needs. Orange County High School teamed up with local employers to publish career entry profiles (like college admission criteria).
During the first three years of high school, students work to acquire marketable skills and demonstrate appropriate attendance and work ethic. In their senior year, after a review of their credentials and an interview by the prospective employer, students are eligible for a semester of full-time work experience and training at a job site. School/work experience coordinators monitor full-employment work sites and award school credit based on employer ratings. (See fig. 2 for a sample program.)
[figure currently unavailable]

Where's the Research?

  • Students are completing more courses. Like other 4x4 schools, Orange County eliminated study halls, because it would be unwise for 25 percent of a student's day (one out of four 90-minute periods) to be devoted to study hall. As a result, over the past two years, our students have, on average, completed 18 percent more English classes, 43 percent more math, 10 percent more social studies, 11 percent more science, and 30 percent more foreign language.
  • Grades are going up. Since we instituted a 4x4 schedule, the percentage of A grades earned by students has risen from 21 percent to 32 percent of grades given. We've also experienced a 3 percent increase in failing grades, but attribute this to a change in our reporting procedures and our elimination of basic-level courses.
  • More students are taking and passing Advanced Placement exams. Under our 4x4 schedule, Advanced Placement classes are two-credit, yearlong courses. The extra time and intensive study has yielded positive results. In our first year with the schedule, students set a school record by earning 3s or higher on 85 percent of their AP exams. Fifty-eight of the exams earned a mark of 4 or higher. The second year under the 4x4, the number of students taking AP exams rose from 30 to 50. This time, 63 percent of the scores earned were 3s or higher.

A Win-Win Situation

Educators at Orange County High School and other schools using the 4x4 believe that the simplicity and flexibility of this schedule promote greater learning while students are in school and better chances for them as they move into higher education and employment.
Incorporating a year of postsecondary study into high schools increases the focus on academics by rewarding students for learning well and in a timely fashion. And scholarships give all students an opportunity to obtain the specific training they want. Moreover, the savings and the expanded opportunities increase parental involvement and support.
Unlike most reforms, the cost of the four-year 9–13 high school is minimal, and the improvement is immediate. Letting students earn the privilege of controlling educational resources to acquire the career training they want alters the very nature of school. This change, while slight, gives all students the chance to pursue as much education as their interests and abilities will allow.

Edwards, C. M., Jr. (May 1993). “The Four-Period Day: Restructuring to Improve Student Performance.” NASSP Bulletin: 77–88.

Edwards, C. M., Jr. (May 1995a). “Virginia's 4x4 High Schools: High School, College, and More.” NASSP Bulletin: 24–25.

Edwards, C. M., Jr. (October 1995b). “The Internet High School: A Modest Proposal.” NASSP Bulletin: 67–71.

Rettig, M. D. (June/July 1995). “Directory of High School Scheduling Models in Virginia.” James Madison University, p. 9.

End Notes

1 By the fall of 1996, almost all courses required for high school graduation will be available via the Internet. Online courses, taught by certified teachers using state-mandated learning objects and materials, will be available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

2 Salary figures are from the 1993–94 salary schedule of Orange County (Virginia) Schools, (not including a $1,714 Masters's supplement). Orange County is a rural district with 3,900 students in grades K–12.

Clarence M. Edwards Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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