Every so often, it seems, those "in charge" of education must re-invent the wheel. A particularly egregious incarnation of that, I believe, was the idea of moving to an "8-block" model, where students attend four periods a day, 80-minutes each, alternating between half their classes one day, the other half the next. My small school district began using that model in its 1996-1997 school year; we still have it today, with no relief in sight. The system is in use throughout Illinois; I am not aware of its prevalence elsewhere.
Basically, the message was this: 1) students will have more time to do at least some of their homework in class, practicing (think math) with the teacher present, rather than having to do all of it at home; 2) students will learn less (you can't teach twice as much just because periods are twice as long), but they will learn it better ( sic : I'm not kidding--that was a promise ); 3) students will have less homework (a particularly important promise for frustrated parents) because their kids will do a larger part of it at school; and 4) teachers will be required to do at least three separate things in each class period to keep students "engaged" (another edu-speak term of the last decade). After several trials-and-errors, my district settled on "A" days on Mondays and Wednesdays, "B" days on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Fridays, then, altering between "A" and "B" days on alternate weeks.
So, here is what we have: young people with short attention spans, who most effectively learn (on average) by having information repeated often, now having long periods with long spaces between. In fact, one shouldn't think of it in terms of "every other day." If a "B" day occurs on Friday, students have no "A" day between Wednesday and Monday. If Friday is an "A" day, students have no "B" day between Thursday and Tuesday: a five-day span for half their classes each week.
But wait!: it gets better. If there is a Monday holiday or an in-service Friday (and those two days are the most often non-attendance days), then students have a full week between class sessions. In my district, this schedule begins with 7th-graders (!!) and continues through high school.
First, as a classroom teacher with long experience, this is completely counter-intuitive. In practice, I find that students will not do much between classes and, when the time comes, cram for tests. From one unit to the next they simply do not retain as much information.
An example will serve to illustrate. I teach government, and teach students in Unit 4 (subject: the Congress) that the vice-president of the US is the President of the Senate because the Constitution says so. I have two more units on the Congress before I move to the president. When we get there I ask them to remember what the only constitutional job of the vice-president is. In the old, five-day-a-week system, some students could usually remember. Since we've been on 8-block, I have almost never had a class where even one student remembered that piece of basic information long enough to repeat it. Yes, I know that is an isolated example, but it holds true for much of my teaching: students simply do not retain information as well. That means more repetition, less material covered, and this all in the information age . I have found the same thing is true--probably even truer--with conceptual information.
Homework? I don't assign things to turn in from home very often; certainly not things like "worksheets" (which high school students shouldn't be doing anyway). Too many students forget to do it, it's against the promise of 8-block, and pieces of paper turned in for credit are too often copied, one student to another. Their homework from me is to study their notes. High school students are, however, extremely pragmatic, if you can call it that: "I don't have anything to do for a class (i.e. to be turned in), therefore I don't have anything for that class." No books or notes go home. When the test comes they cram, which ensures little retained knowledge.
What does that mean--"learn it "better'? Learn it longer? Retain it better? I still have no idea. I don't care what the "experts" think. Too many of them are bean-counters who haven't been in classrooms, or, have failed as classroom teachers (but have political connections). This system simply doesn't work. I agree that an 8-block-style program might be good for some things, among them PE and science labs, but in traditional academic areas I see a horrible lack of preparedness for kids going through the public system right now. Some day, someone else will do a "study" (i.e. another conclusion in search of evidence) that will discredit this idea. We can't wait until then, though; we need to end this unproductive system now.