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June 1, 2020

Mastering the Master Schedule

Improving instruction and strengthening culture through the master schedule.

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School Culture
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Credit: June 2020

The statistics are staggering: As of this writing, at least 124,000 schools nationwide are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting more than 55 million preK–12 students (Education Week, 2020). Despite valiant efforts by educators to harness technology and teach remotely, many of those students won't be academically ready for next school year. This is especially true in economically disadvantaged parts of the country, where not every student has access to broadband internet and not every district can equip students with take-home tablets or laptops.

Meanwhile, many districts have already begun creating 2020–21 schedules in the pre-COVID-19 context—blocking the days into six 50-minute periods; dividing the school year into nine months on, three months off; and grouping students by academic ability.

In many ways, the novel coronavirus crisis is exposing cracks that have long existed in the foundation of the academic calendar. Think about the scheduling issues that surfaced with learn-from-home experiments this spring: long gaps of time where students received no in-person instruction; large groups of students tracked by academic achievement or falling behind because of socioeconomic inequities; overwhelming percentages of schools adhering to outdated scheduling plans. Sound familiar? That's because these are the very issues we've faced for years, even when schools were open. The pandemic has only magnified our educational system's pervasive problem with structure.

Here's the central problem: Scheduling is used as a sorting mechanism—a way to move students from one classroom to another, sometimes in isolation from each other based on ability. Schedules are static from year-to-year despite changing demographics. New courses are pigeonholed into an already-existing structure.

In fact, the opposite should be happening. Schedules should be dynamic—subject to change based on students' needs. They should be flexible enough to accommodate new learning pathways for career- and college-bound students while also supporting remediation programs for struggling learners. And they should allow for a wide variety of learning levels within each classroom, so all children receive an equal shot at achieving success.

Critiques of the ways in which structure influences a school's instruction and culture aren't new. In 1994, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning warned that time is the constant in American public schools, not instruction. "The rule, only rarely voiced, is simple: learn what you can in the time we make available," according to the report, which was a byproduct of a law Congress passed to guide school improvement.

The Call for Change

Since then, education reformers have continued to promote structural change as one of the most important tools available to schools—though they are loath to make specific recommendations about what, exactly, nontraditional schedules should look like. While some school administrators look to education reformers for prescriptive solutions for the "right" way to schedule a school day, their point is quite the opposite: the only "right" master schedule is the one that takes into account the needs of students and their inalienable right to learn. Some schools may use master scheduling to create more equitable access to rigorous courses, while others may experiment with block scheduling to create more time for support periods for struggling students. There are as many nontraditional approaches to scheduling as there are schools who need them.

Take, for example, Linda Darling-Hammond's groundbreaking 2002 report Redesigning High Schools, What Matters and What Works, which identifies 10 features of good schools. Every quality on her list—from adaptive pedagogy and personalization to authentic curriculum and highly skilled teachers—is impacted by structure. For students, structure determines the courses they take, the peers they interact with, and the programs they have the opportunity to participate in. For teachers, structure determines course loads, time for planning and collaboration, and the composition of their classes. At the school level, structure affects the quality and quantity of programs designed to improve college and career readiness, such as dual enrollment and career pathways.

Others in the field have expanded on Darling-Hammond's work, arguing that scheduling is the structural foundation on which a school builds high-quality instruction and sustains a culture that reinforces it. For example, Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, has spent years blazing the trail, urging schedulers to rethink the instructional day. She writes of master scheduling that "far too many principals treat it simply as a logistical exercise rather than the heart and soul of teaching and learning" (Chenoweth, 2016). Disrupting the tried-and-true schedule is complicated and intimidating, Chenoweth concedes. But when scheduling is used as a response to what data tells us that students need—and when it properly aligns the human and fiscal resources necessary to ensure that happens—then it not only will support teaching and learning, but also begin to unravel some of the instructional inequities that cause societal inequities.

In other words, it's not about the schedule itself, but what the schedule can do for students.

Thankfully, the work of Darling-Hammond, Chenoweth, and others has drawn attention to the link between more intentional master scheduling processes and positive student outcomes. It has shown that master scheduling, when done well, is the greatest tool in our belt for aligning structure, instruction, and culture.

It All Starts with the Schedule

Building a new, dynamic master schedule can ensure that the most experienced teachers are matched with the highest-need students and can allow more time for planning and collaboration.

Leveraging master scheduling to improve instruction also can democratize student success by shifting resources to struggling learners. Take, for instance, the transformation at Hoover High School in California, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 25 percent are English learners. In 2017, according to an article in EdSurge, Vice Principal Diane Conti realized that some of the school's neediest students—the English learners, special education students, and others who needed academic intervention—often landed in larger classes with less experienced teachers (Pisoni & Conti, 2019).

Armed with that data, Conti and her team built a master schedule for the new school year with equity at its core. How did they do it?

  • They scheduled students first, then assigned the teachers.

  • They created more balanced class sizes, making sure newer teachers weren't overloaded with several large classes full of high-need students.

  • They built diverse rosters so classes included a more balanced ratio of students with special needs, English learners, and those in gifted programs.

  • They guaranteed common planning periods so teachers could meet and discuss the best ways to support students.

  • They minimized tracking by scheduling rigorous courses at the same time as general education classes, thus ensuring that students who accelerate or need more support could easily move between the two classes as needed.

Conti wrote that the effects of these changes could be felt immediately. Students found themselves learning in an environment where they could grow and thrive. And teachers suddenly had the time and resources to begin addressing systemic inequities. All students were met with higher expectations. The difference? Students were being strategically placed in course sequences and given personalized learning paths as opposed to being sorted into slots for the sake of efficiency.

Generally, schools also can use the scheduling process to make educational opportunities more equitable by:

  • Performing an audit of school schedules across the district to inform decisions about how to reallocate resources.

  • Thinking about class sizes, teacher experience, and student needs to create diverse rosters.

  • Considering innovative approaches to carve out more teacher prep and collaboration time and incorporate interdisciplinary studies for students.

  • Getting buy-in from staff and students to inform where to make changes to the schedule.

  • Finishing the master schedule before students leave for the summer so they're prepared for the year ahead. Bonus: You eliminate chaos the first week of school.

Common Planning Periods

One example of creative master scheduling involves building collaboration into the school day by blocking off common planning periods for same subject-matter or grade-level teachers to talk about what's working and what isn't. As it turns out, administrators who built this into their schedules pre-COVID-19 are finding that those systems are helping them weather the crisis.

The Kearny Educational Complex in San Diego is a great example. In 2004, Kearny reorganized from a comprehensive high school into four small, autonomous schools focused on different subject areas: digital media and design, engineering, college connections, and environmental science. Principal Ana Diaz-Booz told me in a recent conversation that school leaders at Kearny made the important decision to create daily common grade-level prep periods of 90 minutes each across the four schools to anchor the structural reforms. The prep periods not only gave teachers large swaths of time to collaborate; they also gave them the ability to build a culture. The teachers obviously worked together to plan the curriculum, but they also collaborated on remediation plans for struggling students and met with parents as a team during conferences. The bond between teachers, students, and content grew throughout the year—to the point where teachers became familiar with their students' families and communities. In effect, the system created "teams" of students and teachers who were inseparable throughout the school year, where teachers assumed full ownership over their group of students.

"This strategy has enabled teaching teams to build powerful bonds with students over many years, which has benefitted us greatly during the coronavirus closures," Diaz-Booz told me.

Though Kearny provides laptops to all students, some students lack broadband access at home. Diaz-Booz said the team approach allowed teachers to use their strong connection to students, their families, and their communities to assess students' at-home internet access as soon as the district was given the directive to close. All they had to do was use the network they had spent the last six months building.

In less than three days, the staff had identified students with technology needs at home.

Values-Driven Scheduling

Think of the master schedule as a template for a school's values and priorities. It's the frame that aligns your vision with the human and fiscal resources you prioritize to make learning opportunities more equitable for the coming school year. It's the lever that you can adjust year to year to best meet the needs of incoming students. The master scheduling process shouldn't be isolated from budgeting and staffing but should instead reflect and support a strategy for equity.

While you may not close opportunity gaps fully in one year, the strategies leveraged by the master schedule should support instructional changes that lead to significant growth, which can be measured year-to-year.

That's not to say structural changes will "fix" instruction. It won't matter how a principal designs the schedule if teachers aren't empowered and students don't have agency. But it is possible to place data and decision points together in a framework to deliver higher-quality instruction.

Being strategic with the master schedule can change the way teachers, students, and content interact. It's an opportunity for a school to radically change what students learn, how teachers teach, and the outcomes schools produce.

Ironically, school schedulers face the same choices today as they did in the pre-coronavirus world: They can take the same one-size-fits-all approach to structuring the 2020–21 year. Or they can use this time to shore up the cracks in the foundation and align the schools' calendars, instructional days, and resources with their mission statements.


Chenoweth, K. (2016). ESSA offers changes that can continue learning gains. Phi Delta Kappan, 97(8), 38–42.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2002). 10 features of good small schools: Redesigning high schools, what matters and what works. School Redesign Network at Stanford University.

Education Week. (2020). Map: Coronavirus and School Closures.

National Educational Commission on Time and Learning. (1994). Prisoners of time. The Education Commission of the States Education Reform Reprint Series, 5.

Pisoni, A. & Conti, D. (2019, April 20). What does your school schedule say about equity? More than you think. EdSurge.

Cheryl Hibbeln is an educator and consultant and has worked as a teacher, principal, and executive director in the San Diego Unified School District. She is the founder and president of IlluminatED Collective, a group of transformative educational consultants. As a part of her consulting practice, she serves as an advisor to Abl Schools Inc.

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