How to Build a Better Secondary School Schedule

8-minute read

These guidelines can help school and district leaders build secondary schedules that serve as a powerful tool for achieving school and district priorities and boosting student learning.


Building secondary school schedules is complex, and the scheduling process can understandably be a source of frustration for many school and district leaders. Schedules too often pose a barrier to the implementation of best practices, making it impossible to achieve many instructional priorities without additional time, staff, and costs.

When approached strategically, however, secondary school schedules can open the door to higher achievement while better serving the needs of students and teachers alike. Here are some guidelines to help build a secondary schedule that serves as a powerful tool for achieving school and district priorities and for boosting student learning.

  1. Set priorities before you begin building the schedule
  2. Some of the most important work necessary to build an effective schedule is done before the schedule is actually built. At DMGroup, we tell school districts, “You can schedule anything, but you cannot schedule everything.” With limited staff and limited time in the day, hard choices and trade-offs must be made.

    Before starting to build a schedule, schools and districts must pause to re­fine and hone a theory of action and establish an ordered set of priorities that will help schedulers manage the endless tradeoffs in a strategic and purposeful way.

  3. Focus on the content of your schedule, not the structure
  4. Secondary-level scheduling research is clear: no single scheduling structure is the “silver bullet” structure. What the research does show is:

    • Period length only impacts student outcomes insofar as teachers effectively utilize the time

    • Block schedules have mixed results regarding the impact on student achievement—there is no “right” number of courses for students to take at one time

    • There is a large, positive relationship between academic learning time—the period when instructional activity is perfectly aligned with a student’s readiness and learning occurs—and student achievement.

    Schools and districts meet their top priorities with any schedule format or structure. As a general rule, districts should stick with the structure they have unless there is a signi­ficant and compelling reason to switch.

  5. Provide extra time for general education intervention
  6. In many middle and high schools, “extra help” for students who are struggling is provided either during the core instruction class period or instead of core instruction. These interventions come in all forms, from co-teaching, push-in, or paraprofessional support to employing a separate curriculum for struggling learners. More help and more adults are provided, but not more time to learn.

    Best practice for secondary intervention calls for a double-time model that provides “extra help” in addition to core instruction. That means that struggling students are exposed to a fi­rst presentation of the content—100% of their current year materials—during core instruction, which allows them to be fully immersed in the classroom experience, learn from peer questions and interactions, stay socially engaged, and have the benefi­t of ­first being exposed to the material from their skilled core-instruction teacher.

    Then, in an extra period, students receive the interventions and supports they need to fully master the material. Extra-time interventions can include pre-teaching the next day’s lesson, re-teaching current-year materials, and going back to address missing foundational skills and gaps that have accumulated from prior years. In addition to having this extra time for learning, students who struggle need to be provided these supports from staff with deep content expertise.

  7. Maximize access to rigor
  8. Schools can also create more learning via better schedules by examining access to rigorous courses, including advanced placement (AP) and honors courses. While access to rigorous courses is crucial to raise student achievement, many districts do not systematically analyze scheduling data to understand how students are distributed among levels of rigorous courses in different departments.

    Dissecting data by department and level of rigor clarifi­es where there may be actions that don't match stated priorities. For example, one district that had a clearly stated commitment to providing high-rigor classes in every department found that less than 10% of all math seats were in AP or honors sections and 15% of math seats were below grade level. Meanwhile, in science, a much larger 21% of students were in rigorous classes, with only 2% receiving below-grade-level content. In this case, district leaders discovered that the Math department had set a very high bar for students to qualify for enrollment into AP and honors sections, which excluded some students who could handle greater rigor; they also discovered that there was an above-average number of students in “instead of” or remedial classes. The district shifted to prioritizing an extra-time secondary intervention strategy that allowed struggling learners to catch up to grade level and encouraged a greater number of students to enroll in advanced classes, especially in math.

  9. Set nuanced class size targets
  10. Another key preparatory step before building the schedule is to determine a nuanced approach to class-size targets. Typically, school class-size targets refer to the school-wide average pupil-to-teacher ratio across all classes. A nuanced analysis shows that school-wide averages can mask disparities in average class sizes between different types of classes (core, elective, advanced, interventions, etc.). For example, regular-level core classes often have the largest class sizes, resulting in an unintentional investment in small class sizes for electives and advanced classes.

    Section-by-section data may reveal that elective classes are smaller than core classes or that honors classes are smaller than general classes. Yet, most school leaders agree that advanced students and students in electives do not benefi­t as much from smaller class sizes. Schools and districts that set class size targets differently by level, by core/non-core, by intervention, and by grade (e.g., in order to schedule larger classes for 11th and 12th grade to prepare students for college-size courses) are better able to achieve their scheduling priorities.

  11. Match staffing to course enrollment with precision—to the decimal place!
  12. Every principal, superintendent, and CFO asks how many of each type of teacher is needed each year. A typical process for determining staffing needs might begin with setting a class size target of 25 students per section and a teaching load requirement of five sections per FTE. By dividing the number of students enrolled or anticipated to enroll in a department’s course offerings by the class size target, the district arrives at the total number of sections the department needs to staff. Then, using the teaching load rules, the district can determine its staffing needs. When a district is faced with needing a partial FTE to meet staffing requirements, a typical solution is to “round up” the number of FTE and schedule a few more sections, marginally reducing the number of students per section.

    Expert schedulers, however, look for opportunities to maximize the impact of every resource when only a partial FTE is required. Districts can and should rethink what to do when course enrollment suggests not every position would have a full teaching load at current class size targets.

    • Replace a reduced class size section of an existing course with an intervention section or an elective aligned with the school’s strategic direction. This option can allow the school’s best teachers to provide more value to the students who need it most.

    • Utilize part-time positions as a win-win for both teachers and the district, providing work/life flexibility to teachers to allow for caring for children or an elderly parent, taking an off-hour shift elsewhere, or otherwise meeting their own scheduling needs.

    • Maximize staff-sharing between schools when two schools need less than a full FTE, putting in place norms and rules that make staff-sharing arrangements welcoming and easy for shared employees.

A strategic approach to secondary school scheduling can raise student achievement

Scheduling will always include tradeoffs and difficult choices—it is a challenging task. But scheduling does not have to be an activity that frustrates school and district leaders and keeps them from achieving important objectives. In fact, when approached strategically, scheduling can open the door to increased student achievement and better support for teachers.


Want to learn more about best practices for building secondary school schedules? Check out these resources: