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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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An illustration of "less than" and "greater than" symbols.

This past weekend, I had the privilege of being part of a panel at the Maryland State Education Association's Education Policy Forum with 2014 National Teacher of the Year Sean McComb, Maryland Teacher of the Year Jody Zepp, and educator-turned-influential radio host Marc Steiner. We convened in front of policymakers, superintendents, and other thought leaders. It sounded title-rific until we actually started talking about the profession we love and lead. One of the first questions we were asked was: "If you could build a school, what would it look like?" I had a few models to draw from, including Lori Nazareno's teacher-led Math and Science Leadership Academy in Denver, or Chris Lehmann's inquiry-and-design-driven Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

The Unseen Work

Yet the best investment that seemed most tangible to the policymakers right in front of me was time.

If I started a school right now, I would restructure school time nationwide. On average, teachers spent the most student-teacher face-to-face time in the world, topping 1300 hours a year. In the latest OECD report studying teacher salary (PDF, 11.8MB), the time that educators are required to spend worldwide in industrialized countries averages at less than 800 hours. Finland, the country everyone loves to study, clocks in less than 700 hours in front of students.

Seats shifted, because the talking points always fall into similar arguments:

  • Students need more time with teachers.
  • Teachers don't spent enough time with students.
  • Teachers don't work hard enough because they get holidays and summers off.

However, in countries that have done away with those arguments, they've learned that teachers do much better by having less classes, less students, and more time for the mounds of paperwork they're obligated to grade. McComb agreed as well, stating that, if we do the math based on the number of students he has compared to the time he gets in school to grade, he has about 20 seconds per student to grade their papers and give feedback. Of course, he would have to work at home and work extra (unpaid) time to finish his grading, but it seems wholly inefficient to make teachers do work at home when they could just get the time right there in school.

More Time to Plan

Some of the effective uses of time that I've seen include:

  • Conversations with students about their academic progress
  • Sitting with social services to talk about students' social-emotional development
  • Meetings with colleagues about latest pedagogical practices and standards
  • Pre- and post-observation conversations with administrators
  • Department meetings to look more closely at student work.

These points might sound basic to some, but in our current school system, we cram many of these into tighter schedules, which almost always means that we trade effectiveness in one area for effectiveness in another. We have to envision better uses of the talent within our school systems than what we currently see. I envision, for example, a teacher having two double-period classes and taking the last two periods to grade the student work with their colleagues shortly thereafter, analyzing the pieces and making their curriculum and pedagogy more connected.

With more hours to plan, teachers can more thoughtfully adapt their lessons and units to the students in front of them. They can more carefully reflect on the teacher moves they use for individuals and classes. They can have longer, more meaningful conversations with colleagues and administrators. In this case, as in many cases, less is more.

A Better System

Seat time isn’t the only lever we need to push for making education better in this country, yet based on studies that we've seen from different school structures, much of how we do schooling has been ingrained in our culture. Many of us in American society would love to see the reform and change but don't want the experience of school to look much different from our own experiences with schooling. The pushback on this piece probably looks like, "I want my child to have as much exposure and learning as we can cram into school, because the more time they have with the teacher of the subject, the better." Yet we can use time more effectively by making sure that all folks within our school system learn, not just the students.

As much as I want to believe that teachers do their best with the conditions they're given, I've come to understand that teachers generally work better given better systems in which to work. More so than the foundation of respect and trust that we must engender in students, we have to create pockets of time for teachers to get together and make things happen above the students' work. Many high-performing countries say that they got their best ideas from the United States. It's only a matter of time before this country gets it right for itself as well.

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José Vilson's picture
José Vilson
Middle school math teacher and coach

AND more keeps getting added onto our plate, and they know we'll do if they add, "it's for the kids!"

José Vilson's picture
José Vilson
Middle school math teacher and coach

As was already mentioned, you'll get better at it. You'll give less homework. You'll streamline your process. You won't grade every single thing. In the meantime, we'll keep fighting for a world where, yes, class sizes are smaller so we can concentrate better on the students.

D. Torres's picture

I just love this post! I believe that time spent planning, and collaborating is essential to our student's success. In my school, there never seems to be enough time to plan properly and collaborate with colleagues. Our meetings are usually rushed and non-effective because we have to receive our students. Having more time to work and plan with colleagues will create lessons that are geared to meet the ever changing diverse needs of our students.

ericquaf's picture

This post was everything I needed and more. To know that there are teachers who have this same concern makes me wonder will this ever change? Teaching and learning is a major concern of mines because there is not enough time to get what you need done that will better benefit students. I hope that one day this will digress so that teaching can start back being our main priority.

Ashley Cronin's picture
Ashley Cronin
Digital Resource Curator

I ran across a working paper from the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and it casts some doubt on the accuracy of the OECD numbers. For a helpful summary of how this may have happened and what it means, Sarah Sparks' "Do U.S. Teachers Really Teach More Hours?" from Education Week does a good job breaking it down: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/02/04/do-us-teachers-really-teach...

Even if the differences in teaching time are much smaller than previously reported, the paper author emphasizes that there remain many differences worthy of continued discussion, related to how time is allocated within the U.S. school day -- including the hurried pace and tempo discussed above. Glad to see we're having these conversations!

(Here's a link to the CBCSE's working paper, if anyone would like to read it:
Samuel E. Abrams, The Mismeasure of Teaching Time, Working Paper, Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University)

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

We have to stop counting a teacher's instructional minutes and begin giving them learning minutes. We have to stop the talk about teaming and start giving teachers time to be a team.

Karen's picture

I enjoyed reading this article. I implement a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum. I would appreciate more time to work on my student's social-emotional growth. Does anyone else implement SEL?

Endre's picture

Teachers are not administrators! Give them more time to teach their subjects effectively by cutting administrating by at least half!

DSlawson's picture

Collaboration is critical to effective teaching and healthy schools. Often times, teachers find they are collaborating well after classes have ended for the day. With the rise of instructional minutes it seems difficult to build collaborative time into schedules. Small schools face further struggles as there is often a feeling of isolation as there may be only one teacher at each grade level. I would like to explore the idea of building collaborative time into a weekly schedule among teachers of multiple grades. I think this would have a huge impact on student learning. I am also interested in developing flex time each day, for students in Jr High, to be able to access any supports they need in any subject area. It will be an interesting process to see if schedules could accommodate these changes and still meet required standards in terms of instructional minutes.

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