The Rolling Stones sang “Time is on My Side,” and while I’m glad time is so accommodating for Mick Jagger, I’m not sure that time is on our side in American schools.
Important discussions are happening right now in education about what students should know and how we can ensure schools are held accountable for their role in educating children. While I believe questions regarding curriculum and accountability are critical to school improvement, I fear we’ve assumed these questions alone are enough.
Underlying these discussions about accountability is an assumption that the job, as structured today, enables teachers to meet the demands of new accountability systems, which call for rigorous curriculum that elicit higher order thinking and student engagement. In other words, our assumptions about accountability assume that teachers have the capacity to do their jobs— and do them exceptionally well. However, there’s reason to think that may not be the case.
Research shows that the majority of an American teacher’s time is spent in face-to-face instruction with students, leaving virtually no time for teachers to do the critical work of planning lessons and grading, and essentially no time for reflection and improvement.
Studies have shown that American teachers spend 80 percent of their time in front of students, which is far more than teachers in other industrialized nations. In most European and Asian countries, face-to-face instruction takes up less than half of a teacher’s working time. In fact, in South Korea, a nation with one of the top performing school systems in the world, teachers teach for 35% of their working time, and they use the rest of their time for lesson planning, grading, and professional learning. Of course, spending 80 percent of one’s time teaching wouldn’t be alarming if a teacher didn’t have to plan the lessons or grade student work, but the fact is that excellent teaching demands both these things, and they are exceptionally time consuming.
In my last teaching assignment, I was given an hour and half every other day to plan my lessons and grade all my papers. The rest of my daily work time was spent teaching, making copies, attending meetings, and tutoring students after class. Many times, even that hour and a half of planning time was taken up with meetings. To create lessons that were high quality and to grade my students’ work, I had to take that work home, often spending three additional hours daily planning lessons and grading papers, and even that, frankly, was often not enough. Longtime teacher Marty Swaim’s experiences mirror my own. She recounts the time demands required for her to teach social studies:
To do the planning needed for each day and to have a chance of keeping up with grading papers, I worked two to three hours every night. Typically, I worked Sundays, roughly from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. with breaks for lunch and supper. First, I planned out the next week’s lessons for three different subjects (each with classes meeting five times per week), I wrote out teaching materials, and I organized the readings and equipment for class. I finished grading work handed in the week before. I thought putting in 60 hours per week was the result of inexperience. But when I looked around, I realized that most of my fellow teachers worked the same hours, [and] I began to see that public school teaching was basically a 60-70 hour a week job.
These stories are not outliers. In fact, a recent study of the working hours of Chicago Public School teachers found the same; teachers are working copious numbers of hours outside the school day because they have no time to plan and grade on the job. The study found:
- On any given school day, CPS teachers work an average of 10 hours and 48 minutes, and then spend two more hours in the evening working
- On the weekend, teachers put in on average almost four hours doing work for school
- In the summer, teachers spend an average of 12 days doing something for their job
- CPS teachers put in an additional 30 hours doing professional development training during the summer
- Overall, CPS teachers are working on average a 58 hour workweek, which is 800 hours beyond the hours they’re contracted to work
The fact is that the time allotted to create excellent instruction just doesn’t work out. Let’s do the math. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average American school day is 6.8 hours. If we assume that teachers teach 80 percent of that time (as found by the OECD study), that means teachers are teaching 5 hours and 44 minutes a day, with 1 hour and thirty-six minutes available for other activities. Teachers, however, are called on to go to meetings, perform lunch duty/supervision, answer emails, eat lunch themselves, tutor students, make copies, and communicate with parents. Although the number is probably larger, let’s assume that 30 minutes a day is taken up with one or a combination of these activities. That leaves an hour and six minutes daily for planning lessons and grading. Additionally, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average class size for American elementary teachers is 20 students and for high school teachers is a little over 23 students, a number that will greatly influence the amount of time needed to grade, as more students means more papers to mark. Assuming all the above figures, and that a teacher splits his or her time evenly between grading and planning, here’s how much time a teacher would have to plan each individual class and grade an individual student’s work within his or her workday:
That means a high school English teacher who taught two different courses, English I and English II, would have about 17 minutes to plan two separate 45 minute to an hour-long classes which need to include a variety of meaningful activities to engage different learning styles. If that teacher had 92 students, a much lighter student load than many public school teachers have, he or she could only spend 36 seconds grading each student’s paper. That puts assigning essays, projects, or lab reports with meaningful feedback almost entirely out of the realm of possibility. Teachers who want to put in the amount of time needed to create varied and engaging lessons and offer timely, meaningful feedback would have to work countless hours beyond the school day.
For example, a teacher teaching two high school courses, such as biology and chemistry, with five sections and 115 students, who wanted to spend an hour planning tomorrow’s lesson in each class, and spend a mere four minutes grading each student’s work from that day would have to put in more than eight hours outside of the school day to get that done. If school lets out at three and that teacher did nothing else when he or she got home but plan and grade, the science teacher would be going to bed past midnight.
As the Common Core rolls out standards that, rightly so, raise the bar for students, where have we structured time in the school day for teachers to plan and grade this higher-level work? Do we expect teachers to sacrifice their personal lives? Or do we recognize that excellent instruction doesn’t appear out of thin air, and we need to start having conversations about giving teachers time within their workday to create it.