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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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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Valerie Wald's picture
Valerie Wald
NYC high school Global history teacher

YES! Many of what I consider my best lesson ideas have developed when I had free daylight hours to think them over, as opposed to trying to figure them out in the evening at home. As for giving real feedback on written work, it virtually all happens during uncompensated weekend and vacation time, if I can make it happen at all.
(BTW, I am the 7-ate-9 history teacher who attended your book talk last Spring at Bank St. I was cheering on this post before I realized who wrote it!)

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

Agreed. We use time so poorly, trying to squeeze every instructional minute out of the contract day and forgetting that the hardest part of teaching is planning and reflecting. We need to carve out time to do that work, and we need to respect the effort it takes by making it a part of the regular day rather than insisting that teachers exhaust themselves by doing it during their theoretical "off" hours. Great post!

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scottmpetri's picture

Teacher collaboration is increasingly identified as a key element of teacher professional development. Teacher commitment levels correlate with collegiality and a sense of school community. Regular interaction with colleagues is necessary in creating a professional school culture. The evolution of effective teacher teams takes time to work through differences and establish trust. Teams that are able to develop collective authority and accountability seem to further teacher professionalism and morale. Unfortunately, it is difficult for schools to provide the time necessary for interdisciplinary teaming, which has hindered team teaching and aligning coursework to be more relevant to students in secondary schools in the US.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
English teacher

The nature of teachers' work is something people who comb through the PISA results looking for the "secret" to high-performing school systems always seem to miss. What we call grading and view as scutwork is, in some places, considered a valuable opportunity to learn about student learning -- and that takes time. I especially like your idea of getting together with other teachers to look at and discuss students' work.

David from Texas's picture

Perhaps another perspective can be offered. The issue has more to do with costs. The cost of teachers time per pupil can be reduced by having the teacher teach more classes and increasing the size of classes. I once worked at a high school teaching math which had an eight period, 45 minutes per period, day. Initially, we were assigned six classes each day averaging three different kinds of classes. For me, I had calculus, algebra 2, and algebra 1. Eventually, I had to teach seven classes with four different "preps" allowing one 45 minute planning period at the end of the day. My schedule consisted of two classes of algebra 2, two of algebra 1, two of geometry and one section of calculus. It was explained that this re-scheduling reduced costs. From the school districts point of view, this was simply more efficient. Penny wise and pound foolish? Depends on where you are coming from.

Valerie Wald's picture
Valerie Wald
NYC high school Global history teacher

YES! Many of what I consider my best lesson ideas have developed when I had free daylight hours to think them over, as opposed to trying to figure them out in the evening at home. As for giving real feedback on written work, it virtually all happens during uncompensated weekend and vacation time, if I can make it happen at all.
(BTW, I am the 7-ate-9 history teacher who attended your book talk last Spring at Bank St. I was cheering on this post before I realized who wrote it!)

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

Agreed. We use time so poorly, trying to squeeze every instructional minute out of the contract day and forgetting that the hardest part of teaching is planning and reflecting. We need to carve out time to do that work, and we need to respect the effort it takes by making it a part of the regular day rather than insisting that teachers exhaust themselves by doing it during their theoretical "off" hours. Great post!

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