Fewer Student Hours May Result in Higher Educational Value

[The following is an excerpt from TrustED®: The Bridge to School Improvement]

The foundational pursuit of most schools is that of providing high-quality education. Whether it is in business, life, or relationships – high quality comes with a cost, and the greatest cost is time. Anything of value takes time – but it’s not just about the quantity of time spent on any given endeavor, but rather the quality and focus of that time.

Each year the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publishes their education at a Glance: OECD Indicators. Within the world of education, this publication is viewed by many as the authoritative source for accurate and relevant information on the state of education around the world. It provides data on the structure, finances, and performance of education systems in more than 40 countries.

The OECD Indicators are incredibly helpful and insightful not just for educators but also for students, parents, and all those who invest finances and effort into education. Before I address the specific topic of the quality use of time and its’ relationship to the pursuit of high-quality education – take a look at just one of the many findings from this extensive report. These findings also provide compelling reasons why we should be concerned about how our limited resource of time is utilized.

What are the earnings advantages of education and literacy proficiency?

  • The OECD report shows that adults who possess an academically oriented research degree (e.g., M.A. or Ph.D.) on average earn 70% more than those without a post-high school degree or those with an undergraduate degree (e.g., B.A.). [Note that those who complete a college or university degree, and go no further in their academic career, are at no greater advantage financially than those who hold a high school diploma. The earnings advantage is only seen with completing a graduate research degree beyond college or high school].
  • On average, an adult with a graduate research degree who performs at Level 4 or 5 in literacy proficiency, as measured by the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), earns about 45% more than a similarly educated adult who performs below Level 1 in literacy proficiency.
  • The two highest-rated countries where research degrees are valued and compensated to the greatest relative earnings level are in South America (i.e., Chile and Brazil). In other words, it is of greater financial benefit in South America, more so than any other region of the world, to complete a graduate research degree.

To pursue a graduate research degree, students must have completed an undergraduate degree, which first requires the foundation of a high quality primary and secondary education. That is the pursuit of every college-preparatory school; to position their students so that they eventually and successfully matriculate to a college or university and have the opportunity and ability to go beyond.

For example, at one of the Latin American schools, I served in, Primary students spent approximately 1,200 hours a year in compulsory education to pursue that excellence (i.e., 6 hours per day x 200 days). How did the investment of that time compare with the rest of the world? Take a look at the following results from the OECD report compared with the Economist Intelligence Unit: The Learning Curve report, which rates the overall educational performance of countries throughout the world:

How much time do students spend in the classroom, and how does that time compare with educational performance?

  • Globally, students on average receive 7,475 hours of compulsory instruction during their Primary and Secondary school years.
  • In Finland, where schools rank the highest in educational performance globally, the compulsory instruction hours are just slightly over 6000 hours.
  • In the United States, which ranks 17th out of 40 countries in overall educational performance, students receive nearly 9,000 hours of compulsory instruction (i.e., 50% more than the Fins).
  • In Latin American countries, students receive on average just less than 10,000 hours of compulsory instruction.

How much time do teachers spend teaching, and how does that time compare with educational performance?

  • Globally, teachers teach an average of 783 hours per year (this is also averaging the differences between the Pre-Primary level, the Primary level, the Lower Secondary level, and the Upper Secondary level of education).
  • As an example, here are some of the comparisons of Upper Secondary teaching hours.
    • Argentina provides 1,400 teaching hours and ranks 37th in educational performance.
    • Chile provides 1,100 teaching hours and ranks 32nd in educational performance.
    • The USA provides 1,100 teaching hours and ranks 14th in educational performance.
    • The United Kingdom provides 600 teaching hours and ranks 6th in educational performance.
    • Japan provides 500 teaching hours and ranks 4th in educational performance.
    • Finland provides 550 teaching hours and ranks 1st in educational performance.

What seems to be glaringly apparent is that the amount of teaching time, and the amount of time a student spends in compulsory hours of education, appears to be only connected to the level of educational performance negatively. The schools that spend the least amount of time in compulsory hours of “seat-time” for students, and the least amount of time in actual teaching hours, are the schools with the highest educational performance levels. How can this be? We all only have 24 hours in a day.

So what is it that the highest performing schools are doing with these same hours if they do not spend them on student contact teaching hours? The answer is the professional development of teachers!

The greater the quality and time dedicated to teachers’ professional development – the greater the quality of the instruction for students.  Those schools producing the highest levels of educational performance around the world are also the same schools that are investing highly in the continual professional development of their teachers. For example, in Japan (which ranks #4 in the world in educational performance), even experienced teachers who have been teaching for years have a requirement of completing an extensive professional development program. The program includes an average of 23 hours of professional development training annually for Primary and Secondary teachers.

But it’s not just time for professional development that equates to a greater level of excellence in the educational services provided to students and families. In a recent Edutopia blog entitled, Less is More: The Value of a Teacher’s Time, the author argues that “…teachers do much better by having fewer classes, fewer students, and more time…” The value and quality of the educational service to the students and their families are increased by providing more time for activities such as:

  • Conversations with students (and their parents) about academic progress.
  • Working with counselors to better support students’ social-emotional development.
  • Peer collaboration focused on mastering and implementing research-based best pedagogical practices.
  • Detailed, authentic, and purposeful observation conversations between teachers and their supervisors.
  • Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) where teachers are closely looking at student work and data together to determine the best strategies and interventions to increase levels of individual student achievement.

All of these vital elements of a quality education take time outside of the formal classroom.

In another recent article featured in The Atlantic entitled, Building a Better School Day, policy research associate Matthew Frizzell identifies a key finding that “An hour of professional development seems to be almost as helpful to teachers, and in some cases more helpful than an hour in the classroom.”

The National Staff Development Council released a report, Professional Learning in the Learning Profession, that identifies that U.S. schools are “far behind in providing teachers with opportunities to participate in extended learning opportunities and productive collaborative communities.”

Assuming our commitment to the pursuit of providing high-quality education is genuine. We must see that commitment through an intentional and meaningful investment in the development of our teachers.

There has been much written on redesigning how and when teacher professional development occurs – yet for many schools, little has been done in moving forward to address this subject. That is most likely since to address this need fully, there must also be a fundamental shift in how we think about and view the teacher’s role.

We must do a paradigm shift in how we view the essential functions of the teacher’s job and be agents of changing that view within our communities. Traditionally we have viewed the face-time teachers have with students as the most critical and essential part of their work, but those school systems that are excelling in the world would disagree. They would argue that the most critical and essential elements of a teacher’s core responsibilities are that of:

  1. Instructional preparation
  2. Collaborative reflection to meet individual student needs
  3. Personal and professional development

We must consider what it will take to rebuild how we organize, manage, and support the teacher’s daily workday to support those essential elements.

Does more professional development time for teachers and less seat-time for students equal higher quality education? The research does seem to suggest this conclusion. Regardless, we should endeavor to provide work environments where teachers are supported with schedules, funding, and opportunities to continually pursue what it means to be high quality and trusted educators.

© Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved

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  1. Dear Mr. Travis:

    My wife and I are veteran high school teachers in Nevada. We currently teach in a rural high school, but we have done it all–public, private, rural, urban, affluent, middle class and poor. We have entered what we refer to as “The Death March.” No matter where we have taught, the last 2-3 weeks of each semester, teachers and students (and principals) are exhausted and sick. I just read a great quote by former US President Bill Clinton. It went something like this: “All of the worst mistakes of my life, I made when I was tired.” Nothing good happens when everyone is too tired to think. Professional Development included.

    Within the constraints of your political system, the best thing you can do is focus on the quality of people’s energy (not just time). The area where you have the most control is scheduling.

    – Get the right teachers with the right mix of students in the right classroom at the right time. I cannot overstate how important this is. Seek input from teachers and students. Listen to them. Spend YOUR best energy here. Fine tune this all year long, every single day. Do not hesitate to make changes, large or small, whenever necessary.

    – If you optimize scheduling, you will then, and only then, create ENERGY for teachers to attend and benefit from PERSONALIZED training. If we can expect our teachers to individualize learning for students, we can also expect our administrators to engineer Personalized development for teachers because each teacher’s needs, just like each student’s needs, are unique. Do not schedule teachers to attend development unless it benefits a teacher directly and immediately. Respect their energy by making the effort to personalize their development.

    – If it turns out you have a substandard teacher, replace them. Leaders are judged harshly, and rightfully so, when they are incapable or unwilling to replace the under-performers.

    -Recruit the right teachers, then develop them.

    I hope these suggestions help.

    Tom Whelan PhD
    Science and Media
    Nevada, USA

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I wish this article could reach all curriculum designers/developers especially in Uganda where a new curriculum is on the way.students need less time for teaching ,but more to develop their ideas with guidance from teachers.And the teacher should be more informed by constantantly improving his appraoch to teaching in view of the current trends . Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This article is an eye opener. It should set many educators to rethink their views about student teacher contact time and the value of teacher professional development.

    Liked by 2 people

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