Teaching time in the U.S.

In The Mismeasure of Teaching Time, Sam Abrams exposes the myth that teachers in the United States spend nearly twice as much time leading classes as teachers in many other OECD countries. Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, details basic contradictions in the U.S. figures reported by the OECD and repeated by many journalists and scholars. His analysis suggests that U.S. teachers still do spend more time teaching than their counterparts in other OECD countries, but only about 15 percent more. This is still an important difference, but, as Abrams argues, one that has overshadowed more significant differences: in particular, teacher pay and the structure of the school day. Soon after the study was published last week by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE), we had a chance to ask Abrams when he first noticed the problems with U.S. figures, how he determined what was going on, and what the implications are for educators and the general public. We share his response below:  

After repeatedly seeing this misinformation about teaching hours in books and articles, I wrote to the OECD in January 2012 to inform them that the U.S. hours were way off and provided as evidence terms of teacher contracts from several major school districts.  I moreover explained that I had been the scheduler of a public high school in New York City for seven years as well as a teacher for many more. The people I contacted at the OECD conceded the U.S. hours appeared inflated and relayed this information to the U.S. representative to the OECD, who, in turn, I was told, stood by the numbers.  I decided at that point to save my argument for a book I was writing on educational privatization.  But as that book was taking longer than expected and as this myth was getting repeated on a regular basis in op-ed pieces, think tank studies, and books, I decided in October of 2014, after compiling more evidence, to address the problem directly with the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the source of the U.S. figures.

Tom Snyder, the NCES Program Director for Annual Reports and Information, could not have been more helpful. When presented with my case, as I wrote in my study, Snyder undertook with his staff a review of their data and a week later reported that the United States had indeed been inadvertently overstating teaching time. Snyder’s openness and cooperation was a lesson to me that researchers can get a lot more assistance from authorities than I had thought.

I should add that if I had not been a teacher, I would not have been in much of a position to question the data.  This implicitly points to the divide between policy and practice. As a teacher, I had never heard of Education at a Glance and I didn’t read many books about education policy.  I read books about history and economics, as I was a teacher of history and economics, and I struggled to keep up with reading and grading my students’ papers.  It was only after I became a researcher and began to work on my book on educational privatization in 2008 that I started reading a lot of books about education policy.  With my background as a teacher, I could quickly see that some policy analysis, like this argument about teaching time, didn’t hold up.

The salient implication of this finding is that we’ve been tilting at windmills. Teaching time is a phantom problem.  U.S. teachers do teach more than their OECD counterparts but, as I explain in my study, only marginally more.  The real and telling differences between teaching in the United States and other OECD nations concern relative pay and the structure of the school day.  These problems have been obscured by the difference in teaching time because the alleged difference has been so dramatic.  For journalists and scholars, that dramatic difference has been impossible to ignore.  And they’ve understandably focused on it at the expense of these two other real and telling differences.

As I noted in my study, U.S. primary teachers, according to Education at a Glance, earn 67 percent as much as their college classmates while their OECD counterparts earn 85 percent; U.S. lower-secondary teachers earn 68 percent compared to 88 percent for their OECD counterparts; and U.S. upper-secondary teachers earn 70 percent in contrast to 92 percent for their OECD counterparts.  The data on pay appear quite reliable, as I explain in my study, because the method of collecting data on pay differs substantially from the method of collecting data on teaching time.

In absolute terms, U.S. teachers may make as much as their OECD counterparts but not in relative terms, because in other OECD nations, on average, bankers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and management consultants make much less.  So, this is a social contract issue.  It isn’t so much that U.S. teachers don’t earn much. It’s that their college classmates who went into banking, law, medicine, engineering, and consulting make a lot more.  Teachers accordingly get priced out.  It’s thus hard to attract people to the profession and hard to retain them if they come aboard.  Fixing this problem constitutes a steep challenge.  It would necessitate raising not only teacher pay but also marginal income tax rates as well as tax rates on long-term capital gains.  But we at least need to look at this problem with our eyes wide open.

What’s not hard to fix is the structure of the school day.  In this regard, as I explain in my study, U.S. practice differs significantly from that of many other OECD nations. The architects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT) wanted to close the achievement gap by identifying academic deficiencies through regular testing and by holding school administrators and teachers accountable for their students’ results. The goal of closing the achievement gap is clearly noble. But the high-stakes testing that defines NCLB and RTTT has had perverse consequences. In particular, it has reduced, as I documented in my study, time for play, art, music, and drama because school administrators have felt great pressure to pack more academic instruction and test prep into the school day in order to boost test results.

School administrators have had little choice.  Test results are ultimately relative.  If school administrators in one district reduce time for play, art, music, and drama to make more time for academic instruction and test prep, then school administrators in neighboring districts are hard pressed not to do the same.  We have a stadium effect.  If spectators in the first row at a basketball game rise to see a big play, then spectators in the next row must do the same. In a heartbeat, everyone in the arena is on their feet. The same holds for test prep and schools.  The result is a narrowed curriculum, intense pressure on students, teachers, and principals alike, and a tight day, lacking the breaks between classes necessary for students, teachers, and principals alike to regroup, reflect, and get some fresh air.

There has long been an assembly-line pace to the school day in the United States, with short breaks between classes and brief lunch periods. Raymond Callahan made that clear more than fifty years ago in his incisive book Education and the Cult of Efficiency, published in 1962. But with the high-stakes testing introduced by NCLB and RTTT, the pace has intensified.

As a coach for several years with the Ice Hockey in Harlem program in Central Park, I’ve come to learn that kids of all ages, from five to seventeen, crave and need play. We can’t get the kids off the ice at the end of practice. Kids need to improvise with their bodies and experience the joy of playing with their peers. At a certain point, as I write in my study, more academic time becomes counterproductive. Leaders of such major companies as SAS and Google, in this light, have understood that more work at the expense of relaxation and recreation likewise becomes counterproductive and have accordingly encouraged their employees to take breaks and designed their offices with relaxation and recreation in mind.

We could fix this, as I explain in my study, by getting rid of high-stakes testing.  We have had the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since 1969 to test samples of students in fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades.  We need little more than that. If we could move on from high-stakes testing, then our schools would be a lot more like schools in many other OECD nations, and the lives of U.S. teachers would be a lot more manageable.

News scan: Germany and Ireland

This week, a scan of the news coming from Europe led us to put several links on Twitter; however, over the past year we’ve noticed more than one report on related topics. Here is a brief description of news coming out of Germany and Ireland. Next week, we will take a closer look at reports coming out of Central and South American countries.

Germany

According to a new study, Germany will not be able to meet ambitious education goals the country set for itself in 2008. Angela Merkel aimed to cut the dropout rate from 8% to 4%, but as of 2013 the rate stood at 5.7%. The German government is also struggling to reduce the number of young people (aged 20-29) who were without any professional qualification.  Interestingly, another report pointed out that there has been an ongoing Twitter debate (in German) about the country’s educational system, sparked by one girl who tweeted, “I am almost 18 and have no idea about taxes, rent or insurance. But, I can analyze a poem. In 4 languages.” The debate is raging over the purpose of an education and whether or not schools should prepare students for “life.”

 

Ireland

Teachers are protesting in Ireland because they disagree with government reforms that aim to move student evaluations away from standardized testing and towards a performance-based model, which would allow portfolios and other options. Teachers are concerned that the new assessments will force teachers to judge their own students, rather than advocate for them. They also object to the amount of time teachers will need to spend on the new assessments. Pasi Sahlsburg responded to the teachers’ plan to strike by saying that teachers need to take on more complex roles in order to boost the profession. In addition to seeing themselves differently, teachers need to see the students differently–and that’s what the alternative assessment model is all about. According to Sahlsburg, the situation in Ireland is “unique globally in many ways. Internationally it is more common that teachers are the ones that insist more freedom and autonomy in assessing and grading their students rather than the other way round.” In this case, an additional issue might be that teachers are wary of new, complex practices that they don’t have the capacity to carry out—practices that might seem unnecessary, particularly after Irish students just achieved test results that surpassed those the country set for the year 2020.

Deirdre Faughey

José Weinstein on systemic change in Chile

This month, the Lead the Change Series features an interview with José Weinstein, professor at Universidad Diego Portales and formerly Deputy Minister of Education and then Minister of Culture in Chile. Weinstein talks about the need to engage the entire system in Chile in focusing on improving practice in the classroom. In the process, he expands on many of the issues we touched on last October including the recent proposals for system-wide change in Chile and efforts to strengthen teacher education and the teaching profession. Weinstein describes as well the key role that principals may play in this transformation, arguing that the Latin American context requires an “orchestrating leader” whose responsibilities include but go beyond those of the “instructional leader” that is the focus of work on educational leadership in the US and the UK. He also offers several different hypotheses that help to explain some of the positive developments in the Chilean education system and the significant dissatisfaction that has contributed to violent protests. As he concludes: “Chile will have to create its own path to continue its educational progress, taking ownership of the dark sides of its development but without losing sight of what has been accomplished. In the coming years, teachers and principals will have to be the key protagonists of education improvement in Chile.”

Thomas Hatch

Interview with Sakena Yacoobi

Sakena Yacoobi

Sakena Yacoobi

Sakena Yacoobi is the Founder and CEO of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), a Private Hospital in Herat, and two Private High Schools in Kabul and Herat. AIL is an Afghan women-led NGO founded in 1995 to support the education of Afghans and provide health education to women and children. This interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.

OECD report on homework

OECD’s recent report “Does Homework Perpetuate Inequities in Education?” has generated a variety of articles in countries like the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Those stories mention the reported range–from 14 hours in Shanghai to 3 hours in Finland–but often focus on how much or how little student in a particular country do in comparison to peers in other countries (or sometimes both). Many also mention the reported links between higher amounts of homework and a slight increase in test scores in mathematics in most countries, though, in the US, higher amounts of homework are linked to a slight decrease in math test scores. Not surprisingly, the results have been interpreted as proving “homework sucks” and as suggesting that homework is a “blessing.”

The news also begins to get into some of the complexities, such as the higher amount of homework that socioeconomically-advantaged students do in comparison to their peers, though barely touching some of the larger issues of the costs and benefits (personally and developmentally not just economically) of having children spend more or less time on homework. This is a tension and an issue across school systems, including China where, as Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Tsinghua University High School, describes in his interview with C.M. Rubin: “parents complain to each other that high stakes testing is robbing their children of their childhood, curiosity, and creativity,” at the same time that they are standing in line to enroll their four-year olds in cram schools.

More importantly, perhaps, how much homework children should have can be seen in light of the larger questions about how children (and adults) should spend all of their time. Both students in Finland and in South Korea only spend about 3 hours a week on homework, but what those Finnish and South Korean students do with the rest of the their out-of-school time, however, is dramatically different (as is evident from Amanda Ripley’s Wall Street Journey story last year on a teacher works in South Korea’s tutoring academies “The $4 million dollar teacher”). As Learning in and out of school in diverse environments (a report from the LIFE Center) points out, school occupies a relatively small fraction of the waking hours of people throughout their lifetimes. From that perspective, it’s not simply about whether to have more or less homework, it’s about breaking down the boundaries between what happens “in school” and “out of school” and supporting learning wherever and whenever it takes place.

“Where Teens Have the Most Homework,” The Atlantic

“’Long homework hours’ for UK families,” bbc.news

“Report shows Irish teens among highest for time doing homework,” Irish Examiner

“Six hours a week: Australian students record increased homework hours,” The Sydney Morning Herald

“Shanghai 15-year-olds do the most homework — eight hours a week more than Australians,” News.com.au

“Homework sucks and we have the research to prove it,” mic.com

“Homework: a blessing, not a battleground” (opinion), The Telegraph

“Study: Teens doing less homework,” stuff.co.nz

“Should schools ban homework?” CNNOpinion, Etta Kralovec, author of The end of homework

Learning in and out of school in diverse environmentsfrom the LIFE Center

Networking and collaboration in education

Daniel Muijs

Dr. Daniel Muijs

Daniel Muijs, Head of Research and Deputy Head of the School of Education at the University of Southampton, recently visited the National Institute of Education to provide consultancy services on scaling efforts of educational innovations, funded by the eduLab programme. Professor Muijs, editor of School Effectiveness and School Improvement, has published widely in the areas of educational effectiveness, school network and teacher leadership, among others.

Prof Muijs prefaced the workshop by sharing the recent trends with respect to school networks and collaboration. Networking and collaboration in education have become increasingly popular in the recent years; there are large numbers of such programs in the UK and internationally. In the UK, there is a proliferation of school federations and academy chains. Internationally, schools are configured into network and cluster arrangements such as in New York City and Singapore respectively.

He then clarified some of the key ideas used in the workshop through differentiating between the concepts of network and collaboration in education in that a network in education is defined as at least two organizations working together for a common purpose for at least some of the time. Collaboration in education, on the other hand, refers to the joint activities between actors from different organizations within the network. So, network is the umbrella concept within which collaboration takes place.

To account for the recent increase in the number of network and collaboration programs in education, one could examine the potential benefits that such networks and collaboration could bring to the table. For instance, it has been found that there is clear evidence that network and collaboration can broaden student learning opportunities, as well as increase teacher capacity. But, can it improve student outcomes? To answer the latter question, it is unfortunate that there is currently little strong causal evidence of the relationship between network and collaboration, and increase in student outcomes. However, there is evidence that specific forms of collaboration having specific impacts. Overall, Prof Muijs opined that there is a need for more quantitative studies on the causal relationship between networks and collaboration, and student outcomes.

When collaboration between schools is successful in bringing about the benefits, it can normally be attributed to a few factors such as the following: 1) trust; 2) clear focus and goals; 3) strong support and brokerage; and 4) clear wins for all.   Whilst trust could be facilitated by prior relationships, it can also be carefully developed in a step-by-step fashion. Having a clear focus, as well as shared ownership of goals can help too in promoting collaboration between schools. A strategy that could be fairly easily implemented to create the shared ownership of goals and build trust is to create a dialogue amongst the network schools to identify common problems facing the schools for them to collaboratively solve. Another factor that has been found to be important for the promotion of collaboration is the strong support provided by the leadership of the schools in the network. To further promote collaboration, external brokerage may be required too; the external brokerage being a neutral party can serve to develop trust amongst the schools. Finally, there is a need for clear wins for all in the sense of “what’s in it for me?”; every party in the network must perceive that they will benefit from the collaboration in the network.

However, when collaboration between schools fails to live up to its purported benefits, it is normally due to factors such as the lack of time set aside for collaboration and when there is a lack of clear goals for collaborating and when there is a lack of shared perspective and understanding of the goals of the collaboration. Collaboration will also fail if there are no clear wins for all in the network and when there is a lack of capacity on the part of the schools to leverage on the opportunities afforded by the collaborative set-up.

Finally, Prof Muijs touched on the role that leadership plays in successful school networks. According to the empirical evidence, one role of leadership is to provide active management support, for example, establishment of clear direction at the start as well as the provision of time for collaboration, and a clear management structure in the network like a clear professional development structures. Leadership roles such as distributed leadership might emerge and these should be duly recognized. The latter scenario calls for the need for principals to adjust and re-adjust their perspectives and leadership as the contexts evolve. Additionally, encouragement of distributed leadership in the network can aid in the promotion of collaboration between schools, and can be aided by it.

This summary was provided by IEN Contributing Editor Paul Chua.

Curriculum reform in Australia

In 2010, Australia established its first national curriculum: the Australian Curriculum. The Australian Curriculum has defined content and achievement standards for the entire country. After a staged process of development, it is now being implemented. Recently, this curriculum was reviewed for the first time by the Australian federal government. The review raised a number of concerns that have led federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne to announce he will work with advisors to make sure it is serving the needs of Australian students. Pyne has stated, however, that any changes to be made as a result of the review won’t be implemented until at least 2016, due to the difficulty of earning the support of states and territories.

To learn more about this curriculum reform and the context of reform in Australia, I spoke with Dr. Glenn Savage of the University of Melbourne. Dr. Savage, with Kate O’Connor, recently published an article in the Journal of Education Policy titled “National agendas in global times: curriculum reforms in Australia and the USA since the 1980s.” From his perspective, there may be similar driving forces for reform in the US and Australia, but the reforms themselves have been quite different.

Savage and O’Connor (2014) wanted to understand how curriculum reform in Australia and the US were playing out, given that both countries have federal systems and histories of state and local control over education. Their research identified three key historical phases in the development of curriculum, which are shared by both nations. The first is the late 1980s, when both countries developed national education goals for the first time. They see this phase as a shift towards thinking in national terms, but also as a precursor to the standards movement of the 1990s and the push towards nationalizing aspects of the curriculum. The second was in the 1990s, when both countries attempted to create national curriculums or frameworks. In both countries those efforts failed when the realities of actually having to put the reforms into practice came along. For example, in both countries there was strong pushback against the idea of moving towards a national approach. The third phase was when each country rejuvenated their national reform efforts as a result of global economic and social pressures in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Influences included the global PISA testing program, which put the performance of each country in a global perspective and helped put standards-based national reforms back on the agenda. 

While there have been common historical driving forces in both countries, Savage and O’Connor (2014) see current reforms as very distinct in scope and form. In the US, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are voluntary national standards that focus on the areas of literacy and numeracy, whereas in Australia the national curriculum is more extensive and discipline-based. Savage and O’Connor (2014) argue that the distinctive nature of reform in each country can be explained to a large extent by four key differences in the ‘national policy space’ of each nation: 1) contrasting system diversity and complexity; 2) different roles and expectations of federal governments; 3) different forms of state-to-state intergovernmental cooperation; and 4) the contrasting involvement of non-government policy actors. The authors argue that the distinctive features of each system mean that each country provides different “conditions of possibility for reform” (Savage & O’Connor, 2014, p. 18). Their key argument is that while global flows of policy ideas and practices are powerful, these influences manifest differently in different national contexts. As such, reforms must be thought of as both national and global

Looking ahead, Savage identifies several issues that Australia will need to work through in relation to the curriculum.

First is the fall-out from the recent review of the curriculum. It is the first review of the curriculum and it has been heavily politicized. There are ideological arguments around it and it has raised questions about what a contemporary curriculum should look like. There is the possibility that the review could lead to the reshaping of certain elements of the Australian Curriculum.

Second is an ongoing debate about federalism and the role of state and tertiary governments in education. A Reform of the Federation White Paper, which was developed by a taskforce in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, was released in late October. The goal is to work out the appropriate division of responsibility between states and government. In contrast to the US, national intergovernmental organizations have long been essential to the Australian reform process and have the capability of bringing all of the states together with the federal government to consider a number of education-related issues.

Another issue Savage identified is that even though Australia now has a national curriculum, there are differences in how states interpret and enact the standards. Despite a common national framework, state-based inflections emerge. While this can be positive, in that it allows for tailoring to state-based needs and issues, it can also present problems of consistency, which is partly what the national curriculum set out to tackle in the first place. In one example, the state of Victoria has adopted a hybrid curriculum called “AusVELS” that takes some from the national Australian Curriculum, and some from the prior Victorian Essential Learning Standards.

Savage also said that since federation in 1901, there have been debates around the role of academic knowledge versus vocational knowledge and skills. From the early 1900s, for example, many Australian states tracked students into either high schools (academically-focused) or technical schools (vocationally-focused). In 1980s, most states eliminated tech schools and established a common, unified school system that aimed to provide all students with the opportunity to go to university. While this effort was intended to be a more inclusive model, it has also led to an increase in high school drop out rates. In order to address this, the pendulum has swung back and there are now proposals at Federal and State levels to return to a more vocational curriculum.

Finally, Savage said there are now debates about what a curriculum should look like for the future. Some argue that the curriculum should prioritize disciplinary knowledge, while others argue more for 21st century skills and competencies so that students are ready to participate in global workforce. There are huge tensions around this issue as many feel the skills focus is too short-sighted and too focused on what students should be able to do, rather than what they should know.

As Savage explained, the issues that Australia is grappling with at the moment are also educational issues that many countries across the globe are dealing with, illustrating the point that educational policies need to be recognized as simultaneously national and global in nature.

Deirdre Faughey