American Teachers Might Not Work Such Long Hours After All

According to a new study, teachers in the U.S. might not work that much more than their international peers.  

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There’s little question that American schoolteachers work hard. But a new report suggests they probably don’t work quite as many hours as many prominent scholars and journalists have long believed.

The issue of teaching time has both practical and more abstract implications. On one side, teachers unions have long lobbied to cap the number of teaching hours in different districts. But the author of a new paper focuses more on the theoretical implications, arguing that the emphasis on teacher time has overshadowed other, more crucial issues and may have affected our sense of how good, or not, teachers are at their jobs.*

The study, authored by Samuel Abrams, a researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College, starts by debunking long-standing research claiming that American educators spend way more time teaching lessons than their international peers. Specifically, it asserts that numbers in a report released annually by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have been inaccurate for more than a decade. Year after year, the organization has found that American high school teachers spend about 73 percent more time on classroom instruction than colleagues in countries such as Finland and Israel. In fact, Abrams concludes, they spend only a modest amount of extra time teaching.

So why the discrepancy? In all but two OECD countries—Japan and the U.S.—teaching times are taken from union contracts or other labor agreements that spell out exactly how many hours teachers lead classes. Japan and the U.S. are the only countries where teachers self-report their time in the classroom. The problem, according to Abrams, is that American teachers significantly overestimate the time they spend teaching, probably because they round up to the closest hour on a daily instead of weekly basis.

Abrams says the consequences of these errors go beyond unreliable data. The inaccurate numbers have been used to suggest teachers in America are bad at their jobs—why does it take them so long?—and to justify teacher accountability measures tied to standardized testing, he says. If teachers are spending so much time on instruction, the thinking goes, why isn’t America achieving better results in its classrooms? Not everyone agrees with Abrams. Eric Hanushek, a researcher at Stanford University, maintains that the OECD report “has never significantly entered into the policy debate” surrounding teacher effectiveness.

The most recent OECD report, released last September, said that American elementary school teachers spent 1,131 hours leading classes—349 hours more than the OECD average—in 2012. After diving into the numbers, Abrams found that, by his calculation, American elementary school teachers actually only teach about 12 percent more time than their peers. The real numbers for middle and high school teachers are 14 percent and 11 percent, respectively, he says. To arrive at the new figures, Abrams pored over teachers’ contracts and bell schedules for a sampling of districts where the amount of instructional time is close to the national average—and accounted for days lost to standardized testing, professional development, and other reasons.

Abrams believes that the OECD measure has persisted for so long because many people working in education research have never been teachers and might not have thought twice about such a large discrepancy. More researchers with teaching experience could go a long way toward separating educational myth from reality.   

In the meantime, Thomas Snyder, a program director at the National Center for Education Statistics, which submits data to OECD for its annual report, says changes to the survey could be on the way to help make the data more accurate as a result of Abrams’ findings.

Correction, Feb. 5, 2015: This post originally misstated that a new paper focuses on how teaching time can affect our understanding of teacher effectiveness. The paper did not get into this issue.

Alexandria Neason is a fellow for The Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism dedicated to covering the issues facing America’s teachers.