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Time for Teachers

October 14, 2011

Has anyone done research on teacher effectiveness being correlated with the time a teacher spends on school related work? All other things being equal, I would think that a teacher who devotes more time to his or her work will be more effective than one who spends less time. Beyond all the other things time allows (such as more professional reading, connecting with colleagues, researching in one’s discipline, etc), there is one simple reason why time matters–good teaching involves good planning and lots of feedback to students on their work (i.e. grading). Planning and grading takes time and it takes time each and every day. Really good teachers, in my experience, spend a lot of time, almost every day, planning for classes and providing feedback on student work. And this planning work takes more time than anyone is “given” by administration in the school day.

In a system of schools where a hotly negotiated contract guides pay scales for all teachers and stipulates work expectations, there is little, if any, way to incentivize or reward individual teachers for quality of work or effort. Regardless of performance, regardless of time commitment (or any other factor except for years of service and academic degree), almost all public school teachers are guaranteed annual raises and that raise is the same for every teacher at the same “step.”

When Apple was developing the I-phone, Steve Jobs decided 6 weeks before launch that the screen had to be glass instead of the plastic they had been intending. This put huge pressure on engineers to find the right glass, modify production, etc. Apple designers worked overtime to make this happen, knowing they would be rewarded if the I-phone was a success with customers. Contrast this with public education, where  a teacher who makes such an extraordinary extra effort in planning learning experiences or working for students outside school hours mostly ends up feeling like a sucker watching colleagues go home at 3:00 and doing whatever non school related they please. (And often the teacher who does extraordinary work is ostracized by teaching colleagues for making them look bad.)

While I am not a bedrock capitalist who thinks people are only motivated by monetary rewards, you can’t take out almost every incentive and motivator used in organizations worldwide and expect that good will and self motivation will somehow inspire quality results from the millions of people who are teachers.

While teacher’s unions are not the sole problem in public education, the teacher contracts common to most districts promotes mediocrity. Again, simple math can show some of the problem: Let’s say the contract stipulates the school day as being from 7:30-3:00 with the contact hours with students being 300 minutes/day. That is 5 hours with kids out of 7.5 hours at work. Take out 1/2 hour for lunch, 1/2 hour of passing periods and class set-up time, and that leave 90 minutes for planning and grading if there were absolutely nothing else a teacher needed to do (such as meetings, work with individual kids, going to the bathroom, coffee break, duties, etc.). Likewise, the contract will stipulate number of days a teacher is expected to work, usually a handful above the number of school days.

To be effective, I would think most teachers have to work beyond the contract. But what incentive exists to do this “extra” work? And what pressures exist for teachers not to “give away” their services by working beyond contracted time? How do we reward teachers for quality work? How can schools be free from any of the normal incentives that encourage commitment in so many other organizations?

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