Fewer Student Hours May Result in Higher Educational Value

Fewer Student Hours May Result in Higher Educational Value by Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.

One of the foundational pursuits of the institution where I serve as Head of School, is that of providing “a high quality liberal arts education.” That pursuit for high quality is an endeavor to which I am sure all schools are pursuing (though the pursuit may be phrased differently). However, as we all know, whether it is in business, life, or relationships – high quality comes with a cost; and the greatest cost is that of 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.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)[1]includes the participation of over 30 democracies with market economies that work with each other, as well as with more than 70 non-member economies to promote “economic growth, prosperity, and sustainable development.” Each year the OECD publishes their Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators.[2] 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. Unfortunately, the country in which our school is located (Ecuador) is not yet a member of the OECD, so there is no direct data related to our country; nor is their data that applies specifically to International American Schools.  However, there is data provided for other Latin American countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile that can provide for us some contextual comparisons within our region of the world. Also the reports on the USA education system are of great interest and value for our schools that provide a “US-style” of education.

The OECD Indicators are incredibly helpful and insightful not just for educators, but for students, parents, and all those who are investing 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 that I believe should have great interest to our South American community. These findings also provide compelling reasons as to why we should be concerned about how our limited resource of time is utilized.

What are the earnings advantages from education and literacy proficiency?

  • The most recent 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 simply hold a High School diploma. The earnings advantage is only seen with the completion of 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)[3], earns about 45% more than a similarly educated adult who performs at or below Level 1 in literacy proficiency.

  • The two highest rated countries in the world 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.

Interesting, right? However, for a student to eventually pursue a graduate research degree they must first successfully complete an undergraduate degree; and for that to be possible they must first have the foundation of a high quality primary and secondary education. That is the pursuit of every school; to position our students so that they eventually and successfully not only matriculate to a college or university, but also have the opportunity and ability to go beyond.

So, for example, at our school, Primary students spend approximately 1,200 hours a year in compulsory education in pursuit of that excellence (i.e. 6 hours per day x 200 days). How does the investment of that time compare with the rest of the world?  Take a look at these other results from the most recent OECD report compared with the Economist Intelligence Unit: The Learning Curve report[4] 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 in the world[5], 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[6], 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.

  • In Ecuador, the hours of compulsory instruction are 15,600! (That’s 6 hours of instruction per day x 200 days x 13 years).

  • As an international school we cannot precisely determine our placement in global educational performance, however, Latin American schools all fall at the bottom of the ratings; scoring only above Indonesia[7], which ranks 40th out of 40. For example…

    • Chile ranks 32nd.

    • Colombia ranks 36th.

    • Argentina ranks 37th.

    • Brazil ranks 38th.

    • Mexico ranks 39th.

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 rank 37th in educational performance.

    • Chile provides 1,100 teaching hours and rank 32nd in educational performance.

    • USA provides 1,100 teaching hours and rank 14th in educational performance.

    • United Kingdom provides 600 teaching hours and rank 6th in educational performance.

    • Japan provides 500 teaching hours and rank 4th in educational performance.

    • Finland provides 550 teaching hours and rank 1st in educational performance.

What seems to be glaringly apparent in the above numbers 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 in a negative way. 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 levels of educational performance. How can this be? We all know that 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 are not spending them on student contact teaching hours?  The answer is?  Professional development of teachers!

The greater the quality and time dedicated to the professional development of teachers – the greater the quality of the instruction for students. Note these findings quoted in the OECD report:

  • “Several studies correlate sustained professional development for teachers with significant learning gains for students (Yoon et al., 2007).”

  • Research shows that, in addition to formal workshops, mentoring by veteran teachers can significantly improve the quality of instruction(Rockoff, 2008).”

  • “High-quality professional development also has a significant impact on teacher retention (Allensworth, Ponisciak and Mazzeo, 2009).”

Those schools which are 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 again 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[8], the author argues that “…teachers do much better by having less classes, less students, and more time…” The value and quality of the educational service to the students and their families is 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 in order 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[9], 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[10] released a report, Professional Learning in the Learning Profession[11] that identifies that US schools are “far behind in providing teachers with opportunities to participate in extended learning opportunities and productive collaborative communities.”

If our commitment to our pursuit of providing high quality education is genuine,then that commitment must be seen through an intentional and meaningful investment in the development of our teachers. However, as you can see by the numbers above, South American programs currently demand (often by government regulation) over twice the amount of instructional hours for our students in comparison to the number of hours being invested by the highest performing schools around the world. And unfortunately we have no evidence that this greater volume of additional seat-time and teaching time is resulting in a higher level of quality in the education we provide.  In fact, the global evidence would suggest that because we participate in the practice of heavy compulsory student instructional hours, we thus have very limited time for investing in the quality and excellence of the instruction being provided. So, in the midst of this reality how do we most effectively utilize the limited time we have to invest in that which is of greatest importance (i.e. the continual development of our teachers)?

As I’m sure most readers of this article know, there has been much written on the subject of 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 due to the fact that to fully address this need there must also be a fundamental shift in how with think about and view the role of the teacher.

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 preparation, continual development, implementation of research-based best practices, along with collaborative reflection on those practices. And if this is true, then we  must consider how to rebuild the way we organize, manage, and support the teacher’s daily workday in order to support those essential elements.

Cathy J. Cook, Mathematics Education and Professional Development Specialist for the Midwest Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education, and Carole Fine, Director of Professional Development, both for the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory in Oak Brook, Illinois, have conducted researched and written on this topic over the years, and recommendations which they made nearly a decade ago in work for the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (now a part of the American Institutes for Research[12]), are more valid than ever. Among the goals[13] to which they encouraged school communities to aspire, they included the following:

  • Move away from past models of professional development (where it took place only on in-service days, weekends, or during the summer) to new models that embed professional development into the daily lives of teachers.

  • Restructure teachers’ work to create the mental space[14] necessary for ongoing professional development.

  • Develop strategies for informing and convincing the public and policymakers that professional development not only is critical but also is as much a part of teachers’ work as instruction.

So, does more professional development time for teachers and less seat-time for students, equal higher quality education? Perhaps. But for those of us who serve in regions of the world where we may not have the authority and ability to make modifications to those student hours, we can work to provide work environments where teachers are supported with schedules, funding, and opportunities within our current framework to continually pursue what it means to be a high quality and trusted educator.

© 2016 Toby A. Travis

[1] http://www.oecd.org/

[2] http://www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm

[3] http://www.oecd.org/site/piaac/surveyofadultskills.htm

[4] http://m.thelearningcurve.pearson.com/

[5] https://rankingamerica.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/the-u-s-ranks-17th-in-educational-performance/

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://m.thelearningcurve.pearson.com/index/index-ranking

[8] http://www.edutopia.org/blog/value-of-a-teachers-time-jose-vilson

[9] http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/01/building-a-better-school-day/384607/

[10] http://learningforward.org/

[11] http://learningforward.org/publications/status-of-professional-learning

[12] http://www.air.org/

[13] http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/educatrs/profdevl/pd300.htm

[14] McDiarmid (1995) defines mental space as “the opportunity for teachers to get away from their classrooms both mentally and physically to think about their work” (p. 6).

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6 Comments

  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
    NCSD
    Nevada, USA

    Liked by 1 person

  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 1 person

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