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Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Guarding Teachers' Time

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Guarding Teachers' Time

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The opening of the new school year is a cue for renewed discussion of ways to improve U.S. education. The grim results obtained by American students in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and a widespread dissatisfaction with many aspects of American education have led many parents, educators, and policymakers to ask, once again, what can be done. Vouchers, charter schools, class size, technology, length of the school year, and other elements of reform are being discussed, but conspicuously absent from most of these discussions is a focus on teachers. One might well question how any education reform can succeed when teachers, who are ultimately responsible for putting the reforms into practice in the classroom, are not included as part of the equation.

An examination of teachers' lives in American, Japanese, and German elementary schools is the topic of a report, "Trying to Beat the Clock," recently released by the U.S. Department of Education. It is a report that merits close attention. Based on in-depth discussions with teachers about their workdays, the study presents a clear picture of what it is like to face a classroom of students hour after hour, day after day, with little time to prepare, little help, few opportunities to interact with colleagues, and little feedback or constructive criticism.

Teachers in the United States consistently suggest that one of the biggest constraints on the rate and success of education reform is their lack of time for professional activities other than the direct instruction of students. Instruction and the host of chores required for the smooth running of their classrooms leave few opportunities for the other challenging aspects of education reform. How, they ask, can they engage in thoughtful planning when no sustained blocks of time are available and work must be accomplished in short bursts of intense effort, and often alone.

Only about half of the Japanese teachers' daily eight or nine school hours are actually spent instructing students. In contrast, instruction typically occupies more than two-thirds of the school day of German and American teachers. But German students and teachers are generally through with school shortly after noon, while U.S. children and teachers remain in school several hours longer.

The short instructional day in Germany leaves teachers with ample amounts of self-directed time. Although Japanese teachers remain at school longer, their greater amounts of noninstructional time and their opportunities to have sustained periods when they are not teaching leave nearly half their noninstructional time for interacting with their fellow teachers and students, preparing lessons, planning, and grading papers.

Without adequate noninstructional time, it is difficult for U.S. teachers to find opportunities to benefit from each other's help and suggestions.

American teachers have a heavier commitment of instructional time within the total time they are at school than do teachers in Japan. Adding further to the burden of U.S. teachers is the fact that they, in contrast to German and Japanese teachers, are paid for only nine months. The need by many teachers for 12-month employment makes it necessary for them to assume other summer jobs and thereby deprives them of the opportunity to spend summer months planning and preparing for the next school year.

Without adequate noninstructional time, it is difficult for U.S. teachers to find opportunities to benefit from each other's help and suggestions. In both Germany and Japan, new teachers are assigned mentors, skilled teachers who observe and consult with them during the first year of teaching in Japan and the first two years of teaching in Germany. Such assistance usually occurs in the United States during the approximately 12 weeks of practice teaching, but appears to be less common after the teachers graduate from college. American teachers are on their own once they begin teaching, and have few opportunities to exchange lesson plans or teaching techniques with their peers or more experienced colleagues. This is not the case in Japan, where teachers continue to seek their colleagues' comments and suggestions throughout their teaching careers.

School schedules in the United States tend to be more rigid than those in Germany and Japan, where shorter school days are provided for younger children or on certain days of the week. There is flexibility, too, in the time of the day and the length of time that subjects are taught during different weeks. The flexibility of scheduling makes it possible to organize the free time that is available to teachers into longer blocks. In Japan, for example, teachers spend some of this time working alone on their own teaching tasks, but more in working together on such matters as polishing and perfecting lessons, selecting textbooks, planning all-school events, and determining policies that govern many facets of school life.

Adding further to the appeal of teaching in Germany and Japan is the professional status and respect afforded to teachers. One indirect index of this respect is seen in the absence of classroom intrusions, such as announcements over the public-address system or persons collecting milk money. Interruptions during lessons seldom occur in Japan because specific times are set aside each day for announcements and other routines. U.S. teachers are often required to cope with disruptions in the flow of their lessons--a fact that Japanese teachers view with disbelief.

Procedures that are successful in other countries are not necessarily cure-alls for problems facing schools here. However, they can lead us to reconsider our own current practices, as has been the case in some of the innovative schools that were visited in the Education Department's time-use study. Teachers in these schools pointed out the great value of having more time for preparing lessons, and for such daily housekeeping tasks as calling parents, preparing reports, and grading papers.

It is an inefficient system that fails to provide time for teachers to plan, discuss, and prepare lessons, or to be able to interact with their students and colleagues outside of class lessons. What is clear from this comparative study is that we in the United States must consider ways of reallocating the ways teachers spend their time so that they and their students can find school a more rewarding and productive place.


Harold W. Stevenson is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan's Center for Human Growth and Development in Ann Arbor.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Page 52

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