Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Workday Is Difficult to Pin Down

By Vaishali Honawar — April 12, 2007 5 min read
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A recent news story on teacher work hours in Hawaii had the education community doing a double take.

The report, still in preliminary form, came from a committee made up of members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the state education department. A local newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser, based on findings in the report, calculated that educators in the state work 15½ hours on average each day.

State education department officials quickly distanced themselves from the report, saying their own participation on the committee that produced it was “not very consistent.”

“[The report] is extremely one-sided to the point of not being credible,” said Greg Knudsen, a spokesman for the department. “Everyone knows teachers put in many hours, but no one believes it is 15 and a half hours every day,” he said.

An Advertiser editorial said that the 15½-hour workday “defies logic,” and added that the newspaper’s reporter should have spoken with someone outside the committee who could have brought perspective to the matter.

On the Clock

Full-time teachers worked less than a 40-hour week in 2005, according to the National Compensation Survey.

37.4 hours | Prekindergarten and kindergarten

36.5 hours | Elementary school

36.9 hours | Secondary school

35.4 hours | Special education

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

But the debate in Hawaii throws up a question with as many answers, it appears, as there are education interests: How many hours does the average teacher clock in?

Further complicating the issue is the fact that teachers work a calendar different from that of other professions—usually around 38 weeks a year.

Based on the shorter work year, some researchers have argued that teachers are on a par with other professions in pay for actual hours worked. A controversial report that came out earlier this year from researchers Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters of the New York City-based Manhattan Institute computed hourly wages for teachers using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to find that, on average, they earn more than economists, registered nurses, and architects, among others. In fact, it said, the average public school teacher was paid 36 percent more than the average white-collar worker in 2005.

The study met with vehement opposition from teachers’ unions, which pointed out that it did not take into account additional hours that teachers put into their jobs outside the classroom.

While school days have always been long, “there is a lot going on now in terms of the No Child Left Behind Act,” said Reg Weaver, the president of the 3.1 million-member National Education Association, referring to the mandates of the 5-year-old federal law.

“There is a ton of paperwork that needs to be done in addition to other responsibilities, and teachers are trying to juggle the duties and responsibilities they have both in classroom and after school,” he added.

A Complicated Answer

Across the political spectrum, experts tend to agree that many teachers put in hours well in excess of the seven-hour workday stipulated in most union contracts.

According to Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, teachers work as hard as professionals in other fields, and then some.

“Teachers work as many hours per week as other college graduates, … or at least women teachers work as much as or more than women college graduates in other professions, while male teachers work slightly less than male graduates in other professions,” said Mr. Mishel, whose board of directors includes labor-union officials.

“I think it’s a mistake for people to think teachers only work their contracted hours,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a conservative-leaning advocacy and policy group in Washington. It is “difficult and almost impossible” for teachers to get all their work, including preparation for class, done within the hours stipulated in the contract, she added.

Even the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges that there is more to the question of teacher work hours than hard facts. In its latest annual survey on worker compensation, released last August, the bureau found that elementary teachers worked 36.5 hours a week, while secondary school teachers worked 36.9 hours. Special education teachers worked 35.4 hours.

But the bureau also says, in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, that after including school duties performed outside the classroom, many teachers work more than 40 hours a week.

Teachers’ unions, meanwhile, have their own figures. According to Mr. Weaver, the average teacher spends 50 hours a week on instructional duties, and 12 more hours on noninstructional tasks, such as grading papers, advising students, and serving on bus duty.

Those responsibilities, in essence, stretch the workday of an average teacher to more than 12 hours—almost twice what is stated in most contracts.

But some researchers point to problems with taking such data at face value. They say it is not easy to measure work that teachers do off site, especially when the measures rely on self-reporting.

Michael Podgursky, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied teacher pay and work hours, said a teacher could, for instance, be watching television while grading papers, or ironing while thinking of the next day’s test.

“People always think they’re working. But if I’m on a treadmill thinking about work, does that count as work?”

“The answer is kind of complicated, and it is not hard to see why,” he added.

$63,000 More?

In Hawaii, the Time Committee was set up in 2005 as a result of a collective bargaining agreement between the school board and the union. (Hawaii has a single, statewide school district.) It was in response to teachers’ concerns of spending many extra hours on the job, said Joan Lee Husted, the executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

“Our teachers have been complaining that with NCLB and with standards-based education, they have been doing more testing, more paperwork, and more committee meetings than they are preparing for delivering instruction,” she said.

The preliminary report found that teachers spend 1,780 additional hours a year, or 254 additional seven-hour workdays, on noninstructional duties that include creating lesson plans, grading tests, counseling individual students, and communicating with parents, among many other tasks. If teachers were compensated for the additional work at the average daily rate of pay, the report says, it would cost $63,000 more per teacher per year.

Meanwhile, the NEA’s Mr. Weaver said a teacher working for 15 hours does not sound, to him, beyond the realm of possibility.

For most teachers, he said, a 12-hour workday is common.

“Teachers are always engaged with the children and the community,” Mr. Weaver said. “We spend a lot of time working.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Workday Is Difficult to Pin Down


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