U.S. Teaching Time Greatly Exaggerated Finds New Study

By Kathryn Baron — February 02, 2015 2 min read
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The long-held belief that American public school teachers spend at least twice as much time in front of the class than their counterparts in the world’s higher-performing school systems is a myth, according to a new study from Teachers Colllege at Columbia University.

In a working paper titled “The Mismeasure of Teaching Time,” researcher Samuel E. Abrams blames the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for releasing bad data that academics and journalists have repeated without verifying its accuracy.

As a consequence, argues Abrams, comparisons between the United States and top-performing school systems, especially Finland, which is held up as an international model, are inaccurate and have led to mistaken conclusions about how to improve America’s public education and the actual differences in teacher salaries.

For more on this study and conflicting data on teachers’ instruction time, read this story from my colleague Sarah D. Sparks: “Do U.S. Teachers Really Teach More Hours?”

“Teachers in U.S. public schools work hard, for relatively low pay, and under increasingly stressful conditions because of federally mandated high-stakes tests tying assessment of teachers to student performance on these tests,” writes Abrams. “But they do not...spend so much more time instructing students than teachers in other OECD nations.”

Since 2000, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which releases annual comparisons of international test scores and other factors that impact student achievement, has reported that teaching time in U.S. elementary schools is twice as high as in other countries, 65 percent higher in middle schools, and 73 percent longer in high schools.

Abrams found that the true figures are 12 percent, 14 percent, and 11 percent more time, respectively. He says the misinformation is due, in part, to the way the NCES gathers data. Every few years, it asks a sample of teachers to complete the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS). The most recent data reported to OECD is from the 2007-08 survey, which was 44 pages long and contained 75 questions. Teaching time is the 50th question and it asks teachers to round up the number of hours. As a result, responses were often inflated.

NCES conducted a closer analysis and acknowledged the problem, Abrams said. He writes that Thomas Snyder, the NCES director for annual reports and information told him: “There clearly has been a systematic misinterpretation of the question regarding teaching hours in SASS,” and said that the survey would be revised.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.