Monday, November 15, 2010

Teach less, but teach smarter

I've been doing a little math today.

I've been calculating how much time I work, and of that time, how much I spend teaching.

I have some unique data on this because, since September, I've been keeping track of all my work time.  Since I'm half self-employed, I need to track my time for some projects.  Since I was tracking my time for some projects, I figured I might as well track my time for all my projects, including my classroom teaching.  I like collecting data.

Because I'm teaching half time, I have extra energy for teaching.  On a daily basis, I have been more prepared for my students this year than ever before.  On my teaching days, I'm working longer hours than I used to when I taught full time because I know I only have to sustain that pace for 2 or 3 days per week.

So I'm operating under the hypothesis that my ratio of non-teaching to teaching hours is an accurate model for what an elementary school teacher ideally needs to do in order to be well-prepared to teach.  I don't think my hours are an exaggeration -- I think they represent what good teachers would do if they had the time and energy.  I tend to be a quick worker, and I've been teaching for a decade; if anything, less-experienced teachers might need more time to be well-prepared than I do.

(This exercise is based on the assumption that teachers are not just following a scripted curriculum but are tailoring published curriculum guides to meet the needs of their students; looking at their students' work and re-teaching as necessary; and designing entirely new lessons or units as necessary.  It also includes some "big picture" work in terms of creating overviews of units for the year and grading, but it doesn't include the instructional coaching I've been doing for my school.)

To calculate my hours with children, I figured out the full-time load at my school, which is 25.5 teaching hours per week -- those are contact hours with children.

In 9 weeks of school (discounting partial weeks), I have worked an average of 33.5 hours per week. Double that for a full-time teacher, and that's 67 hours.

On average, 1 hour of teaching requires 2.7 hours of my time. 

Maybe I do a little more than half-time work, because I have to spend time communicating with my job-share partner, catching up on missed meetings, etc.  So let's be conservative, and say that a well-prepared, full-time teacher works between 2 and 2.5 hours for every 1 hour of teaching.  This includes planning, looking at and responding to work, communicating with families and colleagues, writing report cards, holding family conferences, and meeting with supervisors, coaches, and colleagues.

If every hour spent teaching requires 2.5 hours of a teacher's time (1 hour to teach and 1.5 hours to prepare and follow-up), then a full-time elementary teacher at my school teaches for 25.5 hours a week and needs 38 hours of prep time, which is equal to almost 64 hours of work per week.

Let's say I'm working too hard, and better teachers work less than I do.  So we decide to round down and estimate that to teach 25.5 hours in a week requires an additional 25-30 hours of prep time.  That's still 50-55 hours of work a week.

In my contract, I have to be at school for 35 hours per week.  25.5 of those hours are teaching.  Less than 10 hours are for prep time -- and 45 minutes per day are meant to be a lunch break, which means I have only 5 hours of designated prep time.

Obviously, this set-up doesn't make sense.  We can't teach well for 25 hours with only 5 hours of preparation.  So teachers work extra hours: a lot of extra hours.

Clearly, this is not a sustainable model in the long run.  The days I teach, I am working between 10 and 12 hours per day; on weekends I work a few more hours.  This gives me little time, on work days, to exercise, cook, spend time with friends or family, do errands, or relax. It follows, then, that to be a skillful, full-time teacher, is not a realistic career option for many people as the job is now designed.  And, let's face it, we need many people to be able to do this job and, preferably, to be able to do it for quite a few years, since beginning teachers are not great teachers.

Let me outline an alternative.  Today I was looking at a typical teacher's workload in a charter school opening next fall in Boston.  Teachers will be required to be at school 45 hours per week, far more than is required at my school now or at other Boston public schools.  But they will only teach an average of 16 hours per week.  Even if you add in additional responsibilities, such as lunch duty, tutoring, or committee meetings, that's still significantly more than 1.5 hours of non-teaching time (ie. preparation and follow-up time) for each hour of teaching.

It turns out many other countries do things this way as well.  According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States has more hours of teaching time than any other OECD country.  (This while many people are demanding that we increase the school day!)

According to the OECD, in the United States, primary school teachers spend an average of 1097 hours teaching per year.  Secondary teachers spend slightly less (about 1060 hours per year).  In Finland, a country of late much-lauded for its educational achievements, primary teachers teach an average of only 677 hours, while secondary teachers teach about 570 hours.  Japanese teachers teach between 500 and 709 hours per year.  (These countries' school years are also longer than the US school year, so this means even fewer hours of teaching per week.)

With all this extra time spent teaching in the US, what results do we have to show for it?

And for those who want students to spend more time in class: Finnish students spend the third lowest number of hours in school in a year, as compared to other OECD countries.  (Data for the US are missing in this category, since the numbers vary from state to state.)

Similarly, according to a 2010 Mathematica study (see pages 12-13 of the Executive Summary), while many charter schools in the US require longer school years and longer school days, the data do not indicate a correlation between time spent in school and increased achievement in math and reading.

Clearly, the number of hours spent in school is not the variable that determines student achievement.

Many teachers and their unions are against longer days at school.  A longer day that means more time teaching, and no significant increase in prep time, would indeed be disastrous.  But if longer days mean there is an acknowledgment of how much time it takes to be a good teacher, and results in less teaching time and more time for lesson preparation, professional development, and collaboration, then I'm not opposed to a longer day.  In fact, it seems more honest; no one can say that teachers don't work long hours if their hours are visible to everyone, instead of the uncountable hours we work now.

(Just to muddy the waters a bit, it does not appear that other countries require more non-teaching time than the US.  US teachers have an average number of non-teaching hours at school.)

Obviously, the answer is not more time spent teaching and learning, for students or for teachers.  It's not that we need to teach more, it's that we need to teach smarter.  And teaching smarter means investing more time in training teachers and in allowing them to collaborate, plan, collect data, and hone their skills.  The answer is not for teachers to fill even more poorly-planned minutes in front of a class; the answer is that teachers should teach less, but teach better.

Thanks to my trusty research assistant, who knows off the top of his head where to find the resources I need, and can put his hands on them quickly.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

To Play or Not to Play?

Here are some pictures of my students on our first neighborhood walk the other day.

This is what I love about teaching.  Besides good conversations, exciting discoveries, and having fun together, my favorite moments are when we are outside, exploring and discovering, or inside, creating and building. 

Don't get me wrong.  I also love teaching math and reading.  I love watching skills and ideas build and crest and expand.  I love seeing those little, measurable things that kids get better at: subtracting, or reading two-syllable words, or spelling.  That stuff is fun too.

But exploring and creating and discovering and communicating and collaborating -- that is where it's at.

Here's the thing, though.  At my school, we do a lot of traditional teaching.  And we also teach about social justice, and the community, and the environment, and we get kids outside, doing hands-on science and social studies.

But, our kids don't do well on the standardized tests.  They don't do the worst ever, but they don't do well, not by a long shot.  And this despite the fact that we, the teachers, are pretty much killing ourselves trying to find the best ways to teach them.

Here's where it gets tricky.  Our theory is that hands-on, interdisciplinary lessons will make kids want to learn.  It will engage them, and then when we embed writing and reading and math into those units of study, they will be more meaningful, and students will learn and achieve more.

But it doesn't really seem like it's happening.  At least not yet. Now, maybe too many teachers are too new at our school to be good enough at it.  And maybe the problem is that the tests are not measuring what we wish they would measure or what we think is most important.  But the fact remains that the tests must be taken, and the tests must be passed, and more schools are being closed every year in Boston, and the schools being closed are the ones not doing well on the tests. 

Our principal has been suggesting to different teachers, especially those with really struggling classes, that we do less science and social studies.  She's scared and freaked out about the tests.  She's scared into thinking we need to spend more time on traditional teaching of the 3 Rs, which is not where her heart is as an educator.

Meanwhile, I've been learning a lot about self-regulation from a program I'm working for called Tools of the Mind.  Tools believes that kids should have pretty solid self-regulation skills by the middle or end of kindergarten.

Self-regulation means that students can inhibit themselves in order to reach a goal or follow a rule.  It means they can remember things on purpose, and learn strategies to help their brains work better.  It means they understand why there are rules and ways of doing things in a community, and they follow those rules.

There is a lot of research about how students develop self-regulation.  A lot of it comes from make believe play.  When little kids play, they learn to follow rules according to the roles they take on.  They learn to remember things and act in certain ways according to their characters.  They learn language and communication skills from interacting with other children.

The problem is that these days, kids don't play much anymore.  We used to play in our neighborhoods, and have older kids who "mentored" younger kids in how to do good, imaginative play.  Now kids don't play much in their neighborhoods, and they don't do a lot of imagining.  They do a lot of looking at screens.

So Tools of the Mind has kids play, a lot.  In pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, they get a lot of practice with playing, from less- to more-structured play opportunities.  This helps them develop the self-regulation skills that are essential to success in school.

One colleague of mine is skeptical that we should be doing so much science and social studies with our first, second, and third graders when they aren't so good yet at reading and writing and math.  At the same time, she says she thinks our kindergarten is too academic.  She thinks they need to play MORE in pre-K and kindergarten, which would give them more of the academic language and skills they would need to do well in school as they got older.

Her son goes to school in the suburbs.  In his kindergarten, he plays most of the day.  He doesn't do letter sounds or sight words.  Instead, he plays in the kitchen an hour and a half a day, his teacher says.  At first glance, our kindergartners would look to be ahead of him.  But you know that by second grade, he and his classmates will be ahead of our urban students.

There are many reasons they'll be ahead.  A lot of it has to do with exposure to language starting years ago, long before they started school.  But I wonder how much of it has to do with the time they spend playing, too. 

In the second grade, (and third, and fourth, and fifth...) we have many students who don't have self-regulation skills.  They can't manage their emotions or their bodies or their minds.  We are thinking hard about how and what to teach them this year.  Should we do more reading and writing, since they aren't very good at those things?  Or should we do role-playing and building, creating a city (since we study neighborhoods) in our classroom, and then writing about it?

Deep inside, I doubt it is best for kids to spend all day huddled over papers on their desks.  I doubt it is good for teachers either, for any of our souls.  And if it is best for kids to do that, then I can't be their teacher.  My best moments as a teacher are my most relaxed, most improvised, most organic moments, when my students and I connect with each other not just intellectually, but also personally.

The test results of last year's third graders are a dark presence in the corner of my mind, though, as I think through these questions. This year's third grade scores promise to be even lower.  I am sure our kids need to be playing and talking more when they are younger.  The question we are struggling with is what should they be doing more of now?  If it weren't for those tests lurking at the end of next year, I would know my choice.  I don't have a lot of say over what gets tested, though.  Unfortunately, I'm not in charge.