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Samuel Abrams, who directs the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, recently published a study comparing the conditions of teaching in the United States and other OECD nations. Abrams here summarizes the study and corrects an article that appeared in Slate about it.
All studies are necessarily open to interpretation. What I concluded in a recently published study of teaching time, entitled The Mismeasure of Teaching Time and posted on the Web site of the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, should have been straightforward but clearly was not. Slate came away with a surprising take, from its provocative headline claiming “American Teachers Might Not Work Such Long Hours After All” to its conclusion regarding the effectiveness of U.S. teachers.
The study may be summarized as follows:
- Because of an error in data collection, the U.S. Department of Education has significantly overstated teaching time in its annual reports to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has, in turn, published this erroneous information every year since 2000 in its frequently cited digest of educational statistics and analysis, Education at a Glance (EAG).
- According to the latest data in EAG, U.S. teachers spend 49 to 73 percent more time leading classes than their OECD counterparts. In reality, the difference is about 15 percent, which is still substantial but far less significant than the differences in teacher pay and the structure of the school day.
- A central problem with this overstatement of U.S. teaching time is that it has distracted scholars and journalists from the more pressing differences in teacher pay and the structure of the school day.
- The differences in teacher pay are indeed dramatic and telling. U.S. upper-secondary teachers, for example, earn 70 percent as much as their college classmates while their OECD counterparts make 92 percent. In absolute terms, U.S. teachers earn about the same as their OECD counterparts, but it is relative pay that truly matters. Because of less income polarization in other OECD nations, teachers abroad typically have far more purchasing power than here. And inadequate purchasing power makes any profession more stressful.
- The differences in the structure of the school day are likewise dramatic and telling. In the United States, in contrast to many other OECD nations, the school day has been driven by the demands of high-stakes testing. These demands have boxed out time for music, art, drama, and recess, exacerbated the assembly-line pace of the school day in the United States long ago documented by Raymond Callahan in Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1962), and moreover placed tremendous and unnecessary pressure on students, teachers, and administrators alike.
In today’s contentious climate of education policy, where teachers are readily blamed for everything from subpar student achievement to disappointing national economic productivity, it is imperative that technical distinctions in academic studies are properly understood.
U.S. teachers indeed work long hours. I know this too well as someone who was a high school teacher for 18 years. Prepping for class and grading papers can be consuming activities, taking up time in the evening and over the weekend. This is true for teachers in other OECD countries, as well, even in the pedagogical heaven that is Finland. What is not true, however, is that U.S. teachers spend as much time leading classes as reported by the OECD and repeated by scholars and journalists.