Teachers in the United States spend a lot more time engaged in active instruction than many of their peers in other high-performing countries. Teachers in Singapore, for example, spend around 17 hours per day actively teaching. American teachers spend 27 hours.
Those hours add up: according to a brief by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, teachers in the U.S. teach more hours yearly than those in other high-performing nations belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Teaching time takes up about 80 percent of U.S. teachers’ total work time. Meanwhile, in other OECD nations, teachers are in front of a class for just 60 percent of their workday.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, less time spent actively teaching in front of a class can actually improve the quality of education that students receive. Teachers are left with much more time to plan and collaborate with their teaching peers and, as a result, deliver more effective, higher-quality instruction.
Consider that, while U.S. teachers have about three to five hours a week to devote to lesson planning, in most OECD countries, teachers devote anywhere between 15 to 20 hours per week on tasks that support their in-class time.
The best school schedules help teachers spend quality teaching time with their students while also recognizing how to successfully balance in-class time with other activities that support teaching. After all, developing and executing lesson plans takes time and preparation, and expecting teachers to do much of that on their own time is a recipe for burnout, poor in-class performances, and high teacher turnover.
With budget cuts and increasing teaching loads, we know that teachers are often overworked and struggle to stay on top of grading, lesson prep, and extracurricular responsibilities.
Thinking outside the box when it comes to scheduling the school day can help institutions get the most out of teachers while still providing them with the time needed to develop first-class teaching material. To that end, innovative teacher schedules should include more time for lesson planning and collaboration with other teachers, more flexible scheduling to meet varied student needs, and the chance for students to direct their own learning.
Last year, the Center for American Progress reported on several innovative school schedules being implemented in various cities in New England and New York. The approaches, rationale, and results are as follows.
Case study: Guilmette Elementary School
Guilmette Elementary School in Massachusetts had a number of goals in mind when it began experimenting with school scheduling. Providing common planning time for teachers to collaborate was a priority, as was mindfully aligning grading team schedules.
The school added 260 hours of teaching time, with students following similar schedules every day of the week except for Friday, when they “participate in high-quality enrichment programming from noon to 2:30 p.m.”—such as art, yoga, music, and other activities led by community partners. That freed up some time for teachers to engage in professional development and planning.
The result? In four years, both English language arts and math scores have steadily improved, with Guilmette outperforming other schools in the district. However, one downside to Guilmette’s model is the extra cost incurred by adding extra hours—$2,500 per year, evenly distributed across teacher paychecks. Moreover, the quality of the student enrichment programs varies depending on the quality of the community partners.
Case study: Achievement First Greenfield
Greenfield schools in the Achievement First network put together a school schedule based around “four modalities of learning: self-directed learning time; small group learning; large group instruction; and immersive expeditions.”
With this approach, students practice daily self-directed learning, which builds responsibility and establishes individual learning pace. They also take part in small group learning, in sections made up of 14 to 16 students each, with larger group instruction taking the form of seminar-style classes, active debate, and experiments.
Greenfield schools make prep time a priority as well, giving teachers three prep hours a day plus weekly coaching. Why? “Because we know it is vital that our teachers get time for intellectual prep, analysis of student work, and sharing of team best practices in feedback,” Greenfield schools explain. “It’s also why we have staggered staff schedules—we have an extended school day, while also making sure teachers have the opportunity to recharge.”
Another important facet of the Greenfield model is its commitment to teacher specialization; making each teacher responsible for a specific teaching area allows teachers to focus on achieving maximum results in a field they’re passionate about.
The model has had some commendable results. Kindergartners surpassed the 90-percent mark for reading proficiency, and 60 percent achieved growth in math of at least 75 percent. Middle schoolers ranked first or second in English language weekly quizzes for the overall Achievement First Connecticut network, while fifth-grade math scores exceeded averages. And perhaps best of all, the program is no more costly than other schedules in the Achievement First network.
Case study: Generation Schools
A central aim of the Generation Schools Network is to create up to 30 percent more learning time than traditional public school peers in New York City, while also reducing the teacher-student ratio to help develop more effective teaching connections between educators and students.
Generation Schools strive for more peer collaboration between teachers; for instance, teachers take part in Summer Institutes that last one to two weeks during the summer, in order to get a jump start on planning for the upcoming school year. Teachers also get two weeks of professional collaboration time with their grade teams throughout the year.
The results are impressive. Generation Schools demonstrated positive growth along key metrics of student achievement as well as graduation rates. At Brooklyn Generation School, the four-year graduation rate outperformed schools with similar student demographics—and, remarkably, the entire graduating class of 2016 was accepted into college.
Model school schedules designed by teachers
Perhaps the best models for innovative school schedules are those designed by teachers themselves. An elementary school model created by Lexie Woo, a teacher from Queens, New York, gives teachers “the opportunity to improve their instruction through strategic collaboration with colleagues, additional planning time, and ongoing feedback from administrators.”
Instructional blocks rotate “to diffuse the negative impact of time-sensitive factors, such as tardiness, early dismissals, fatigue, medication use, and attention span.” And every week, each subject has a double block, giving teachers a chance to engage students in innovative teaching opportunities like project-based learning and learning that crosses disciplines.
Meanwhile, a model high school program designed by a handful of secondary teachers from across the United States aims to lighten teacher workloads with the aim of strengthening expertise in the teacher’s particular discipline or field. Teachers instruct in no more than two subject areas, with a goal of limiting teaching time to 60 percent of the work day.
Putting it all together
In a world of increasing social, technological, and educational complexity, teachers are under more and more pressure to deliver instruction that prepares students for college and beyond. But too often school boards emphasize instruction over preparation, ignoring how vital the behind-the-scenes work of educators is to learning.
Innovative scheduling is one solution to the tension between in-class time and out-of-class preparation, giving teachers the opportunity to meet the needs of a diverse body of students, in a variety of shifting educational contexts.