Creating the conditions for teachers to be effective

Most Americans would agree that all students—regardless of where they live or how much money their parents make—should be taught by effective teachers, every day, in every class.

How to make that happen is trickier. Is it about recruiting more talent into teaching? Or getting rid of the incompetent teachers in our nation’s classrooms? For years, America’s policymakers have fixated on these two possibilities.

Slowly but surely, more potent and transcendent questions are taking hold: What are the conditions necessary for teachers to do their jobs effectively? How do the teaching and learning conditions that govern our schools compare to those in other nations?

Conveniently, a study released last week—including data from 100,000 randomly selected teachers in 6,500 schools and 34 nations—hones in on these very queries.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) first conducted the Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS) in 2008, but 2013 was the first time the United States has participated. The OECD results reveal a great deal about how America’s efforts to improve our public schools stack up against those of other nations.

American teachers have the longest school day and spend the most time in front of students.

U.S. teachers work more hours per week than their global counterparts—45 hours versus an average of 38 in other nations. And far more of their hours are devoted to the act of teaching: 27 versus the 19-hour OECD average.

So, that means we’re #winning, right? Nope. Here’s why.

American teachers have fewer opportunities to observe and collaborate with one another to improve instruction.

Teachers in top-performing countries like Singapore and Finland spend far less time in front of students than in the United States for a good reason: so they can ensure they teach effectively, making the best possible use of instructional time. In these countries, teachers’ schedules enable them to spread their expertise to one another, analyze student progress, and improve how they teach.

Schools in top-performing nations are organized according to what teaching and learning call for today, not 100 years ago. (Worth noting: teacher preparation programs in these countries also ensure teachers know how to use this planning, observation, and collaboration time effectively.)

Meanwhile, in the United States, 50% of teachers never observe other teachers (compared to 5% in Korea and 20% in Singapore). Compared to average teachers elsewhere, American teachers are twice as likely to lack opportunities to work with teaching colleagues across different student age groups and classes. And only 10% of US teachers reported receiving feedback from assigned mentors—compared to 38% in Singapore and 29% in England and 24% in Australia.

Strikingly—while American teachers’ planning and collaboration time is scarce—the time they must devote to general administrative tasks is nearly triple that of Finnish teachers, and they spend six times as long on extracurricular activities. In addition, US teachers are two and a half times more likely than peers in other nations to be required to spend time on “unspecified tasks.”

American teachers give their professional development lower ratings.

The average teacher in the U.S. reports spending a similar number of days engaged in professional development as does the average teacher in other countries. However, American teachers are uniformly less satisfied with content and delivery of their on-the-job learning opportunities. And no wonder—they are less likely than teachers elsewhere to report they receive helpful feedback on their teaching practices, methods for working with special needs students, and assessments for gauging student progress.

From: OECD (2014). Key Findings from the Teaching and Learning International Study (United States Country Note). Belgium: Author.

American teachers are less likely to be evaluated by expert peers.

On average, teachers in other countries are twice as likely to be evaluated by peers than U.S. teachers. While regular evaluation is ubiquitous in the U.S., observations are often conducted by administrators who may have little background knowledge of the subject or grade—and little time for regular observation and feedback.

American students attend larger schools with fewer teachers, and have more administrative and extracurricular tasks.

Not only do U.S. teachers work longer and spend more time teaching than do their counterparts, but they also teach larger classes. On average, American teachers teach in larger classes (average of 27 students) than do their counterparts in thirty-three other nations (average of 24).

Does this matter? The merits of school and class size can be debatable—and often the empirical evidence is clouded by researchers’ inability to control for mitigating factors, like teaching quality and working conditions.

But some research shows that top-performing nations take measures to ensure that teachers have the structures and resources to teach effectively even when average class sizes are larger.

For example, while Finnish classes may be large, the “regular” teacher is often supplemented by additional teachers who offer specialized support to students who struggle. And many teachers also teach the same students from a single class for many years (what is often called “looping” here in America). The idea? A teacher can better serve a large class if he or she knows students and their families well.

And of course, teachers in Finland and other top-performing nations are not as burdened by administrative tasks and extracurricular demands. These organizational conditions matter a great deal—and have even more impact when class sizes are large.

Sooner or later, American policymakers must step back from measuring the effectiveness of individual teachers to look at the bigger picture, the context in which teaching and learning occurs. (Some pragmatic initial steps are outlined in a new CTQ-Global report on improving professional learning systems for teachers, and Linda Darling-Hammond has offered a succinct outline of key policy shifts in response to the TALIS results. Linda led the work of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) twenty years ago, making recommendations strikingly sympatico with today’s TALIS takeaways.)

Indeed, isn’t it about time that our nation’s leading policymakers recognize that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions? It’s a tagline that has been around for decades, and one that is critical to improving all schools.

Images above (“U.S. teachers teach the most instructional hours” and “The U.S. has larger schools with fewer teachers”) used with the permission of Linda Darling-Hammond, who shared them at the #OECDTALIS press conference hosted by NCTAF in June 2014.