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Trying to Beat the Clock: Uses of Teacher Professional Time in 3 Countries

author: US Dept of Education
description: This report compares how teachers use their planning time in 21 different elementary schools in the U.S., Germany, and Japan, and highlights reform efforts. It examines ways to restructure the time teachers spend planning, preparing, assessing, and collaborating with each other in order to better serve students.

We have posted the Executive Summary of this report. To order a full (and free) copy, please call 1-877-4-ED-PUBS.

published in: US Dept. of Ed.
published: 1998
posted to site: 08/27/1998
Executive Summary

Context for the Study

The current educational reform context in the United States makes heavy demands on teachers. Amid national, state, and local concerns about unacceptably low student achievement, teachers are called on to improve student outcomes by revising and enhancing curriculum, learning new instructional strategies, and fundamentally reorganizing school structures and cultures. This is an ambitious agenda that is struggling to make headway, in large part because teachers are being asked to reinvent the airplane while it is in flight.

Teachers in the United States often say that one of their biggest constraints in educational reform is the lack of time for professional activities other than direct instruction of students. In their time at school when they are not engaged in direct instruction, they must accomplish a host of chores to ensure that their classrooms run smoothly. Often, these chores carry over into their evening and weekend hours. They find few, if any, significant blocks of time during the official school week to address the more challenging aspects of educational change such as revamping curricula, devising new forms of student assessment in the classroom, working collaboratively, or learning to govern school policies and resources. They, as well as administrators and policymakers, are hungry for ideas about how to find and use time more effectively and efficiently.

Purpose of the Study

Working in a small number of schools, the study team documented and compared variations on the quantity, structure, and uses of teachers' overall professional time in the United States, Germany, and Japan. The specific focus was on professional time when teachers are not in direct contact with students--when that time occurs, how it is created, its functionality, its normative use, and, in the United States, alternatives to the norm. The study's ultimate purpose is to describe and analyze alternative cultures of time use that might be helpful to U.S. teachers, administrators, and policymakers as they continue on the road to school improvement.

Study Design

This report is based on two kinds of data sources: (1) background papers about teachers' professional lives in the United States, Germany, and Japan and (2) case studies of teachers' day-to-day work lives in a small number of schools in each country. The background papers were based on previous research (including surveys of nationally representative samples of teachers), policy documents, and interviews with policymakers. Researchers responsible for preparing the background papers on Germany and Japan, for overseeing school visits and interviews, and for collecting and interpreting school schedules were fluent in the native languages of those countries.

The study involved a total of 21 elementary schools: six each in Germany and Japan and nine in the United States. The German schools are located in three different states and the Japanese schools in three different prefectures. The U.S. schools, located in six states across the country, include six "innovative" schools, selected because of their unusually large quantities of paid planning for teachers and their reputations for using the time innovatively. In three of these six sites, researchers also developed a case study of a school identified by district officials as "typical" or "traditional" with regard to the amount of paid planning time for teachers. These schools had at least average student outcomes and a good local reputation but had no particular school improvement agenda that involved changing either teachers' or students' schedules. German and Japanese schools are representative only of schools that were willing to cooperate with interviewers. Analyses of time use and schedules in all of the schools focused on fourth grade, the highest grade taught in German primary schools.

This research design permits the study team to present comparative findings about (1) the traditional amount, use, and structure of teachers' professional time in the three countries and (2) way in which some U.S. schools are trying to alter the tradition to make professional time--both instructional and non-instructional--more effective and the culture of the school more conducive to teaching and learning. Since it is based on such a limited sample, the report offers ideas and suggestions for U.S. practitioners but does not draw definitive conclusions.

Key Findings about Potential Time for Teachers to Plan and Prepare

The following findings are the key findings from this study of a small sample of schools in each country:

  • Compared to the teachers in the U.S. case study schools, teachers in the Japanese schools have only a little more planning time each week--an average of 1.25 hours more. Although the Japanese teachers do not have significantly larger amounts of planning time, they have more sustained blocks of planning time. This time occurs after students have left school for the day, so teachers are available for collaborative and individual planning.

    • This difference in the structure of planning time appears to be due to two key factors: (1) a relatively longer work day (by 1 to 2 hours) than U.S. teachers; and (2) variable student dismissal times over the course of the week. On at least one day each week students are dismissed early so that teachers have several hours of planning time after the students had left the school building.

    • Much of Japanese teachers' after school planning time is devoted to meetings of various kinds--grade level, subject area, and school-wide committees. Some of this time is devoted to individual planning and research projects.

  • For primary school (Grundschule) teachers and students in Germany, the school day is short by U.S. standards, ending no later than 1:00 p.m.. German teachers do virtually all of their planning and preparation in their own homes.

    • The cultural expectation (as articulated in government documents) is that a teacher will spend about as much time planning and preparing as she does instructing.

    • Interviews with some German teachers from the six schools in this study revealed that the amount of time that German teachers devote to planning and preparing lessons often depends on their experience--less experienced teachers generally spend more time planning.

    • At least in the six German schools visited for this study there is little emphasis on professional collaboration as whole school improvement. Therefore, the vast majority of after school planning time is spent as individual preparation time.

  • Older elementary school children in Germany and Japan are taught by specialist teachers during some periods. However, based on the case study schools, this does not create important planning time for their classroom teachers, who usually have other assignments during these periods.

  • The principal method of obtaining on-the-clock planning time for regular classroom teachers in the U.S. case study schools is by assigning students to specialist teachers (typically art, music, and physical education). In the traditional schools, this strategy yields a daily or almost daily 40- to 45-minute period of time without students for classroom teachers. Teachers use this time primarily for routine chores--copying, telephone calls, grading papers.

  • The U.S. innovative case study schools provide teachers with longer blocks of time and more collaborative planning time than do the U.S. traditional schools. The innovative schools employ two main strategies to create this time:

    • Some U.S. schools are using creative scheduling to make the periods of time created by specialists more functional--putting two planning periods together to create a longer block, putting a planning period next to the lunch period for the same purpose, scheduling teams of teachers for planning periods at the same time.

    • Some U.S. schools are beginning to use a variable student schedule to obtain a substantial block of common planning time for all faculty on one afternoon per week. This practice is called "banking" time.

Traditional Allocations of Teachers' Time in the Three Countries

Traditions of educational time in the United States, Germany, and Japan are rooted in a variety of complex policy and cultural contexts for the teaching profession. Key cultural differences in the teaching professions in the United States, Germany, and Japan include the following:

  • German schools are staffed with a mix of full-time and part-time teachers to a much greater extent than schools in the United States and Japan.

  • The culture of teaching in Japan involves a full partnership with the family. Teachers are to some extent accountable for their students' behavior and well-being both inside and outside of official school hours.

The overall time that teachers are required to be at school and the distribution of teachers' time with and without students are quite different in the three countries. However, there is also substantial within-country variation, particularly in the United States and Japan. The following generalizations hold true for the small sample of traditional schools in each country.

The Length of the Required School Day for Teachers and Students

  • Based on the 21 schools in this study, the required school day for teachers is longest in Japan (8 to 9 hours) and shortest in Germany (5 to 5.5 hours). In the United States, teachers' required day is 7 to 8 hours long.

  • The school day for students is variable over the course of a week in Japan and Germany. The youngest students (first and second graders) go home earlier than older students. In Japan, all students go home early on at least one day per week. In the United States, student dismissal time is typically the same on all days of the week.

  • Quantity of time factors proved to be less important than quality of time factors in the cross-country comparisons and in comparing traditional and innovative U.S. schools.

Teachers' Required Time With Students

  • The analysis of the schedules of the case study schools bears out the findings of other studies that U.S. teachers devote more time to direct teacher-student academic instruction than do teachers in Japan and Germany. Compared to the U.S. teachers, Japanese teachers spend more of their working hours with students but less time engaged in the academic instruction of students. They eat lunch with students and stay with students during clean-up drills; this time provides the teachers with an opportunity to instill social and cultural values.

  • In the case study schools, U.S. and German teachers are similar in the proportion of total time with students that is allocated to academic instruction (about 70 percent). However, the U.S. teachers and students devote more daily time to academic instruction.

  • Teachers in the Japanese case study schools spend, on average, about 50 percent of their total required time on the academic instruction of students.

Teachers Required Time Without Responsibility for Students

  • This category of time represents potential on-the-clock planning and preparation time for teachers. Teachers in the Japanese case study schools have the largest amount of their required work time without responsibility for students. Teachers in the German schools have the least. The amount of student-free time is variable in U.S. case study schools.

  • While some U.S. teachers have fewer hours of on-the-clock time potentially available for planning and preparation than do many Japanese teachers, teachers in some U.S. schools--including schools in both the traditional and innovative groups in this study--have about the same proportion of total required time for this purpose (roughly 30 percent) as Japanese teachers.

  • German teachers have very little of this kind of time during the required school day. As noted earlier, the German tradition is for teachers to go home shortly after students do at 1:00 p.m., with an expectation that they will plan and prepare at home for approximately the same amount of time that they teach.

The Structure and Uses of Teachers' On-the-Clock Time Without Students

This category of teachers' time was the prime focus of the study. The issue is not just the quantity or proportion of time potentially available for planning and preparation purposes but also the quality of the time--when it occurs, the mechanisms that create it, the duration of segments, and what it can reasonably be used for. The German schools did not contribute much to this analysis since on-the-clock time without students in that country is so limited.

U.S. Schools

The total amount of planning and preparation time is an aggregate of shorter and longer blocks of time derived from before and after school time, duty-free lunches and recesses, and contractual planning periods. The nine U.S. schools varied in the configuration of this time and in the purposes for which they used it.

  • As noted earlier, in traditional U.S. schools, the longest segments of on-the-clock planning and preparation time are 40- to 45-minute periods when students are with specialist teachers for music, art, and physical education. Other segments without students are 15 to 30 minutes long. Teachers' required school day generally begins 15 to 30 minutes before students arrive and ends 15 to 30 minutes after students leave.

  • In the U.S. elementary schools, shorter blocks of time, including an isolated period when students are with a specialist teacher, are generally used for routine tasks that keep the school day rolling. They are not used for activities related to a school improvement plan.

  • As noted earlier, some innovative U.S. schools make special efforts to at least sometimes schedule periods when students are with specialist teachers back-to-back or adjacent to a duty-free lunch to create sustained blocks of time without students. Some use scheduling magic to create joint blocks of planning and preparation time for teaching teams or teachers at the same grade level.

    Finally, three of the study's innovative U.S. schools add student and teacher time to the school day on four days of the week to allow early student dismissal on the fifth day--a strategy referred to as "banking" time. This is time available to all the teachers in the school and is explicitly collaborative on most occasions.

  • Unless a time segment is explicitly designated as joint or collaborative planning time for a specific group, most teachers in the U.S. case study schools work alone or with one other teacher.

Japanese Schools

Examination of schedules in the six Japanese case study schools indicated that Japanese teachers typically must be at school 10 or 15 minutes before students arrive and have two "long" breaks of 20 minutes or so during the student school day. They also sometimes have a free period when older students (fourth through sixth graders) are with a specialist teacher or younger ones go home early. However, these periods are often devoted to some schoolwide responsibility rather than to planning and preparation per se.

  • As noted earlier, the bulk of the Japanese teachers' planning time occurs after students are dismissed. The duration of this time varies from day to day. On at least one day, it is several hours long.

  • As other studies have emphasized, Japanese teachers in the case study schools have a common work room where they spend some of their time between classes after school.

  • Japanese teachers use breaks during the school day when students are present for routine tasks in much the same way that the U.S. teachers use duty-free recesses or lunches and isolated periods when students are with specialist teachers.

Learning from the U.S. Innovative Schools: A Focus on Time

The traditional schools in the three countries examined in this study had not specifically focused on issues of professional time use. The innovative schools in the United States had. They are, therefore, a source of information on what can happen when educators zero in on time as a variable that they can manipulate and mold to support school improvement goals.

  • The U.S. "innovative" case study schools do not provide significantly larger chunks of planning time than do the U.S. "traditional" schools. Rather, they provide less fragmented planning time--longer, more sustained blocks of time for planning. The innovative schools have reorganized schedules and, in some cases, staffing in order to provide teachers with longer, uninterrupted periods of planning time.

Based on cross-site analyses, five dimensions of structuring and using time appear to be correlated with positive educational climates in the innovative schools:

  • School and classroom-level control over the use of time;

  • Day-to-day flexibility in the use of time and other resources;

  • A balance between the time needs of the individual teacher and the needs of the team or school staff;

  • A culture of professionalism where teachers are trusted to make the best use of time; and

  • A focus on students, ensuring that all professional time is geared to improving learning outcomes.

Teachers' Work Beyond the Clock

Teachers in the United States, Germany, and Japan all reported spending many hours on their work beyond those that they put in during the required school day, week, and year. Teaching is regarded as a profession in all three countries, and most teachers put in the hours that are required to do their jobs right--however long it takes.

Because their on-the-clock days are longer and their on and off-the-clock responsibilities at school and district levels more structured, U.S. and Japanese teachers are more apt to perceive that their jobs involve time pressures that affect their personal lives. Interviews at the case study schools revealed the following:

  • Most of the U.S. and Japanese teachers reported working at school at least an hour or so beyond the official end of their work day and then spending more time on preparation in the evening or early in the morning. They also reported working on the weekends and during vacation periods.

  • According to many interviewees, Japanese teachers rarely use many of the 20 vacation days to which they are entitled.

  • German teachers tend to think of time pressures and the intensity of their work beyond the school day in terms of periods in the year when there are extra tasks to be completed (e.g., report cards, assignment of fourth graders to fifth-grade tracks).

  • The amount of off-the-clock time put in is often related to the age and stage of the teacher's career. Newer teachers work longer hours. Teachers with children of their own can commit less time to the job.

Meetings are a fact of life for teachers. Even in Germany, where there is relatively less activity around whole-school improvement, there are certain kinds of staff meetings and required event that hold teachers at school longer than usual. Teachers in the Japanese case study schools seem to have after school meetings of one kind or another almost every day. One teacher who felt that there are too many meetings noted, "[A] factor in this may be that doing things together is the Japanese way."

Professional development activities are a part of the culture of teaching in all three countries, although the motivation for participation varies from country to country. Continuing education or professional development events may actually occur either on or of off the clock. Some U.S. schools have traditions of fairly extensive release time during the school day so that teachers can participate in workshops and other kinds of professional development events. When this happens, a substitute teacher is hired to cover the class. There is no substitution of this type in Germany and Japan. When a teacher is absent, for whatever reason, administrators or teachers without regular classroom assignments act as the replacement. Sometimes classes must be doubled up. German and Japanese teachers are thus more reluctant to participate in on-the-clock continuing education activities that result in an extra burden on their colleagues.

  • In Japan, all teachers participate in intensive professional development during their first year of teaching and take required refresher classes every fifth year thereafter.

  • Two motivations drive participation in professional growth activities in Japan: self-improvement and collegiality. Many Japanese teachers seem to participate in informal study or research groups related to curriculum and instruction. Many teachers also enroll in classes such as calligraphy and Japanese culture. Sometimes classes such as first aid are offered at the school and are required of all faculty.

  • U.S. teachers often participate in professional development in order to bring ideas or skills back to their colleagues or to further the goals of a school improvement plan. Educational uses of technology are a much stronger continuing education theme in the United States than in the other two countries.

  • When they participate in continuing education, German teachers in the case study schools seem to be primarily motivated by self-improvement goals. The content of workshops and classes mentioned by German teachers (e.g., meditation) is less academically oriented than in the United States and Japan.

Class Size and Staffing Patterns

Some of the time pressures that teachers perceive are related to the number of students for whom they are responsible. As a Japanese teacher noted, with 39 students in her class, it takes a half hour to hang up their drawings. Universally, teachers' wish lists include smaller classes.

  • Among the Japanese schools in this study, the average class size is 34. Average class size in both the U.S. and German schools is 24. Many teachers think that 20 students would be ideal. Many of the Japanese teachers would settle for 30.

Some researchers in the United States are currently suggesting that educational outcomes for students could be improved by assigning specialized instructional personnel and administrators to regular classrooms, thus reducing class size and focusing resources directly on academic instruction. They base their recommendation, in part, on cross-national comparisons.

  • In the German case study schools, all professional staff are teachers. Administrative tasks are undertaken by master teachers who teach part-time.

  • U.S. and Japanese elementary schools in the study have one or two full-time administrators.

  • The U.S. elementary schools in this study have far more other instructional personnel who are not regular classroom teachers (an average of 21) than the German and Japanese schools, with averages of six and four respectively.

  • Some of the other instructional personnel in U.S. schools (e.g., paraprofessionals, AmeriCorps members) are relatively inexpensive and highly valued by teachers. They accomplish routine tasks that would otherwise occupy teachers' time. Their presence often allows more individualization of instruction.

Assigning more certified professionals to classroom duty is a decision that schools will have to grapple with on an individual basis. One innovative school in this study did so, using its site-based decision-making authority to eliminate the traditional roles of teacher specialists and special education teachers. All teachers are now classroom teachers, with an average class size of 21. One trade off was the elimination of a daily planning period. Later in its restructuring effort, this school gained community support for "banking" time to create an extensive block of planning time on one afternoon per week.

Eliminating traditional roles is not the only way to create smaller instructional groups, however. Another innovative U.S. school is organized in teams, with a special education teacher assigned to each team. The school retains its specialist teachers, but their curricula are far more integrated with regular classroom instruction than the norm. Classroom teachers and specialists also have devised flexible scheduling strategies that allow all teachers to work with large groups, small groups, and individual students as the situation dictates.