The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form by The Clearinghouse, July/August, 1995.

School Reform: Ain't 'Bout Nuttin' But Time
by Barry McGhan

The solution to many of the problems in education may be simpler than we think: provide teachers more time for their work. In February, 1994 the NEA distributed a report advocating 12-month contracts and that half of teachers' time be devoted to professional development. A few months later, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning issued its report, "Prisoners of Time," containing among others, recommendations similar to the NEA's. It will be interesting to see how such reports fare in the current climate for school reform. Watch for the special interests on both sides of this issue to start chewing away at each other--over an idea that is patently obvious to most K-12 classroom teachers.

In part, we have kept ourselves confused about such plain remedies to our problems by swinging on the pendulum of education reform, first with teacher-centered solutions, then with student-centered ones, then back again. All the time, loudspeakers blare a cacophony of statistics at us. It is the best of times say some, it is the worst of times say others.

But mostly, it is the zero of times.

What I mean is this. Teachers have virtually no time to do anything that would enable them to make effective use of any of the new reform approaches. That's because, in the U.S., everyone--even teachers--believe that K-12 teachers are not working unless they are in charge of a group of about 30 students for about 85% of their work day, with the remaining time spent largely on clerical duties.

While this might be true for day-care workers, it is hardly true for teachers. When are teachers to reflect on their work and polish their lessons? When are they to improve their own skills and knowledge? When are they supposed to have professional interactions with their colleagues? We know that workaholics elect to take their work home with them, but is there any other profession where it is assumed that 100% of the members are workaholics?

Most professional workers do their planning and training during their work day. U.S. teachers do not, even though there are models of different ways to organize for teaching, both here and abroad. In this country, full-time college teachers generally have plenty of time to prepare for teaching. Our system of higher education is the envy of the world. In a number of other countries, K-12 teachers are with students for only 50%-60% of their work day. Some of those countries produce higher-achieving students than we do, and may be our envy.

Is there any connection between teacher preparation time and student performance here? If there is, then maybe we should consider that the simple solution to our educational problems is to give teachers more work time apart from students. Not that this will necessarily be easy to do. But let me come back to that later.

Why might the solutions to our problems be just that easy? Well, first of all, as a son and grandson of teachers, whose siblings have been teachers, whose wife is a teacher, and who has known many teachers over a 30 year career in education, I can say (with apologies to Will Rogers) that I hardly ever met a teacher I didn't like. Teachers are well-educated, intelligent, honest folk, who care about children, vote, show concern for the environment, take care of their elderly parents, and so on.

So, my solution is simple. Give well-educated, well-meaning people enough time to do their jobs, and then get out of the way. All of this tail-chasing that educational theorists, researchers, and policy-makers become embroiled in is interesting, but leads to no change unless it gives classroom teachers time to try out things that interest them, time to modify them, and even time to throw them out and start over.

Let's adopt a craft model for teaching. Let's imagine that teaching is perfected over time, like any craft, through trial and error. Let's suppose that such educator-craftspersons perfect their craft through interactions with each other (rather than so-called experts). Let's suppose that the masters share their trade secrets with apprentices, and that apprentices are told that they can become masters too, in time. Then, if there's time, teachers might invite specialists over to their "shop" to demonstrate a new technique that they could work into procedures already perfected.

This is a model for educational change that probably appeals to no one except teachers. It won't appeal to some administrators because of its non-authoritarian nature. It won't appeal to theorists and researchers because it pays too little attention to their expertise. It won't appeal to non load-bearing educators of all kinds (even curriculum coordinators) because it might lead to situations where their services are no longer needed. It won't appeal to the public because it will seem to be too expensive to pay for the increased work time that will be needed.

But, it may be the only way to get meaningful change.


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