Why U.S. Teachers Work the Most But U.S. Students Stay Average

August 25, 2011 at 8:26 am 9 comments

Interesting set of studies that argue that US teachers work a lot, but aren’t so productive (in terms of student achievement).  How could more of teachers not correlate with better students?  An interesting argument here suggests that the low salaries of US teachers are at fault.  Are we attracting the most productive possible teachers?

Among 27 member nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. teachers work the longest hours, the Wall Street Journal reports. This seems particularly impressive as the U.S. has long summer vacations, and primary-school teachers only spent 36 weeks a year in the classroom, among the lowest of the countries tracked. Yet the educators spent 1,097 hours a year teaching, in the most recent numbers from 2008. New Zealand, in second place at 985 hours, had schools open for 39 weeks a year. The OECD average is 786 hours…

One conclusion to be drawn from this is, as the Journal writes, “American teachers are the most productive among major developed countries.” But it also notes that “student achievement in the U.S. remains average in reading and science and slightly below average in math when compared to other nations in a separate OECD report.”…

There is something strange about this finding that countries where the teachers work fewer hours produce better educated students. Although the Journal does not address this in its article, the issue is energetically taken up elsewhere. To some it is a salary issue. Business Insider reported that in comparison to other developed countries, American educators work the most hours of all industrialized nations, but are the fifth lowest paid after 15 years on the job. Finland, the company ranked highest in international tests, has teachers that work the fifth fewest hours, and are the ninth lowest paid.

via Why U.S. Teachers Work the Most But U.S. Students Stay Average – Business – The Atlantic Wire.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tom Hoffman  |  August 25, 2011 at 8:30 am

    It isn’t that strange. Teachers here are less effective because they have less time to plan, reflect, assess, learn new techniques, etc.

    • 2. Raphael Wimmer  |  August 28, 2011 at 8:04 am

      It seems so:
      “But based on data from 2006, the researchers found that even though teachers in the United States were contracted to teach an average of 1,080 hours during the school year, they actually worked less than teachers in Japan and Germany, when working time was defined to include work-related activities in addition to classroom teaching.” [1], original report [2]

      However, it is certainly a little more complicated than that.
      Additional factors might be:
      (a) There seems to be a stronger focus on evaluating teachers’ performance in the U.S. From what I’ve read/heard so far, it seems that such performance reviews have teachers focus more on these performance metrics than on effective education.
      (b) Europeans generally seem to work more efficiently than Americans, not only in education. If I remember correctly, Americans are only slightly more productive even though they work longer hours and have much fewer vacation days.

      [1] http://articles.cnn.com/2009-03-25/us/group.of.eight.education_1_united-kingdom-teachers-japan?_s=PM:US

      [2] http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2009039

  • 3. Nathan  |  August 25, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    I wonder what kind of impact parents have on these results. Could cultural differences, regarding how parents support their children’s education, play much of a role here?

    Teacher friends have told me that a supportive parent, whether helping with reinforcement of material or simply by projecting a positive attitude towards education, can make a significant difference in their children’s education. Are parents in the US as supportive of their children’s education as parents in other countries?

    The results say that the teachers are putting in the time (yet we don’t know if it is productive time), but are the students and those that support them putting in the as well?

  • 4. Bill Kerr  |  August 26, 2011 at 6:44 am

    Liping Ma, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, has demonstrated that Chinese teachers are superior in teaching primary maths compared with American teachers, despite the fact that those Chinese teachers have been at school for far less than their American counterparts.

  • 5. michael butler  |  August 27, 2011 at 1:17 am

    In reference to Primary School:

    To do well as a teacher you have to spend a lot of time to prepare (and/or repeat your instruction). Preparing well across multiple subject areas (as in America) is difficult and time consuming. Based on my observations of Chinese teachers (where I live) I believe they stick to much narrower areas of instruction than American primary school teachers whose instructional responsibilities are much more wide-ranging.

    In this situation practice and preparation (for Chinese teachers) does tend to make perfect. Especially in comparison to American teachers who teach more hours making preparation across multiple subject areas much more difficult.

    My proposal for research– figure out if there are any benefits to specialization at the primary school level for both teachers and students.

    My guess: specialization benefits teachers because it allows them to concentrate their limited time resources on excellence in a limited domain.

  • 6. Tom Hoffman  |  August 27, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    We have too much experience with disciplinary specialization for it to be that simple. Also, the American primary school curriculum has narrowed considerably (as only math and literacy are tested) in recent years with no clear improvement.

    Liping Ma’s research into primary school teachers’ understanding of fundamental mathematics is unfortunately probably very relevant in comparisons to Chinese primary schools — and a very difficult issue to address for the US, because fixing adults’ understanding of fundamental mathematics is… difficult at best.

    • 7. michael butler  |  August 28, 2011 at 6:36 am


      Since I am out of the country and I only have my old experience and what my sister (a teacher in the States) tells me to go on I am unsure of what percentage of general classroom primary school teachers in the States also teach math.

      In Shanghai where I live all math classes, from first grade on, are taught by math teachers.

      What would a similar number for a big city like NYC or LA be in America?

      In Shanghai there is no problem “fixing” adults’ fundamental understanding of mathematics because teachers are hired, to my understanding, with just this specialization.

  • […] of poor and starving students, and even the greatest textbook can be completely ineffective with an unprepared teacher and unmotivated students. Is it possible to prove that any intervention will always work? The […]

  • 9. Are teachers underpaid? It depends. « The Story's Story  |  September 8, 2016 at 11:23 pm

    […] A countervailing view that observes U.S. teachers don’t appear to be as productive as teachers from other countries, perhaps because of pay problems. Still, I wonder what alternate professional opportunities are […]


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