Flawed Comparison from OECD



By 06/29/2011

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The OECD has a report, Education at a Glance 2010, that provides a shockingly flawed comparison of the amount of time U.S. teachers work relative to teachers in other countries.  According to the report, U.S. teachers work 1,913 hours over a 180 day school year that is 36 weeks long.  And also according to the report, the average OECD teacher only works 1,659 hours over a school year of 187 days that is 38 weeks long.

So, if we believe these OECD numbers (which the WSJ apparently did in this blog post), U.S. teachers work 15.3% more hours per year than do their colleagues in other developed countries.

But if you believe the OECD comparison I have a lovely bridge to sell to you.  According to the report’s methodological appendix, the method by which the U.S. information was collected was different (and clearly less reliable)  than how it was collected from all of the other countries.  In every country except the U.S. the hours worked was derived from teacher contracts or laws.  But in the U.S. the information was drawn from self-reported responses to a survey of teachers.  (See p. 75 of the appendix).

A valid comparison would require that the information be collected in similar ways across all countries — either we rely upon self-reports in surveys of teachers for all countries or we rely on contractual hours for everyone.  But using self-reports for the U.S. and contractual hours for everyone else produces obvious distortions.  People may be inclined to exaggerate the hours they work in a survey.  And the definition of time worked is ambiguous.  If I think about my students while I am brushing my teeth or running on the treadmill am I working during that time?

We have good reason to suspect that the self-reports from U.S. teachers are over-stated.  If teachers really worked 1,913 hours over 180 days, as the report claims, they would be working 10.63 hours per day.  And the numbers I’ve provided are just for primary school students.  For high schools, the OECD report claims U.S. teachers are working 1,998 hours over 180 days, which works out to 11.1 hours per day.  I know some teachers are very conscientious and work long hours but I simply do not believe that the average high school teacher is working 11.1 hours per day.

I know this might invite the wrath of Diane Ravitch’s Army of Angry Teachers, but I suspect that the average hours worked by U.S. teachers is significantly less than the OECD says (and the WSJ repeats).  And I know that the comparison between U.S. and other countries is flawed by collecting the information from self-reports in the U.S. but from contracts everywhere else.

-Jay P. Greene




Comment on this article
  • LarryG says:

    Wow! WHO is RESPONSIBLE for making sure apples are compared to apples?

    here’s the problem we have now days.

    Too many folks who hold an advocacy on one side or the other seem to be perfectly willing to fudge the truth which in the end detracts us from the real issues and focuses not on facts but sadly disinformation and propaganda – from the very folks who claim they collect data to better understand the issues.

    this kind of thing has become rampant – a game to see who can stretch the truth the most and not get caught doing it.

  • Neil Riemann says:

    I have not read the report yet. Assuming you recount it correctly, it seems like an apples to oranges comparison.

    But your implication—that the US figures are overstated, while those elsewhere are not—is poorly supported. I think most systems have 180 days of instruction, but most teacher contracts require more than 180 days of work, so your division is suspect. Further, the “contractual mandate” method may also overstate the hours worked in other OECD countries, depending on malingering, absenteeism, enforcement, etc.

  • Not a teacher, but... says:

    You’re right that the methodology doesn’t create an accurate comparison. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the survey respondents grossly overstated the amount of time they spend working, however.

    Looking at the next chart from the OECD report (figure 4.8), teachers in the US spend about 55% of that time actually teaching. And the methodology note indicated that self-reported hours included non-instructional time in the evenings and weekends.

    Let’s suppose a school day, then, is about 6 hours long. Then, if you consider that a relatively organized teacher has to spend at 3-6 hours every day grading and preparing lessons, and probably at least another 6 hours of their weekend doing the same, then you’re looking at a very intensive work week — anywhere between 51 to 66 hours. That’s not even taking in to account those teachers that are also coaches, who regularly have all-day events on the weekends.

    That’s the reality of it. You can “simply not believe it”, but that doesn’t make it less so.

  • Dr. Bob says:

    Instead of issuing an opinion based on a comparison of methods, would your credibility be strengthened through conducting a research study with actual verifiable data? Better to have credibility than to just throw rocks.

  • Jim Downey, Arkansas Teacher says:

    What this article does not account for is how many hours OUTSIDE of the required contractual hours that teachers provide WITHOUT compensation. These hours are provided for grading (mostly done at home because there is inadequate time provided at school), lesson planning and documentation (also done mostly at home above and beyond the allocated contractual hours), professional development hours (a good proportion of which is done on a teacher’s personal time or so-called vacation time–and is in excess of 60 hours per year in some states), and administrative time. There have been days where, due to the pressures of grades being in on time, I have worked 15 or more hours in a school day. Teachers also sacrifice weekends to meet student needs and school requirements. In one year, while teaching four different courses, including an Advanced Placement US History course, I worked over 3200 hours in 190 days. The is the approximate equivalent of 1.6 years of work based on a 40-hour week… completed in 190 days; just over one half of a year.

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