By Dennis Sparks, Executive Director, National Staff Development Council (NSDC)
A fundamental lesson about school reform from the past decade is that far more time is required for staff learning and planning than is being made available. Staff development days - typically for workshops - and brief meetings before, during, or after the school day when other responsibilities tug at the participants are grossly insufficient for the collegial learning and planning that are essential to successful improvement efforts.
In contrasting education in Asia with education in the United States, Harold Stevenson and James Stigler point out in The Learning Gap that while Asian teachers spend more hours in school, they spend less time actually teaching students. In China, for instance, teachers spend only three hours per day actually instructing students. Much of the remainder of their time is spent planning lessons and working with colleagues - two powerful forms of staff development.
An American Federation of Teachers study, released in July, underscores the differences in working conditions for teachers in various countries. According to the report, while Japanese primary teachers have class sizes of about 30 students, compared to 25 to 27 in the United States, Japanese teachers spend only 17 to 20 hours a week teaching. Teachers in Germany teach only 21 hours per week. In the United States, teachers spend 30 hours a week teaching.
"To clear our thinking," Cohen writes, "I suggest that we imagine that we are starting from scratch, as if no schools existed...."
In recent months, commentators such as Al Shanker and Hugh Price have emphasized the critical importance of providing additional time for staff development if reform efforts are to succeed. Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a highly regarded commentator on educational issues, recently wrote a guest column on this subject in The Developer. He points out that Saturn employees spend 5 percent of their work time learning, for a total of 92 hours per employee per year. "Imagine what a training program like this would do for people trying to restructure their schools," Shanker writes. "Or, put another way, imagine trying to change things as basic as the culture of the school with a couple of days of inservice training a year and some hours stolen from class preparation periods. If it takes 600 courses [a central training group offers nearly 600 different courses] and 92 hours a year per employee to make a better automobile, it will take that and more to make better schools. And if we're not willing to commit ourselves to that kind of effort, we are not going to get what we want."
If we are to make time for the learning of school employees, two things are essential: the will to find that time and creativity in looking at how both teachers and students might spend the school day.
Perhaps the only way we will find substantial time for adult learning and planning will be to throw away our presuppositions about schools, as suggested by Audrey Cohen in an article in the June 1993 Phi Delta Kappan. "To clear our thinking, " Cohen writes, "I suggest that we imagine that we are starting from scratch, as if no schools existed. What kind of schools would we want to build if we could look at our needs without any presuppositions?" Larry Lezotte uses the term "idealized redesign" to describe a similar process. "If our current design didn't exist, what would you create?" he asks.
Hugh Price, then vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation and recently appointed president of the Urban League, did just that in a column written for Education Week ("Teacher Professional Development: It's About Time," May 12, 1993). "With rare exceptions," Price writes, "current patterns of professional development fall well short of what's needed. . . . Just imagine what a difference it would make if teachers taught the equivalent of four days per week instead of five, and if the time thus freed up were devoted, either in one chunk or spread out over the week, to professional development."
I believe that creative educators who truly understand the critical importance of additional time for adult learning will find many ways to make that possibility a reality.
Price argues that an important barrier to providing time for teacher development is our uncertainty about what to do with students while teachers are away from their classrooms. For that purpose, he proposes "academically productive ways" in which students could spend the equivalent of one day per week away from their regular teachers that "wouldn't cost the district a bundle." As options to consider, Price suggests school-based extracurricular activities, occasional large classes, course-related projects (higher-order assignments), and community service.
Price concludes that "some fresh thinking about academically useful alternatives to the way students currently spend time in school may free up significant opportunities for teachers to spend their time - in the classroom and out - more productively. . . . Somewhere in this mix of extended learning activities may lie an answer to the puzzle of how to engage teachers in sustained professional development at comparatively little extra cost."
If we are to make time for the learning of school employees, two things are essential: the will to find that time and creativity in looking at how both teachers and students might spend the school day. Let's begin by saying that an immediate minimal standard should be that 5 percent of a teacher's work time will be spent learning and working with peers on improving instruction. Then let's experiment with ways to extend that time over the next 10 years to 50 percent of a teacher's work day. That's the type of bold commitment that I think is required if we are to give teachers the time they genuinely need to do what is being asked of them. I believe that creative educators who truly understand the critical importance of additional time for adult learning will find many ways to make that possibility a reality.
I would like to give the final word to Hugh Price: "The ultimate question, of course, is whether parents and policymakers can be persuaded that less classroom time will yield higher-quality learning. Experience overseas and experiments in this country suggest that it can."
About the author
Dennis Sparks is executive director of the National Staff Development Council. Prior to serving in this position, he served as an independent education consultant and as the director of the Northwest Staff Development Center, a state- and federally funded teacher center in Livonia, Michigan. Sparks also has been a teacher, counselor, and codirector of an alternative high school. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1976 and has taught at several universities, including the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, and the University of Alaska. He has conducted workshops from coast to coast on topics such as staff development, effective teaching, and teacher stress and burnout. He is executive editor of The Journal of Staff Development and has written articles that have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Educational Leadership and Phi Delta Kappan. Sparks is coauthor of the ASCD videotapes Effective Teaching for Higher Achievement and School Improvement through Staff Development. In addition, he has participated in numerous radio and television programs, and recently was a guest on the Public Broadcasting System's MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour.
Posted on March 6, 1995