07/08/2014 05:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

Teachers are Working Longer -- They Need Help to Work Smarter Instead

It appears that American teachers -- well, middle school teachers, anyway -- work longer hours than their counterparts in other countries.

And yet our students still don't perform all that well in comparison to those other countries.

What's going on?

That is one of the questions raised by a new, intriguing survey of teachers and their principals across 30 education systems done by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development as part of the international assessment of 15-year-olds, the PISA exam.

I should say I'm just a tad bit wary of this study, the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS 2013), because the researchers said they did not get a fully representative sample of what they call "lower secondary" teachers (roughly seventh, eighth, and ninth grades) in the United States. In fact, they had to release a separate U.S. report because they wouldn't include U.S data with the full report. Even so, the researchers do say they feel the results are reliable and can be compared, so I think TALIS 2013 is worth at least thinking about, even if there is an asterisk by the data.

If we accept that teachers in the United States work longer hours (on average they report working about 44.8 hours a week in comparison to their international colleagues who report working about 38.3 hours a week), we have to ask why putting in more hours isn't producing better results? The question becomes even more pertinent because they report that 27 of their work hours are spent actually teaching, whereas the international average is 19 hours a week.

There is a lot of fodder for theorizing in the report, but I would like to point to a couple other pieces of data that might be important:
  • Although most U.S. teachers (like their international counterparts) report working with their colleagues on professional learning, sharing materials, and discussing students, most (53.7 percent) report that they never teach with their colleagues and half say they never observe other teachers' classrooms. Teachers from other countries report very varied experiences, but on average more teachers in the rest of the world report observing and teaching with their colleagues.
  • Feedback on teacher practice from principals and other supervisors in the United States doesn't seem to be as helpful as it is in other countries. For example, only 35 percent of teachers in the U.S. reported that their content knowledge was improved by supervisory feedback, in comparison to an average of 53.5 percent in the other countries surveyed. Only 52 percent report an increase in motivation after getting feedback, compared with 64 percent of teachers in the rest of the world.

So all that corroborates what I have observed before: Many American teachers are still teaching in isolation without the kind of collaboration with other teachers and help from school leaders that would help them improve -- and want to improve.

Andreas Schleicher, who led the TALIS 2013 study, used the survey results to call on American schools to provide teachers with "systematic opportunities" to learn from each other and their leaders.

He was echoed by Stephanie Hirsch, executive director of Learning Forward, who said that American schools need to "redesign time" in order to ensure that teachers have ongoing, embedded professional conversations that can improve their instruction.

I completely agree, however, this is a big, complicated report with a lot of other data that could support other interpretations.

For example:
  • Almost twice as many teachers in the U.S. work in schools where the principals say students are absent at least once a week (61 percent in the U.S. versus 39 percent in the rest of the countries).
  • Twice as many teachers in the U.S. work in schools where the principals say that teachers are absent at least once a week (22 percent in the U.S. versus 11 percent in the other countries surveyed).
  • Almost two-thirds of teachers in the U.S. report that they teach in a school where more than 30 percent of their students are low-income, compared with about one-fifth of teachers in the other countries surveyed.

So there's a lot to ponder here, and I'm sure we'll be hearing about this study for years.

But perhaps the biggest finding of all, especially given that those surveyed teach seventh, eighth, and ninth grades (the tough middle school years)? Eighty-nine percent of the U.S. teachers surveyed report being satisfied with their jobs and their working conditions.

That is terrific news and means there is a wellspring of satisfaction among teachers. That's a good basis for improvement.