THE BLOG
03/06/2014 01:28 pm ET Updated May 06, 2014

It's About Time: Promising Efforts to Improve Our Schools With Right Amount of Time

We all know that the time educators spend in the classroom is just the tip of the iceberg. Grading papers, working with students before and after the bell rings, staff meetings and parent conferences -- these all add to the school day in ways that are rarely tallied. But when they are, the results are eye-opening: In Springfield, Mass., teachers surveyed spend three hours and 28 minutes a day on activities other than teaching. Vital tasks including behavior management, working with students on non-academic issues, and communicating with parents topped the list.

Now, as schools across the country are in the midst of implementing sweeping new changes, including challenging new standards such as the Common Core, new assessments and new evaluation programs, time and how it is used, has become even more of a premium.

The good news is that these efforts, unlike some of the more rote tasks and responsibilities that are often doled out to educators, have the potential to translate into real improvements in teaching and learning. But, like so many well-intentioned efforts before them, their ambitious goals are not being matched by the time teachers need to put them into practice in the classroom.

Previous reform efforts often fell short because teachers simply didn't have the time to work together to make them a reality, and concerns have already been raised about whether these new reforms, implemented on ambitious fast-track timetables in many states, will stand or fall based on how well teachers are prepared for them.

There's growing awareness of the need for high-quality professional development to implement challenging new standards. Research tells us that we need at least 50 hours of professional development to actually bring change to bear on teaching practice -- a far cry from the couple of days of training many teachers get before each school year kicks off. Equally importantly, sustained change requires sustained time for teachers to plan together and collaborate on an ongoing basis.

"Finding time for job-embedded professional learning is one of the most frequently cited challenges with implementing change in education reform," states the introduction to Learning Forward's Establishing Time for Professional Learning. "Implementing Common Core standards, new assessments, and other reforms requires focused time for collaboration among educators for professional learning and collaborative work."

In some schools, principals who understand the value of teachers collaborating have already built schedules around giving teachers regular times to work together, such as common planning time for grade -- or subject-level teachers or early-release days. Learning Forward and others suggest additional ways to free up additional time for professional learning, including linking planning time with other non-instructional time to provide added flexibility, hiring substitutes or having administrators supervise special programs to provide additional release time, and redesigning existing staff meetings to focus on collaboration and professional learning. But beyond this point -- and in some places, even before it -- solutions are constrained by district policies and, at times, collective bargaining agreements that do not address learning as a priority. In many districts, such roadblocks have hindered needed changes to what the school day looks like for teachers and students.

Springfield Education Association President Tim Collins is blunt about the connection between time and improved teaching and learning.

"Time for this kind of professional support is needed to improve instruction," he said. "Under current conditions, that time is simply not available. We can no longer avoid a restructuring of time for teacher learning."

We're starting to see some promising efforts to make the kinds of changes needed to do just this. In Mass., the Springfield Education Association and the district's superintendent have created a committee focused on thinking through the challenges surrounding teacher time to bolster student and teacher learning. In Illinois, the Elgin Teachers Association and its school district created a joint task force to design an ideal school day for students, teachers and the entire school community. Their recommendations will bear fruit as part of a broader restructuring of 10 of the district's elementary schools that will begin in the fall.

The approach of these forward-thinking districts and their teachers goes beyond the longstanding concerns about the work teachers have always done after the bell rings. It's an acknowledgement that improving student learning must be matched by improvements in teacher professional learning, and that ambitious changes in schools should reflect the realities of the classroom.

Elgin Teachers Association President Kathryn Castle puts it best.

"We are bringing our collective experience and voice to bear on how instruction needs to continue to evolve to help students meet higher standards," she said. "We also continue to define what true teacher leadership means and how that will redirect needed changes to our public schools-and it's about time."

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Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of the NEA Foundation. The NEA Foundation is a public charity supported by contributions from educators' dues, corporate sponsors, and others who support public education initiatives. We partner with education unions, districts, and communities to create powerful, sustainable improvements in teaching and learning. Visit www.neafoundation.org for more information.