Monday, July 20, 2009

Competing in a Global Education System: A Look at the Direction of Quantity and Quality of Instruction in U.S. Public Schools

Before I became a teacher I was envious of the amount of vacation time teachers receive. At first glance, there is minimal weekend and evening work, a seven-hour workday, and short of parent-teacher conferences, any after-school activity is optional. Was my perception of a teacher’s job too good to be true? To further investigate, I began to educate myself on the history behind these policies, as well as compare U.S. policies to policies in other developed nations. After completing my first year of teaching, I can dispel the aforementioned myths; a teacher’s job is never ending. Yet, my investigation led me to question if the “perks” of the teaching industry are actually detrimental to the education system. Unlike a good teacher, who is always striving to improve his or her lesson plans, grading papers, or reaching out to students’ parents when the need arises, most students truly check out when they walk out of school each day. Sure there are exceptions, and many schools offer after-school educational programs for those that are interested, but the vast majority of students only allocate school hours to the learning process. Is the learning day long enough to build an education necessary to succeed?

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), at 22.2 hours, the U.S. ranks 36th out of 40 compared to other industrialized countries in average weekly instructional time. Those countries ranking ahead of the U.S. are China, the U.K., France, Korea, Japan and Canada, just to name a few. It is no secret that the U.S. is falling behind when it comes to educating our youth, in terms of standardized test scores and percentage of students completing baccalaureate and graduate-level programs, compared to students in other developed nations. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a system of international assessments that measures 15-year-olds’ capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy every 3 years, reported that in 2003, U.S. performance in mathematics literacy and problem solving was lower than the average performance for most OECD countries (Lemke). According to the Brookings Institution, in 2003, U.S. eighth graders received an average of 45 minutes of mathematics instruction per day, down from 49 minutes in 1995 (Toppo). While there are diminishing marginal returns to educational efforts, logic would suggest a correlation between time spent learning and the educational level reached. If public schools in the U.S. are going to keep pace with the educational systems in other countries (or even private and charter schools within the U.S.) the addition of instructional time must be a consideration when looking at future changes for our schools and students.

One major reason why we need to do something about the time we spend with students in the classroom is that the educational bar is being raised due to greater ease in traveling across borders for educational purposes. With increased competition from foreign students looking to fill seats in U.S. post secondary education programs, we can no longer afford to take an isolationist approach and only look at U.S. education standards. Until fall 2007, the number of Chinese undergraduates in the United States had held steady for years, at about 9,000, according to the Institute of International Education. But that year, it jumped to more than 16,000. India, Japan and South Korea send even more undergraduates to the U.S. every year. (Kinzie) Granted, these numbers are regulated by government policies regarding Visa issuance, but the important trend to understand is that demand for U.S. post-secondary education is growing and developing countries are increasingly finding the means to send over their brightest students. Additionally, top schools want to fill their seats with students that have the greatest potential and many schools have seen international student percentages rise. It is imperative to make sure that our students are more prepared than ever.

There are two ways to attack the issue that the U.S. is falling behind in global education – through quantity and quality of instruction. Ideally, the solution will incorporate both. First, we need to look at increasing the amount of time students spend in a classroom. According to the Brookings Institution, which examined eighth-grade math scores in 20 countries, five of seven countries that added daily instructional minutes from 1995 to 2003 showed improved skills. Of the 13 countries that subtracted time, 10 got worse results. Researcher Tom Loveless argues that, “Ten more minutes of daily math instruction are associated with a 19-point gain (on an 800-point scale). Adding 40 days of 45-minute math classes yielded 8.5 more points, (therefore) small increases to the school day add up to a lot of time over an entire year" (Toppo). Just adding time to the school day does not guarantee increased student performance, but this data cannot and should not be ignored. However, more research needs to be done to determine whether adding time is effective, and there are pilot public schools, as well as charter programs, testing out this progressive theory.

The second approach is to focus more on quality of instruction, so that the time students are spending in the classroom is as effective as possible. There are many arguments against increasing daily instructional time in schools. At some point students hit a saturation point; it is counter productive to continue teaching once retention levels approach zero. So the other option we have is to make the time we do have with students more valuable. While there are numerous ideas on how to do this, like hiring better teachers, training administration properly, and encouraging more collaboration among teachers, I will highlight just one, as it is one on which I have a unique perspective. That potential solution is to augment the learning process through the use of technology. Having had the opportunity to teach this past year at a school that has received grants to incorporate technology into the classroom environment – each student has the use of a laptop while at school – I observed the astounding opportunity that lies within providing students with better technology. Computers allow students to interact with content and each other, connect to learners in other states and countries, and practice skills at their own pace. In addition, curriculum like expensive and dangerous science experiments can now be witnessed by all students, not just those in districts with the resources to pay for them. Providing this type of advantage to students can be costly in the short run, but the long-term benefits significantly outweigh the costs. Many districts, including New York City, offer free or reduced-cost computer programs for schools, but it is up to the teachers and administrators to seek out these opportunities that are available. To me, this is the most effective and immediate impact that can be made in classrooms without adding any extra time or staff. But as I stated above, an effective solution to the problem would include changes to both quality and quantity of instruction, so by coupling increased instruction time with solutions like better technology, well-trained teachers, and increased collaboration, U.S. public schools can begin to make strides towards getting back to the forefront of global education.

In an increasingly global economy, we need to think about how the U.S. stacks up against other countries. While the U.S. post-secondary education is still the envy of other countries, the public and primary education systems have been slowly losing ground on their counterparts. This must change if we care about the future of our country and our children. While change will come at a cost, in higher compensation for increased teaching hours and in funds to help subsidize technology costs, it pales in comparison to the cost of losing our country’s competitive advantage or even worse, inadequately preparing our students for their futures.

Works cited

Kinzie, Susan. (2009). U.S. Colleges bask in surge of interest among Chinese. The Washington Post: n. pag. Retrieved July 17, 2009, from

National Center for Education Statistics (2004, December). International Outcomes of Learning in Mathematics Literacy and Problem Solving: PISA 2003 Results From the
U.S. Perspective. Retrieved July 19, 2009, from

Toppo, Greg. (2007). More time in class equals better math skills; Schools studying longer days, years. USA TODAY: n. pag. Retrieved July 19, 2009, from

Toppo, Greg. (2007). Needs of new economy trump old school calendar. USA Today: n. pag. Retrieved July 18, 2009, from

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.