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Putting a Value on Instructional Time

If teaching is to be treated as a true profession, as I believe it should, how much value should we place on teachers' time?

I was observing a math lesson a few weeks ago and started to wonder: How much does a lesson cost? How much is it costing for these students to be at school and participate in this lesson? What can we do to protect this time and make the most of it?

To simplify the calculation, I decided to calculate only the cost of the teacher's time, ignoring all of the many other costs of schooling, such as administrative overhead, supplies, utilities, the cost of the building, transportation, support staff, enrichment activities, and so forth. Even after disregarding all of these other real costs, the figure I came up with surprised me.

In my district, the total cost of a full-time teacher is about $90,000 a year, including benefits and taxes. This figure is of course far higher than the average teacher's salary, but represents the actual expense to the district. We have a fairly short school day, about 6 hours and 10 minutes, with 50 minutes for lunch and recesses, and 40 minutes for specialist-taught subjects each day. This leaves 4 hours and 40 minutes of classroom instruction per day; multiplied by 177 days in the school year, we arrive at 826 hours per year.

Dividing $90,000 by 826 hours gives us a teacher-time cost of about $109 per hour of classroom instruction. Again, this represents only the cost of the teacher's time, not any of the other expenses related to schooling. We have a short school year and a relatively high cost of living in Seattle, so I suspect this number may be a bit lower in other districts.

Nonetheless, it's prompted me to wonder why we often don't value teachers' time very highly, and certainly not in the $100/hour range. For example, it's relatively rare to find schools that offer secretarial help to teachers, to save them from spending their valuable time on making copies, preparing materials, and doing other tasks that could be done by someone else.

I would suggest that as a society, we tend to undervalue work done by women, and because the majority of teachers are women, K-12 teaching is undervalued relative to its actual cost, even though that cost is something of a bargain for professional work. In higher education, class time is even more expensive - as a graduate student, I pay more than $100 per hour of classroom instruction, in classes that typically have about 35 students.

It follows that if we can invest in professional development or other supports to get more out of this time, why wouldn't we? It's time to start seeing efficiency and productivity as real and relevant concepts in the education profession, even if they feel foreign to the human work of teaching students.

A few weeks ago, I came across this proposal by Arthur Wise to shake up the "one teacher, one classroom" paradigm. Since then, I've been thinking about inefficiencies in this model, and how un-flattening our schools could actually enhance the teaching profession.

I don't have any problem with paying $109/hour for high-quality instruction. We pay our doctors, lawyers, and other professionals far more for their work, even though they see only one client at a time. But what if our schools were restructured so that our top teachers oversaw a network of people working on behalf of students? I'll have more to say about this proposal in the next few posts.

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