Educators’ Time Loss and the Invisible Cost of Reform

Last week, Brendan Bell and I wrote about the oft-overlooked cost of “reform”—the burden sometimes imposed on educators. We discussed the findings of a private survey of Nevada school leaders that found they were spending 19 days a year (!) on superfluous paperwork due to the state’s new teacher-evaluation system. I say “superfluous” because the 19 days does not include the time devoted to actually observing teachers or providing feedback (all of which the principals generally regarded as useful), but simply the additional end-of-year paper-pushing. As Brendan and I explained:

Principals across the state are required to fill out a summative 16-plus-page evaluation for each teacher. The evaluations are upwards of 20 pages for ineffective teachers, with three “pieces of evidence” required for dozens of indicators.

The result? In a recent unpublished analysis, administrators [. . .] report spending an average of more than three hours writing a summative evaluation for each teacher in the building. Keep in mind that this is above and beyond the time administrators spend recording evidence during observations. As [one principal] puts it, “If you have already gone through the standards and observations, the final document is meaningless and the teachers are already aware of all the pieces of evidence . . . so why are we spending three hours writing it up?”

Tallying the hours of paperwork and the number of teachers they supervise, principals estimate that they’re now spending 150 hours each—or 19 work days a year—filling out paperwork that primarily rehashes what they have already observed in classrooms, recorded on paper, and discussed with teachers. Bringing to mind the worst excesses of the mortgage industry, one administrator sighed, “I added up all my work and I had 567 pages of evaluations on 31 teachers I evaluated . . . We have to initial every single page, and have teachers do the same.”

None of the reaction to the piece disputed the time estimate. Rather, it mostly focused on who was to blame—whether this was district officials, state bureaucrats, the union for throwing a wrench in the works, or what-have-you. And those who support these new teacher-evaluation systems seemed to mostly shrug, conceding the paper burden might not be optimal but viewing it as the price of progress.

Missing was any explicit appreciation for the fact that time is one of most precious commodities that schools and educators have. A school year is typically 1,080 instructional hours. A teacher’s year is around 1,500 hours. A principal’s year is closer to 2,000. That means for every 20 hours of principals’ time a new change requires, it needs to improve their performance by one percent just to tread water; for teachers, it’s more. Every hour that’s devoted to mindless, soul-sucking tasks is an hour that can’t be spent making a difference. This is true when teachers are patrolling hallways or lunchrooms, and it’s equally true when they’re sitting in meandering meetings or filling out pointless paperwork. Such concerns shouldn’t be an afterthought, but at the heart of any reform conversation.

Now, do teachers waste time on their own? Of course they do. Are there lousy teachers who need to improve or go? Yep. Do we need to do a better job identifying, acknowledging, and rewarding terrific teachers? Absolutely. I’m wholly supportive of evaluation systems which help address these challenges. But we need to ask whether even seemingly sensible changes are making some of these problems worse—and whether we’re doing all we can to minimize any harm.

After all, when I reflect on some of the major reform pushes of the past decade or more, I fear that such attention is almost invariably absent. Whether it’s teacher evaluation, school accountability, School Improvement Grants, the Common Core, new grading policies, restorative justice processes—to name a few—they invariably entail added meetings, extensive planning documents, new reporting requirements, new trainings and minutiae—all adding to the clutter that can drive responsible professionals to distraction.

In each case, it’s easy for advocates to insist that this negative impact is negligible. If they concede any burden, they’ll insist it’s modest and obviously worth paying. It’s remarkable, though, that in an era infatuated with data and evidence that no one—and I mean, literally, no one—has made it a priority to figure out how much time this stuff takes or how big a distraction it is. Foundations that claim to value empowered teachers, autonomous schools, and nimble systems don’t invest in any of this. Scholars don’t study it; advocates don’t bother with it.

As I discuss at some length in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, this helps explain why so many reasonable practitioners are inclined to look with a jaundiced eye at the whole project of “reform.” In practice, the dream of the “next big thing” all too often gives way to the next big pile of TPS reports.

What’s the takeaway? To my mind, it’s indisputably not that “reform is bad.” It’s that efforts to improve schooling should always enable educators to better focus on great teaching and learning. This means that the oft-“invisible” practical and paper burdens of reform should be taken much more seriously. The impact of even a seemingly positive reform can be negative if the costs are high enough. This means that would-be reformers should pursue improvement in the least intrusive possible fashion—and that new burdens ought not to be casually discovered after-the-fact, but should be front-and-center for implementation and evaluation.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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