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Maximizing High-Quality Teacher Planning Time

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Time for Teacher Learning, Planning Critical for School Reform” by Eileen Merritt in Phi Delta Kappan, December 2016/January 2017 (Vol. 98, #4, p. 31-36),; Merritt can be reached at
“Students aren’t the only ones who need more time to learn,” says Eileen Merritt (Arizona State University) in this Kappan article; “teachers also need more and better time for learning and planning.” U.S. elementary teachers spend an average of about 32 hours a week with their students, secondary teachers about 30 hours, out of a 38-hour contractual week. Daily planning time ranges from 12 to 80 minutes for elementary teachers, from 30 to 96 minutes at the secondary level. The paucity of contractual planning time in most schools pushes a lot of teachers’ work into late afternoons, evenings, and weekends; including that time, the typical teacher’s work week is about 52 hours. It’s not surprising that when researchers ask teachers what changes would be most helpful, most put planning time at the top of their wish list, ranking it higher than increased pay and better-behaved students.
Merritt remembers that when she was a teacher and didn’t have enough planning time, several things suffered:
- Locating the math manipulatives that would have enhanced a lesson;
- Reading students’ journal responses and giving meaningful feedback;
- Reviewing notes about a new curriculum she was trying to implement;
- Finding a colleague to address a concern she had about one of her students;
- Reflecting on how a reading lesson went and how she should adjust instruction the next day.
“These missed or afforded opportunities accumulate over time,” says Merritt, “undoubtedly affecting student learning.”
Teachers need two types of planning time, Merritt believes: (a) Individual time every day to prepare materials for upcoming lessons, assess student work, and communicate with specialists and parents about their students; and (b) common planning time once or twice a week with same-grade/same-subject colleagues to plan, implement, reflect on, and modify instruction.
The 30-32 hours U.S. teachers spend with their students each week compares to about 20-21 hours in other countries. Many of these countries have higher student achievement than the U.S., and Merritt clearly believes that’s because teachers abroad have much more planning time every week. How can other countries’ teaching/planning ratio be so much better? Mostly because they have larger class sizes or a shorter student day. Merritt suggests three ways U.S. schools might increase the amount of planning time:
• Shorter days for students – Late-arrival and early-dismissal days can open up time for substantive teacher meetings. For example, students in the Mason Public Schools in Michigan come in one hour later every Wednesday to allow time for PLC meetings, and parents can register their children for before-school activities including computer instruction, independent reading, math games, and homework help.
• No-student days embedded within the school year – Full days are ideal for reviewing student progress, drafting comments on report cards, planning curriculum units, mapping out service-learning projects and field trips, learning about new technology, and talking with school psychologists, counselors, and social workers about students with problems. The number of such days ranges from two to 18 per school year.
• Increased staffing – Core subject teachers can be given more planning time within the school day if their students go out to additional physical education, art, music, science, environmental education, and other specialty subjects – and also by increasing supervised recess and using instructional assistants and parent volunteers.
All of these cost money and must compete with other priorities such as reducing class size, increasing educator compensation, and improving or building facilities. Merritt believes a strong case can be made to families and the community that with more planning time for teachers, students and teachers will benefit. However, she concedes that solid research backing up the efficacy of increased teacher planning time hasn’t been done. She concludes by calling for high-quality studies that demonstrate the positive impact on student achievement and teacher morale and effectiveness that she believes will come from increasing planning time.
“But while we’re waiting for evidence to accumulate,” she says, “we should trust teachers who are asking for more time, and make planning time a high priority in budgeting decisions. Instead of implementing costly interventions that yield minimal results in schools, we should pay more attention to the repeated requests from teachers about how to support them in their daily work… They need more time to identify problems they see in their schools or classrooms and work individually and collectively on solutions.”

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09/22/2019 - KarLet
Thank you for this piece! Regarding the need for studies to support the need for more planning time, I feel there are just some things are are simply common sense. Teachers have also been making their case for the need for more planning time for decades, and can provide administrations with lists of the things they were not able to do because of the lack of time.