Let teachers teach: The dangers of expanding teacher workloads

wtdToday, on World Teachers’ Day, we look at one of the findings in the 2017/8 GEM Report on accountability in education due out later this month. The Report celebrates the undeniably critical role that teachers play in any education system: they hold the primary responsibility for educating the students in their care. In recent years, however, the next GEM Report shows that, particularly in high-income countries, pressure on teachers appears to be piling on as more and more responsibilities are placed within their remit. This is often due to the increasing focus on accountability by governments and schools. How can this be avoided?

Accountability and teacher workload

The spectrum of responsibilities falling on teachers’ shoulders often include having to design curriculum, undertake administrative tasks, participate in internal evaluations, help with extracurricular activities, support students’ wellbeing and assist in the hiring process of other teachers. Our next Report shows, for instance, that teachers participatinwtd1g in the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) spent about two hours a week on extracurricular activities, on average, ranging from about half an hour in Sweden and Finland to nearly eight hours in Japan.

In addition to these extra-curricular activities, the 2017/8 GEM Report shows that teachers also have far more requests to account and report, often due to decentralisation and greater school autonomy. About 75% of teachers in Finland and 95% of their peers in Sweden reported that their documentation responsibilities had increased. The issue is when these reporting requests appear to be unreasonable, and when teachers’ ability to teach is being impinged upon. For example, in England, 56% of teachers argued that data collection and management caused unnecessary workload for them, and 93% of teachers and some school leaders viewed workload as a ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ serious problem.

Data for data’s sake?

Quite apart from increasing their workload further, the increasing use of data and reporting also requires additional skills from teachers and school leaders, which evidence shows many teachers do not have. A study of teacher pedagogical knowledge in five OECD countries showed that ‘assessment’, which included data use and research, was the least emphasized element in pre-service education. If teachers can’t use the data, what are we collecting it for? Evidence shows that the number of teachers who say they are confident in using data for instruction is too low. A survey of teachers and school leaders in Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom found that most respondents used data at a superficial level to monitor rather than to improve instruction. Primary and secondary teachers in their first year of work in Ontario, Canada, said their preparedness in the use of educational research and data analysis was one of the elements they felt the least confident about. Two out of three teachers in the United States were unsatisfied with the use of data to improve instruction, often citing the excessive amount of data.

Frustration on the rise

workload.pngUnsurprisingly, these high demands can increase teacher frustration, and produce a feeling of being overwhelmed, especially in settings where teachers are already struggling with limited instructional materials and overcrowded classrooms. In addition, many countries do not recognize the time teachers spend on supplemental responsibilities. Statutory working time is limited to teaching hours in countries including Bulgaria and Tunisia. Teachers whose work is not properly recognized and rewarded often feel overburdened and undervalued, which can influence absenteeism, motivation and effectiveness. All of these factors may cause talented young people to avoid becoming teachers: studies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States show that the pressures of accountability systems and the resulting stress reduce the pool of candidates for the positions.

How can we make sure we don’t end up with teacher burn out?

Policy recommendation 1: Gather data thoughtfully

Gathering data is vital for monitoring education systems, but gathering excessive amounts of data can negatively affect teachers. It’s vital that governments consider the purpose for which the data is being collected, the minimum amount of data required to achieve their aims, and re-use previously-gathered data if appropriate. This also requires considering what reporting requirements are excessive and aren’t providing sufficient value in the education monitoring process.

Policy recommendation 2: Help teachers use data effectively

Teachers need to be supported and prepared to be able to manage data demands and data interpretation, which would allow them to use data to improve teaching and learning.

Teachers’ data literacy could be significantly improved if it were better embedded in initial teacher preparation and training, as well as in continuous professional development. The Netherlands has introduced continuous professional development programmes: teachers and researchers work together to analyse school data. Utrecht University has developed a course to prepare teachers to be data coaches, and the use of external trainers in a classroom had significant and long-lasting positive effects on teacher efficacy in terms of using data to improve instruction. In the United States, 41 of the 50 states reported that they provide teacher training on how to use data to inform instruction and 42 that they provide training on understanding data reports, such as early warning data reports.

As well as initial teacher preparation, leadership preparation programmes for head teachers and other school leadership positions must include assessment literacy training. A promising programme is Chile’s Marco para la Buena Dirección y el Liderazgo Escolar (Good Management and School Leadership Framework), which includes curriculum and resource management, based on student assessment results, as well as staff selection, evaluation and development. In Texas, United States, a programme provided school principals with 300 hours of lesson planning, data-driven instruction, and teacher observation training, and resulted in higher learning gains among students relative to schools that did not benefit from the intervention.

Accountability should be a means to education ends, not an end in itself. Designing accountability is a delicate game, as the 2017/8 GEM Report due out on October 24 will show. Mounting pressures related to accountability without corresponding support, and increased capacity are more than likely to implode upon themselves. Please join us in a few weeks for our launch to delve further into this subject.



  1. It is unfortunate to see that teachers are not happy and stressing out about teaching. Teaching is passion rather than a profession. However, expanding teacher workloads will disturb and frustrate the teachers. Also, time is a very massive constraint in teaching and learning experience. Therefore, being able to spend more quality time in teaching and learning is very crucial than dealing with workloads for teachers.

  2. Reblogged this on Dissecting Literacy and commented:
    I would like to tackle this issue as I see this happening a lot. Some teachers leave the profession mainly because they are so mentally drained by the end of the day. I know I am juggling multiple projects and trying to enjoy my free time. While I have found a rhythm, it seems there is one more thing added to that list. I also think there needs to be a realistic expectation for some teachers to focus on. If there are too many things to focus on, they will grow to resent their job which most principals should keep in mind.

  3. The data driven instruction improving education in USA, is a big lie. Any teacher knows where his/her students are, according to their performance in class, their test and assignments. Why should one add all this b.s. data from any other sources? In USA Today, we have record high school graduations, yet the college admission’ standardized test scores (ACT,SAT, etc) are falling dramatically, especially after this data-driven fantasy was introduced. Our new graduates are incapable of enrolling in basic Algebra college courses and a substantial percentage of them must take remedial classes, that are nothing but middle school math. Teachers are required to do more and more paperwork and whatever else the Admin invents, while the student work load is reduced to the bare necessity, under the pretext of not overloading them. Today, one doesn’t need a passing score, on a high school exit exam, in most of America’s states, in order to graduate. In other words, pretty soon, teachers will have to complete thousand of documents every day, tons of busy-bee type of tasks, while the students will only have to write their name and will graduate. WTF!?

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