No, the U.S. Does Not Have the Hardest-Working Teachers in the Free World

by Jason Richwine

As parents send their kids back to school this fall, the OECD, a group of the world’s industrialized nations, is putting out some dubious claims about how American teachers compare to their counterparts in the rest of the OECD.

OECD studies are sometimes just too ambitious. The truth is that large-scale international comparisons are almost inevitably plagued by inconsistent and unreliable data. The most recent example: The OECD’s Education at a Glance 2013 shows American teachers working more hours than teachers in every OECD country except Chile (see table D4.1 in the study). Sounds impressive!

But consider how the data are collected. For many countries, the OECD appears to measure teacher work time based on statutory or contractual work hours. For the U.S., however, the OECD relies on the federal government’s School and Staffing Survey, which directly asks American teachers how much time they work.

That’s an inconsistency likely to inflate U.S. hours relative to the rest of the world. School districts in the U.S. require teachers to work about 37 hours per week, but teachers in the School and Staffing Survey claim to work a whopping 53 hours per week! This 16-hour difference shows that, regardless of which estimation method is more accurate, cross-country comparisons that mix and match methods cannot be trusted.

What causes such a big difference between statutory hours and self-reports? It’s the work that teachers do outside the classroom — grading papers, developing lesson plans, calling parents, etc. Statutory hours tend to downplay these activities, while self-reports exaggerate them. Accurately measuring work time outside the classroom requires a special time-use survey, in which respondents give detailed, sequential descriptions of their activities on a given day. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has used this approach to show that the teacher workweek in the U.S. is not unusually short or long — it’s roughly 40 hours.

All of this may seem like just an obscure statistical matter, but understanding how much teachers work is crucial to ensuring that their compensation is at fair market levels. The myth of the super-long “unworldly” teacher workweek has become a favorite talking point for unions demanding across-the-board raises, and it’s a serious obstacle to pay reform.