The Broward County School Board has voted to shorten the middle school day by 30 minutes, reducing time in the classroom to give teachers more time to plan. This policy, which to take effect must be confirmed by a second vote next month, would only continue a trend in education that hurts teachers while also preventing class-size reduction.
How can we expect school systems to pay teachers more when we’re constantly reducing the number of hours they work in the classroom? And how can we reduce class sizes when each teacher is handling fewer and fewer classes per day?
To see how shorter school days hurt both teachers and students, we need to look at a major structural change in education. Florida’s inflation-adjusted education spending per student has roughly doubled in the last 30 years -- to $7,473 in 2000-01. But the extra money hasn’t gone into teachers’ salaries, which have dropped on average from $38,991 to $37,980 in inflation-adjusted dollars over the same period.
Instead, the single greatest factor driving the doubling of education spending in that time has been the hiring of a huge new army of teachers. Nationwide there has been a 48 percent increase in the teaching workforce relative to the student population, with a similar trend in Florida.
Spending all that extra money to hire all those teachers might have been justified if it had reduced class sizes, but it hasn’t. The average number of students in U.S. public school classrooms was 27 in 1971; by 1996 the average class size was essentially unchanged, with 24 students in elementary schools and 31 students in secondary schools.
Why didn’t classes shrink? One major reason is that individual teachers are spending less and less time in the classroom teaching students. The average teacher in a departmentalized setting (that is, where students have different teachers for different subjects) taught almost 4.5 hours per day in 1982, but fewer than 3.9 hours per day in 2000. And the average number of students taught per day by each secondary public school teacher dropped from 134 in 1971 to 97 in 1996.
Perhaps some teachers prefer to work fewer classroom hours and get smaller raises, rather than work the same amount and get bigger raises. But given how far teachers’ salaries are trailing behind salaries in other professions, most teachers would probably prefer bigger raises rather than less work. The less time each teacher spends in the classroom, the more teachers each school needs to hire to provide the same level of instruction. The more teachers each school hires, the less money is available for teacher raises. Meanwhile, students and their families would definitely prefer the smaller classes that would come from having teachers spend more of their day in the classroom.
The Broward School Board should consider these facts when the idea of shorter school days comes up for a final vote next month. Teachers’ salaries have stagnated and class sizes haven’t shrunk in large part because of just this kind of policy; more of the same is the last thing Broward needs.