Teachers Win Fight For More Planning Time

Milwaukee’s elementary and middle school teachers won a 50 percent increase in planning time, after an energetic campaign by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association threatened to turn out hundreds of frustrated and fed-up teachers and students at a school board meeting this week.

The improvement means teachers will have three hours a week, up from a mere two, for the hundreds of tasks that must be addressed during their planning time: Calling parents, developing lesson plans, reviewing student assessments, writing individualized education plans, collaborating with grade-level colleagues, grading student work, meeting with individual students and/or parents, and more. Much more! Without adequate planning time, MTEA teachers reported working 12- to 14-hour days to meet the needs of their students and communities.

Three hours still isn’t enough—and MTEA knows high school teachers also need more time, especially to meet individually with students with specific instructional needs. The union’s efforts to improve teaching and learning will not let up at all. But the change from two to three hours is a “step forward,” said Kelley Dawson Salas, MTEA’s communications specialist, and shows clearly the great power of educators when they organize and speak with a strong, unified voice.

The problem with planning time in Milwaukee started earlier this year—or, more accurately, about 30 years ago, when the state approved a school voucher program that uses public money to send thousands of Milwaukee students each year to private schools, about 85 percent of which are religious. Since its start in 1980, the voucher program has siphoned nearly $1 billion from the city’s public school system. This year it will cost about $155 million. Take that money, and then add Governor Scott Walker’s death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy to deliberately impoverish public education in Wisconsin, and public schools have been stripped to the bone.

Many Milwaukee elementary schools don’t have art teachers anymore — they can’t afford them. Their students also don’t have teachers in music or physical education, or the literacy opportunities provided by school librarians. These scanty offerings surely have consequences for students who need and deserve a rich, well-rounded education—but the lack of art, music, physical education, and library also means regular classroom teachers in Milwaukee don’t have planning time, which typically takes place in suburban or well-funded schools during one or two “special” periods each day.

This year, making it even worse, Milwaukee district administrators ordered three hours of teachers’ time each week be reserved for principal-led training, often scripted, paid for, and hastily thrown together.

A survey done by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, which more than 1,200 MTEA participated in, shows the consequences: 86 percent of members said they didn’t have sufficient planning time; 75 percent said they had a daily average of zero to 30 minutes of planning time; 85 percent spend at least an hour a day of their own time to complete their professional responsibilities; and 67 percent said it’s more difficult to contact parents.

Unfortunately, these are conditions also faced by many other teachers in many other places in the United States. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American teachers spend about 80 percent of their workday teaching, on average, but in countries like Denmark and Japan, it’s about 40 percent—leaving a great deal more time for the kind of thoughtful planning and collaboration that supports students.

In Milwaukee, it became clear in September that the new schedule was sabotaging student learning and raising the stress levels of teachers to emergency levels, MTEA building representatives met with members at each school. Meanwhile MTEA President Bob Peterson and other union leaders held a series of meetings with Milwaukee Public Schools administrators, while simultaneously planning for collective action by members.

When the two sides reached agreement, teachers breathed a collective sigh of relief—and then got back to work.