Every time teacher pay gets discussed someone argues against raises by saying that teachers don’t work as many hours as comparable workers; they get summers off and long vacations. Now to an economist, this is a mostly irrelevant argument. If we need more or better teachers we need to raise teacher pay and if we already have enough good teachers then we don’t. The number of hours a typical teacher works doesn’t tell us much about the right wage rate–how many hours does the typical NBA star play and what does he get paid?
Nonetheless, people do argue over the topic. Teacher work hours are hard to measure because so much teacher work is off the clock. Numbers from official data are all over the map and of somewhat questionable reliability. In “Are Teachers Overpaid or Overworked? New Measures of Market Hours,” Kristine West has provided an answer that’s likely to be the gold standard for some time to come. West used data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). The ATUS asks thousands of people to keep a 24-hour time diary in which they record their activities at 15 minute intervals. The ATUS is considered the best available data on how people actually spend their time. Here’s West’s picture.
West estimates that teachers work on average 38 hours a week September through May and 21.5 hours during June, July, and August. The year-round average for teachers is 34.5 hours as compared to 39.9 hours for non-teachers (with a college degree). The average for teachers has a statistical error of roughly plus or minus an hour-and-a-half a week. For non-teachers the error range is about half an hour.
So West finds that teachers do work fewer hours than comparable workers. The difference is about 15 percent. That’s a noticeable difference, but not a huge one.