Although no one doubts the value of extracurricular activities for students, few realize how much time and effort are required from teachers in Japan and the United States in supervising them. With pressure mounting for evidence of educational quality beyond test scores, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at this issue.

Despite their unofficial status in the education system in Japan today, club activities (bukatsu) are indispensable for students. Whether these clubs meet before or after school, during the week or on weekends, they still must be supervised by teachers because they come under the school aegis.

The problem is that the current education ministry’s guidelines recognize them as voluntary activities, despite their history. Originally known in 1970 as kurabu katsudo, club activities were designated an official subject. But under the yutori education policy beginning in the early 1980s, the activities became informal. As a result, teachers are not paid for their involvement. Depending on the kind of club, the time devoted is not insignificant.

For example, the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey in 2013 found that junior-high school teachers put in 7.7 hours a week, which is more than triple the OECD average of 2.1 hours. Without a strong teachers’ union, teachers find themselves unable to decline supervising these activities.

Extracurricular activities in the U.S. are not as formalized. Nevertheless, they can be just as demanding for teachers tasked with supervising them. That’s why large urban districts with strong teachers’ unions have contracts spelling out exactly what teachers will be paid for their responsibilities. Yet they are still under-compensated for what can often make the difference between students graduating or dropping out.

When I began teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1964, I was expected to teach one class of public speaking and to prepare students for speech tournaments. At that time, the teachers’ union was just beginning to flex its muscles.

The best that it could negotiate was the princely sum of $200 for an entire semester to cover my time and expertise in rehearsing students for four tournaments a semester before school, during lunch and after school, and accompanying them to the all-day events held on Saturday throughout the city. Based on a log I kept, that came out to about 75 cents an hour.

Although students excelled, in some years going on to the state speech tournaments held at various universities, I finally had to ask to be relieved because I was exhausted. The trophies remain in the high school’s hall showcase, and I managed to survive.

Teachers today have it much better. They are not as easily exploited. Their contract pays them an amount more in keeping with the time and effort they put in. Yet it still does not fully compensate for the stress unavoidably connected with the speech program or with other extracurricular programs.

Overworked teachers in Japan and the U.S. are often commended for being dedicated. But the truth is that exhausted teachers shortchange their students by not being able to devote all their talent to their main teaching assignments. That’s the other side of the story union bashers do not want to be made public.

Just as the law in the U.S. now restricts medical interns in hospitals to a maximal number of hours per week in recognition of the danger to patients that exhaustion creates, it’s time for Japan and the U.S. to do the same for teachers.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S. He taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years.

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