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Why Teaching Experience Matters

Teacher layoffs in New York State are about to begin, and they will not be pretty. There is no ideal approach to them; one can only hope to do as little harm as possible. But how do we set our priorities? Who should stay, and why?

Currently, the teachers contract requires layoffs to be done according to seniority, following the basic principle of “last hired, first fired.” In a recent City Journal op-ed, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Marcus Winters objects to the idea of laying newer teachers off first:

Basing layoffs on seniority would make sense if it were true that more experienced teachers were always more effective. But a wide and uncontroversial body of research says that’s not the case. We know that after only a couple of years in the classroom, a teacher’s additional experience has no bearing on the amount her students learn.

Unfortunately this is one of those “research has shown” statements that distort what the research has actually shown. It is far from true that “after only a couple of years in the classroom, a teacher’s additional experience has no bearing on the amount her students learn.” With respect to test scores alone, the statement is inaccurate — and a teacher’s influence on learning (as any teacher knows) goes far beyond test scores.

What does the “body of research” actually say? A few leading studies indicate that the effect of teacher experience on student achievement is greatest in the first few years. In “Photo Finish” (Education Next, Winter 2007), Thomas J. Kane, Jonah E. Rockoff and Douglas O. Staiger report:

New York’s teachers are no different from other teachers around the country. Teachers make long strides in their first three years, with very little experience-related improvement after that. The students of third-year teachers score 6 percent and 3 percent of a standard deviation higher in math and reading, respectively, than students of first-year teachers.

This does not mean that additional teaching experience has no effect. Charles T. Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd and Jacob L. Vigdor (2007) have found that teacher experience has a significant positive effect on student achievement, with more than half of the gains occurring during the teacher’s first few years, but substantial gains occurring over subsequent years, albeit at a slower rate. They write:

Compared to a teacher with no experience, the benefits of experience rise monotonically to a peak in the range of 0.092 (from model 4) to 0.119 (from model 5) standard deviations after 21-27 years of experience, with more than half of the gain occurring during the first couple of years of teaching.

None of this is a surprise. Novice teachers are often thrown into chaotic situations; it may take them a year to get their bearings. They may be asked to teach a subject outside of their field, or to teach more than one subject. They may be assigned the lowest-performing students. After a few years, not only do they get a handle on their everyday duties, but their assignments may be slightly easier or closer to what they know.

One would expect, even hope, that a teacher’s effect on test scores would slow down at a certain point. Students have a role in their own achievement, after all. A teacher typically has a mix of students: those who work hard at their subject and those who don’t, those who find the subject easy and those who struggle with it. Yes, a teacher’s instruction has a great effect on students, and teachers should do all they can. But if years of teacher experience had a linear correspondence with gains on test scores, the teacher would essentially control student performance. What would this say for human choice and responsibility? What role would students play in their own education?

Beyond this, there is more to education than test scores in math and reading. It seems silly to belabor the point, but it eludes many policy makers and think-tankers. State tests are low-level tests of skills and strategies. They involve very little subject matter knowledge; to pass a reading test, one need not have read any excellent literature. One doesn’t even need to know how to write a grammatical sentence. An excellent teacher goes far beyond the test in rigor, substance, and understanding, and life experience and teaching experience enrich this.

Besides teaching the actual subject (which is much richer than the stuff on the tests), a teacher offers insight, knowledge, experience, and wisdom, whether directly or indirectly. Over time, a teacher comes to see the education field and his or her subject in perspective. Newer teachers may be excited about new discoveries, but teachers with more experience can distinguish valuable ideas from passing fads. There are exceptions, of course, on both ends. But experience can bring humility, good judgment, and an ability to see and hear the larger story.

A student gleans these things. They affect the sounds in the room, the tenor of the lesson, the way the subject matter comes through. They can be sensed in the tones of the words. I remember how a teacher read Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” and the strange mixture of triumph, humor, and sadness in the last line, “And to do that to birds was why she came.” A younger teacher might have read it beautifully but without quite the same mixtures.

The point is not that veteran teachers simply read poems with more feeling. The point is that life experience and the immersion in the subject affect the teaching in all sorts of ways, large and small. Repetition brings not only fluency, but insight; when you teach a subject over and over (especially a subject you know and love), you see more in it and find different ways of presenting it. Your repertoire grows; you have more materials, ideas, and lessons in your mind and file cabinets. You know how to reach your students; you are less severely affected by the day’s or the year’s ups and downs, distractions, and interruptions. Experienced teachers are also a great asset to novice teachers who need advice, encouragement, and guidance. When a school goes through upheavals every few years — discarding one model for another, or firing half its staff–a veteran teacher can help keep the school and its purpose intact.

At the end of his piece, Winters acknowledges that decisions should not depend solely on test scores. But this qualification comes a bit late. Even at their best, tests are confined to the short term and reflect only a fraction of what students learn. Teacher experience — even after the first few years — does affect test scores, but it affects much more than that. What the student turns into habit or remembers years down the road, what continues to play in the mind long after the test is done — that is the stuff of education. That is the stuff that veteran teachers teach well, having learned to sort out the flashy from the true.

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