First Person

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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.