Maybe Old Teachers Don't Stink

Teacher pointing to raised hands in classroom
Teacher pointing to raised hands in classroom

A repeated refrain among some reformsters is that we need to get rid of tenure, job protections, and seniority rules for teachers because the system is clogged with washed-up uncaring has-beens and when budgets are slashed and staffing is cut, it's the hot young rock stars of education that are thrown out on the street (oddly enough, their concern over this issue never translates into calls to knock it off with the budget slashing, but that's another conversation).

But what if older teachers didn't suck?

This month the Learning Policy Institute released a new research brief, "Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness?" The report is a meta-analysis, a study of studies that looks at thirty studies over the last thirty years. And it turns out that maybe older teachers don't suck.

I'm going to start with my usual caveat -- many of these studies use student scores on the Big Standardized Test as a proxy for student achievement or teacher effectiveness or general swellness of the school, and it needs to be said that this is crap. The BS Tests are not a measure of student achievement; they are a measure of student ability to take BS Tests. We'll be able to accomplish a lot more in the world of teacher training, development, and effectiveness when we start talking about the real marks of excellent teaching instead of this standardized test baloney. But test scores are the measure reformsters have chosen, and I'm provisionally willing to use reformster tools to disprove reformster policy ideas, because if they can't win on their own court with their own ball and their own rules, that's just further proof that they should get out of the game.

That said, here are what study authors Tara Kini and Anne Podolsky found.

1) Teacher experience raises student "achievement" throughout the teacher's career. The gains are steepest in the first few years of the teaching career, but they keep on happening through the next several decades.

2) As teachers gain experience, students do better on other measures of achievement. This one surprised me -- the more years of experience a teacher has, the fewer days her students miss school. Teacher experience is also positively correlated with student discipline, student time spent on homework, and student time spent reading for pleasure.

I'm wondering if some of this is correlation -- are experienced teachers less likely to be assigned less well-behaved students? But it also makes sense -- experience in particular lets teachers learn how to handle classroom management without making boneheaded mistakes that make things worse ("If I hear one more peep out of any of you..."). Experience also teaches teachers how to assign homework that isn't a waste of everyone's time.

3) Teachers make the greatest gains in effectiveness when they work in a collegial environment. In other words, you do better teaching when you are connected to a supportive team of colleagues. I would file this finding under Too Dumb To Need Mentioning, except that there are a bunch of folks who would like to turn schools into teach thunderdome where teachers compete with each other for raises, bonuses, and job security. So for those folks, here's some actual research to show how dumb it is to install a system built on competition instead of cooperation.

4) More experienced teachers help everybody. Research indicates that teachers are more effective when they work with more experienced teachers. In other words, experienced teachers don't just do a better job for their own students, but elevate the game for the other teachers in the building.

There are several important implications here. Last year, in discussing two other big studies that revealed similar findings, Stephen Sawchuk homed in on one of the most important implications -- the picture of "teacher quality as a mutable characteristic that can be developed, rather than a static one that's formed in the first few years on the job." We need to stop talking about good teachers and bad teachers as if various teachers are forever locked into a solid-state permanent status as one of the other; instead, let's look at teaching as an action and talk about how to do it most effectively.

The LPI study offers three recommendations.

First, increase job stability. No kidding. Here's a thought -- since teachers do their best work as they accumulate more experience, why not come up with a system that encourages teachers to stick around. Like, a system that offered tangibles like higher pay for longevity and intangibles like job security that favors the more experienced teachers. Incentivize sticking around. Just a thought.

Second, create a collegial atmosphere. Create a system where teachers are encouraged to cooperate, not a system that incentivizes non-cooperation. The calls to make it easier to fire old teachers, the systems for making pay and job security based on "beating" the other teachers in your school -- these are exactly wrong.

Third, look at longevity in high needs schools. If teachers do their best work after years in the classroom, then schools that have nothing but beginning teachers who are steadily churned in and out (as they complete their two year stint with TFA or move on to other schools) are schools that are not getting the top quality in staff. Staffing your turnaround charter with nothing but newbies and led by operators with no actual classroom experience -- that's not just an educational issue or an economic issue, but an equity issue as well. Staffing your most challenging district school with your youngest teachers and offering them no incentives to stay there for the long haul (from pay to resources to a capable principal) is, once again, an equity issue.

As always, I cast a somewhat dubious eyeball at educational research, but the implications here are fairly clear -- it would be useful to stop looking at experienced teachers as fat big ticket items that need to be trimmed from budgets and instead see them as a major driver of excellence within schools. Is every experienced teacher a paragon of educational awesomeness? Of course not. But the research seems clear enough -- teachers generally age like fine wine (or the stinky cheese that my wife likes for some reason), and it would strengthen the educational system to encourage the teacher pool to age long and well.

Originally posted at Curmudgucation