This Just In: Experience Matters

By Jane Coggshall, GTL Center Content Lead May 30, 2013

New research is calling into question the old chestnut that teachers quickly get better in their first few years on the job and then level off on an effectiveness “plateau.” Using less restrictive statistical models than previous researchers did, some economists have found that veteran teachers do, in fact, get substantially better with time—at least in math, particularly if teachers’ grade-level assignments don’t change very often.

In a Journal of Economics article, Matthew Wiswall, Ph.D., examined the mathematics test scores from students of more than 3,000 North Carolina fifth-grade teachers. He found that teachers with 30 years of experience have significantly greater measured effectiveness than do teachers at the job for 5 years—to the tune of three quarters of a standard deviation, a hefty difference.

A working paper by Brown and Harvard economists John Papay, Ed.D., and Matthew Kraft found additional evidence that, after improving quickly in their first years on the job, teachers do continue to, as researchers say, “accumulate human capital” throughout their careers.

So much for the plateau.

What’s really interesting is that these “returns to experience” (don’t you love economists?) differ for different teachers. For example, in a yet-to-be-published study of North Carolina teachers, Ben Ost, Ph.D., found that elementary school teachers who teach the same grade for the first few years of teaching improve 30 to 50 percent faster in teaching mathematics than do teachers who are switched to different grades. This result was not evident for elementary reading, however.

And, in a study recently published in the Journal of Urban Economics, researchers affiliated with the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) found that, on average, teachers in high-poverty schools (where more than 70 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) do not increase in effectiveness over time as much as teachers in lower poverty schools do.

So what should we make of these recent findings—assuming they stand the test of further scientific scrutiny?

We at the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders find five main takeaways:

  1. The distribution of experience matters.  If placed in high-needs schools, beginning teachers will be less effective than experienced teachers and, all else equal, will likely improve more slowly—a double whammy for their students.
  2. States and districts should pay attention to their teacher experience data (as their highly qualified teacher reporting still requires) to spot trouble related to the equitable distribution of quality teaching. It’s quick, it’s dirty, but it’s not nothing.
  3. Stable teacher assignments may help teachers improve more quickly. If school leaders make it a priority, improvement doesn’t always require extra resources. Less than half of the teachers in Dr. Ost’s sample taught the same grade for their first five years of teaching, and switches happened more frequently in schools with high teacher turnover.
  4. More research is needed on the patterns that economists are turning up. For example, how can professional learning accelerate improvements in teacher effectiveness at every stage of a teacher’s career? What student outcomes beyond student test scores do teachers get better at achieving with experience?
  5. We must do more to honor our experienced teachers and ensure their continued retention and growth. It matters.

That’s our quick take. What do you think of these findings?


I'm hoping this will be the start of more focused studies on how teachers' expertise develops over the course of their careers, and what that means for students. For example, one of the standards for National Board Certification is the teacher's ability to reflect on his/her work and make necessary adjustments and set goals for professional growth. Certainly, educators can and should be lifelong learners ourselves. Highly accomplished teaching cannot be completely taught in teacher preparation, nor achieved immediately in the classroom.

In too many high needs schools, there has been a mistaken attack on veteran teachers en masse as cause of low achievement, rather than looking more closely at the individual performance and skills of teachers. Veteran teachers in a school also bring a wealth of cultural knowledge about the community, and a valuable historical perspective on what has/has not worked in the way of edreform in that school. High needs schools tend to have been through many cycles of reforms, programs, and interventions---many of them unsuccessful--which is one reason veteran teachers are often perceived as resistant to change. They are often just being protective of students. That resolve and dedication can be an invaluable tool in real school reform, if teachers are actually involved in its development, not just subjected to it.

I could not agree more with Renee's comments, and with the implementation of the Common Core Standards, many new teachers may look to veteran teachers for their depth and breadth of expertise. If veteran teachers are ineffective, I believe poor staffing, inadequate professional development, meaningless evaluation, and increased class size to be culprits. They almost always are.

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