This Just In: Experience Matters
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?