Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Maybe Old Teachers Don't Suck

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 big ticket items that are fat that needs 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.


  1. No one is saying Old Teachers Suck. But when you layoff by seniority, it does imply Young Teachers Suck, or that they suck more than the oldsters. Downsizing hurts, but when budgets call for it then it's common sense that it's best for children to keep the best teachers on board be they wise old ones or young hot shots.

    1. Once public school teachers become at-will employees, there will not be many old teachers left in the public schools, whether they suck or not. New teachers--even the best new teachers in world--have little leeway when it comes to resisting counterproductive mandates if they want to hang on to their own jobs. I have seen in my own school that tenured teachers often give untenured teachers the cover they need to resist foolish directives that we ALL agree are bad for our students.

    2. How do you decide? Test scores? I have been in my inner city school district for 16 years at a school that was placed in receivership. We are out of receivership this month and another school in the district has been added. Who knows which schools will be added in the future. Does my district play a guessing game about who should be laid off? Maybe if our governor paid schools the money they are owed we wouldn't be having this conversation.

    3. I agree w/the above? How do you determine what or who is a "good" Teacher? Hence the tenure issue as for years it was the subjective vs objective tool and the former is often based on politics not skills. That said the latter puts the onus of responsibility on children. Some children test well, some don't and that too has varying reasons as to why - yes poor instruction but also learning disabilities, hunger, sleep, the test itself (as we know those are just flawless!!) and other situations out of the control of both the tester and the school. So unless you have a clear method and system in place to determine what makes a good Teacher it does nothing in helping anyone become one be they an old timer or a newbie.

  2. As a teacher who is finishing up my 34th year I really appreciate this article. Unfortunately, I worked for a principal who warned the newbies to "stay away from the veterans and don't teach like they do". She is gone now and the newbies are part of our strong third grade team. We learn from them and they learn from us. Collegiality is so important to keep teachers inspired and uplifted. I do feel that my years in the system have given me insight and knowledge that younger teachers don't yet have.

  3. I have to say-when I started teaching, I was helped by experienced teachers; one only becomes a master teacher with years of experience. Why is it so hard to understand that we need both new teachers and experienced ones? this is true of any occupation-nursing, any public service job,etc. etc.

  4. A blend of experience and new is what I have been advocating for as a school board member. You are correct, Mrs. Flori. Each group has something to contribute.

  5. Then you need to take salary out of the equation as well. More experienced teachers will always cost more and principals are going to make the decision based on the budget and not what is best for the children. Why is it always the teacher that has to sacrifice for the children? No other profession requires so much give back.

  6. Of course. And we always knew this. If. Anyone had asked.