As I sat for a morning recently in a meeting where a number of elementary and secondary school teachers described how our state legislature’s policies are affecting their schools, I found myself thinking not so much about the policies but instead about the teachers and their work. It struck me in a new way that teachers are among the hardest working people I know. They must work with large groups of young people all day every day, manage their classrooms to create order and a respectful climate, be fully present in their classrooms—paying attention to each student and finding ways to be understanding and supportive, prepare each day, and organize the curriculum to engage the students in learning and thinking critically. Then they must read and grade papers and exams. And they have to keep it all going in good spirit.
Our nation has been flooded by a great wave of blaming and trashing teachers. After all, as a human endeavor, teaching is old-fashioned. Teachers are human beings working in a personal way; the tech experts suggest machines would be a cheap replacement. And anyway, teachers have not succeeded in raising test scores across the board.
But perhaps there are signs that the wave of teacher-bashing is at least ebbing. Teach for America promised that college graduates without formal college training in teaching (except for a five week summer program) would be able to step right into classrooms and raise test scores. But TFA is struggling. Emma Brown of the Washington Post pointed out early this month that, “Teach for America has spent most of its 25 years working to expand, growing from a concept outlined in a Princeton student’s honors thesis to an education-reform juggernaut that places thousands of idealistic college graduates in some of the nation’s neediest classrooms. But that growth has stalled. Applications for TFA’s two-year teaching stints have plummeted 35 percent during the past three years, forcing the organization to reexamine and reinvent how it sells itself to prospective corps members.” Brown explains that Teach for America, “faces singular challenges, having been buffeted by critics who say that the organization does not address educational inequity but instead amplifies it, institutionalizing teacher turnover and saddling disadvantaged kids with novice instructors who won’t stay around long enough to really make a difference.” The quick, alternative certification programs like TFA are not as popular as they once were.
And the Every Student Succeeds Act has unbuckled—as a federal mandate—the demand that teachers’ evaluations be tied to their students’ test scores, although many states persist with such a requirement.
Nearly fifteen years of federal policy that essentially demands that teachers raise test scores or else face serious consequences, has, however, undermined the morale and reputation of teachers. Our society has been encouraged to blame teachers alone for failing to “produce” test score gains in the poorest communities, despite that we know that test scores are affected by families’ economic circumstances and that state governments with inequitable finance systems fail to support the teachers and students in the school districts whose needs are greatest.
Perhaps the strangest twist in the logic of the test-based-accountability theorists has been their argument that we judge teachers by their “effectiveness” in raising test scores and forget about their experience or their preparation or their ongoing work to improve their teaching and their profession. Hence the need for the new brief from the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University: Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness? A Review of the Research. Here is how the brief’s authors describe the important issues that arise around the question of whether a teacher’s years’ of experience matter: “(D)o teachers, on average, continue to improve in their effectiveness as they gain experience in the teaching profession? The answer to this question has significant policy implications. For example, is it an equity problem that low-income students and students of color are more likely to be taught by the least experienced teachers and to attend schools with high rates of teacher turnover? Should we invest in professional development and learning opportunities for more experienced teachers, or focus these resources on novice teachers only? Should experience be rewarded through salary schedules that tie pay to experience in an effort to retain veteran teachers? Should policy be focused on building teaching as a long term profession, or on recruiting and training a short-term teaching workforce?” The new brief is based on a review of 50 academic studies published within the last 15 years.
Here are the report’s four central findings:
- “Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career. The gains from experience are highest in teachers’ initial years, but continue for teachers in the second and often third decades of their careers.”
- “As teachers gain experience, their students are also more likely to do better on other measures of success beyond test scores, such as school attendance.”
- “Teachers make greater gains in their effectiveness when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment, or accumulate experience in the same grade level, subject, or district.”
- “More experienced teachers confer benefits to their colleagues and to the school as a whole, as well as to their own students.”
These findings confirm that experience matters. How can we think about how the findings relate to what teachers do every day? A couple of years ago, Mike Rose, the education writer and a UCLA teacher of teachers, had three articles (here, here, and here) published by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post Answer Sheet column. In the series of articles, Rose considers what teachers do and the implications for their training. In the first of these columns, Why Educating the Educators Is Complex, Rose explains: “Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others. This takes us to the heart of what teaching is…. The teacher sets out to explain what a protein or a metaphor is, or how to balance the terms in an algebraic equation, or the sociological dynamics of prejudice, but to do so needs to be thinking about how to explain these things: what illustrations, what analogies, what alternative explanations when the first one fails? This instruction is done not only to convey particular knowledge about metaphors or algebraic equations, but also to get students to understand and think about these topics. This involves hefty cognitive activity, … but the teacher is doing it with a room full of young people—which brings a significant performative dimension to the task.”
Rose continues: “Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity. You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s. Simultaneously, you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness. Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers. How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on—but it is an ever-present part of the work they do.”
In a more recent article that critiques test-driven, accountability-based school “reform,” Rose describes characteristics of the classrooms of excellent teachers, the evidence of what the teachers he describes continue to develop through their careers: “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment… And there was safety to take intellectual risks… Intimately related to safety is respect… Respect also has a cognitive dimension. As a New York principal put it, ‘It’s not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to be challenging enough that it’s respectful.’ Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”