First Person

Why Teaching Experience Matters

Teacher layoffs in New York State are about to begin, and they will not be pretty. There is no ideal approach to them; one can only hope to do as little harm as possible. But how do we set our priorities? Who should stay, and why?

Currently, the teachers contract requires layoffs to be done according to seniority, following the basic principle of “last hired, first fired.” In a recent City Journal op-ed, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Marcus Winters objects to the idea of laying newer teachers off first:

Basing layoffs on seniority would make sense if it were true that more experienced teachers were always more effective. But a wide and uncontroversial body of research says that’s not the case. We know that after only a couple of years in the classroom, a teacher’s additional experience has no bearing on the amount her students learn.

Unfortunately this is one of those “research has shown” statements that distort what the research has actually shown. It is far from true that “after only a couple of years in the classroom, a teacher’s additional experience has no bearing on the amount her students learn.” With respect to test scores alone, the statement is inaccurate — and a teacher’s influence on learning (as any teacher knows) goes far beyond test scores.

What does the “body of research” actually say? A few leading studies indicate that the effect of teacher experience on student achievement is greatest in the first few years. In “Photo Finish” (Education Next, Winter 2007), Thomas J. Kane, Jonah E. Rockoff and Douglas O. Staiger report:

New York’s teachers are no different from other teachers around the country. Teachers make long strides in their first three years, with very little experience-related improvement after that. The students of third-year teachers score 6 percent and 3 percent of a standard deviation higher in math and reading, respectively, than students of first-year teachers.

This does not mean that additional teaching experience has no effect. Charles T. Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd and Jacob L. Vigdor (2007) have found that teacher experience has a significant positive effect on student achievement, with more than half of the gains occurring during the teacher’s first few years, but substantial gains occurring over subsequent years, albeit at a slower rate. They write:

Compared to a teacher with no experience, the benefits of experience rise monotonically to a peak in the range of 0.092 (from model 4) to 0.119 (from model 5) standard deviations after 21-27 years of experience, with more than half of the gain occurring during the first couple of years of teaching.

None of this is a surprise. Novice teachers are often thrown into chaotic situations; it may take them a year to get their bearings. They may be asked to teach a subject outside of their field, or to teach more than one subject. They may be assigned the lowest-performing students. After a few years, not only do they get a handle on their everyday duties, but their assignments may be slightly easier or closer to what they know.

One would expect, even hope, that a teacher’s effect on test scores would slow down at a certain point. Students have a role in their own achievement, after all. A teacher typically has a mix of students: those who work hard at their subject and those who don’t, those who find the subject easy and those who struggle with it. Yes, a teacher’s instruction has a great effect on students, and teachers should do all they can. But if years of teacher experience had a linear correspondence with gains on test scores, the teacher would essentially control student performance. What would this say for human choice and responsibility? What role would students play in their own education?

Beyond this, there is more to education than test scores in math and reading. It seems silly to belabor the point, but it eludes many policy makers and think-tankers. State tests are low-level tests of skills and strategies. They involve very little subject matter knowledge; to pass a reading test, one need not have read any excellent literature. One doesn’t even need to know how to write a grammatical sentence. An excellent teacher goes far beyond the test in rigor, substance, and understanding, and life experience and teaching experience enrich this.

Besides teaching the actual subject (which is much richer than the stuff on the tests), a teacher offers insight, knowledge, experience, and wisdom, whether directly or indirectly. Over time, a teacher comes to see the education field and his or her subject in perspective. Newer teachers may be excited about new discoveries, but teachers with more experience can distinguish valuable ideas from passing fads. There are exceptions, of course, on both ends. But experience can bring humility, good judgment, and an ability to see and hear the larger story.

A student gleans these things. They affect the sounds in the room, the tenor of the lesson, the way the subject matter comes through. They can be sensed in the tones of the words. I remember how a teacher read Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” and the strange mixture of triumph, humor, and sadness in the last line, “And to do that to birds was why she came.” A younger teacher might have read it beautifully but without quite the same mixtures.

The point is not that veteran teachers simply read poems with more feeling. The point is that life experience and the immersion in the subject affect the teaching in all sorts of ways, large and small. Repetition brings not only fluency, but insight; when you teach a subject over and over (especially a subject you know and love), you see more in it and find different ways of presenting it. Your repertoire grows; you have more materials, ideas, and lessons in your mind and file cabinets. You know how to reach your students; you are less severely affected by the day’s or the year’s ups and downs, distractions, and interruptions. Experienced teachers are also a great asset to novice teachers who need advice, encouragement, and guidance. When a school goes through upheavals every few years — discarding one model for another, or firing half its staff–a veteran teacher can help keep the school and its purpose intact.

At the end of his piece, Winters acknowledges that decisions should not depend solely on test scores. But this qualification comes a bit late. Even at their best, tests are confined to the short term and reflect only a fraction of what students learn. Teacher experience — even after the first few years — does affect test scores, but it affects much more than that. What the student turns into habit or remembers years down the road, what continues to play in the mind long after the test is done — that is the stuff of education. That is the stuff that veteran teachers teach well, having learned to sort out the flashy from the true.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.