It started with a fourth grade read-aloud book. It ended with a fifth grade class who had become what Bierbaum Elementary School teacher Jennifer Osborn described as a “family.”
What happened in between was an unplanned, student-driven experiment, testing a practice educators call looping, or moving students from one grade to the next with the same teacher.
In January 2021, Osborn’s Saint Louis County students had just finished a semester of remote and hybrid learning and felt they’d missed out on time together. Their class book, “Because of Mr. Terupt,” told the story of a special bond between a teacher and his students, and in the end, (spoiler) Mr. Terupt loops with the class to sixth grade.
It gave Osborn’s students an idea.
“They were like, ‘We want to loop! We want to do a loop here,’ she said.
Bierbaum’s Principal Paul Morris said he “blew off the idea” at first, but with enough persistence from the kids he started to take it more seriously. He and Osborn decided to give it a try, and both are glad they did.
Research shows looping works
There’s evidence that students benefit when they stay with the same teacher for more than one school year.
A new study from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, adds to a growing body of evidence in support of looping, redrawing attention to the positive effects on student performance both academically and behaviorally.
Released in early June, the study analyzes seven years of Tennessee state test results, compiled by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance. It includes the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program for grades 3-8 and subject-specific tests for grades 9-11.
The test scores of an average child who experienced a repeat student-teacher match went up from the 50th to 51st percentile in both math and English. The likelihood of suspension went down 10%.
The level of effect may seem “fairly modest, if not small,” said Leigh Wedenoja, an author on the study and senior policy analyst at the SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government. But the policy relevance of looping is more than just its magnitude. It’s about scalability, said co-author Matthew Kraft, assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University.
“Here, the financial costs are low, especially if you can support teachers to take on the work of learning the content and pedagogical techniques across grades and subjects,” Kraft said.
Some groups of students saw even bigger benefits. Overall, the impact was larger the greater percentage of repeat student-teacher matches there were in the class. By categories, higher performing students and white girls saw the biggest boosts in test scores, while gains in attendance and declines in discipline were largest for lower performing students and male students of color. Conclusions based on demographics do have a higher margin of error than the overall statistics given smaller sample sizes, but are worth noting given ample evidence of disproportionate discipline for Black and brown students in schools.
“This provides at least some evidence that having a relationship with a teacher, being with a teacher the second time, could counteract some of that over-discipline,” said Wedenoja.
The study looked not only at intentional looping, which occurred with 2% of students, but at all instances of repeat teacher-student matches, such as a teacher who happens to change grade levels or who teaches multiple classes across grade levels. This was far more common, impacting 44% of students.
It means that there is plenty of room for the impact of repeat student-teacher matching and looping to grow, the authors said.
“If schools were to implement looping in a more purposeful and intentional way we think that, if anything, our results might understate the potential,” Kraft said.
Kraft and Wedenoja’s work affirms patterns seen in past studies of elementary and middle school data in North Carolina and Indiana, but it also expands to new territories, analyzing high school data to show that looping doesn’t just apply to younger students.
“It’s not a magic bullet, but it does seem to have a positive effect,” Wedenoja said. “I think it also says something larger about the fact that relationships between teachers and students are important.”
The core: relationships
Osborn said she saw the impact of looping on the first day of fifth grade and the benefits were more than just a tight-knit community.
“They knew exactly what they were kind of walking into,” she said. “We were able to get started right away. We didn’t have to spend time testing levels of this or that because I knew right where they left off.”
And although not as closely controlled, the results paralleled those of the Annenberg study.
Over 80% of Osborn’s class met their individualized “one year’s growth” standard set by the school’s benchmark testing platform, said Morris. That’s compared to 54% of students who achieved this mark across the building.
More than anything else, Morris said he believes the driving force behind this academic success was the strong relationship the students and teacher developed over the course of two years.
“Just that simple idea of wanting to do well for this person, who they can clearly see is authentically invested in them — I don’t think there’s any motivator more powerful than that,” he said. “Nobody ever learns anything from somebody they don’t like.”
Neither Osborn nor Morris pretended things were perfect. Morris equated it to a long family car ride — you can get annoyed with each other after a while, he said.
“It was like a family and you have days that are not always great days,” Osborn said.
“But some of my kids that may have been pretty big behavior issues in the past, really didn’t have many issues as we went throughout these years,” she added. “Getting to know how to work with them and the things that make them most successful, I think that benefits them.”
Evidence of the power of relationships is also not new to academia, and Kraft said it is important to remember that looping is just one way to build those relationships.
“There’s great potential to reorganize our existing set of adults who contribute to education systems in a way that would increase the amount of sustained interactions,” he said. “Whether it be a teacher, a tutor, a school leader, a district administrator, a bus driver… we don’t take advantage of what all of those adults have to offer to students.”
If trends are so positive, why do so few schools intentionally implement looping? Answers varied, but generally educators and researchers told Chalkbeat it isn’t easy to change a system that has been in place for so long.
“Don’t underestimate inertia,” Wedenoja said. “It’s very easy to do things the same way they’ve always been done.”
For teachers, the challenge of looping can be learning a new curriculum or working with students in a different phase of life. For parents and students, it may be that the teaching style or personality of a specific instructor doesn’t feel like the right fit to continue on for another year. Other logistical challenges may include moving to a new classroom or building from year to year or maintaining stability with high rates of teacher attrition and declines in student enrollment.
It’s something you can’t force, Osborn said, but for her the benefits outweighed the challenges.
It was “the best experience of my career,’’ she said.
Currently, there aren’t any plans to continue a looped classroom at Bierbaum. After two years of COVID, Morris said he and his staff are “just trying to catch our breath,” but long term “I wouldn’t say we’ve ruled it out,” he added.
In the meantime, Kraft and Wednoja encouraged policymakers and school administrators to start small.
“It’s saying, let’s think more creatively about the folks that we have, and how we’re utilizing their passion and talents to support kids,” Kraft said.
For Osborn, small steps means continuing to foster a relationship with her looping cohort even beyond fifth grade graduation. The group already has plans to get together at the end of the summer. Osborn said they’ll share about recent adventures and unpack “those middle school nerves.”
Jessica Blake is a summer reporting intern for the Chalkbeat national desk. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @JessicaEBlake.