The debates continue to rage over the merits of school districts recruiting younger, less experienced (and cheaper and potentially more compliant) teachers, versus those who are older, more experienced (and more expensive and empowered).
Policy pundits and journalists have few qualms about calling for any seasoned teaching veteran to be put out to pasture. They aren't really interested in whether the teacher is effective, ineffective or "we don't know." These pontificators, single-minded as donkeys, tend to rely on research showing that teacher experience beyond three years does not matter much for standardized test scores. However, their interpretation of the teacher-experience data sets is rather limited, perhaps reflecting more about their ideology than any substantive understanding about teaching and learning in complex school environments.
NYC blogger Aaron Pallas recently noted how researchers miss the mark on the experience issue by ignoring the difference between a teacher’s total years of experience versus how much time she has taught a particular grade or subject. Aaron shows how NYC’s teacher workforce is not as seasoned as one might think.
Our case study research into teacher working conditions (funded by the Ford Foundation) is helping surface even more nuanced issues around teaching experience and student achievement. For example, in the more high-achieving schools we are finding what matters most is the collective experience of relatively small teacher teams who have learned how to work together and embrace doing so.
As we consider and design research, we need to pay attention not only to an individual teacher’s aggregate years of experience but how groups of teachers have used their combined knowledge over time to change the working culture of their team (or department or grade level), share teaching expertise among themselves and with others, and connect more closely with their students and their families.
Meredith, my wife and a seasoned special education teacher with over 25 years of experience, has taught me a lot about this issue. For the past nine years she has learned a great deal from a close-knit group of teachers on her EC (exceptional children) team. After so many years of close collaboration, their individual expertise has been magnified in powerful ways. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the data. For the last several years, over 80 percent of their EC students have routinely met state standards on North Carolina’s End-of-Grade tests — compared to about 33 percent of EC students in their district and 21 percent statewide.
Other scholars are discovering how teachers' professional interactions within learning communities over time can best explain whether school reforms take hold. Policy pundits might have a different take on the role of teacher experience in improving student achievement if they:
(1) examined more than a simple R-squared from a simple-minded study;
(2) stepped out of their quiet, climate-controlled offices inside the Beltway; and
(3) looked carefully inside of America’s public schools where a wide range of teachers are working together to make a difference in the lives of students.
And I challenge any of the DC pundits to convince Meredith (or any other highly successful teacher) that teaching experience beyond three years does not matter for student achievement. They would receive a higher-order lesson in “get real.”
Photo: Teacher Meredith Berry with Walter and Henry, who have not yet attained pundit status.