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’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.