Are Experienced Teachers Really That Much Better?



By 04/07/2011

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How valuable is the experienced teacher?  In the view of the school committee of my hometown, Wellesley Massachusetts, it seems to be quite valuable, as they just raised the salaries of the most senior teachers by 1 percent for next year, while holding all other teacher salaries constant.

Nor is Wellesley an oddball in this regard. In Florida, the average school district, in 2010, paid 10 percent more for a teacher with 8 years of experience as it paid a first-year teacher. But after a teacher has been around for nearly a decade, salaries to climb more rapidly.  A teacher with 22 years of experience is earning 26 percent more than an eighth-year teacher.

Florida does not allow collective bargaining between teachers and school districts.  In Denver, where such bargaining does take place, salaries rise even more steeply. In 2007, the average teacher in the eighth year of teaching was collecting 18 percent more than a beginning teacher, and that eighth- year teacher would get another 24 percent increment five years later.

And when it comes to pensions, it is the longtime teacher that benefits the most.  In most parts of the country, teachers get no pension benefits at all if they leave teaching or move to another state within the first five years of teaching.

Unions like to concentrate big salary gains—and pension benefits—on the more experienced teachers, because those are the teachers who tend to have clout within the schoolhouse and inside the union.   There is nothing new about this.  When my wife, in her third year of teaching, was asked to serve on the bargaining committee, she discovered that all of her fellow union leaders were old-timers who quickly made a deal with the school district: pay nothing more to new teachers next year, but give those at the top of the salary schedule an extra salary boost.

School districts agree to such demands because there are fewer longtime teachers than rookies, making it cheaper—in the short run—to raise the salaries and the benefits of those with more experience.

All that would be fine, if more experienced teachers were far and away the most effective ones in the classroom. But according to a study Matthew Chingos and I just completed, teachers get better in the first few years of teaching, and then their performance slips in later years. Our findings are particularly interesting because they allow, for the first time, the tracking of a specific teacher’s performance over an eight-year time period.  So, for example, we can tell whether a teacher with 10 years of experience becomes even better 8 years later. Generally speaking, they do not.  Although teachers improve in the first years of teaching, the trend for the average teacher turns negative in the later years of teaching.

Nothing in our results says that we should not pay more experienced teachers more if indeed they are better teachers.  But it does call into question the standard salary schedule which rewards teachers for each year of teaching without paying any attention whatsoever to the quality of that instruction.

– Paul E. Peterson




Comment on this article
  • Dave Orphal says:

    Dear Mr. Peterson,

    Are you not better at your job than you were when you began your career. Was it not the experience you gained, performing your job, coupled with the time you spent staying current in your field that led you to being better at what you do?

    Could there perhaps be other reasons for your findings that teachers become less-effective as they become more experienced and better trained through advanced course work?

    Perhaps, as teachers become more experienced, they begin to questions the validity of high-stakes, standardized tests (the very tests and VAM statical models you use as the definition of “effective teaching” in your study.) Perhaps as teachers work through to their MA in Education, they come to realize that the sub-skills measured on tests like these are causing more harm than good in public education. Perhaps they are choosing to focus their students on more project-based lessons that allow students room to explore deep and complex issues, using the skills they have learned to answer a real-world problem.

    Using your definition of learning=high tests scores, then I would find your conclusions completely logical. New teachers, who are constantly in fear of their jobs are far more easy to control, far easier to convince that test-scores=learning. What they lack in experience, they make up for in long nights and chutzpa.

    All of this being said, I do agree with you that the current salary schedule is broken. However, your proposed solution of high-pay-for-high-scores leads us down a road where intelligence = memorizing of facts rather than deep thinking. I’m unconvinced that students hyper-trained to memorize answers for isolated and context-free questions will raise to the challenges of the future.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    The flaw with all of this discussion about whether degrees or seniority matter is all we have are test scores. We’re talking as if we know things about the effects of degrees and seniority when we have absolutely no way to determine how much more effective experienced teachers are than newbies.

    People at the highest levels are actually basing major federal policy decisions on scores on tests in a few subjects, tests that we know emphasize low level knowledge and skills, neglect higher-level knowledge and skills, ignore most of the subjects we care about, ignore many of the competencies employers care most about. Furthermore, the methods that work fastest to raise test scores are often counterproductive in the long run–something we know from reading research.

    Experienced teachers might be yielding similar test scores to earlier in their career but also yielding better critical thinking, making more students fall in love with the subject, helping more with curriculum committees, mentoring new teachers, and carrying the load of the school in other ways.

    There is simply no way to create rationale policies based solely on test scores, and the real problem in education is thinking that we can. We’re heading down a very expensive dead end.

    It’s common in all sorts of jobs for people with more experience to be paid more.

  • Paul E. Peterson says:

    Karl – Do you have any evidence that the master’s degree enhances student performance in a way test scores cannot measure?

    Why would we want teachers compensated for something when we do not know whether it is useful for teaching or not? That is throwing money down a rat hole.

    If you don’t like pencil and paper tests, why do you love paper certificates handed out by state departments of education? Why not empower principals to evaluate teachers and let them decide which ones should get the increment. Certainly, they know more about classroom effectiveness than a paper certificate does.

  • c. greene says:

    Just how do you effectively measure teacher quality? By the way they build meaningful relationships and trust with students? How they continue to mentor students long after they leave their classrooms? How they care about students as much and sometimes more than their own families do? How they build confidence and play to to individual strengths? How they work closely with colleagues in professional learning communities to improve their teaching and share best practices with colleagues? How they become fixtures in their communities, acting in concert with parents an administrators to improve learning conditions at their schools? How they work countless unpaid hours in order to provide the kind of real feedback students need? How they work hard to plan challenging standards-based lessons or that they possess other-worldly patience in the execution of their lessons? No? Well then you must not be truly measuring the effectiveness of teachers.

  • Gayle Mullins says:

    Florida: Collective bargaining is in the state constitution.

  • Liz Bird says:

    The whole problem I see stated above centers around the word “measure.” There are some things that defy measuring and regardless of the test, tests are often measured objectively. Being a good teacher is difficult to measure objectively, but we keep on trying to shove the “touchy-feely,” emotional, and artistic aspects of teaching into our numerical pigeon holes. We want everything to be neat, organized and of course, quantitative. Without a number attachment to a quality (not a quantity) we do not have the one right answer that the business model and the big-data people so crave. Lets face it. It is difficult to attach a number to an effective, caring teacher. The qualities defy the quantities. A

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