Teaching experience matters, but some experiences matter more than others. Our policy officer, Harry Madgwick, makes the case for improving continuous professional development.
There has been a longstanding belief in education that, after the early years of their career, a teacher’s experience has little to no influence on their ability to help pupils learn (Rice, 2003; Hanushek and Luque, 2003; Rockoff, 2004). It has been thought that teachers undergo a steep learning curve upon entering the profession, lasting three to five years, before plateauing for the remainder of their careers (Rivkin et al, 2005)
Professional development extends well beyond teacher training and NQT years, so if we are serious about harnessing evidence and nurturing expertise, we must prioritise the education of all teachers.
This notion has come to affect broad educational discourses. Bill Gates famously asserted the plateau theory during a TED talk in 2009, stating that ‘once somebody has taught for three years, their teaching quality does not change thereafter’ (Gates, 2009:12min19sec)
However, some more recent research appears to contradict this longstanding hypothesis. In their review of US research published on this subject since 2003, Podolsky et al (2019) suggest that effectiveness increases throughout a teacher’s career. This change in thought could hold enormous significance for the sector, informing how we approach teacher training and development
Does teaching experience matter?
In their review of 30 studies, Podolsky et al find that, after a steep initial incline upon entering the profession, teachers tend to follow an upward trajectory of effectiveness that continues into the second, and at times third decade of teaching
Admittedly, their findings do suggest that returns on experience decrease – teachers never develop as rapidly as within their initial three to five years. Yet, some studies show that teacher effectiveness continues to improve throughout the first 28 years of their careers (Sass et al, 2012; Ladd & Sorensen, 2017), presenting a challenge to the plateau theory
While there was a large range in how long included studies found teacher effectiveness to increase (from plateauing after 2 – 3 years to continuing into a third decade of teaching), most studies did find that teacher effectiveness continued to grow throughout careers
Similarly, although effect sizes in maths and reading scores showed some variation, with maths appearing the most affected by teacher experience, average effects for both subjects show positive gains until a teacher’s 28th year in the classroom
One explanation the paper gives for this change in finding is that researchers can now trace the effectiveness of individual teachers across their careers, thanks to new longitudinal datasets
Older research had to rely on comparing the outcomes of different cohorts of teachers, known as cross-sectional analyses. This method prevented researchers from controlling for inter-cohort characteristics, perhaps influenced by changes to teacher training courses or wider labour market conditions
However, 18 of the 30 included studies in the paper did control for teacher fixed effects, meaning they accounted for personal attributes that are unlikely to change over time. Notably, all these studies showed positive findings.
This evidence reinforces the importance of supporting teachers to learn, develop and remain in the profession. It validates the sector’s ongoing efforts to champion the development of early career teachers, as seen through initiatives like the early roll-out of Early Career Framework support packages
However, professional development extends well beyond teacher training and NQT years, so if we are serious about harnessing evidence and nurturing expertise, we must prioritise the education of all teachers. One of the conclusions drawn by the Podolsky review is that teachers are more likely to remain and excel in schools in which colleagues collaborate as part of their professional development. Although this has recently been contested (Sims & Fletcher-Wood, 2020), the finding rightly foregrounds the importance of supporting teachers to develop throughout their careers
Finally, teaching experience matters, but presumably some experiences matter more than others. Professional development can have a positive impact on teacher effectiveness and pupil outcomes (Blank, & de las Alas, 2009), yet what constitutes effective CPD is still a point of contention (Coe et al, 2014; Kraft et al, 2018; Sims & Fletcher-Wood, 2020)
However, equipped with the knowledge that teachers can and will develop expertise, given the correct guidance, support and time, now is the time for researchers, policymakers and school leaders to refine effective modes of ongoing teacher training. Moreover, in doing so it is vital these stakeholders also ensure that all educators can access this high-quality training, regardless of how long they have been in the classroom
What does this mean for disadvantaged pupils?
Whilst the research explored above addresses how to support the learning of all pupils, the notion that teacher effectiveness increases with experience has implications for structural inequalities in education. Schools with higher concentrations of lower-income pupils struggle to recruit and retain teachers (Allen & McInerney, 2019), and this higher turnover leads to a greater number of inexperienced teachers working within these schools (Allen et al, 2016). Therefore, if we want a system that serves disadvantaged pupils, we need to ensure that schools with significant numbers of low-income pupils can recruit, retain and develop the sector’s most effective teachers.
Limitations of Current Research
All studies in the Podolsky paper were conducted in the US. Whilst there are similarities between US, UK and other European education systems, there are limitations in transferring findings between countries in which teacher training, labour market conditions and pay structures vary. Similarly, the paper’s criteria of only including published, peer-reviewed papers may favour research that presents significant and novel findings, an important bias to avoid
There are also clearly limitations in judging effectiveness through the narrow window of pupil outcomes, as a teacher’s experience may affect more holistic pupil attitudes and behaviours that equip pupils for future success (Blazar & Kraft, 2017). As we look to better understand the benefits of retaining and developing teachers, future research and reviews in this area would benefit from taking these potential limitations into account
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Allen, B., McInerney, L.; The Sutton Trust, corp creator. (2019). The recruitment gap: attracting teachers to schools serving disadvantaged communities. July 2019.
Blank, R. K., & de las Alas, N. (2009). Effects of teacher professional development on gains in student achievement: How meta-analysis provides scientific evidence useful to education leaders. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.
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Rockoff, J. (2004). The Impact of Individual Teachers on Student Achievement: Evidence from Panel Data. The American Economic Review, 94(2), 247 – 252. Retrieved July 16, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/3592891
Sass, T.R., Hannaway, J., Xu, Z., Figlio, D.N. and Feng, L. (2012), “Value added of teachers in high-poverty schools and lower poverty schools”, Journal of Urban Economics, Vol. 72 No. 2, pp. 104 – 122, doi: 10.1016/j.jue.2012.04.004.
Sims, S., Fletcher-Wood, H. (2020). Identifying the characteristics of effective teacher professional development: a critical review, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, DOI: 10.1080/09243453.2020.1772841