A strong student-teacher relationship can provide benefits both inside and outside the classroom. Supporting and amplifying these relationships is one goal of “looping” classrooms, in which a class of students stays with the same teacher for more than one year of instruction. This type of classroom structure is touted as a low-cost way to improve student achievement, as it generally does not require additional resources, only schedule changes. The popular focus on these traditional looping classrooms in early elementary school eschews discussing the benefits of other forms of repeat teachers. The student-teacher relationship develops over time, and middle and high school students may also benefit measurably from a second year with the same teacher outside the context of a looped class.
At the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) 2019 Fall Research Conference in Denver, Colorado, I presented research developed with co-authors Matthew Kraft and John Papay of Brown University that documents the extent of repeat teachers across all levels of school and estimates the effect that those repeat teachers have on students’ academic achievement and behavior. There are three main takeaways from this work:
- First, repeat teachers improve student test scores in math and reading, decrease absenteeism, and decrease suspension in grades three through 11;
- Second, the improvements in absenteeism and suspension are driven predominantly by benefits to male students of color; and,
- Third, traditionally looped classrooms are rare, though students benefit from repeat teachers even when the repetition isn’t planned.
In the study, we use precisely matched data for students in Tennessee from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance that link students in grades three through 11 to their teachers for core subjects (math, reading, science, and social studies). This breadth of data allows us to estimate the effect of having a repeat teacher across grades and subjects for an entire state of students. It also allows us to control for students’ past performance, the quality and characteristics of the schools that students attend, and the experience and measured performance of teachers.
How Looping Works
Traditional looping, where a teacher intentionally stays with the same class of students for more than one year, is the most commonly discussed path through which students have repeat teachers. However, there are two additional pathways that result in repeat teachers: 1) unintentionally looped classrooms in which a teacher moves permanently into teaching a higher grade and for one year has some or all of the same students as the previous year; and, 2) multi-grade teaching in which teachers either have classrooms with more than one grade or teach multiple classes in different grades (such as a middle-school teacher who has both sixth and eighth grade class sections).
…traditionally looped classrooms are rare, though students benefit from repeat teachers even when the repetition isn’t planned.
The most common pathway varies across school type. In elementary schools, the most likely source repeat teachers is when teacher that switches to a higher grade and has some or all of their students for a second year (unintentional looping). In middle and high school, repetition results almost entirely from multi-grade teachers. Intentional looping, by comparison, is very rare, and accounts for only five percent of the repeat teachers observed in the data.
At first glance, repeat teachers appear to be uncommon; in a given year, only six percent of students have a repeat teacher in either math or ELA. By eleventh grade, however, 45 percent of students will have had at least one repeat teacher in those core subjects. Further, these numbers likely understate the true prevalence of repeat teachers because they only pertain to math and ELA. Students may be even more likely to have repeat teachers in other subjects, and non-core subjects such as music and art often are taught by a common teacher across many grade levels to many of the same students year after year.
Effects of Looping
Repeat teachers improve both academic performance and student behavior across all subjects and grades. Importantly, the positive effect of having a repeat teacher is present no matter how that repetition occurs. Students with repeat teachers perform moderately better on achievement tests compared to years in which they do not have repeat teachers, roughly equivalent to the effect of an additional week or two of school in grades three through eight or an additional month of high school. Overall, having a repeat teacher is associated with a 0.02 standard deviation increase in student test scores relative to the mean.
The positive effect of repeat teachers goes beyond test scores. Having a repeat teacher reduces absences and suspension across all grade levels. The observed reduction in absences is driven largely by a reduction in truancy (unexcused absences) in high school. This is particularly important because high school truancy, especially in ninth grade, is strongly predictive of low test scores and dropout.
All students do not benefit from repeat teachers in the same way. The majority of test score gains are seen in higher-performing students, those who already had above average test scores in the prior year. However, lower-performing students also benefit from having a repeat teacher: students with below-average test scores in the previous year see a decrease in absences and suspensions at least as great, if not greater, than their higher-performing peers. This is promising news because teachers’ effects on student behavior, beyond the effect on test scores alone, are predictive of positive long run outcomes.
… repeat teachers improve student test scores in math and reading, decrease absenteeism, and decrease suspension in grades three through 11.
The effect of a repeat teacher also differs by demographic characteristics. There is ample evidence that interventions can have differential effects on students by race and gender and that students who are like their teachers in either race or gender perform better than students who are unlike their teachers. We find that the effect of repeat teachers differs based on student gender and race. Compared to white female students, male students and students of color have smaller test score gains from repeating with a teacher. The reduction in suspension and absences is largest for male students of color who have an additional 3.5 percentage point reduction in absences and 0.5 percentage point reduction in suspension compared to their white female peers. The evidence that a longer student-teacher relationship may improve behavioral and attendance outcomes for male students of color is especially promising given the evidence that male students of color, especially Black boys, are disciplined more for similar offences in school and that those disciplinary infractions are linked to negative outcomes later in life including incarceration and high school dropout.
Classroom assignment policies that promote repeat student-teacher matches can take many forms: intentionally looped classrooms in elementary school in which a teacher stays with the same classroom for more than one year, team teaching in middle and high school in which students are assigned to the same set of teachers for more than one grade, or teaching continuity in which a single subject teacher stays with students for more than one year. Middle school and high school are especially important transition points for students as they go from having a single teacher with at most a couple dozen students to multiple teachers often instructing more than one hundred students each. We find suggestive evidence that panned repeat teachers may be even more beneficial. Both repeat students and non-repeat students have higher test scores in classrooms with more than half repeat students. Establishing classroom assignment policies in which students see a friendly face at the beginning of each new year has the potential to improve test scores, reduce absenteeism, and reduce suspension rates for little or no monetary cost to the school.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leigh Wedenoja is senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute of Government