To Improve Student Outcomes, Try Looping Teachers

By Leigh Wedenoja

Classroom teachers are often the first close relationship that a child makes with an adult outside of his or her family. Teachers’ effects go far beyond imparting course material and preparing students for standardized tests, as they frequently serve as role models and mentors to their students, and extensive evidence highlights that teachers contribute not only to students’ academic performance but to the development of socioemotional skills as well. Importantly, good teachers also contribute to students’ long-run success in life, including increased rates of high school graduation and college-going, and higher earned incomes in the workplace.

Given the important role of teachers, school-level administrators have long sought the best ways to assign teachers to the classrooms and students where they will be the most effective. Unlike the more costly policies of class-size reduction or teacher professional development, classroom assignment is a relatively costless policy option, where optimal assignment of students and teachers to classrooms can improve academic outcomes for all students. One classroom assignment policy that has shown positive student achievement outcomes is “looping,” or having student paired with the same teacher for more than one year.

Looping (also known as cycling, teacher persistence, or multi-year teaching) involves a teacher staying with the same class of students for more than one year. This practice has long been a mainstay in Montessori and Waldorf schools and has been implemented in many traditional public elementary schools. In New York City, for example, PS 446 in Brooklyn is designed to facilitate looping, and the Attleboro, Massachusetts, public schools have an extensive looping program for elementary students.

A strong student-teacher relationship is associated with higher academic achievement, fewer disciplinary problems, and decreased risky behavior.

Evidence from education psychology posits a dynamic student-teacher relationship that develops over time through student and teacher interactions, shared behaviors, and shared beliefs. A strong student-teacher relationship is associated with higher academic achievement, fewer disciplinary problems, and decreased risky behavior. Advocates of looping believe that teachers in looped classrooms build stronger relationships with their students because they spend more years together.

Looped teachers also can flexibly adjust the curriculum over multiple years to maximize individual learning, and can assign students summer reading and coursework between years to help keep them sharp and transition to the next year. While looped classrooms have intuitive promise and there is anecdotal evidence of their success, there is little rigorous evidence on their effectiveness. One recent research study in North Carolina noted the importance of repeat student-teacher interactions in elementary school, finding that having a teacher the second time improves the math scores of students in fourth and fifth grades.

Intentionally looped classrooms, however, represent only a small percentage of repeat student-teacher matches. Andrew Hill and Daniel Jones, researchers of the North Carolina study, find that only 15 percent of students with repeat teachers in grades four and five are in what appear to be intentionally looped classrooms. Repeat student-teacher interactions can result not only from a policy of looping but also from teachers moving to higher-grade classrooms from one year to the next or teaching multiple grades during one year.

Evidence from matched student-teacher data in Tennessee gives further insight into classroom and teacher assignment policies that result in repeat student-teacher matches statewide. In elementary school (grades four and five), data show that most students have repeat teachers because those teachers moved from teaching a lower grade to a higher grade, accounting for 87 percent of fourth grade repeat teachers and 67 percent of fifth grade repeat teachers. The vast majority of these moves are permanent shifts in teacher assignment with more than two-thirds of teachers staying in that higher grade, rather than part of an intentional looping design.

In middle and high school in Tennessee the story is slightly different. In grades six through eleven, most student-teacher repetition is due to teachers with classes in multiple grades during the same year – for example a middle school math teacher with both sixth and eighth grade classrooms. Two-thirds to three-fourths of middle and high school repeat teachers are teaching in multiple grades.

While planned looped classrooms are still uncommon in Tennessee, unintended repeat teachers are very common. Between third and eleventh grade, 45 percent of students will have a teacher for a core subject — tested math and English Language Arts (ELA) — that they have had previously for another core subject. This figure likely understates the true prevalence of repeat student-teacher matches in middle and high school, as it does not account for repeat teachers in other subjects such as science, social studies, untested math and ELA courses, or electives.

While all the purported benefits of looping may not manifest when student-teacher repetition is unplanned, there are many reasons to expect that even unplanned student-teacher repeat matches can improve student academic achievement and behavior. No matter how good the initial relationship match is between a student and teacher, that teacher will be better able to teach that student after a year getting to know them, and even more so after two years.

While looping often is discussed in the context of elementary school, a repeat teacher may be even more important to students in middle and high school, often an emotionally and academically destabilizing time for students. Surveys of high school dropouts often report poor relationships with teachers and poor communication between students, teachers, and parents as reasons for students dropping out of school. Fostering a close student-teacher relationship in high school has the potential to improve student engagement in school and prevent dropout. In a meta-analysis of studies of student-teacher relationships, researcher Debora Roorda and her colleagues find larger effects of positive student-teacher relationships on both academic achievement and engagement for secondary school students compared to primary school students.

Intentionally planning repeat student-teacher matches through classroom assignments offers a low-cost policy option for improving student achievement. Looping classrooms have significant promise as a way to foster closer student-teacher relationships that benefit students academically and socially both now and in the future.



Leigh Wedenoja is senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute of Government