The latest episode of Policy Outsider features Dr. Leigh Wedenoja, senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute. Wedenoja shares research presented at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) 2019 Fall Research Conference on the effects of teacher looping on student outcomes. Wedenoja explains the practice of teacher looping, or pairing a student with the same teacher for more than one year, and its effects at different grade levels and backgrounds.

The research examines all students in grades three through 11 in the state of Tennessee and found significant improvements to test scores when students were paired with a repeat teacher. They also found that, across all grade levels, having a repeat teacher reduces absences and suspensions. Wedenoja also discusses how teacher looping often occurs by accident in schools but could actually be used as an intentional classroom strategy by school administrators.


Leigh Wedenoja, Senior Policy Analyst, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Learn More:

Teacher Looping Improves Student Outcomes

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 00:03

    Welcome to today’s episode of Policy Outsider. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and a very happy New Year. I always enjoy this time of year because it’s a good opportunity to take a break and reflect on the past year’s accomplishments, as well as focus on what we want to achieve for the upcoming year. It’s no different here at the Rockefeller Institute. At the end of 2019, our team reflected on our research from the year and highlighted findings that shape how we think about issues like gun violence, the opioid crisis, and student debt, among others. We also wrote about where we plan to take this research in 2020 and how that informs public policy. Be sure to check out our recent posts Best of 2019 on our website at On today’s episode of Policy Outsider, we’re going to examine a strategy that is linked to improving student outcomes in K-12 schools. The discussion of how to improve student success often centers on teachers. Generally, schools, researchers, and policymakers focus on what makes a good teacher. Is it experience, certifications, and degrees? How do we determine who the best teachers will be? How do we attract those people to the teaching profession and give them the best training and resources available? While these are important long-term questions, there are strategies that school administrators can use to increase teacher effectiveness and improve student outcomes right now. One such strategy is teacher looping, a classroom assignment practice in which a student is assigned the same teacher for a second year in a higher grade. There are also instances in which teachers are unintentionally assigned to classrooms with students from a prior year. Research shows that in both cases, having a repeat teacher has the potential to improve both student and academic outcomes by strengthening student teacher relationships. With me today is Dr. Leigh Wedenoja, senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute. Leigh’s work as an education economist focuses on how both students and teachers develop over the course of their careers in new work presented at the Association of Public Policy and Management, abbreviated simply to APPAM, Leigh and coauthors John Pepe and Matthew Craft, detailed the effects repeat teachers have on student test scores and behaviors. Leigh, thank you for joining me today. This is your first appearance on Policy Outsider and you’re helping us kick off the new year with a discussion about public policy research. Jumping right into it. The general idea of teacher assignment strategy, or more specifically repeat teachers, is that students will have the same teacher for more than one year. But there are different forms, especially for different grade levels. Can you help us sort this out? Judging by what you just said, and all the ways we can classify teacher repetition, it sounds like it’s actually a pretty common practice.

    Leigh Wedenoja 03:05

    Sure. The popular discourse on repeat teachers has generally focused on one specific kind, something called classroom or teacher looping, which a teacher stays with the same classroom of students for more than a year. Generally, you can think of an elementary school in which a set of students has the same teacher for both first and second grade. This has become very common in Montessori classrooms and Waldorf classrooms. When you hear people talk about looping, that’s generally what they mean. When we go into the data for Tennessee, which is where we conducted this study, we actually find that that’s the least common kind of teacher repetition. What’s substantially more common is a sort of accidental repetition, in which a student will have the same teacher in a higher grade almost by accident. You can think about a student who has the same teacher for eighth grade math as they had for sixth or seventh grade math. In these classrooms, the big difference is not all of the students are often repeat students. Whereas in elementary school, you’re talking about an entire repeat classroom. In middle and high school, you’re often talking more about a combination of some repeat students and other non-repeat students.

    Alexander Morse 03:05

    Judging by what you just said, and all the ways we can classify teacher repetition, it sounds like it’s actually a pretty common practice.

    Leigh Wedenoja 04:16

    It’s a very common practice in the sense that almost half of the students that we studied in Tennessee are going to have at least one repeat teacher in either English or math over the course of their career. It’s, however, a little bit more uncommon when you think about it as a policy that a student will find on any given day. In each year, only 6 percent of the students in our study are with a repeat teacher. This altogether does seem to understate some of the prevalence of repeat teachers, because, again, we only looked at tested English and math. For instance, if you had that teacher again for something that’s not tested, like a statistics class or an art class, we’re not going to pick that up in our data, so it’s probably even more common.

    Alexander Morse 04:17

    It makes sense that repeat teachers are more prevalent in upper level courses. I didn’t have any repeat teachers when I was in grade school. But Mr. Conklin was my US history teacher in eighth grade and he was my civics teacher when I was a senior. I’m sure he taught a number of other electives.

    Leigh Wedenoja 05:14

    I actually had sort of the opposite experience, I was in a looped classroom in early elementary school, so I had the same teacher for second and third grade, then a different same teacher for fourth and fifth grade. But I actually never had a teacher that would have been picked up as a repeat teacher in middle or high school, despite the fact that I had the same teacher for both honors and AP physics. But neither of those would have shown up as tested courses. So we are understating the sort of true prevalence. I think if a lot of us think back to our own educational experiences, we might not think about repeat teachers as being important. But the story starts showing up in sort of everyone’s history.

    Alexander Morse 05:16

    What you’d said earlier was that it’s about building relationships between teacher and the student, knowing that, what are the results?

    Leigh Wedenoja 05:58

    The results are positive. I think that’s the best way to put it, is that across all the grades we look at, third and fourth grade through generally 11th grade, we find that test scores improve in both English and math for all of those grades. It’s a .02 standard deviation increase, which is a fairly meaningless number. But what that translates to is about a week or two of extra learning in elementary and middle school or almost a month of extra learning in high school. You do want to talk a little bit about how we get these results, because students don’t get randomly assigned to teachers and they’re not randomly given the same teacher twice. It’s very hard to make causal statements about whether or not it is the repeat teachers that are causing these improved test scores. What we do is we control for a lot of ways in which students can be assigned to teachers, assigned to classrooms, we control for the students and the teachers past performance, and no matter what we do, no matter what we control for, we’re still finding this positive effect on test scores, which we think is very important and says that there is something special about having a teacher again. That it cannot be attributed to some other cause.

    Alexander Morse 07:12

    What do you mean by saying, “controlling for these other factors”?

    Leigh Wedenoja 07:14

    Generally, if we wanted to really test whether repeat teachers mattered, we would have a randomized control experiment, where we would assign some students to a teacher again and some not to a teacher again. We don’t tend to experiment on children like that because it’s not always good for them. Instead, what we do is we look for situations in which it’s somewhat random who gets assigned to a repeat teacher. For instance, the most common way to have a repeat teacher in elementary school is because that teacher permanently moved grades. It was someone who was teaching second grade, who then goes on to teach third grade for a number of years after that. And so one year randomly, essentially, has some of the same students when you control for a bunch of other stuff. That’s how we make these comparisons and can make these causal estimates without doing an experiment.

    Alexander Morse 08:04

    You mentioned earlier that the results were an improvement. It was one week…?

    Leigh Wedenoja 08:09

    It was a week or two of learning in elementary school and approaching a month of learning in high school. The way we get those numbers is Carolyn Hill and some of her associates did a study looking at how much students improve over the course of a year on average, across different grades. What that translates to in standard deviations of test scores and we compared those baseline estimates to our estimates. That’s how we can start saying things like a repeat teacher is like extending the school year for two weeks.

    Alexander Morse 08:42

    Okay, it sounds pretty convincing that the practice actually helps improve student test scores. But what about other measures of student performance or success?

    Leigh Wedenoja 08:50

    Absolutely. Repeat teachers also improve both attendance and suspension, which was initially a somewhat surprising result because so many of our repeat teachers are in middle and high school, where they’re not in charge of the student’s entire education curriculum. A student will have one repeat teacher, but attendance and suspension are all day or even all year outcomes. It was surprising that we had these one classroom teachers that were having this big effect. Now, these aren’t huge reductions in absences on suspension, we’re talking about a few days or even parts of days, but the reduction in suspensions can be as large as a 30 percent reduction in early elementary school. Part of that is because very few elementary school students get suspended. But that reduction in suspensions and that reduction, particularly, in truancy extends to high school. In high school, truancy is heavily correlated with other serious negative outcomes for students, including high school dropout. Anything that reduces truancy even a little bit can help connect students to school and keep them in school longer. But one of the most interesting things that we found that when we started looking at these non-test score outcomes, these behavioral outcomes, is who was driving the improvement in behavior. Specifically, the reduction in truancy and the reduction in suspension is being driven by male students of color who are routinely suspended more often for the same behaviors as their white peers. I think this is good suggestive evidence that having some continuity in the adults that they have relationships with could help deal with that disproportionate suspension.

    Alexander Morse 10:29

    The long-term outlook sounds really promising with this teacher assignment strategy, especially with employers seeking people with diverse skill sets, including soft skills like communication and team building. What it sounds like with teacher looping, it’s one of the tenants of it. So using teacher assignment strategy as a method to start cultivating these skills really early pays off.

    Leigh Wedenoja 10:50

    Absolutely. I think there’s still a lot that we don’t know about how students develop these types of soft skills. Although there is increasingly good research, especially on how they’re developed in early childhood, and becoming some really great research on how it developed in high school. I do think that students are better able to build those skills when they have a strong student/teacher relationship. I do want to have a little caveat to my own work and that with my coauthors, that we actually cannot measure the strength of the student/teacher relationship. What we’re actually measuring are students who are given the opportunity, essentially, to have this stronger relationship. Even with that, we’re seeing these effects, which I think is really important. Teachers are often the only adult relationships that students have outside of their own families. This really is an important gateway into building skills for the workforce or for college or the workforce after college.

    Alexander Morse 11:48

    If the results show that building off the student teacher relationship is beneficial both in the short-term and long-term, why is this not a more planned practice?

    Leigh Wedenoja 11:56

    I think the main reason is it’s just not at the top of principals’ minds when they’re assigning students to classrooms. There are a lot of principals and schools that really do care about that planned early elementary school looping. But there hasn’t been a lot of good research done on this before. Ours is the first study that really looks at middle and high school students. We’re the first study that looks at behavior. Before us for test scores, there was really only one other, Hill and Jones. Who did excellent work looking at third through fifth grade math and found very similar effects to the ones we have. Principals have a lot to think about when they’re assigning students to classrooms, especially in middle and high school. They’re balancing making sure that students get the courses they want, that they get the courses they need, that they can graduate on time, that teachers are teaching in the subjects in which they’re most effective, and I think that it’s just not at the top of their brains that maybe this is also something to consider. I think that’s one of the reasons why this sort of study is so useful is because it gives principals and teachers more ammunition and more knowledge about how large-scale assignment strategies affect students. I think it’s important to give principals tools like this so that they can understand how to best assign students and teachers to classrooms in their schools, where they know exactly how they’re going to do the most good with the, let’s be honest, very sparse resources that some schools have. I think this is just another small thing that they can change.

    Alexander Morse 13:33

    Your report also mentioned that there appears to be a disconnect between education policymakers and practitioners. Can you explain how this relationship affects repeat teachers as a policy option going forward?

    Leigh Wedenoja 13:44

    I think that’s an excellent question. One of the things that we did that’s different is, principals don’t often have access to statewide data, so they only see what’s happening in their own schools. They only see what’s going on with their own students. For instance, if you’re in an extremely large urban public school where there is a different teacher for each combination of grade and subject, you would not even observe repeat teachers. It’s very important to have studies like this that use statewide data that can start to pick up some of these less common policies and attributes of schools, and use that aggregate data to find things that you would be missing if you’re only on the ground. The flip side of that though, is that actually at my session at APPAM, at the conference where we presented this work, I had a teacher who was in the audience who talked a lot about some of the hidden costs of teacher looping, especially in elementary school because it makes schools more rigid, if they don’t have the flexibility to reassign students across years. For instance, if more students come to the school or leave the school, or a teacher goes on maternity leave or health leave, these are all things that are made a little bit more difficult if you have the sort of extreme plans looping situation. There is benefit to both those of us who do the higher level research and the people who are on the ground from sharing this knowledge because that is never something that would have occurred to me as a potential cost or potential stymieing factor when it comes to assigning students to repeat teachers.

    Alexander Morse 15:19

    You can check out Leigh’s research on teacher looping and other great policy research from the Rockefeller team by visiting our website at Leigh, thanks for being here today.

    Leigh Wedenoja 15:29

    Thank you so much for having me.

    Alexander Morse 15:30

    I’d like to thank Dr. Leigh Wedenoja for spending time with us and explaining how tweaking current teacher assignment policy to include teacher looping can yield significant improvements for students. As always, you can check out all of our great research and data visualizations by visiting our website at And I want to close by wishing everyone a healthy and happy new year. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Kyle Adams 16:23

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State in the nation. Learn more at or by following at RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

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Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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