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Jay's Take: Schools Need Energy More than Experience

Today’s front page story, “Poor Neighborhoods, Untested Teachers,” is the best researched and most interesting article I have ever seen on inexperienced teachers in the Washington area. The data and explanations by my colleagues Daniel de Vise, Michael Alison Chandler and Dan Keating will lead many readers to insist that we find ways to get more veteran teachers into public schools in low-income neighborhoods. But that would be the wrong approach.

There is something to be said for equalizing spending on schools in affluent and poor neighborhoods, since funding formulas are thrown out of whack by experienced teachers moving themselves and their higher salaries to schools in less disadvantaged neighborhoods. Veteran urban superintendents like Arlene Ackerman, who now runs the Philadelphia schools, have pioneered that approach. But offering more experienced teachers big bonuses to teach in the inner city is not likely to have much effect on learning.

Schools improve when their cultures change, not when their ratios of experienced and unexperienced teachers are recalculated. Schools in poor neighborhoods having the most success are those put in the hands of talented principals given the power to hire and fire their staffs to enhance achievement, and who use those powers to create a building-wide commitment to improving learning through teamwork. Such principals pick new teachers not so much on their experience, but on their energy and focus and imagination. The data show that after the one or two tough initial years in the classroom, when teacher effectiveness in general is not very good, experience is not a useful marker of which teachers are best for a school. Other factors influence classroom effectivness after the first three years, and that is what good schools should focus on.

By Washington Post editors  | April 27, 2009; 12:20 PM ET
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I am just flabbergasted that in the midst of some hard data that experienced teachers make a difference you continue to put on your goggles and ignore the evidence in front of you. Instead you continue to insist that if principals just had the power to hire and fire then everything would be swell. First from experience I can tell you that a healthy school culture begins with good administrators. And from there you need a good mix of experienced teacher and newer teachers so that new teachers can get some mentoring from those that have been there and done that. It seems that you acknowledge facts and then allow your own bias to tell everyone else how those facts are wrong. You should be more objective when writing about education. Not everything is so black and white when it comes to education and until you have spent real time in the school system with kids on a daily basis you don't have much room to tell the whole world what is so wrong with education.

Posted by: erinsglw | April 27, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Dear erinsglw,
It's been awhile since Jay was in the classroom.
I've urged him to sit in the poor performing schools in Dc or to ride the buses that have students causing problems.
But , alas, no.

Posted by: edlharris | April 27, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Don't confuse Jay with the facts. He likes youthful energy so it must be better, no matter what studies say.

Posted by: qaz2 | April 27, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

THe "experience" I see touted by the teacher's unions all dates to the 1970's when failed, "new math" was invented.

Everything wrong with schools today is the fault of the "experienced".

Yes, more energy. Yes on Pay-for-performance. Eliminate tenure. Pay attention to the failed ideas of teachers, and administrators past, so that the baby boom generation's teaching mindset of "process over performance" can be avoided.

And let's have a focus on math, and science, please.
THAT is what the schools need today.

Posted by: onestring | April 27, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Onestring, it would be great if life were as simple as you make it here.
First, a lot of school administrators these days have very little teaching experience, and more and more they did their teaching in fields where budget cuts are a serious possibility. Tenure is a protection against administrators who really don't understand what it's like to run a class day after day.
Merit pay has been tried, but too often the decisions are in the hands of those same administrators. If you taught, say, English, would you really want a decision on your merit pay in the hands of someone who perhaps taught art for five years and has been an administrator intern for a couple of years and a principal for one? When you don't teach process, you might as well show the students the mona Lisa, hand them pains and canvases, and tell them "Here, replicate this."
And let's not focus on math and science. The number of people who live happy and productive lives with only passing familiarity with those fields is staggering. There are excellent programs available in science and engineering and related fields, but somebody has to be able to see through simple solutions.

Posted by: jlhare1 | April 27, 2009 6:15 PM | Report abuse

Does energy always trump experience? Are the veterans always better? The answer is a resounding NO. As a young teacher - I've taught for only 8 years - I've seen some great veterans at work. I've also seen some energetic young teachers infuse new life into an old school.

Here's the quote that is most important: "Schools improve when cultures change". Of course, it makes no difference whether the culture change is at the hands of veteran educators or energetic young teachers. Working under 5 principals in 6 years has only honed in the point. My best principal was the 4th. He understood the undertaking needed to change our school and sought out the right people to make it happen. Of course, it also made him the only one of the 5 to be promoted within district (jury is still out on the 5th principal).

Posted by: plcrisostomo | April 27, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

"Schools improve when their cultures change,"

Cite? Show me this hard data that demonstrate conclusively that "culture changing" improves test scores.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 27, 2009 7:48 PM | Report abuse

I think he kind of has a point, but it doesn't hold true always.

There are long-time teachers who aren't very effective (they all teach high school social studies and yack the entire class), and their are long-time teacher who are.

You're better off with a rookie over a long-time ineffective teacher because at least the rookie will try.

Posted by: RedBird27 | April 27, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

I forgot to mention on the question of experience, one ought to check out DeMatha Catholic High School, where a number of teachers have been teaching for well over 20 years.
Dr. Charles Buck Offutt
Mr. John Mitchell
Mr. Richard Macheski
Mr. Thomas Burke
Rev. Damian Anuszewski
Mr. Joe Carroll
Mr. Richard Messier
Mr. Doug Tschiffely
Mrs. Mary Yarrish
My apologies to anyone I left out.

Posted by: edlharris | April 27, 2009 10:54 PM | Report abuse

The problem with experienced DCPS teachers is that if you were hired under Mayor Barry then chances are you're incompetent and got the job through a friend or family member.

Oh please, how many times did I hear the same old story from a 50 year old teacher complaining about Fenty that their cousin who worked on Barry's campaign got them the job. Trust me, I've heard this a lot!

A friend told me last week that troubled schools are like alcoholic friends. You lend them money and they keep getting worse. You let them completely collapse and only then do they realize that it was their policies and philosophies that created their trouble.

I have seen DC elementary schools that needed nothing less than 75% turnover or 75% of the staff fired for incompetence.

No one here should doubt me on that. The problem is just that real.

Posted by: bbcrock | April 27, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

Oh dear. When I think I am being misunderstood, I wonder if it is my bad writing. Please tell me where I said that experience doesn't make a difference. It does, but only when you are comparing teachers with under 3 years experience to those who have more. On average, the under 3 year teachers' students do not do as well as the over 3 years teachers' students. But there is no significant difference, according to the data, between teachers with 10 years and teachers with 20 years. I thought I was making a fairly simple point: When we are trying to identify the characteristics of good teachers who have more than 3 years experience, their differing levels of experience are not a good guide. The principals I know point to other things, energy being one of the most important.
And, thankfully, I still get to spend a fair amount of time in classrooms. I have visited about a dozen schools in the last three months.

Posted by: Jay_Mathews | April 29, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I think your point got lost right here: "Schools improve when their cultures change, not when their ratios of experienced and unexperienced teachers are recalculated."

If you define unexperienced teachers as teachers who have less than three years experience, then your statement does imply that experience is not a factor in school improvement.

Similarly, a "veteran" teacher does not only have to be someone with 20 years experience, it can be someone who is past the "one or two tough initial years in the classroom, when teacher effectiveness in general is not very good," with a little time on top of that to get more lesson plans, experience dealing with administration, juggling extra assignments like chairing a department, etc.

Arlene Ackerman Imagine 2014 strategic plan for Philadelphia schools was just approved last week, This issue of altering school culture as a way to improve schools sparked a discussion on the Philadelphia Public School Notebook blog,

Posted by: potmeetkettle | April 29, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

You state, "Other factors influence classroom effectiveness after the first three years, and that is what good schools should focus on."

Please explain. You can email me personally if you wish as I am writing on this subject at this very moment.

Posted by: KeithNewman1 | May 2, 2009 7:38 AM | Report abuse

For Keith: the other factors that distinguish some experienced teachers from others are pretty obvious. Among the most important are the energy and ability to forge a personal relationship with each student, high expectations for each kid, a willingness to set high standards and stick to them, an imaginative approach to presenting a lesson that engages students' interest, making the lesson a conversation and not a lecture, an obvious enthusiasm for the subject, strong grasp of the content and an appreciation of the fact that some students learn differently than others, and effective teachers are those who try different approaches with kids who don't get it the first time.

Posted by: jaymathews | May 2, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Clearly there are factors in addition to experience that have an impact on teaching effectiveness, but I’m at a loss as to why you feel it necessary to pit experience vs. energy. I work with countless teachers with decades in the classroom whose energy for their students’ achievements is seemingly boundless AND whose experience gives them the tools to ensure their students reach their utmost potential. Like too many current educational policy debates, this conversation is framed as an either/or conversation, when we really need to be looking for both/and solutions.

Given your considerable expertise and experience as one of the nation’s most important voices around education, I hope the Washington Post would not apply the same standards to hiring their columnists as you ask principals to use in their hiring practices. You can read more of the data supporting the significance of teacher experience in student achievement at my blog, Advancing the Teaching Profession:

Posted by: BarnettBerry1 | May 4, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

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