The question of experience—teaching made simple?

Many fall for the myth of teaching made simple—and cite research to defend it. Barnett Berry unpacks the research evidence on one piece of the puzzle: does teacher experience matter?

It’s a bad narrative. But it stays at the surface. It’s easy to message. It doesn’t require nuance or complexity of thought. (Thank goodness! Whew!)

And so it abides, the school reformer’s logic… Teachers play an important role in student achievement. So if a school is low-performing, it’s because they’ve made the mistake of hiring “bad” teachers (probably protected by unions). Good teaching is about being smart and caring, so just find people like that and give them a month or two of training. Oh, and experience doesn’t matter much, so there’s no point in worrying too much about it. 

Sadly, many fall for this myth of teaching made simple—and cite research to defend it.

The research on experience

Several recent reports claim that after a teacher’s first two years, additional teaching experience doesn’t matter for student achievement. But these studies, produced by researchers like Eric Hanushek, generally refrain from acknowledging counter-evidence, like the extensive studies conducted and reviewed by Jennifer Rice.

And they neglect the warnings of Harvard economist Dick Murnane, who pointed out decades ago that the answer to the “effects of teaching experience on student achievement” question depends on whether a study uses longitudinal or cross-sectional databases.

Translation: it’s one thing to analyze student test scores over time of seventh-year teachers who’ve taught the same subject and grade each year. It’s a different matter to gather one year’s student test scores of seventh-year teachers regardless of whether they have ever taught the grade or subject before. Hanushek did the latter

Contrast Hanushek’s results with those of Ben Ost, who took the longitudinal approach. He found that teaching experience actually matters a great deal for student achievement far beyond the first two years, if teachers are assigned the same grade level and subject each year.

And to consider the correlation between teacher experience and achievement at the school level—Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider have shown that schools improve over time when there’s relational trust among parents, teachers, and administrators. That kind of trust? It takes time to cultivate. A school with transient teachers—only there for a year or two—isn’t likely to build it.

New findings that deserve more attention

And now Sunny Ladd of Duke University has released a study that confronts the recent reform wisdom head-on. Using a database that captured test scores of 1.2 million students, Ladd found that teaching experience matters for at least 12 years of teachers’ careers. This held true for middle school teachers of math and those of English and language arts.

While the returns level off after 12 years, Ladd notes that math teachers with 21-27 years of experience “were still about 85 percent more effective than they would have been after two years of experience and about 30 percent more effective than after five years.”

Perhaps most noteworthy is Ladd’s finding that teaching experience matters a great deal when it comes to reducing student absenteeism.  Based on her calculations, novices have a very limited effect on this important non-cognitive outcome regardless of quality, but “a teacher of given quality, who obtains over 21 years of experience on average, reduces student absences by 8 days.”

The simplicity the profession needs

Don’t get me wrong: Teaching experience, in and of itself, does not matter for student achievement. The effects of teaching experience hinge on a teacher’s professional development, the types of classrooms he or she is assigned, and the conditions under which he or she works.

But today’s reformers need to get brave, absorb the research about why teaching is complicated work that takes years to master, and rethink policies that devalue classroom experience.

Maybe the truth about teaching actually is simple: It’s complex and important work, so making (or writing about) the profession’s policies requires us look to research and do so critically.

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  • bradclark

    complexity is key

    I think you nailed…ANYONE who has a quick fix or some over-simplified notion of how to ‘fix’ education is probably missing something somewhere. Our work is complex.  It is rich.  There is no magic pill. There is only hard-core investment in the development of the practioners that interact with young, growing minds each and every day.  That is what will change education wholesale, and that will take time and a whole lot of effort by the entire community at the local level for each and every school that needs to improve learning experiences of students.

  • KathleenMelville

    “Professional Capital” as a way to understand experience

    I often try to counter this narrative with my own experience as a teacher. Even though I had excellent preparation as an education major at a great college, I really struggled in my first few years as a teacher. If I had left after two or three years, I would have left feeling like a real failure. Luckily, I made it to year five, when things really started to get good. Now in my tenth year, I feel like the inspired, creative, and critical teacher that I always dreamed of becoming. As you say, teaching is very complex, and it takes time to develop the instincts and expertise that mark a true professional. 

    In understanding the impact of experience, I’ve found that the work of Hargreaves and Fullan does a pretty good job of capturing that complexity. Their concept of “professional capital” entails human capital (your individual skills and talents), social capital (the strength of your collegial network), and decisional capital (the ability to make sound professional judgements that develops over time in the field). They argue that it takes about 8-10 years (roughly equivalent to Malcom Gladwell’s ten thousand hours) to really hit your stride as a teacher, and that these mid-career teachers are often the most neglected group (because of all the focus on new teachers and “check-out” veteran teachers). As a mid-career teacher myself, I agree that this is a really rich time in my teaching career. Unfortunately, not enough of my colleagues make it this far, and many who do get restless and switch to roles outside the classroom. 

    • bradclark

      Do you have a link or two to

      Do you have a link or two to the studies to which you are referring?  Thanks in advance.

      • KathleenMelville

        Professional Capital

        Hi Brad –

        You could check out this piece or this piece – both summaries of Hargreaves and Fullan’s book,  Professional Capital. I just finished reading it and definitely recommend it!


    • BradenWelborn

      Great point, Kathleen!

      Absolutely, Kathleen.

      I had the pleasure of hearing Fullan speak on the future of California’s public schools a couple weeks ago with a group of 7 CTQ teachers from across the state. Fullan kicked off the EdSource symposium by outlining the right and wrong drivers for change–emphasizing that it makes much more sense to focus on developing teachers’ social and decisional capital as professionals than to fixate on appraising individual teachers’ skills and talents. And as you point out–both social and decisional capital require TIME to develop.

      Of course, certain preparation approaches can speed up the process of building relationships with colleagues and community members (like embedding preservice teachers in the communities where they will teach via experiences beyond the school building and giving them plenty of practice in collaborating with colleagues)  and even that of developing decisional capital (by gaining firm footing in content and pedagogy and learning to reflect on and adapt their teaching). But such approaches are all too rarely supported by preparation programs and school policies… and certainly do NOT eliminate the need for experience.

      Quite an apt link to the issue of retention–bound to be problematic as long as our schools do not purposefully and systematically develop and VALUE social and decisional capital among teachers.

    • SusanGraham

      The Long Mid-Career Pause

      Kathleen, my eyebrow went up just a little when you said that mid-career teachers were the most neglected group; and it made me mentally revisit my own mide-career experience. The more I thought about it the more I agree with you.

      You talked about Hargreaves and Fullan’s professional capital, and I realized that I had little professional capital 14 years ago. I was a good teacher with 17 years experience. But being named my school’s teacher of the year was a small infusion of professional capital that, due to lots of good timing and advantageous circumstances and some hard work, changed the projectory of my professional life.

      Human Capital: Because I knew lots of teachers who were equally or more deserving of recongition, I felt I needed to prove myself. Because I made it to being a state regional TOY, I got a grant to attempt NBPTS certification. My bonus for becoming an NBCT funded a master’s degree. Those efforts meant I spent a lot of time on professional reading and I had to readdress some rusty academic skills like research and scholarly writing and I was forced to improve my technology skills.

      Social Captial: Recognition allowed me to see over my classroom walls. It brought me into contact with state level education leaders and it resulting in my being invited to the nascent CTQ community.  I began to build a professional network with teacher leaders, decisionmakers and other stakeholders. My education world grew and as a result, I broadened my knowedge and skills as a teacher and to gain a much broader perspective of practice and issues.

      Decisional Capital: More knowledge and skills and access to the human and social capital of my expanded community of experienced and informed educators gave me confidence and opportunities to have a voice beyond my classroom. I became a better practioner, I could help other teachers grow professionally.

      I got lucky. Circumstances created a mid-career window to re-entergerize my career. But like you, too often I see mid-career teachers who have become competent craftsmen, but who stagnate and never make that transition to the next stage of becoming vibrant fully realized professional educators.

  • marsharatzel

    It’s way more than complex..

    Dear Barnett,

    I think you’ve really surfaced something that I have noticed….I am mostly a science teacher but have taught math about half of my two decades of service.  In the middle school environment, I really see this a huge problem.  Teachers are frequently switched back and forth between subjects (licensure allows this because teachers’ licenses allow for assignment to different content areas).  

    It always amazes me that administrators want to do this.  Can you imagine an electrical engineering being asked to build bridges one year and then the next year switch to chemical engineering?  It’s a completely disregard for how complex the topics can be and how long it takes to build an intuitive barometer of a student’s ability to take in content, process it, analyze it and deliver it in ways that the student can be successful in learning.  But it happens again and again because of budget constraints and pressures.

    I can also tell you that after almost twenty years of teaching science that I have developed wide angle views of my content, students, the organization that has to happen in the background (mundate things like ordering supplies and making sure all the lab equipment works in every lab station), a big toolchest of instructional strategies that I can pull out at a moment’s notice to use if things aren’t going well and a strong understnaing of the vital connection between learning,formative assessments and high level perfromance on summative assessments.  You do all this almost on auto pilot and never really get that you have all this going on until you mentor a first or second year teacher….who forgets to plan weeks ahead because you have to order chemicals from the chemical company OR when you see kids aren’t getting the lab you are comfortable with enlisting their support to redesign on the fly.  It’s in the moments when things don’t go according to plan that you can most easily see experience.

    It’s in the  moments when you have a those extraordinary students with complex needs….a student who can get stuck in the moment because they struggle with Aspergers OR finding a way to overcome someone who can’t read even in 8th grade OR helping a student figure out how to recover from a parent’s death.  These take interpersonal skills to be able to not only teach but to form a bridge of hope for the student. No one can help you prepare for this or coach you through it….there’s no course or professional development that can prepare you for this.

    It’s a jigsaw puzzle everyday where someone throws all the pieces in the area and you have 43 minutes to pick them all up and inspire them…make them curious and empowered….and bold and brave.  And it happens 6 times every day 5 days a week for 180 days a year.  

  • KrisGiere

    Complex as…

    Teaching is complex in all the ways that you and the other commentors before me have stated.  It is complex because it is a cultural construct created by people for people.  Because it is cultural, it is made up of relationships and various nuances (all of which are always complex I might add).  Because of the many layers that go into the complex cultural construct we simply call education, the idea of a “quick fix” is flawed at its premise.  Experience matters because relationships matter, because collaboration matters, because a level of comfort within the community, the building, the people matters.  The more experience that we have in our role, with our community, with each individual student, parent, colleague, stake-holder, the more likely we are to be able to understand how we play a role in the success of each school.  Like any cultural construct, education is difficult to define.  It has many growth stages for all involved.  Experience is the result of that growth.

  • PaulMartenis

    Making the first year(s) better

    We do improve our practice through experience. That is not the only way to improve teaching, however.

    I also look at this from the other end: beginning teaching is less effective than it should be, and hard on the new teacher. This leads to students being shortchanged, and potentially competent teachers leaving the profession.

    Too many of us have the experience of fumbling around our first years while we find what works. We need better teacher preparation, and more appropriate roles, supervision, and mentoring for teachers just starting out. If every teacher’s first year or two is made more effective, the gain will be huge.

    Set up new teachers for success. Don’t make them figure out the profession on their, and their students’, time.

  • BarnettBerry

    brilliant additions

    All of these comments are brilliant. Brad, Kathleen, Kris, Braden, and Marsha raise insights few researchers possess. Time for more #teachersolutions from CTQ!


  • Shannoncdebaca

    Show up and Pay Attention

    Marcia nailed it for me and the references to Fullan from Kathleen were spot on as well. I hit my stride about year 15 and now I feel like I have so much more to learn still. I have colleagues who get tired of the continually changing landscape of teacher expectations and quick fixes. With a more stable and steady system of growth we could save some of those late career folks who have figured out the aspects of teaching that allow them to keep a social or behavioral problem from becoming a big disruptive deal and those who have a rich deep understanding of their own disciplines and several others they have had to teach along the way. These folks are amazing resources when the word interdisciplanary makes it on the the radar screen.

    The art of becoming wise in education is knowing what to overlook as fads and retoric block the view of the field. Teaching a new educator what to hang onto and what to let go of is critical as trying to do it all leads to some cognitive and emotional exhaustion. We hire great potential then pay little attention to the emotional demands of asking someone who really wants to do well…to work in an environment that minimilizes their voice and knowledge and especially the episodic knowledge that comes with experience.

    A custodian who worked in my school for more than 25 years took me aside and taught me the landscape of the social networks of the students, teachers, parents and administration. This amazing man knew more about how the school really works and where the power rested in each group than anyone in the district. I asked him how he became so amazingly knowledgable about all aspects (yes even staff development) of the school. He replied, “I showed up and I paid attention”.  He helped me learn to protect trust and speak truth to power.

    So, as I sit and think. It makes sense that teachers who show up and pay attention will get much better at the craft. Then, with a development program that focuses on the skills that really improve instruction and learning, a social program that protects and develops trust could make any school amazing. The sticking point is that this system MUST have TEACHER VOICE at the center in its development. Oh and the culture of the school must value all kinds of learning.

    For now I will be mildly content with the gathering storm of data that shows just how complex the act of teaching is for all. I will continue to show up and pay attention.


  • Rachel Losch


    I was struck by so many truths that have been discussed on this topic.  One common theme that I notice as I get to be an mid-career, seasoned teacher is the lack of respect  from the newer teachers and student teachers.  (I have always been respected, but I am talking about other mid-career teachers that I know.) I decided to be proactive in this particular situation.

    I invested my attention, support and time into a group of new-to-my-school, mid-career teachers. I put myself into their shoes whenever situations occurred at our school. I checked on them weekly, sometimes daily, to see if they needed anything.  I praised them whenever praise was due.  I brought them the occassional bagel or coffee.  I wanted them to feel like they were valuable team members and welcomed. 

    The new-to-my-school, mid-career level teachers made it through this year, became leaders within our school, and improved upon some difficult school problems and situations.  This will be the first year in six years that the same teachers in this particular grade level will be invited back to teach the same grade level again next year.  Someone mentioned earlier how in middle school teachers had to switch around their content areas from year to year.  Can you imagine having ALL new teachers in a grade level every year? The visual I have in my head includes someone hiking in flip flops up a steep mountain of shale.  No traction, no footing, no momentum, etc…

    I am proud that these teachers powered through a very difficult transition, but I know that they have grown professionally.  I know that they feel welcomed in our school, and I think they want to return. I am also relieved that the administration hired teachers with experience vs. brand new teachers for once. Also, these mid-career teachers are POWERHOUSES of knowledge, and I felt so good about supporting them whenever possible.

    Next year, I will adopt a new group of new teachers to the school and continue the cycle of encouragement.  It takes a lot of time to take new teachers under your wing, but it has been well worth it for collaborative reasons.  We have developed trusting relationships, and we have made progress with our students together. We will continue to solve problems together as a respectful group of colleagues.


    • MaggiePearce

      Mentorship is key

      Rachel, you bring up a fantastic point here. In many ways, teaching (at its best) is fundamentally a form of mentorship. Building off of that, providing support and encouragement to other teachers who may find themselves in difficult positions, whether it be the undervalued mid-career teacher or the promising but overwhelmed first year teacher, can absolutely create phenomenal teachers and teacher-leaders. 

      I was recently a student-teacher under a mid-career EC teacher who had been at the same school for most of her career, but found herself in a dramatic career shift when the administration required her to co-teach with an online virtual public school program. She received little support, and every day was a battle to adapt to a brand new style of teaching without harming the learning of her students. We must evaluate the multitude of struggles that our exceptionally valuabe and knowledgable mid-career teachers face and start designing solutions to support them and their students. It seems like you’ve come up with an effective and creative solution! 

  • BarnettBerry

    brilliant additions

    Maggie. Brilliant additions. Nuanced language. Deepens explanation of how and why teaching conditions matter much for teachers and their effectiveness. I am at an international conference – and Pasi Sahlberg of Finland, summarizing research, reminds attendees that: teaching more of a team sport — and it is not sprint, but a marathon. The research is clear: Around 9% of variation in student achievement is due to teacher characteristics. That is it! About 60% of the variation is related to individual student and family characteristics and out of school variables. All school input combined (teacher quality, class variables, etc.) explains ONLY about 21% of the differenece in student outcomes. So teacher do matter – but the conditions under which they teach AND students learn matter even more. This does not mean we do not invest in teachers. We must. But it is not JUST the teacher who makes the difference. Researchers know this – but often their ideology and reform agendas trump the evidence.