The relationship between teacher and student has profound effects on learning. A new study explores whether schools can strengthen this relationship over time by keeping students with teachers for more than one year.
Teacher effectiveness is traditionally viewed as a fixed characteristic: Some teachers produce greater student achievement, others not so much. The goal of school leadership is to hire and retain the former and separate from the latter. However, recent scholarship suggests that teacher effectiveness is instead “dynamic and context-specific, evolving over time.” Certain teachers are more effective at teaching certain students. And as this relationship grows and deepens, better results are produced.
The study uses student and teacher information from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, which compiles data from the Tennessee Department of Education. The Volunteer State—long a champion of education reform—gathers sophisticated data about its students, so much so that all students can be linked to specific teachers in tested grades and subjects. This makes it possible to analyze almost all public school students in grades three through eight from spring 2007 to 2015, and most of their high school counterparts from 2007 to 2017, a dataset of almost 3.7 million students.
The study defines a repeat student-teacher match as a student having the same teacher for more than one school year. This broad definition encompasses various permutations. One form of repeat matching is looping, when a teacher moves to the next grade level with the same class of students. While practiced in some elementary schools, less than 2 percent of all teachers are loopers. “Unintentional looping” is far more common in the elementary grades. A teacher may be reassigned to a different grade in between school terms and turn out coincidentally have some students she/he has taught before, although the match isn’t always intentional.
Even more common are repeat matches in middle and high school. In these situations, many teachers are responsible for multiple classes in a given subject. A high school math teacher might teach algebra to freshmen, geometry to sophomores, and precalculus to juniors. Along the way, the same students may enroll in two of the classes or even all three. (The study omits students who repeat a grade with the same teacher.)
The researchers find that 44 percent of the sampled students had at least one repeat teacher over the course of their education, most commonly in the upper grades. Though just 2 percent of fourth grade students had a repeat teacher in a given school year, 11 percent of eighth grade students had one.
By using the Tennessee data to create statistical models, the researchers estimated students who had repeat matches would see a variety of benefits. Overall, having a repeat teacher was associated with an increase in test scores of 1.9 percentage points. Broken down by subject, the increase was 3.2 percentage points in math and 1.5 percentage points in English language arts. The effect of repeat relationships was stronger in math for high school students (+4.1 percentage points) than for students in grades three to eight (+2.4 percentage points). The reverse was true for ELA, where the effect was stronger for students in grades three to eight (+1.3 percentage points) than high school students (+0.7 percentage points). Positive effects were also seen in estimated behavioral outcomes. Having a repeat experience with a teacher reduced student absences by 0.5 percentage points and suspensions by 1 percentage point. All of these findings were statistically significant.
Differences became apparent when the estimates were broken down by student demographics. Students who were high performers the previous school year and White female students saw the biggest bump in academic achievement when repeating with a teacher. Lower performing students and Black and Hispanic males saw the largest reductions in absences, truancy, and suspensions. Having a repeat teacher reduced absences 3 percent for Black and Hispanic males.
The study has implications for school staffing. If there is evidence that extending relationships between students and teachers improves learning and behavioral outcomes, school leaders should make it standard practice. Intentional looping—mentioned above as accounting for less than 2 percent of teaching assignments—might become the norm in more elementary schools. Likewise, enrollment in middle and high school classes should prioritize keeping students and teachers together. Entire classes would not need to be preserved, as the study also demonstrated that classes of 50 percent repeaters had spillover effects for the students in the class who had not repeated.
The study suggests that rather than being a fixed quality, effectiveness is dynamic and dependent on the relationship between teachers and students. Multiple studies have shown the beneficial of having a teacher of color for students of similar backgrounds. Further research may suggest even more specific teaching relationships in which students may thrive. However, simply repeating a grade with a teacher may not be a panacea for low student achievement. More information is needed about the effects of repeating a grade with a minimally effective or ineffective teacher. And if a teacher needs multiple school years with a student to produce results, were they that effective to begin with? It’s a research area that demands more study.
SOURCE: Leigh Wedenoja, John Papay, and Matthew A. Kraft, “Second Time’s a Charm? How Sustained Relationships from Repeat Student-Teacher Matches Build Academic and Behavioral Skill,” EdWorkingPaper: 22-590, retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (June 2022).