Returning To Experience

Every line of work has returns to experience – how quickly effectiveness increases and when it plateaus. And as you might expect, the complexity of different kinds of work matters to returns to experience. Teaching has always been an interesting case, however, because while it’s complicated work the returns to experience, based on most studies, are greatest the first few years and then decrease substantially. Some evidence indicates that returns are basically negligible after only a few years.

I’ve always thought those findings are the result of our haphazard approach to human capital in education more than they are indicative of the underlying returns to experience in teaching. In other words, when a field is not careful about selection, de-selection, is indifferent about the quality of its professional development, and provides few opportunities for professional growth as we do in education then you would expect to see what the data show.

But the other day I was talking with a researcher who is highly-regarded, considered middle of the road, and not a combatant in the reform wars. She was questioning this assumption and argued that perhaps what the data show now are much closer to the inherent returns to experience to teaching. It’s worth considering, and not just because it’s always a good habit to think about why you might be wrong. Right now we are having a silly – and largely evidence-free – debate about teaching experience, veteran teachers and all that. Acknowledging that the returns to experience in teaching are actually pretty compressed would not devalue veterans nor would it mean a district should just seek out early-career teachers as a cost-saving strategy. But it would have implications about, for instance:

*Focusing on initial selection more.

*Paying teachers differently so that largely back-loaded compensation, the norm now, is smoothed over a teacher’s career. In other words pay teachers more earlier in their careers.

*Investing more in professional development and support up-front on early-career teachers.

*Making tenure a meaningful high-bar rather than a routinized step.

*Giving veteran teachers more opportunities for professional growth – leadership opportunities, mentoring, and so forth that would make the profession more attractive over time. Put plainly: Let these teachers lead more good professional development rather than sit through today’s slog.

I’m not yet sold on the idea that the evidence today truly reflects the returns to experience of teaching.  It will be interesting to see more research on the trajectory for more effective teachers who also work in especially high-peforming schools with good PD. Yet at some level it really doesn’t matter all that much because there are multiple reasons why each the five ideas above are smart directions for policy and practice to move in. In fact, underneath the rhetoric and phony war positioning there is a lot of agreement on several of those ideas now.

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