Transcript of the episode “Looping: It’s all about the relationships”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:17] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Leigh Wedenoja, senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. An economist by training, Dr. Wedenoja recently has focused on policies aimed at increasing teacher effectiveness. Welcome, Leigh!

[00:00:37] Leigh W: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.

[00:00:41] Amy H-L: You’ve been looking at the impacts on students of having the same teachers for more than one year. When is this likely to happen? 

[00:00:50] Leigh W: So when we think about having a teacher for more than one year, we generally think about something called planned looping, in which a teacher stays with a classroom of the same students for two or more years. So generally a second grade class that stays with the same teacher for third grade is a good example. This however is not the most common way in which students experience repeat teachers.

So we look at teachers in English, language arts, and math in the state of Tennessee over about a seven year period. And we find that the most common way that students have repeat teachers is in middle and high school. They have teachers who ordinarily teach two grades, so teach both sixth grade and seventh grade. Or an elementary school. It’s a teacher who changes grades permanently, a teacher who shifts from being a fourth to a fifth grade teacher, and in that year of transition has some of the same students. 

[00:01:43] Amy H-L: Why Tennessee? 

[00:01:46] Leigh W: So the main reason we worked with Tennessee is that my co-authors, John Papay and Matthew Kraft, who are at Brown University, have worked with them before. The Tennessee Education Research Alliance has been really great about supporting research and understanding the multi-year processes of how students and teachers improve over time. So when we brought this idea to TERA, they agreed to let us use their data. And here we are. 

[00:02:11] Amy H-L: So are you talking only about students having the same teacher for two years in a row? 

[00:02:18] Leigh W: So, no. So we look at any time you’ve had the same teacher. Every time I bring up this topic, initially people think about this sort of planned looping, which is very uncommon, but then after a few minutes of conversation, it turns out that almost everyone has had at least one repeat teacher, maybe not an English or language arts, but band teachers, choir teachers, art teachers. There’s generally only one or two per school. So a lot of people will have a teacher again. And it does not have to be in an adjacent year, so you could have had the same… so I, for instance, had the same high school English teacher for ninth grade as I did for a debate class in 11th grade. So that would not be a sequential repeat.

[00:03:00] Jon M: As I understand it, you’re not talking about situations where students have been held back for a year and have the same teacher. Is that right?

[00:03:07] Leigh W: So, no, we omit any student who is taking the same test, the same standardized test, for the second year in a row. Those make up a very small percentage of students. 

[00:03:18] Amy H-L: What have you found to be the impact on students of having the same teacher more than once?

[00:03:24] Leigh W: So we look at three, well, three and a half, different outcomes. First, we look at test score gains. We find that students do better in the year they have a repeat teacher. They do about 0.02 standard deviations better on their standardized test scores. That is not a huge number, but it’s also not nothing. It corresponds roughly to between a week and a month of learning, depending on the grade level. And we find that that test score gain is true for grades three, well, grades four, technically, because you can’t have a repeat teacher in grade three. In grades four all the way through the end of high school.

We also look at some behavioral outcomes, which I think is a unique piece of this paper. So we find that having a repeat teacher also improves both attendance and disciplinary records. So you are less likely to be suspended if you have a repeat teacher and you are less likely to be absent. And for high school students who are also less likely to be truant, which means you do not meet whatever the school defines as an excused absence, but you are still not in school. 

[00:04:30] Jon M: And are these improvements limited to the subject in which they have the same teacher for a second year, or do they have a broader impact?

[00:04:40] Leigh W: So for test scores, we, of course, can only look at tested grades and subjects. So we focused on math and English language arts, because those tests were given consistently over the time period we looked at. But the thing with attendance and suspension is that those are full day outcomes. Those are outcomes that are affected by all of your teachers when you’re in middle and high school. And we find that there is a positive effect on attendance, even when you have just one repeat teacher, which leads us to believe that this isn’t just about understanding the way a teacher teaches within the same class, but there’s likely a relationship aspect that is happening here. And when opening up this possibility to improve student teacher relationships by having these repeat matches, there are benefits that spill over into the behavioral skills as well.

[00:05:27] Amy H-L: Have there been any studies on the relationships themselves and the content of those relationships? 

[00:05:34] Leigh W: Yeah, so we can’t measure the strength of a relationship. We don’t have survey data. We can’t tell if students report liking their teachers or feeling safe with their teachers. There are quite a few other researchers that do that work. But it’s just not within the data we look at. So what we look at more is the possibility to build a strong relationship, which is a policy that, you know, is one of, we look at one of the many sets of policies that could facilitate building a relationship. So having a repeat teacher and building a relationship with that teacher, having consistent tutoring programs from year to year with the same tutor or mentoring programs, looking at high school coaches who have the same students in on the football team for four years, are all other ways of building these sustained relationships between students and adults that are not their parents.

[00:06:29] Amy H-L: Going back to the improvements in test results, have you been able to break those down by gender or by race? 

[00:06:39] Leigh W: Yeah. So we find that students that are already doing well on their tests, that are generally in the top quartile, actually get higher test score gains. So there does appear to be some just magnifying on good students, which was a little bit disappointing to learn because we really want to target policies to the students that are potentially struggling. We also found that in terms of test scores, that the biggest advantages were found by white female students. 

However, the benefits within the behavioral outcomes, attendance and suspension, was most pronounced for boys of color. And because this is Tennessee, that means mostly Black boys, um which we found to be really promising because this is a group that is routinely over-suspended and which creates problems for their learning long term. So finding a policy that creates a small movement on suspensions was really exciting.

[00:07:35] Jon M: And do the effects last beyond that year, now you’ve been able to track that?

[00:07:41] Leigh W: So that we don’t know. One of the reasons why we wanted to look at these behavioral outcomes, attendance and suspension, is because they are correlated with later in life outcomes in a way that test scores aren’t in way that it’s sort of independent of test scores. There is substantial research that shows that students who have chronic absenteeism problems, who are suspended more in high school, do worse later in life on things we actually care about, like employment earnings and college graduation. We only care about things like attendance and test scores because those are predictive of these more important topics.

[00:08:21] Jon M: So I’m curious, talking about attendance, whether you found or were able to look at differential impacts among, for example, students with a history of chronic absenteeism or students who, you know, have been absent a lot, but not what’s categorized as chronically.

[00:08:40] Leigh W: That’s, that’s actually a really good idea. So we’re doing doing a revision on the paper right now, and that’s something we are planning to include is trying to give a little bit more shape to these behavioral results. I do have a couple other papers that are not in Tennessee, that are in a single large urban school district, where I do find that one of the biggest predictors of being absent is having been absent in the past. And so that paper actually looks at the patterns of attendance throughout the entire year. So I don’t just know how many times you miss school. I know when students who have chronic absenteeism problems tend to have a gradually snowballing set of absence. So it starts out with a few scattered ones at the beginning of the year. And then the absence, the spells of absence get longer, they get more frequent and some of those students end up failing out entirely. So having a history of this sort of chronic absenteeism is likely to predict more absenteeism. How that interacts with something like a repeat teacher, we just don’t know, but that’s something we’re looking into. 

[00:09:43] Amy H-L: You’ve looked at teachers teaching English and math. But do you think the impacts would apply to, say, art teachers? I mean, we do know that coaches, for example, have been able to have great impacts on their athletes. 

[00:10:01] Leigh W: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is one of those things that’s just a data limitation. Within our data, teachers are linked to students only for when there is a standardized test involved. However, because we look at these behavioral outcomes, these are also things that would be affected by a math teacher, by a debate teacher, by a football coach, by a music teacher. All of these programs are likely creating connections to both teachers and to school itself. Positive attachment to school is, is highly correlated with attendance and graduation. It’s likely that these teachers have a positive effect. We just can’t measure it in the data we used. So if any school district wants to look into their data, look into their classroom assignments to see if there’s an effect, there are plenty of researchers who would be very interested in that, myself included. 

[00:10:51] Amy H-L: Why do you think so few schools use looping as a strategy? 

[00:10:56] Leigh W: I think there are a lot of reasons. Looping has been traditionally used in Montessori and Waldorf programs for a long time. Actually, in my traditional public school, I was actually in a looped program. I was in a second, third grade loop and a fourth and fifth grade loop, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to look at this.

Part of it is it’s just administratively difficult. Schools with high turnover rates often can’t plan to keep the same classroom of students together for two years. If those students are highly mobile, you also have teachers who have to be familiar with two sets of curriculum. So we like to think about it as there are all sorts of dimensions to the skills of teaching. One of the dimensions is knowing your curriculum for your grade or your subject really well, subject specific knowledge, which is important. But another one is knowing your students really well, this sort of student specific teaching skill and having a looped classroom means you sort of get to benefit from both. It does require planning, and assigning students and teachers to the classroom in which they’re going to be most effective is an incredibly difficult and complicated process for teachers and administrators to do. You have to deal with class size restrictions. You have to deal with IEPs. You have to deal with relationships and the skill sets of teachers, and who’s moving where when. So looping can be difficult in schools that already have trouble maximizing their classroom assignment for any of those reasons. 

[00:12:24] Jon M: You’ve talked a little bit about areas of further research. Would you want to just outline and maybe even repeat some of them? What are some of the areas that you’re looking at doing further research and also that you think other people might want to be doing some?

[00:12:39] Leigh W: I think that, especially for quantitative researchers like myself, economists, predominantly public policy folks, we’ve generally done less work on the effect of relationships between students and teachers, because those are things that are incredibly difficult to measure with a number. But as states are expanding these longitudinal data sets, that’s becoming more and more possible to find things that look like relationships, or look like measures of relationships or proxies or close enough.

And you know, every time I talk to a teacher– I’m teaching myself this fall at the collegiate level. Understanding and getting to know your students is really crucial to being an effective teacher, and we just don’t have enough space to measure it in the kind of standard education data sets. And that’s something that needs to expand. 

I would also love to look at, and this is much more of a longer term thing, I would encourage other researchers to do it as well, who have access to slightly better data than mine, looking at long term non- test score non- inschool outcomes. So a number of states do link their school data to earnings, to unemployment records. Understanding the sort of long term consequences of student teacher relationships and of these kind of policies, I think, is really important. The Research Alliance for New York City Schools has done some work on that in the past, linking State University of New York and City University of New York data to student records, to look at these long term effects, which are the things we really care about. We don’t care if students have high test scores, we care that high test scores are a proxy for other types of success.

[00:14:22] Amy H-L: Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you’d like to share with our listeners? 

[00:14:26] Leigh W: So there is one other piece of the paper that we didn’t discuss. And that is that in classrooms that have a higher percentage of repeat student teacher matches, the benefits also spill over to the other students in the class. So there does appear to be a benefit to even if you don’t have a repeat teacher. Even if you’re not a repeat student, if you’re in a classroom with a bunch of other repeat students, your test scores also appear to go up. And we think a lot of that has to do with, beginning of the year learning pains get a little bit easier if half the class already knows what they’re doing and how to follow up classroom procedures. So this isn’t just a benefit to the students who have a repeat teacher. It’s a benefit to all the students in the classroom. As long as there’s sort of a critical mass, we looked at 50%. 

[00:15:11] Jon M: And does that seem to apply to the behavioral issues as well?

[00:15:15] Leigh W: It does not appear to apply to the behavioral issues in the same way as it does to the test scores. The test scores seem to be where the spillover really is, which is why I think it has something to do with that classroom management piece of it. 

[00:15:30] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. Leigh Wedenoja of the Rockefeller Institute of Government. 

[00:15:35] Leigh W: Awesome. Thank you so much. 

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