New research out of North Carolina is contradicting conventional wisdom about teacher experience. Researchers Helen Ladd and Lucy Sorensen used longitudinal data on North Carolina middle school teachers to investigate how teacher experience impacts student outcomes, and found that teachers continue to strengthen in the classroom after they’ve been teaching for five years.
The researchers didn’t just focus on test scores, but also looked at four non-test-related measures: absences, reported disruptive classroom offenses, time spent on homework, and time spent reading for pleasure. These measures line up with non-cognitive, or “soft” skills, like self-control and perseverance.
Middle school is a formative time for student learning. Middle school teachers become day-to-day caretakers of students who are going through “a critical period of cognitive, socio-emotional, and biological development.” This is also a period when students begin to exhibit warning signs, like chronic absenteeism or disruptive classroom behavior, which makes teacher influence particularly important.
“Effective teachers do more for students on a daily basis than simply imparting a narrow set of reading or math skills. Ideally, such teachers cultivate character, discipline, and creativity, and a variety of other…non-cognitive skills.”
Ladd and Sorensen found a clear positive association between test scores and additional experience for middle school teachers. “These returns rise at least through 12 years of experience both for middle school teachers of math and of English and language arts (ELA).” For ELA teachers, their effectiveness continues to increase until they’ve attained 21-27 years of experience, while the returns level off for math teachers after 12 years.
The non-test-related outcomes were less precise, but Ladd and Sorensen did find that “experienced teachers effectively reduce the number of students with high levels of absenteeism across both ELA and math classrooms.” Reducing absenteeism alone can have lasting positive effects on students’ education attainment, which makes experienced teachers even more valuable.
“The first task for policy makers is to recruit high quality teachers. In light of our findings, the challenge then is to support their development and to retain them.”
This new research comes at a time when North Carolina is gearing up for yet another conversation about teacher pay. The last state budget severely front-loaded the raises for new and less experienced teachers, with an eye toward attracting good candidates to the teaching profession. Unfortunately, this decision left two-thirds of all teachers without any raises. As Ladd and Sorensen’s findings indicate, we have a strong incentive to retain high quality teachers and continue reaping the benefits of their growing experience. Paying them a fair wage and treating them like professionals would be a good start, and serves the dual purpose of attracting new teachers to our public schools as well.
 Ladd, Helen and Sorensen, Lucy. (December 2015). Returns to Teacher Experience: Student Achievement and Motivation in Middle School. National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Educational Research (CALDER). Available at http://www.caldercenter.org/sites/default/files/WP%20112%20Update_0.pdf
 See note 1.