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Selective Schools Select Experience

August 13, 2013

 

team building

Experienced teachers in a stable school, working as a team to promote student learning in a positive environment (photo by the author).

One of my favorite parts of a new school year is meeting new colleagues. I’m always impressed at the variety of experience and talent added to the room when we have our first staff meeting of the year. I happen to work in a high-performing school, in a high-performing district, in a community largely made up of wealthy and well-educated adults. Our district spends much more per pupil than most districts in California, and our teachers are better paid than most in California.

As a result of the quality of the schools and the community, we generally have the opportunity to be selective in hiring. I’d think I was a well-qualified candidate when I first applied, but I interviewed in my district three times in a four-year period before landing my current job.

In a typical year I find out information like a new science teacher has been teaching for several years and has work experience at NASA or Genentech, or a new art teacher has years of experience as both an educator and a studio artist. We’re proud that we’re picking off talent from neighboring districts, and this year, we snagged experienced teachers from Florida and Hawaii. We also typically hire a few alumni from our district, and a few parents from our district – and some of those people fit under both categories. I don’t know if there are studies to prove the value of hiring from within your community and from among your own alumni – but I can tell you that we believe those perspectives matter, that they inform our work and make us smarter.

Linda Darling-Hammond

Linda Darling-Hammond makes a strong case for the importance of experience and education for teaching quality (photo by the author).

Why do I bring this up? It’s not to boast. I do truly enjoy working in this environment, but what I’d really like to see is more school districts able to compete with us, and a resulting growth in the talent pool of our profession. We have a major equity problem in this state and in the nation. Schools that can afford to compete and afford to choose are choosing experienced teachers, and making an effort to keep them around. Today we honored dozens of staff members who have served our district for decades.

There are education reformers out there who are trying to sell the idea that experience doesn’t count, that master’s degrees don’t matter. They have studies and data to try to convince the public and the policy makers that less experienced and less qualified teachers can be just as effective. It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it, to suggest that experience and knowledge don’t improve job performance? Is there any other profession facing such an concerted effort to downplay these qualities?

If “research” is showing experience and knowledge don’t matter much, then researchers are asking the wrong questions or relying on the wrong measures. If you can’t prove that experienced and educated professionals, as a group, do a better job than their less experienced and less educated peers, then you have a problem with what you’re asking the teachers or students to do, or how you’re measuring their success.

Of course, when those reformers have the necessary resources, their children are more likely to attend private schools or suburban schools like mine, places where you’ll never see a TFA corps member (though we might grab a TFA alum now and then). So, you can delve into the vapors of agenda-driven studies and cherry-picked statistics, or you can just watch what people do when they have options. Look at the wisdom of a crowd that has options. When we have choices, we choose experience.

This year my school will have eighteen new teachers; seventeen of them have prior teaching experience.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Dennison permalink
    August 13, 2013 7:56 pm

    Rather than one or the other, why not choose both talent and track record?

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 13, 2013 10:24 pm

      Did I suggest “one or the other”? I have nothing against the idea of considering talent in hiring, and I’ll even add that it has been my great pleasure to work with some very talented teachers who were new to the profession. My main goal was to point out that while many people say experience doesn’t matter when they suggest policies for other people’s schools (and other people’s children), it certainly looks like experience matters to people who have options, and it’s logical to believe that experience matters. Talent may matter more, but given the complexity of students, schools, and the teaching profession, it stands to reason that experience contributes to wise practice and institutional culture. Will that be true every time? Maybe not.

      I’m guessing that your comment springs from an exchange I had on Twitter, and that exchange has made me more curious about various notions of talent, how to measure it, but also the extent to which job performance may be context-dependent. I’ve written in the past about the mistake of fundamental attribution error – the belief that behavior reflects personal traits more than situational conditions. How does that square with your work?

  2. August 13, 2013 10:32 pm

    My question would be how better to determine whether a person has “talent” for teaching than looking at his/her experience (track record)? Since teaching is highly influenced by the context in which one works, part of our talent is how well we match our knowledge of our subjects with what we learn about our students and the communities in which we work. That only comes through experience.
    I agree it is not an either/or, but rather experience reveals and refines talent.

  3. Katherine permalink
    August 14, 2013 6:36 am

    I agree, experience of course plays a role in becoming a great teacher. But I have also seen and had many teachers who were better teachers after five years than others who had twenty years experience — the challenge I have here is the implication that these teachers were hired for the years they had worked, when, guessing from what you have said about your school, they were hired for their talent as teachers. This is versus the choices many districts have (e.g. you need a Spanish teacher but you need to hire the last teacher fired, or you have limited choice when hiring a teacher because you have to work with the talent pool in your district and availability is often not the best way to make that decision). The challenge in California is that we are now tenuring teachers after so few years we don’t know if they will be good teachers or not – and that puts school districts in the challenging position (unlike yours, which continues to hire) of having to hire and release based on years of experience, not talent as a teacher. I have known many talented teachers who have had to leave the profession because of this decision making – and for no other reason. I know you have explored better ways to address this and to support and train teachers, all of which are sorely lacking in our current system. Let’s hope those challenges are addressed so all schools can flourish as yours does!

    Thanks for being a great – and experienced – educator and teacher advocate😀.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 14, 2013 8:22 am

      I appreciate your comment, Katherine. There’s more there than I intended to raise in this post, but overall, there’s probably a broad consensus about the challenges around personnel decisions. And of course other factors are as important, maybe even more important than experience. Maybe it would help if I point out that many of these teachers new to our school are not all veteran teachers with tons of experience; they’re just (mostly) not brand new. They bring a variety of talents, skills, background knowledge, and many of them fill specific needs in the program – specialists in art, a particular science, journalism, film, etc. I didn’t mean to suggest experience trumps all. I do think the way school leaders make choices when they have more options undercuts a lot of the rhetoric from outsider “reformers” advising us about adjusting to chronic underfunding, or providing a rationale for partnerships with TFA or similar programs.

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