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The New Teacher-Old Teacher Debate

In most professions, experience is considered the most important factor in predicting effectiveness. But a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that is not the case in teaching ("An Exit Strategy for Bad Teachers," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 22). Specifically, newer teachers "did not reduce test scores and instead led to increased student achievement in most cases."

The study will be eagerly cited as evidence that if only the teaching profession could be stripped of older teachers, then student learning would soar. This is not a new argument. It was made not too long ago by Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City's schools ("Why Teacher Pensions Don't Work," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 2011). According to Klein, defined-benefit pensions are much too back-loaded. Teachers who want to receive their maximum lifetime pensions typically have to put in 25 or 30 years. As a result, too many older teachers are merely timeservers. When they are allowed to remain in the classroom, students are shortchanged.

I don't doubt that some older teachers are burned out or that some newer teachers are hotshots. But these observations are not peculiar to teaching. Moreover, evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores, which is what the National Bureau of Economic Research study did, is unconvincing. No matter what psychometricians explain about the pitfalls of this practice, it continues to be accepted by too many as valid. Can some new teachers boost test scores more than some experienced teachers? Absolutely. But is that the sum and substance of educational quality? Not in my book.

Supporters of Teach for America will point to the new study as evidence that they were right all along. All it takes to be effective in the classroom is energy and enthusiasm. It's a pipe dream, but it will appeal to critics of public education in this country.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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