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Two studies point to the power of teacher-student relationships to boost learning

Kids do better when teachers know them well

Photo of Jill Barshay

Proof Points

Two studies on elementary schools published in June 2018 point to the importance giving teachers and students plenty of time to form relationships. Students may learn more.

Two studies on how best to teach elementary schools students — one on the popular trend of “platooning” and one on the far less common practice of “looping” — at first would seem totally unrelated other than the fact that they both use silly words with double-o’s. “Platooning” refers to having teachers specialize in a particular subject, such as math or English, and young students switch teachers for each class. “Looping” is a term used when kids keep the same teacher for two years in a row. They don’t switch teachers for each subject and don’t switch each year.

One economist found that platooning might be harming kids and two other economists found that looping is quite beneficial. The reason one doesn’t work and the other does may be related.

“These studies are important because they tell us that teacher-student relationships matter,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is writing a book on the research about students’ relationships with their teachers and how well they learn. ”I think schools in many ways have put the cart before the horse. What they’ve done is they want to jump right into academics and really dismiss or minimize the importance of relationships.”

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Less than a decade ago, elementary school principals began pushing their teachers to specialize in different subjects, particularly beginning in third grade, in part because of the pressure to score better on standardized tests. The theory was that the best math teachers, who already had a great track record of improving students’ math scores, could reach more students and that specialization would help everyone learn more.

Harvard University’s Roland Fryer set out to test just that in an experiment, published in the June 2018 issue of the American Economic Review. Fryer convinced the Houston school district to randomly assign 23 elementary schools to adopt specialized teaching for two years, from the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2015. From first through fifth grade, each teacher taught fewer subjects, perhaps just reading or reading and social studies, but was responsible for more students. Sometimes the students moved classrooms. Other times, the teachers rotated and the students stayed put.

Then Fryer compared test scores of the kids in the “platooned” schools with those in traditional schools in which a main classroom teacher continued to teach most subjects. To ensure he was comparing apples with apples, Fryer compared pairs of elementary schools that had nearly identical test scores before the experiment started.

After each of the two years, both reading and math scores of the kids who’d been taught by specialists were worse than those who’d been taught by a single teacher. Even the low-stakes science tests scores were worse. More troubling: suspensions and absences were suddenly higher in the schools that tried platooning. The most vulnerable students were especially harmed. Special needs students scored three times worse on high-stakes tests and two times worse on low-stakes tests compared to students who were taught traditionally. In surveys, specialized teachers said they were less able to tailor instruction for each child (advocates of personalized learning, take note!) and they were much less likely to report an increase in job satisfaction or performance than elementary school teachers who spent all day with their students.

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It seems that the ostensible benefits of specialization were outweighed by the fact teachers had fewer interactions with each student. No one was minding the whole student throughout the whole day or providing continuous emotional support, keeping an eye on a kid who had an argument in the morning or whose mouth was achy from a loose tooth.

”[P]upils are not pins, and the production of human capital is far more complex than assembling automobiles,” Fryer wrote, calling his Houston experiment a “cautionary tale.”

Eventually the subjects that children need to learn, from physics to history, become more complex, and at some point teachers cannot be expected to teach all subjects. Across the 34 most developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development, teacher specialization begins around sixth grade, on average. Still, Fryer noted that five countries consistently use specialized teachers earlier, as young as third grade.

Yet six countries including Austria, Hungary, Norway, Portugal, Latvia and Israel, do just the opposite. Not only don’t they use specialized teachers in elementary school at all, the average teacher in these countries stays with the same group of elementary school children for at least three years.

Two economists from Montana State University and the University of South Carolina studied what happened in North Carolina when students and teachers spent two years together. They identified all the students who happened to be assigned to the same teacher for a second year between third and fifth grade over the course of 16 years, from 1997 to 2013. This was usually by chance and not a policy to keep kids together for two years in a row under the same teacher.

Published in the June 2018 issue of the Economics of Education Review, the researchers found that this increased student-teacher familiarity led to higher test scores, albeit a small increase, after controlling for students’ prior academic achievement and teacher differences. The benefits of getting the same teacher twice in a row were largest for minority students. And when a large share of classmates had the same teacher as before, even kids who were new to the class posted higher than expected test scores. That suggests when people know each other well, it’s a better classroom environment for learning.

The researchers Andrew Hill and Daniel Jones argue their study is evidence that the low-cost solution of “looping” — assigning the same class of students to the same teacher for two years in a row — is effective.

UCLA’s Howard says that qualitative researchers have documented the influence of relationships on learning for over two decades. A 1997 study found that early teacher-child relationships at the start of elementary school determined how kids felt about school and performed academically. A 2004 study found higher academic performance for middle school students who participated in an elementary school program to foster relationships. And a May 2018 study found that when teachers are antagonistic, college students learn less.

“You can’t get to the content if the relationship and the social-emotional well-being piece is not being attended to first,” Howard says. “Any time you get into feelings, that’s more complicated to capture. But it’s still as important.”

Now that quantitative studies are bolstering these findings with large datasets and more rigorous randomized controlled trials, Howard hopes that more elementary school principals will take notice. The next challenge is to translate these findings into classrooms so that students can benefit too.

This story about teacher-student relationships was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is a contributing editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive

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As a teacher, I totally appreciate the idea of “platooning.” Being the expert on one subject makes planning and teaching so much easier! You can focus in on one area and think very deeply about how to teach it most effectively, and over time, you gain experience about what works best for each child. However, as a huge advocate to put relationships first, I can also tell you about the power of “looping.” At UCDS, we teach in multi-age classrooms because we understand that all children develop at different rates, and we know that in the real world, you work with many different kinds of people of all different ages. Because of this structure, we often have students for multiple years, creating so much potential to develop powerful relationships with them. When you know kids, you know what they need, how to motivate them, and how to best to help them move forward. If you just focus on “platooning,” you are emphasizing the teaching and not the learning.

- from Jenn Drake, Jun 14, 2018