Most teachers reach a performance plateau after 3-5 years

Little evidence that teachers improve  much  after a couple of  years


Alex Quigley , a teacher,  writing  in The Guardian this week ,reminded us    that the author, Joshua Foer, originated the term ‘ok plateau’ in his popular science book, Moonwalking with Einstein, on the subject of improving memory. He used it to describe that common autopilot state when you have habitually mastered the basics of a task, but despite being skilled you stop really improving to reach expert status; you simply plateau in performance .Teachers are as prone as any other profession to this state.  Indeed evidence, from Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005) (see below), is that after the first couple of years teacher quality reaches a plateau and teacher experience beyond this point has a negligible impact upon student attainment. This,  Quigley correctly claims, clashes with our basic presumptions about experience in teaching and it should certainly give us food for thought.

So, what is the evidence, more generally, about the impact of experience on teachers performance?

Experience does make a difference—especially at the beginning of a teacher’s career. On average, teachers with some experience are more effective than brand new teachers.

(Kane,Rockoff and Staiger (2006). “What Does Certification Tell Us About Teacher Effectiveness?” NBER Working Paper 12155.)

 Teachers improve the most early in their careers. One study found that “close to half of the teacher achievement returns to experience arise during the first few years of teaching.”   (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor (2007). “How and Why Do Teacher Credentials Matter for Student Achievement?” CALDER Working Paper)

 The shift from no experience, to some experience, makes the biggest difference. One study found that “the bulk of the experience effects occur during the first year,” while another noted that “the effect of moving from being completely inexperienced to having a full year of experience” matters most.

(Harris and Sass (2007). “Teacher Training, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement.” CALDER Working Paper ) Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, Rockoff, and Wyckoff (2008). “The Narrowing Gap in Teacher Qualifications and its Implications for Student Achievement.” NBER Working Paper 14021

However, most teachers reach their peak after about five years in the classroom. Teachers gradually reach plateau after 3-5 years on the job.

(Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor (2006). “Teacher-student matching and the assessment of teacher effectiveness.” National Bureau of Economic Research)

As one study put it,“ there is little evidence  that improvement continues after the first three years.”  (Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain (2005). “Teachers, Schools, and Academic Achievement.” Econometrica, 73(2), 417-458.)

Another found that, on average, teachers with 20 years of experience are not much more effective than those with 5 years of experience. (Ladd, Helen F. (2008). “Value-Added Modelling of Teacher Credentials: Policy Implications)

Some studies suggest that effectiveness actually declines toward the end of a teacher’s career. For example, the most experienced high school maths teachers in the States may be less effective than their less experienced colleagues and even their inexperienced colleagues.

(Ladd (2008); Harris and Sass (2007))

Teacher performance varies at all levels of experience. Individual teachers tend to improve with experience, but not all teachers begin their careers with the same skills or rise to the same level.

(Xu, Hannaway,and Taylor (2009). “Making a Difference? The Effects of Teach for America in High School.” CALDER Working Paper 17. National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research)

The fact that a fifth-year teacher is more effective than she was in her first year doesn’t mean she’s more effective than all first-year teachers.  In fact, research shows that some less-experienced teachers are more effective than teachers with more  experience.

(Sass, Hannaway, Xu, and Figlio (2010). “Value Added of Teachers in High-Poverty and Lower-Poverty Schools.” CALDER Working Paper 52)

One study found that when layoffs are based on seniority alone, about 80% of the novice teachers who get pink slips are more effective than their lowest-performing colleagues who remain. (Goldhaberand Theobold (2010). “Assessing the Determinants and Implications of Teacher Layoffs.” Center for Education Data & Research, University of Washington-Bothell)

There is limited evidence, but not consensus, that returns to experience vary based on how a teacher is assigned over the years—by subject, and by how long they teach the same grade.

(Ost, Ben (2009). “How do Teachers Improve? The Relative Importance of Specific and General Human Capital.” Cornell University)



In teaching experience helps, but it doesn’t tell the full story—and it certainly  doesn’t guarantee excellence. As one study of more than a half-million students concluded, “experience is not significantly related to achievement following the initial years in the profession.”

You would have thought that Continuous Professional Development (CPD)  should be able to address this challenge. But part of the problem, according to Quigley (an English teacher at Huntington School, York)  is ‘ our system of continuous performance development ’.

He writes ‘This system is tied to targets and professional standards that actually inhibit conscientious teachers taking risks and experimenting with new teaching strategies. We set targets, either consciously or subconsciously, so that we may meet them, regardless whether they genuinely improve our practice or not. Gone is the regular critical feedback of our first couple of years. We move into autopilot, often even entering a state of professional inertia.’

Teachers, Schools, and Academic Achievement Steven G. Rivkin; Eric A. Hanushek; John F. Kain Econometrica, Vol. 73, No. 2. (Mar., 2005), pp. 417-458.


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