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No Teacher Is an Island

Don't let anyone tell you that experience and advanced degrees don't matter in K-12 education.


By Dave Reber

Armchair education reformers, and the philanthropists who pay them, insist that advanced teaching degrees and years of teaching experience have no benefit for students.  This facet of education reform, like so many others, is built on oversimplification, willful ignorance, and deliberate misrepresentation of facts.

Most studies used to “prove” that advanced degrees and teaching experience have no effect on student achievement are “think-tank” research studies, usually published as “working papers,” a cryptic euphemism for “lacking peer review.”  Examining the funding structures of these organizations further opens the gates to suspicions about the integrity of their research.

Such so-called “research” presents a completely inaccurate concept of teachers, teaching, and public schools.  Their vision of public schools resembles a telemarketing office, where employees work in fierce competition.  The goal is winning, and helping one another is unheard of.

But public schools don’t work that way.  As a first-year teacher, I did a fine job with no experience and no advanced degree.  But here’s why: I had the guidance and support of my elder peers, some of whom had more than 40 years’ experience and most of whom held advanced degrees.  As a rookie, easily half the decisions I made grew from collaboration with my more experienced, more educated peers.

Many years later, I now help new teachers in the same way my elder peers helped me.  Experience and advanced education improve not only the individual teacher, but their entire school environment as well.  Think-tanky research largely ignores such effects; they’re too busy trying to connect student achievement to individual teachers to justify merit pay schemes.

You cannot separate the benefits of advanced degrees and teaching experience among teachers unless you completely isolate the new teachers from the veterans.  Forbid collaboration or shared lesson plans. Forbid sharing of classroom management strategies; forbid unified efforts among teachers to help struggling students.  And forbid counselors, social workers, administrators, and school nurses from helping students in any way, as these factors also confound the data and render any teacher-specific conclusions invalid.

Think-tanky researchers acknowledge that advanced degrees do improve secondary-level student achievement if the degree is in a content area rather than in education. This is likely an artifact of their narrow definition of student achievement—which looks only at grade levels and subjects for which there are widespread standardized tests—and pedestrian understanding of teachers and schools.  The beneficial effect of subject matter knowledge manifests directly with an individual teacher’s students, whereas education-practice knowledge more likely affects the entire school and beyond.

For example, much of my master’s degree coursework dealt with curriculum design and writing of standards and outcomes. These skills manifest outside of my classroom. I have designed entirely new courses, updated the curricula of existing courses, and helped determine the scope and sequence of K–12 science district-wide. The skills I gained from my master’s program now benefit teachers—and their students—across the district and across grade levels. Think-tanky research would not track this value of my advanced degree or experience back to me.

Other coursework in my master’s program dealt with intervention strategies for at-risk students, and I spent many years as a member of my school’s Student Improvement Team. However, the majority of students I helped during that time were not enrolled in my classes. My skills helped students succeed with different teachers and different subjects. Think-tanky research would not track this value of my degree or experience back to me.

Some kids take longer to reach than others.  I even taught one student four years in a row, plus summer school.  Often, my efforts to counsel misguided youth into responsible adulthood don’t pan out right away.  But I regularly see my efforts manifest in students the following year and beyond—with different teachers and different subjects.  Think-tanky research would not track this value of my master’s degree or experience back to me.

Those who insist that a teacher’s education and experience have no value in education don’t comprehend, or choose not to acknowledge, the true nature of teaching. So what is their real motive? It’s a simple business strategy: Inexperienced and minimally educated teachers cost less to employ.

Cheaper teachers mean higher profits for charter management organizations.  Cheaper teachers also free up traditional public school dollars, perhaps for reallocation in new computer software and virtual-learning systems.  And brokers of young, hastily trained temporary teachers will naturally claim that minimal education and zero experience produces the best “highly qualified” teachers.

But next time someone tells you that education and experience don’t matter, think about how you choose your surgeons, lawyers, auto mechanics, or contractors.  Better yet, ask them how they choose theirs.

Dave Reber

Excerpted from Dave Reber’s post “No Teacher Is an Island (Why Education and Experience Matter)” on


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