As a trustee of the college I was part of the management team negotiating a new faculty contract. As is often the case, the faculty team was made up of professors close to retirement, led by their outside union negotiator.
The topic of that session was a retirement incentive, and the professors were adamant that they should receive an additional year’s salary as an incentive. As discussion continued, however, it became obvious that what faculty really wanted was a bonus, not an incentive.
“We’ve taught for many years at the college,” one professor argued. “We deserve to be rewarded for our service and our expertise.”
The idea that longevity means increased expertise is a cornerstone of education, not only at the college level, but perhaps especially at the K-12 level. Salary increases are dependent upon longevity, and the first hired are the last to be laid off. In some schools senior faculty members are also awarded plum classes and easier schedules.
But a study by the National center for analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) says maybe experience matters, but only up to a point. And the difference in expertise appears primarily between teachers with zero experience and those with 3-5 years experience.
“Experience matters, “ writes Jennifer King Rice, the author of the study, “but more is not always better. The impact of experience is strongest during the first few years of teaching; after that, marginal returns diminish.” In fact, she says, findings indicate that the experience of the first few years of teaching have a stronger impact on a teacher’s effectiveness than additional degrees, certification test scores, National Board certification, and class size.
Rice’s research and that of others show that 20-year veterans are more effective than teachers with no experience, but not necessarily more effective than 5-year veterans. In fact, she says, research indicates that effectiveness may even decline after 20 years, especially among high school teachers.
The study also revealed that high poverty schools have a greater percentage of inexperienced teachers. In addition, the experienced teachers in high poverty schools are less effective than their counterparts in low poverty schools.
The study has implications for our current policies regarding teachers. First of all, Rice suggests, instead of tying salary to experience, we should significantly increase beginning teacher salaries. Higher salaries may attract higher quality individuals, and there is little reason to “reward” longevity rather than productivity.
Secondly, we need to address professional development strategies for experienced teachers, especially those at the high school level. Along with those strategies, we need to rethink dismissal policies based on tenure.
Of course, changing our attitudes towards seniority also means changing our attitudes towards supervision and evaluation, making them meaningful, useful, understandable, and honest. Otherwise, salary increments along the longevity scale are merely “bonuses.”