How much experience is enough?

One of the accepted truisms of teaching is that you have to do it for a while before you are any good. The accepted amount of time varies: many people think teachers are only seasoned after 3 years, while I have heard a multitude of opinions that it takes 5 years or more before a teacher hits their prime.

The biggest disturbance to this viewpoint in recent years is Teach For America (TFA), which places top college graduates directly in the nation’s most difficult schools. This is anathema to many traditional educators, who argue both that such inexperienced teachers are unlikely to be effective, and that additional credentials (education degrees, professional certification, etc) are vitally important.

This argument is moving from the purely theoretical to more data-driven, as The Urban Institute released a study which found that TFA teachers are highly effective – more so than many teachers from traditional backgrounds and with more experience. From the summary:

The findings show that TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student exam performance, than traditional teachers. Moreover, they suggest that the TFA effect, at least in the grades and subjects investigated, exceeds the impact of additional years of experience, implying that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary school teachers. The positive TFA results are robust across subject areas, but are particularly strong for math and science classes.

I confess to being personally unsurprised at the results. I generally work with smaller technology companies, and the number of these that have been created and are sustained by people in their early-twenties is remarkable; and precisely because in the hyper-competitive software and internet industries, nobody expects you to wait 3-5 years before you can be any good.

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