An article by Adam Grant in the New York Times, “What Most American Schools Do Wrong,” connected with a podcast that I had recorded earlier with Andrew Hill, who along with David Jones, had published “The Teacher Who Knows Me: The Academic Benefits of Repeat Student -Teacher Matches.”
Grant pointed out that Finland and Estonia have stood out as unexpected champions in the realm of academic achievement.
- Finland consistently defied expectations by claiming the top spot in PISA rankings. In 2000, Finnish students astonished the world by excelling in reading, followed by impressive performances in math (2003) and science (2006). What makes Finland’s achievement even more remarkable is that its students achieve these results while spending about the same time on homework per week as the typical teenager in Shanghai does in a single Finland’s approach focuses on fostering critical thinking, problem-solving, and a love for learning rather than placing undue emphasis on standardized testing. Finnish students benefit from a less stressful educational environment, with minimal homework and fewer standardized tests; a holistic and student-centered approach.
- Estonia surpassed larger and wealthier nations, proving that excellence in education isn’t solely the domain of economics. Estonia’s success underscores the significance of innovative teaching methods, a dynamic curriculum, and a commitment to nurturing students’ curiosity and critical thinking skills. They prioritize the needs of students over adherence to traditional practices.
Grant connects the results in Finland and Estonia to findings from the research of Hill and Jones who worked with state assessment data from North Carolina. In my podcast, Hill shared that the students who were matched with the same teacher for a second year experienced an additional growth during that second year. Looking at 2 million 3rd-5th grade students’ data, they identified 60,000 students who had the same teacher as the previous year; 5000 of whom were in a formal looping program. Interestingly, the benefits of being rematched appear to be largest for students of generally less effective teachers (as measured by teacher value-added) and results vary for different ethnic groups. Results are strongest for minority students. The study suggested that continuity in the teacher-student relationship played a pivotal role in enhancing academic performance.
These findings generate connections for me around the power of “knowing” and “relationships” in teaching and learning. The identification that less effective teachers showed a greater impact in the second year caused me to ponder if more effective teachers get to know their students and build relationships faster. The extra time supports teachers less skilled in building those relationships. The finding that minority students gain even more from the repeat structure has me pondering two items. One being that teachers build higher expectations of the students during the first year that impacts the second -year teacher actions. The second being that the student knowing the teacher enters the second year being more of a risk-taking learner.
A 2023 article in US News raised another benefit of the extended year connection that I hadn’t previously considered. Linda DeBerry, a principal in Dyersburg, Tennessee, suggested that part of the reason students do better, is that parents know the teachers better and are more involved in their children’s education.
That observation aligns with a 2022 study of Tennessee students – from grades three through 11 – who had the same teachers for more than one year. Even though most of these cases happened accidentally, when teachers switched grades or subjects, having a repeat teacher still resulted in better attendance and fewer disciplinary issues.
Adam Grant pointed out that in Finland and Estonia it’s common for elementary students to have the same teacher not just two years in a row but sometimes for up to six straight years. Instead of specializing just in their subjects, teachers also get to specialize in their students. Their role evolves from instructor to coach and mentor. As I am now pondering the impact of AI on teaching and learning, the timing could be right for teachers to have less of a focus on content specialist and more on being a human potential specialist? ChatGPT definition: “The term “human potential specialist” generally refers to an individual who works in the field of human development and focuses on unlocking and maximizing human potential.”