In most schools, students have a particular teacher for one year and the following fall move on to someone else. Some elementary schools are experimenting with the concept of "looping" where a group of kids stays with one teacher for two years. The idea is to provide more continuity for the students and allow the teacher to better understand the needs of the students.

One teacher at a school in this area, however, took the idea of looping and stretched it a little further – covering all five years of the elementary school experience of one group of kids. As you might expect, "graduating" to middle school (which starts in 6th grade in that neighborhood) was a tearful event for both the teacher and her students.

It’s a nice story but does looping actually help student learning? The teacher and her principal seem to think so.

"When we started, some of these guys had no English," Fleischer recalled. She said staying with them helped her learn about their individual family situations and learning problems so she could focus her teaching more sharply. "Families are comfortable with me. I know the whole kid," she said. "Some of them need an extra little nudge. If they come in tired, I know they might have been with Dad who lives 100 miles away."

But she acknowledged that looping doesn’t work for all students. And over the five years, she said, two parents have opted to put their children in a different class.

Principal Jean Frey said she plans to compare the class’s standardized test scores to those of other classes to see whether the long loop has provided any statistical benefits. Socially, she said, she already knows the answer.

"When you walk into the room, there’s a sense of people who are really comfortable with each other," Frey said. "Most 10-year-old boys are not that nice to each other. Here, there’s a group looking out for you. It takes care of feeling good about yourself."

This is sort of the ideal, I think, but it does require great teaching. If you’ve got a school full of wonderful teachers, and kids get to bond with both that teacher and the community of kids they travel with, then yes, you can do incredible things, but this is an easily subverted model. How do you deal with the weak teacher on faculty who you know shouldn’t have a group of kids for five years?

I hadn’t thought of it as looping, persay, but one of the reasons that I wanted to work in the district I’m moving to is that I’ll be teaching many of the students for three years (freshman science, physics and chemistry). This (I hope) will cut down on the learning curve associated with what I expect in class, and will let the students and me have an instant relationship from day one.

Looping reminds me a lot of the small school initiative that’s being pushed right now- students learn in mini-high school acadamies and stick with the same teachers throughout. Of course, NCLB will make this difficult in the sciences, where a teacher may not be able to be endorsed in enough areas to keep teaching the students, but it’ll be interesting to see what the research bears on this topic.

Maybe I’m just one of those not-so-great teachers, but as a middle school science teacher I find looping to be an intolerable burden. It might be more bearable in a smaller setting, but in my 1900+ student middle school, when you combine the teacher load (120-150 students) with the constant new curriculum planning, it frankly becomes a nightmare and leads to burnout. I wrote a post on the subject with more details of my reservations:

Planning

On the elementary school level I can only think it would be even more difficult given the fact that the teacher would normally have to plan for 3 or more major subjects, with a different curriculum each year – that’s a lot of work!

After my experience I personally don’t want to go anywhere near a school that uses looping.

Jeff: Your situation sounds a little different. I assume you will be teaching all three of those courses concurrently to a group of 9th, 10th, & 11th graders, as opposed to having all freshman science this year, followewd by all 10th grade physics next year, and so on. That actually doesn’s sound so bad assuming classes are relatively small…

Chris makes a good point about looping only being effective if you have good teachers in the classrooms. Having the same bad teacher two years in a row more than doubles the damage. As with most reform ideas in education, looping is highly dependent on the quality of the teachers. If I was a principal I would want to make sure I had excellent teachers before trying the idea.

And the concept is not for all teachers as Michael says. As a math teacher I usually taught three different preps each year so staying with one group for three years would not be a big deal. Quite by accident I did a three-year loop with largely the same group of students for Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. It was a great experience and one that seemed to benefit the kids as well.

In many smaller schools like the one Jeff will be teaching in, kids will often have the same teacher more than once just because there’s no other choice. But even at the elementary level, at least in our district, it’s not all that difficult for a teacher to teach 1st grade one year and 2nd the next (or any other “adjacent” levels). The curriculum is very well established so the teachers spend most of their time concentrating on how to best present the material to the students rather than on preparing it.

Actually, the way it will work in my small school of about 700 (holy cow, 1900 kids in a middle school????), is that I’ll teach freshman science each year and then alternate between chemistry and physics. It’s a pretty ideal situation, giving me a chance to work with the kids for 3 years, but only having to do 2 preps at one time. This is, of course, assuming that the classroom dynamics are positive in my classes. Otherwise I’ll be in a whole lot of trouble!

And, I’m going to have to deal with teaching chemistry to 1/2 a class that’s had physics already and 1/2 that hasn’t. Same deal with physics the next year. I think it’ll keep me on my toes.