Q: We're looking at schools to enroll our 5-year-old in kindergarten. One school we like "loops" students. The kids have the same teacher for two years. The school has good test scores and a high GreatSchools rating. What are the downsides?
A: When looping works, there's a lot to love. Also known as teacher rotation, two-cycle teaching or multiyear placement, looping moves a teacher along with his or her class to the next grade for a year or more.
Looping isn't widespread, but research shows benefits: Instructional time is saved during the second year because the teacher doesn't have to learn each child's personality and proficiencies. Kids already know the teacher's rules and style. Parents understand the expectations.
"The first day back at school is really the 181st day of school for a multiyear class. You get right down to business," says Pam Bierly, a respected Oregon educator who "looped" with students for much of her career.
Bierly explains why looping can help kids come out ahead.
One, teachers get to use their knowledge of each child over a longer period. "It takes months to learn enough about students to get the best from them," Bierly says. "To know their family, friends, how much they can be pushed, when to say, 'Please sit down' because they're not really sick, and when to send them to the nurse."
Two, teacher, students and parents build stronger relationships. "Parents are often more engaged the second year," says Bierly, "and you use what you know to accelerate kids' learning. At the start of the second year, I could tell Jennifer, 'Your mom expects more.'"
Three, you give kids the gift of time. "Looping is a godsend for late boomers and shy kids," says Bierly. "It takes time for children to trust their teachers and not be afraid to make mistakes, take chances, ask for help. This is especially true for at-risk kids with rocky home lives."
Four, it provides flexibility. Teachers can make decisions knowing they can reteach a concept the following year. "You already know you can give Bradley a needed refresher on his math facts," says Bierly.
Parents typically have three worries about looping, says Bierly. What if there's a teacher/child conflict? What if the class is packed with special-needs kids? What if there is a bad teacher?
"Principals handle personality conflicts the same way they would in a traditional model, by changing a child's class placement," says Bierly. As for class composition, she says, "All principals or teacher committees take special care to create classes that aren't overloaded with too many challenging students."
As for poor teachers, there's evidence that educators who volunteer to teach in looped classrooms are often among the district's top performers. They like a challenge and the benefits to kids. "It would be horrible if a class were stuck with a bad teacher for two years, but with new teacher rating systems and more poor teachers being counseled out, principals and parents have an obligation to make sure that doesn't happen," says Bierly.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)