Looping -- when a teacher moves with his or her students to the next grade level rather than sending them to another teacher at the end of the school year -- was initially advocated by early 20th-century Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner and since has been used successfully for years in Europe. Despite the successful experiences of European school systems, looping is still uncommon enough in the United States to be considered innovative. Included: Looping research and comments from kids -- pro and con -- about looping.
"I like to be with the same kids year after year," said John Van Valkenburg, an eighth grader who has also been with the same teachers for two years now. "I feel closer to this group than some of my family because we have shared so many of the same experiences."
Like Van Valkenburg, many educators see clearly the advantages of looping -- for themselves and for their students.
In Looping Through the Years: Teachers and Students Progressing Together, educators identified some of those advantages, including
Eighth grader Lauren Trimble added, "Looping is comforting on the first day of school, when there is so much going on. If you already know your teachers and their style of teaching, it makes the beginning of school a little less stressful."
And according to Brittany Bolden, "For me it is much easier to go into a new grade knowing just what to expect. I don't have to go through the awkwardness of first-day first impressions. Staying with the same group of kids year after year makes me feel more comfortable. I know where I fit in and that I have some type of support system in my class."
Looping is not a panacea. All students do not have great experiences, and educators have identified several areas of potential concern. Among them are these:
"I had the same teacher for first through third grade," said eighth grader Jeanne Miller, "and she was absolutely wonderful. I loved having her teach me so many years in a row. However, when the time finally came to move on, I found it hard to detach from this person who had taught me for so long. I remember crying on the last day of school, knowing that I wouldn't be in her classroom again. I felt abandoned and lonely."
Seventh grader Levi Smathers added, "The only part about looping I didn't like is that I didn't get to know many other students. At lunch all I did was hang out with my friends from my class because I didn't know anyone else."
And according to Matt Hoffmann, "The big disadvantage I saw was that in the real world I will probably have to make many changes in my life. Learning how to adapt to changes in the way you work is something that will help you adapt to change later on, and I think learning how to deal with change is something that should be learned when young."
Because early adolescence can be an especially difficult time, a fair amount of research has targeted this age group as one that could benefit from looping.
JoAnn Brennan, a paraprofessional who has worked with middle-school looped classes, lauds the practice. "When you've looped, you've already established ground rules, you've already established relationships with parents, and you've already established trust. The returning students have met success; they've had a taste of it, and want it again. You already understand their strengths and weaknesses," she told Education World, "so in a very short time, you can pick up where you left off last year. You can begin work almost from day one."
In 1997, University of Florida at Gainesville educators Paul George and Kathy Shewey identified 60 U.S. middle schools that looped instruction. Thirty-five schools in 14 states answered their surveys, the results of which were reported in "What Does the Research Say? Maintaining Long-Term Teacher and Student Relationships," published in Schools in the Middle. Educators who responded were very positive about the long-term benefits of looping. Eighty-four percent felt that it resulted in better classroom discipline, 80 percent said the students got to know one another better, 95 percent said they felt they knew their students better, and 80 percent said they now could avoid unnecessary duplication from previous years.
The researchers also sent surveys to students, and more than 1,100 responded. Students' reactions were not as positive as the teachers' reactions. Almost 800 of them felt looping helped them make more and better friends, and about 750 felt their teachers knew them better and cared more about them, but several said it was harder to adjust to the huge environment of high school after being in such a protected one in middle school.
The researchers sent surveys to parents too and received 586 back. The parents' comments were less positive than both the students' and the teachers' were. About 375 felt looping improved academic achievement, and approximately 340 responded that even after their child had spent two or three years with the same person, they still did not know the teacher better.
Another study, a 1997 pilot program sponsored by East Cleveland (Ohio) Schools and Cleveland State University, found students in a looping program exhibited substantially higher reading and mathematics achievement scores on standardized tests than did students in the traditional grade organization, even when both groups were taught by the same teacher. (Source: Looping: Adding Time, Strengthening Relationships.)
The same article cites other research too. In 1987, researchers, again using personal evaluations, found approximately 70 percent of the teachers who responded to a survey reported looping improved classroom management, and 69 percent said students more frequently participated in class. Most of the parents in this study requested that their children have the same teachers as the previous year.
A study in 1981 compared academic outcomes of students in two schools of similar socioeconomic levels, one with a traditional grade-level structure and the other a school in which the students remained with the same teacher for more than one year. Those in the extended-relationship school outperformed their counterparts in the traditional school on basic skills tests.
Writer Michele Kurtz explored the quality of research available on looping for a 1998 Charlotte News-Observer story, "Teachers Plot to Give Students a Loop." "Research on looping's effectiveness," she stated, "is somewhat limited, in part because it's not used on a widespread basis in most school systems. Rather, individual schools instinctively decide to try out the method with small numbers of teachers."
Many of the studies that do exist, Kurtz concluded, are not recent and many rely on personal evaluation. Additional high-quality empirical research not dependent on personal evaluation is still needed in order to determine whether, as many contend, looping really has a positive effect on student performance.
Article by Glori Chaika
Copyright © 2009 Education World