Want to make public schools better for students and teachers? Try ‘Looping.’


All over the U.S., public schools are reopening. You can picture what’s happening in about 85-90 percent of the classrooms: The teachers are spending the first week just getting to know their students, explaining (or developing) the rules for classroom behavior, working out the routines, setting expectations, and doing other important (but not particularly educational) stuff. It’s a week of getting to know one another, with very little teaching and learning.

But in the other 10-15 percent of classrooms, the teachers will say “Welcome back” to their students, perhaps spend some time hearing about their summers, and then get down to work. That’s because they taught the very same students last year and then moved up a year with their kids. In other words, if they taught students the fourth grade curriculum last year, this year they’ll be working together on the fifth grade curriculum. They have the benefit of beginning the year with established personal relationships, and, as the MD-turned-educator James P. Comer has said many times, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

This practice is so rare in the United States that it has its own name, ‘Looping,’ but its effectiveness has been demonstrated in research studies over the years, most recently in a seven-year study in Tennessee. This sums it up: “(W)e find that having a repeat teacher improves achievement and decreases absences, truancy, and suspensions. These results are robust to a range of tests for student and teacher sorting. High-achieving students benefit most academically and boys of color benefit most behaviorally.”

“This is a nearly zero-cost policy,” says Leigh Wedenoja, a senior policy analyst with the Rockefeller Institute of Government and a lead researcher on the study. “Longer relationships are likely resulting in better behavior.”

As Kate Rix noted in US News & World Report in February 2023, “Spending more than one year with students is not a new idea in education. In multiage classrooms, such as in Montessori schools, children typically stay with the same teacher for several years. And Waldorf schools have looped teachers for more than a century. About 12% of public schools across the U.S. used some form of teacher looping in the 2017-2018 school year (the most recent year for which federal data is available). The practice is most common in Vermont, where more than half of schools use it.”

The professional organization of the nation’s school superintendents, AASA, explored the pluses and minuses of Looping back in 2010, making a compelling analogy with other professionals in a child’s life:

“The notion of finding a new dentist or physician each year for every child seems absurd. We want children to know their doctors and to feel comfortable with them. It is important for physicians to know their patients as they grow and develop. Yet for many of these same children, their schools assign them to a new teacher and require they learn a new set of classroom routines and adult expectations every year.

“Toward the end of the school year, many teachers have the feeling that ‘if I could just have more time with these students, I could teach them what they need to learn.’ After spending eight months with a group, a teacher has learned each child’s academic and emotional needs–just when the educational opportunity is ending. Looping allows the relationships between teachers and students to blossom and deepen over a two- or three-year period.”

When the public schools in Attleboro studied the effects of Looping in grades 1-8 over a seven-year period, the results were stunning: 

  • Student attendance in grades 2 through 8 increased from 92 percent average daily attendance to 97 percent;
  • Retention rates decreased by more than 43 percent in those same grades;
  • Discipline and suspensions, especially at the middle schools, declined significantly;
  • Special education referrals decreased by more than 55 percent; and
  • Staff attendance improved markedly from an average of seven days absent per staff member per year to fewer than three.

The aforementioned AASA article, “In the Loop,” explores the history of the practice, noting that it was studied by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1913 (64 years before there was a federal Department of Education). The pro-Looping writer asked, “Shall teachers in graded schools be advanced from grade to grade with their pupils through a series of two, three, four or more years so that they may come to know the children they teach and be able to build the work of the latter years on that of the earlier years, or shall teachers be required to remain year after year in the same grade while the children, promoted from grade to grade, are taught by a different teacher every year?”

Today, of course, those who question Looping raise the specter of a child having a bad teacher two years in a row, or being taught the same material over and over because a disorganized teacher can’t get his act together. The 1913 article anticipated those legitimate concerns.“The answer to both objections is easy and evident. The inefficient teacher should be eliminated. The man or woman who is unable to teach a group of children through more than one year should not be permitted to waste their money, time and opportunity through a single year.”

Looping also tells teachers that they cannot give up on a child. They cannot shrug their shoulders about some difficult child and say to themselves, “Well, he won’t be my problem next year.” Because he will be! Which means that teachers have to figure out how to get through to every child, using all the available resources, and calling on peers for help, and so on. No giving up on anyone! Truly, no child left behind….

Looping isn’t perfect, because sometimes a teacher and a student just do not connect. That requires intervention and a new arrangement.

But Looping works, so why isn’t it common practice? Inertia is probably the most important reason. Change requires effort, and it’s easier to just go on doing what you’ve always done. Sadly, that means that a teacher becomes known not for his or her teaching but for the students they teach. “He’s a sixth grade teacher.” Or “She teaches second grade,” instead of “They are teachers. They teach children!”

Doing Looping properly requires an effective teacher, responsive administrators, and support of the teachers’ union and the parents. That’s workable, but it is real work. However, Looping is virtually cost-free, educationally effective, and, by most reports, extremely satisfying for the participating teachers, who finally have time to develop relationships with their students and often with their parents.

That additional benefit — connecting with families — in a time when insidious forces are working hard to undermine public trust in public schools strikes me as reason enough for school administrators and school boards to seriously consider embracing Looping.
Share your thoughts on my blog itself, please. Here’s the link: bit.ly/merrowloop. And consider sharing this with everyone you know with a connection to public schools. We can improve our schools.

John Merrow is the author of “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education. He blogs at Themerrowreport.com.