‘Looping’ Catches On as a Way To Build Strong Ties

By Linda Jacobson — October 15, 1997 9 min read
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Naples, Fla.

Atop the dark-green cabinets in Pat Sanford’s classroom sit large, rectangular boxes labeled “sea life,” “farms,” and “dinosaurs.” But the 2nd grade teacher at the Manatee Education Center hardly ever pulls them down to hunt for reliable old lessons that were a hit with last year’s class.

That’s because last year’s class is also this year’s class--an arrangement that has forced Ms. Sanford to look continually for fresh and creative teaching materials. At least, she’s got plenty of company.

All of the teachers at Manatee, a pre-K through 8th grade campus here on the edge of the Everglades, stay with their students for more than one year--an educational practice called looping.

The technique--also called teacher-student progression and multiyear grouping--is gaining popularity for its ability to build stronger relationships between students and teachers and to cut down on the time needed for the annual back-to-school review ritual.

So far, it’s not clear if the practice also boosts student achievement. But even those educators who have been through other reform cycles think looping is one of the more common-sense approaches to hit schools in years.

“A lot of people my age are not open to change,” said Ms. Sanford, who started teaching in 1976. “But looping has really helped me to see what can happen in education.”

‘It’s About Time’

No one really knows how many schools nationwide use looping, but the National Alliance of Multiage Educators, a Peterborough, N.H.-based organization that includes looping teachers, has close to 1,500 members. The group’s conference last year drew 3,000 participants.

Sessions on looping are always packed at the National Association of Elementary School Principals’ annual conventions, and the organization often gets requests for information on the topic.

School leaders who use looping say it reduces discipline problems and increases attendance for both students and teachers.

In a looping class, the first several weeks of the school year are spent on the curriculum--not learning names, going over classroom rules, reviewing the previous year’s material, and assessing students’ skills.

For young children lagging behind their peers, especially in reading, looping can also keep them from repeating a grade or being referred to special education. That’s because teachers don’t have to make those crucial decisions based on a single year’s performance.

“Looping is about time, giving kids extra time,” said Jim Grant, a New Hampshire consultant and the founder of the multiage educators’ alliance, as he addressed a standing-room-only crowd at the NAESP’s conference in San Antonio earlier this year.

For many teachers, looping also increases job satisfaction because they get to see children learn concepts that were initially beyond their grasp.

“That was the greatest joy--to get to see it click,” said Alice James, a 1st and 2nd grade teacher at Manatee who once had a young boy in her class who couldn’t read sight words--words that students know without sounding them out--until months after his classmates.

Structure and Security

Though most commonly used in Germany, looping is not a new idea in this country. It’s usually found in the early grades and often starts as a pilot project or with a couple teachers who decide they want to give it a try.

Organizing an entire school around the concept is less common, but that’s what Manatee Education Center has done--and then some.

The center’s elementary building opened in 1994, followed in 1995 by the middle school, which sits across the parking lot.

Looping here begins in 1st grade, and most teachers stay with their students for two years. But there have also been three-year loops.

When children enter middle school, they move with their teachers from the 5th grade into a 6th grade team of teachers. They are then joined by students who feed into the middle school from two other elementaries.

At Manatee, officials try to keep the students together through the 8th grade, although other schools that practice looping have not necessarily built that element into their systems.

Instead of planning with colleagues in their own grade level, teachers are organized into pre-K through 8th grade “houses,” making them better informed about students’ needs as they move up the grades.

“I am convinced that this is the only way that education should be moving,” Santo Pino, the center’s principal, said. “Schools have got to have a more structured and secure environment for kids.”

Seventy percent of Manatee’s students are members of minority groups, mostly Hispanic. And more than 70 percent qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

Almost half of the students are from migrant farming families, who schedule their lives around the harvest season, not the school calendar. That means hundreds of Manatee’s students don’t return to school until November, when it’s time to pick the tomatoes, peppers, and citrus fruits grown in the region. But because of looping, these students walk back into classrooms filled with familiar faces.

“If you don’t have that sense of community, it doesn’t matter what kind of whiz-bang teacher you are,” said Debbie Minch, the assistant principal of the center’s elementary division.

At the 1,600-student center, located in growing Collier County, looping has created “smallness out of bigness,” Mr. Pino said. Because of their lengthier relationships, teachers and parents say they don’t hesitate to call each other, and students are more likely to view teachers as allies.

“You can tell [the teachers] stories from home and they’ll keep them confidential,” said Ashley Shea, an 8th grader.

When a new child arrives--almost a daily occurrence at Manatee--teachers say it’s their students who do the job of making introductions and helping newcomers learn their way around.

Manatee’s teachers also say looping has turned some of their shyest pupils into confident classroom participants. “They know no one is going to laugh at them,” said Barb Rinzel, who did a three-year loop.

Good for All?

A few other schools in Collier County are dabbling in looping, but it isn’t catching on quite like it did at Manatee.

The Attleboro, Mass., public schools, located about 30 miles southeast of Boston, are another story. Every teacher loops in all of the district’s five elementary schools, excluding kindergartners, and three middle schools. The practice affects about 4,400 students.

“We decided that this would be good for all of them,” the district’s assistant superintendent, Ted Thibodeau, said.

Looping generally gets high ratings from parents, Attleboro district officials say. When the program was phased in about seven years ago, a few teachers left and a few retired. Teachers’ greatest concern was the notion of undertaking a second curriculum, especially after teaching, say, 5th grade, for 20 years. But now, most teachers fully support the idea.

“We would hate to see it go back to the way it was,” said Evelyn Grantham, the president of the Attleboro Education Association.

Most educators using looping are far more certain about the practice’s social benefits than they are its ability to boost academic performance.

But Mr. Thibodeau readily shares Massachusetts test data, which show that his schools are generally scoring above the state average, and above the schools in their demographic-profile comparison group. The most dramatic improvement has been on sections of the state test that require students to respond to open-ended questions.

Attleboro’s mandated approach, however, worries many educators.

“I don’t think it should be a mandate. It should be a choice for the teacher and a choice for the parent,” said Lynn Babcock, the principal of Grant Elementary School in Livonia, Mich., where only a few teachers loop.

Scant Research

For all its positive reviews, looping is not getting a lot of attention from the education research community.

Even those who study the effects of retention on children haven’t seriously looked at looping as a possible alternative.

“I would put that on a long list of interesting ideas,” said Karl L. Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Looping probably does gain you some effective engaged time.”

One of the few studies on looping was conducted last year by Paul S. George, a well-respected researcher and middle school expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

He surveyed parents, teachers, and students from 70 middle schools across the country in which teams of students and teachers stayed together for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.

Teachers were, by far, the most positive about looping, saying that it improved student behavior, helped them build on students’ strengths, and improved academic performance for lower-achieving students.

Students also enjoyed staying with their peers for more than a year, and said looping made them less anxious about starting school in the fall.

Although parents also liked looping, some said their children had suffered in school by having a poor teacher for two years. In fact, the possibility that there will be a personality conflict between a child and a teacher is what concerns parents most.

Colleen Jost, who has two children in the Attleboro schools, had one of those experiences with her daughter’s 1st and 2nd grade teacher.

"[The teacher] didn’t want to be doing this,” Ms. Jost said. “We should have intervened.”

Looping advocates agree that there must be alternatives available to parents and students who don’t want the same teacher for two years. And teachers say the system should be flexible enough to split up troublemaking students. While looping can be especially helpful to children with greater needs, teachers who are looping should not be overloaded with at-risk students, Mr. Grant cautions.

There aren’t many costs fixed to looping, but teachers should be given release time to visit the next grade level and be supplied with their own curriculum and teaching materials, Mr. Grant said. Most teachers, however, say they use their own time to learn the new curriculum.

Another small-scale research project is in the works outside Chicago, where researchers at Elmhurst College are comparing a 1st and 2nd grade loop with the nonlooping classes at Brook Park Elementary in LaGrange Park, Ill.

At this early stage, the researchers are still deciding what questions they should be asking. But even midway through the loop, the team found that parents were not at all concerned over how their children would adapt to the 2nd grade. They were more interested in what their children would be learning this year.

‘Feel Good’ Schooling

In Florida, Collier County district officials are watching Manatee’s looping experiment with great interest, but even they aren’t looking for a direct effect on achievement. And Principal Pino doesn’t think looping is the only reason why the two schools are staying off the state’s “critically low-performing” list--something schools with similar demographics haven’t been able to do.

Surrounded by stuffed manatees on the shelves and manatee pictures on his office walls, Mr. Pino talks about the school’s wellness program, its use of block scheduling, and its new real-life-settings program, an effort to blend career awareness into the curriculum.

His colleagues also hope the future of looping at Manatee doesn’t hinge on whether they can prove that it improves student performance.

“There’s a part of me that says we ought to just do it because people feel good about it,” said Lon Clay, the dean of discipline at the middle school. “Why can’t we just say we’re a school that loops?”

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