To Loop or Not to Loop: Evidence Based versus Anecdotes

Recognizing coherence and progression as important factors in effective education combined with the philosophy of taking into account where the students currently stand, it is quite tempting to suggest that teachers should be assigned to a class and stay with that group of students for a period of years. The practice of placing the same group of students with one teacher for more than one year is referred to in education as looping. I experienced this when I was in grade school. My teacher in Grade 5 also taught me in Grade 6. The entire class plus the teacher was therefore identical for two years. It was like a family, at least for two years. I liked the teacher so I had a positive experience with looping and obviously with two years in a row, that teacher knew a lot about us. Recently, at Georgetown, I had the rare opportunity of teaching one class of chemistry majors three of the eight semesters they spent in college. I taught these students General Chemistry and Physical Chemistry and since most of them opted for the Department's honors program, these students also enrolled in a graduate course that I instructed on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy. Similar to my experience in elementary years, I also got to know these students quite well. 

Looping and Spiral

Back in 1997, Hampton and coworkers at Cleveland State University piloted a project called Families are Students and Teachers (FAST). The project focused on building strong relationships between students and teachers as well as between the teachers and the students' parents. Keeping the same class from kindergarten through second grade allowed for these relationships to be maintained through three years. Alan Finder of the New York Times wrote about Hampton's project in "Goodbye, Class. See You in the Fall.":
Research into looping suggests that it can pay substantial dividends. The school district in East Cleveland, Ohio, experimented with looping from 1993 to 1997. A class in each of four elementary schools stayed with their teachers for three years, generally from kindergarten through second grade. The teachers worked extensively with parents to reinforce lessons in school, and the classes also met for five weeks each summer. 
After three years, students in the looped classes scored an average of 25 percentage points higher on standardized tests in reading, language arts and math than other students in the school district, said Frederick M. Hampton, an associate professor of education at Cleveland State University who oversaw the research project. 
"Everything about the children's lives is pretty much in constant motion," said Professor Hampton, who described East Cleveland as poor and predominantly African-American.
"It had occurred to me over a number of years that children, particularly from inner-city areas, need a different model of school, a more family-oriented model, in order to be successful," he said, "something that would allow them to see familiar faces, familiar teachers."
The experiment is almost two decades ago and initial results seem promising. There are schools in the US that do practice looping, but it is not as widespread as one might expect given its promising potential. Research conducted by RAND Education for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, "Focus on the Wonder Years", has the following statement on Looping:

A More Recent Practice: Looping
Among the other practices that advocates promote for supporting the broad goals of the middle school concept, looping is one of the more recent. The idea behind looping is that keeping groups of students together for two or more years with the same teacher will improve teacher-student relationships and the teachers’ ability to recognize their students’ academic strengths and weaknesses (Black, 2000). Despite the intuitive appeal of looping and its apparent potential for maintaining continuity of experience for young teens, only 17 percent of teachers in our SASS analyses indicated that their schools used this practice. 
A limited number of studies attest to the benefits. Comparing the social relations and academic achievement of middle school students in looped and nonlooped classes, Lincoln (1998) found that looped classes had advantages with respect to test scores, self-efficacy, and attitudes toward schools. Similarly, Grant (2000) reported on a Massachusetts district that used looping for students in 1st through 8th grades. Research over a seven-year period found that, after the implementation of looping, student attendance and retention rates increased, disciplinary actions and suspensions decreased, and staff attendance improved. Thus, based on a very limited research base, looping appears to be another promising practice. How well this practice would be implemented across many schools on a larger scale is not known.
Recent research indicates that effects of looping on education outcomes as measured by performance on standardized tests are not really significant. A 2012 dissertation from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, "The Effects of a Looping Classroom among Third Grade Students in an Urban School District" by Angela Danley, has the following in its abstract
The AIMSweb Reading Curriculum Based Measure (R-CBM) data and the Mathematics Concepts and Applications (M-CAP) Assessment data from the 2009-2010 school year were analyzed. AIMSweb achievement scores of third grade students assigned to looping classrooms were compared to the third grade students assigned to the non-looping classrooms using an independent samples t-test. Analysis of the AIMSweb reading and mathematics data indicated that all third grade students assigned to the looping classrooms did not perform significantly higher when compared to all the third grade students assigned to the non-looping classrooms.
 Another dissertation in 2013 at Liberty University, "Impact of Looping on Middle School Science Standardized Achievement Tests" by Tammy Barger arrived at a similar conclusion:
Looping may be defined as a teacher remaining with a group of students for multiple academic years. In this quantitative study, looping was examined as a factor on science achievement. State-wide eighth grade school level 2010 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) data were used. By responding to a mailing, school administrators indicated if 2010 eighth grade students had or had not been looped. The schools’ percentage of advanced and proficient Science PSSA data were used to determine if the independent variable had a significant impact on science achievement. The results of the independent t-test analysis suggest that looping does not contribute to science achievement for this study sample.
Looping was certainly not created in the first place for academic gains. Looping worked well in Ohio because it was addressing the social needs. It is the stronger relationship between students, parents and teachers that helped improve learning outcomes.

Curriculum strategies based on spiral progression and learner centered principles are intimately linked to looping. Looping makes these strategies more doable. Thus, with regard to learning outcomes, the recent research about looping tells much more than what looping is about.