The $320K/year Kindergarten teacher

Fascinating Dave Leonhardt column (and here’s a blog post) on the apparent life-long effects of having a good vs. bad Kindergarten teacher.

How much do your kindergarten teacher and classmates affect the rest of your life?

Economists have generally thought that the answer was not much. Great teachers and early childhood programs can have a big short-term effect. But the impact tends to fade. By junior high and high school, children who had excellent early schooling do little better on tests than similar children who did not — which raises the demoralizing question of how much of a difference schools and teachers can make…

Just as in other studies, the Tennessee experiment found that some teachers were able to help students learn vastly more than other teachers. And just as in other studies, the effect largely disappeared by junior high, based on test scores. Yet when Mr. Chetty and his colleagues took another look at the students in adulthood, they discovered that the legacy of kindergarten had re-emerged.

Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

Short version: kindergarten teachers are really important (not to suggest others aren’t too, but there’s probably something about shaping a child’s first classroom educational experience) and we ought to take this more seriously:

Mr. Chetty and his colleagues — one of whom, Emmanuel Saez, recently won the prize for the top research economist under the age of 40 — estimate that a standout kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year. That’s the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers. This estimate doesn’t take into account social gains, like better health and less crime.

We need to treat teachers like professionals, pay them like professionals, and have expectations like professionals.  We don’t really do this.  Part of me cannot help wondering how much of this is because elementary and secondary education is a field traditionally dominated by women.   Here’s also a good opportunity to plug perhaps my favorite Gladwell article ever on teacher quality.  You really should read it.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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