Is a Great Teacher Worth $100,000?


Here’s how much a good teacher is worth according to a new research paper by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities: If a child has a great fourth-grade teacher, that child is

  • 1.25 percent more likely to go to college
  • 1.25 less likely to get pregnant as a teenager
  • Will earn, on average $25,000 more over a lifetime, which adds up to about $700,000 in gains for an average size class

A “great teacher” is one who is better than 84 percent of his/her peers, according to the study. Having such a teacher for just one year between fourth and eighth grade resulted in a student’s earnings being almost 1 percent higher when they turned 28. The study’s authors argue that it is more than worth it to keep a great teacher, to the point of offering them a bonus of as much as  $100,000 bonus to stay for an extra year.

The study also has findings about the effect on a student of a very poor teacher: If a student’s teacher is among the bottom 5 percent, it’s the same as a child missing 40 percent of the school year. Accordingly, parents should pay $100,000 to a bad teacher to retire, provided that a replacement of “average quality” can be found. Just by replacing the bottom 5 percent of teachers with teachers of average quality, every student in a class would have cumulative lifetime earnings exceeding $52,000.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, the study more than makes the point that “the difference between a strong teacher and a weak teacher lasts a lifetime.” It makes it clear why, amid what are becoming the usual reports of American students testing far below their peers in Asian countries and in Finland, we should “elevate the issue [of education] on the national agenda.” The study shows (1) why education is so important, while also (2) offering an answer. Kristof writes that there is an “obvious policy solution” in the form of “more pay for good teachers, more dismissals for weak teachers.”

On the surface, it may seem that it should not be so hard to separate the great teachers from the very poor: Look at which teachers have students who are succeeding in their academics. But determining teacher quality is one of the trickiest, hotly debated issues in education: How much should teacher evaluations count? Who should be conducting the evaluation? Administrators? Other teachers? Education experts?

The mixed results of No Child Left Behind have left many of us wary about federal initiatives for education. “Some Republicans,” notes Kristof, “worry that a federal role in education smacks of socialism.” But rather than discount far-reaching initiatives that would require us to look hard at what kind of education all of our nation’s children need, can’t we learn from NCLB? If politicians did more than give lip service to the importance of education, what kinds of visionary change (beyond the usual “more technology in the classrooms!”) might emerge?


Related Care2 Coverage

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Immigrants Also Benefit From Finnish Education Styles


Photo by gammaman


sarah jaffe
sarah jaffe5 years ago

They should easily make that. I've had some amazing teachers who I would still like to write and thank ten years down the road.

Kerry H.
Kerry H.5 years ago

I am not a great teacher but I am experienced. I already make more than $100,000 US. What is the trick? I work in Hong Kong. We have no union, but we have a government that respects education and educators. Wake up America and pay your teachers for the value they provide or your country will suffer more than it already is.
PS There are lots of American teachers at my school. No surprise really!

Patrick F.
Patrick f5 years ago


Kiera H.
Kiera H.5 years ago

I would support this more if it were not for the ways by which "good teachers" are often chosen. They are often chosen via test scores. Increasingly this is shown to be a very inaccurate assessment method. A bad teacher who cheats for his students would end up being called a good teacher, while a good teacher who uses creative ways to pique their students' interests, but does not teach those exact things on the test would be considered a poor teacher.

Mackenzie K.
Mackenzie K.5 years ago

Darla G., Without teachers, you wouldn't be a "contributing member of society." you wouldn't even be able to type that comment or even read this article. Many would have died because no one could educate doctors or medical researchers. Is that worth $100,000? You don't need to look in the back of the textbook to know the answer to this one.

Lin Moy
Lin M5 years ago

You couldn't pay me enough to teach kids today.

jayasri amma
jayasri amma5 years ago

A good teacher is worth what the district will pay!

Lindy E.
Belinda E5 years ago

@Darla G: "They chose the profession, knowing they weren’t going to be millionaires."

So, we should pay people a good salary only if they chose their profession solely to make money? If they care about the job, if they are dedicated to it, then they shouldn't earn a living wage?

Btw, I use algebra in my everyday life - converting recipes, for example. I used things I learned in college to help raise and educate my children. I can't begin to imagine all the ways a Master's degree would enhance one's ability to help "mentally challenged" children grow up to be productive members of society! That is the purpose of education, after all - not to keep the kids out of Mommy's way so she can do what she wants to every day!

Lindy E.
Belinda E5 years ago

If we paid elementary school teachers up to $100,000 a year, we would have a much better education system. More people would choose to go into education, so the schools would be able to choose the best ones instead of settling for what was available. Teachers would be able to take real vacations to rest and prepare for the following year (update their skills, prepare new teaching plans, etc). Our children are our future; don't they deserve the best education possible? Schools are not the place to scrimp if we want to have a place in tomorrow's world!

Christopher Fowler

A good teacher is worth their weight in gold and a bad teacher is worth their weight in feathers.

Of course, there are a lot of teachers that started out good and went bad because of idiotic school system politics and bad anti-education legislation (such as the GOP wants to institute).

We need good teachers and to encourage teachers to stay good and competent, rather than destroying the futures of our children through the incompetence of school boards that are motivated by politics rather than the ACTUAL best interests of our children.