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
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?
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