Should We Be Paying Kindergarten Teachers $320,000 a Year?

kindergarten class kids kindergartenersHow much does what you learn from your kindergarten teacher really matter? I mean, whatever you learned sitting inside the circle shape on a brightly colored rug a bazillion years ago when you were 5 doesn't have anything to do with what you do today or how much money you make now, right?


The findings from a new study headed up by Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, and by five other researchers say quite the opposite, in fact.


Obviously, we won't be paying kindergarten teachers $320,000 a year anytime soon (sorry, kinder teachers! I would if I could). However, David Leonhardt's piece in NYT, looking at the aforementioned study findings, makes the case that kindergarten teachers are worth just that!

In the past, economists believed that the positive effects of great early childhood education teachers and programs were generally short-lived. Studies showed that by junior high and high school, test scores no longer seemed to support the notion that good early childhood education continued its positive impact in the long term.

But Raj Chetty chose to look at this in a different way: "We don't really care about test scores. We care about adult outcomes." So that's why he and the other researchers took a closer look at almost the 12,000 children analyzed in a well-known education experiment in Tennessee in the 1980s. They chose to look at these children beyond junior high and high school. They looked at them now, at about age 30. How had the effects of their kindergarten teachers played out in their adult lives?

While it was previously thought that the pros of the kinder years largely faded away, Chetty and his colleagues discovered that the kindergarten legacy returned in adulthood and once again, the positive effects were emerging. Amazing huh?

Here's what they found. The adults who had learned much more in kindergarten were:

  • More likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds.
  • Less likely to become single parents.
  • More likely to be saving for retirement.
  • And, earning more.

Yes, earning more!

"All else equal, they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile -- a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher -- could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too."

The economists' hypotheses about this finding? "Good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime -- patience, discipline, manners, perseverance."

And while class size and classmates made some difference, they didn't explain all the variations. The other probable factor: good teachers. A good kindergarten teacher can make a big difference.

So back to that $320,000. Where did that number come from?

Well, one of Chetty's colleagues Emmanuel Saez estimates:

"... 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."

Many of us have believed for a long time the value of a good teacher, but now here's some serious proof to back up that belief. I mean, we're talking about the future earning potential of our kids here. This is huge. So what are we going to do about it now that we know a little more?

David Leonhardt points to school administrators who could pay the best teachers more and fire the worst teachers, which both seem like very appropriate courses of action. Of course, shrinking educational budgets today make the challenges great and make change feel almost impossible. But if schools, and particularly early childhood education, continue to fall on the low end of our priority list, then what?

What do you think? How could we place more value on early childhood education? And how can we make sure all kids have access to it?


Image via woodleywonderworks/Flickr

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