I always knew our teachers were undervalued for the critical work they do, but nothing made that more apparent than the front page of The New York Times the other day. The paper reported on a groundbreaking study that found teachers have a far more lasting and wide-ranging effect on students than most people ever realized.
Economists at Harvard and Columbia universities looked at the lives of 2.5 million students over 20 years—an undertaking far broader and more detailed than seen in previous studies.
But it’s not just the scope of the study that makes it so remarkable. The study’s findings also are astounding. They show that students who had highly effective elementary and middle school teachers went on to have much better outcomes in life than students who had lower-performing teachers.
We’re not talking about small advantages. The kids with more effective teachers had lower teen-pregnancy rates and higher college-enrollment rates than their peers. They also had higher earnings, lived in better neighborhoods, and even saved more for retirement. I’m a parent, and I want my daughters to have those kinds of successes in life. Certainly I’m not alone.
The economists measured teacher effectiveness by looking at the degree to which a teacher’s students posted gains on achievement tests. In other words, teachers who helped kids make academic progress, as measured on these tests, also impacted kids’ lives in other incredibly rich, meaningful, and lasting ways.
There are critics who argue that a teacher’s ability to help kids make gains on tests doesn’t amount to much. They say that all it shows is that a teacher can teach to a test or show a child how to fill in a bubble. I’m not sure how anyone can still make those arguments in light of the new study’s critical findings.
The new study confirms that what matters most, and what teachers really ought to be rewarded for, is the ability to help kids make academic progress."
Being economists, the authors laid out in financial terms the benefits of staffing our schools with effective teachers. They found that substituting even just an average teacher for an ineffective one would raise a single classroom’s lifetime earnings by about $266,000. That’s just in a single year. Imagine the benefits when that happens regularly over time.
So, given the potential impact our teachers have on our kids and society, isn’t it time to rethink how we assign, retain, evaluate, and pay educators? Shouldn’t we take a hard look at teacher-layoff and teacher-tenure policies?
Let’s consider pay. The average teacher in America makes roughly $55,000 a year. That’s pretty paltry when you consider what’s at stake. What’s more, the way salaries increase over a teacher’s career is outdated. Teachers typically receive salary bumps for time on the job or for earning advanced degrees that aren’t actually linked to student achievement. The new study confirms that what matters most, and what teachers really ought to be rewarded for, is the ability to help kids make academic progress. Given the link between effective educators and their students’ later earnings, shouldn’t we be putting more money into our best teachers’ paychecks now?
But teacher pay is only part of the story. What about our efforts, or lack thereof, to keep our best teachers on the job so they can serve as many kids as possible? In most districts, when teacher layoffs arise during difficult economic times like the ones we’re currently facing, the last teacher hired is generally the first one let go. This often happens without any regard whatsoever to a teacher’s job performance. As a result, some of our most effective teachers are shown the door. Such policies are unconscionable in light of the economists’ study.
Similarly, when it comes to evaluations, most teachers are reviewed infrequently and without even a glance at student-achievement data. To keep that up, in light of what we now know, is ridiculous. The academic progress of our kids shouldn’t be the only basis for reviewing our teachers, but it has to start playing a significant role in evaluations.
In fact, whether our kids are actually learning, and to what degree, should be the central focus of all the decisionmaking in our schools. Too often, our education policies are now dictated by adult interests rather than student needs. That has to change.
We all know the concerns parents face each year as they await news about who will be teaching their children come September. No doubt, this study will add to those concerns and fuel efforts by parents to ensure their kids are assigned great teachers. But, really, should anyone have to worry about that? Shouldn’t all kids benefit from being in classrooms with highly effective educators? I think so, and I think most moms and dads would agree with me.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Policies Should Reflect the Importance of Teaching