Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Case for the $320,000 Kindergarten Teacher

What?! Last July, David Leonhardt published an article in The New York Times with the above title. Of course, I had to keep reading. In the article, Leonhardt cites a study by Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, who was looking at adult outcomes, not test scores, to measure teacher impact. In the study, Chetty followed the lives of 12,000 children who had been part of a well-known Tennessee education experiment in the 1980s. When he looked at the adult lives of these children, he found that students who 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 
  • Earning more - about $1,000 more a year at age 27 
So where did the $320,000 come from? It is the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers, an estimate that doesn't include social gains.

As a pre-service teacher, I quickly realized that my skills were best matched with older students. Translation: I didn't have what it took to be a kindergarten teacher. Many people comment that teaching kindergarten must be one of the easiest jobs in the world - play games, color, paint, sing songs, and learn the alphabet. How hard can that be? Clearly, these people have spent very little time in a kindergarten classroom.

As an administrator, I have had the privilege of spending time with kindergartners in their classrooms and in my office when we have lunch together...and my talents with them STILL pale in comparison to those of the Kindergarten team. Through drop-ins, conversations with students, parents and grandparents and formal observations as part of our professional development program, here is what I have learned about kindergarten teachers. They are:
  • Able to see the good in EVERY child 
  • Adept at helping each child discover his or her own strengths
  • Carefully challenging students to achieve in areas where students feel they can’t
  • Capable of unparalleled patience in the midst of kindergarten exuberance
  • Willing to share with equal excitement the new discoveries that kindergarten brings
  • Masterful at grouping students according to need, readiness or interest
  • Brilliant storytellers
  • Lifelong learners themselves, and they share that passion with students
  • Eternally optimistic, loving and supportive
  • Able to switch seamlessly from communicating effectively with children to communicating effectively with adults
  • Happy to wipe noses, dry tears, tie shoes, help solve disagreements....and, oh yes, teach!
I am no Harvard Economist, but by my calculations, the present value of all that...priceless!

Gillian Goodman, Lower School director