Many years ago during a visit home to Indiana, I was running an errand with my mom, who was still teaching kindergarten at the time.
As we walked on the sidewalk, a stocky young man — he looked to be in the 6th or 7th grade — was coming toward us from the other direction. He looked at Mom and exclaimed with joy, “Mrs. Yamada!!!,” and proceeded to give her a big bear hug.
Mom had been his kindergarten teacher. Such was her impact on him that years later, he expressed his affection so naturally — at an age when boys typically aren’t given to these displays.
The $320,000 kindergarten teacher
But it’s more than simply an emotional connection. A widely-cited study by Chetty, et al. (abstract here) involving nearly 12,000 Tennessee school children found that:
. . . kindergarten test scores are highly correlated with such outcomes as earnings at age 27, college attendance, home ownership, and retirement savings. . . . Students who were assigned to higher-quality classrooms (for example, with better teachers) have higher earnings, college attendance rates, and other outcomes.
This became known as the “$320,000 kindergarten teacher study” because of its estimate that, as summarized by David Leonhardt of the New York Times (link here):
. . . 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.
The underpaid public school teacher
Even if some kindergarten teachers are worth that amount of money, it sure isn’t showing up in their paychecks. In fact, according to a new Economic Policy Institute study (link to pdf here), elementary and secondary school teachers earn about 12 percent less than professionals in other fields with similar amounts of education and experience.
The EPI study further reports that since 1960, the pay gap between teachers and other comparably educated individuals has widened considerably. For women, the figures are especially telling:
[The] pay gap between female public school teachers and comparably educated women—for whom the labor market dramatically changed over the 1960-2000 period—grew by nearly 28 percentage points, from a relative wage advantage of 14.7% in 1960 to a pay disadvantage of 13.2% in 2000.
A tough job
Okay, so not every public school teacher is a superstar educator — no vocation can support such a claim. But most are dedicated, competent professionals, and more than a few simply are remarkable.
And often they practice their craft under trying circumstances. Parker Palmer, in his superb book The Courage to Teach (10th ann. ed. 2007), had this to say about a teacher development project he engaged in with Michigan school teachers:
My two-year journey with public school teachers persuaded me beyond doubt that they and their kin are among the true culture heroes of our time. . . . Daily they are berated by politicians, the public, and the press for their alleged inadequacies and failures. And daily they return to their classrooms, opening their hearts and minds in hopes of helping children do the same.