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Today’s Note: Measuring The Impact of Teachers

January 10, 2012

Today’s Note is about the benefit good teachers have on their students. It turns out that the benefit a teacher has on a student can measured for much of the rest of his or her life. The New York Times article “Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain” discusses the findings of recent research about student success throughout students’ lifetimes. The article, by Annie Lowrey, opens by telling us “Elementary- and middle-school teachers who help raise their students’ standardized-test scores seem to have a wide-ranging, lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates and greater college matriculation and adult earnings, according to a new study that tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years. ” [italics are mine, and are used to show quotations]

The interesting part of the article discusses evaluations of student lifetime outcomes when those students have exceptional teachers instead of average teachers, sometimes even just for one year. This quote summarizes those findings:

The average effect of one teacher on a single student is modest. All else equal, a student with one excellent teacher for one year between fourth and eighth grade would gain $4,600 in lifetime income, compared to a student of similar demographics who has an average teacher. The student with the excellent teacher would also be 0.5 percent more likely to attend college.

That begs some interesting math: “Replacing a poor teacher with an average one would raise a single classroom’s lifetime earnings by about $266,000, the economists estimate. Multiply that by a career’s worth of classrooms.”

The study is interesting enough that it’s worth reproducing more of the article here:

But controlling for numerous factors, including students’ backgrounds, the researchers found that the value-added scores consistently identified some teachers as better than others, even if individual teachers’ value-added scores varied from year to year.

After identifying excellent, average and poor teachers, the economists then set out to look at their students over the long term, analyzing information on earnings, college matriculation rates, the age they had children, and where they ended up living.

The results were striking. Looking only at test scores, previous studies had shown, the effect of a good teacher mostly fades after three or four years. But the broader view showed that the students still benefit for years to come.

Students with top teachers are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, more likely to enroll in college, and more likely to earn more money as adults, the study found.

The study prompts some really interesting thinking. It strongly suggests that broader outcomes can be achieved by improving teaching. Now if only we could figure out how to do that!

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