The $320,000 Kindergarten Teacher

by Robert Pondiscio
July 28th, 2010

An intriguing new study suggests that while the effects of a high quality preschool program seem to fade out after a few years, they may re-emerge spectacularly later in life.  The study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and several colleagues is written up in the New York Times under the attention-grabbing headline “The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers.”  The large-scale study looked at the life outcomes of 12,000 children who had been part of an education experiment in Tennessee in the 1980s.

“Just as in other studies, the Tennessee experiment found that some teachers were able to help students learn vastly more than other teachers. And just as in other studies, the effect largely disappeared by junior high, based on test scores. Yet when Mr. Chetty and his colleagues took another look at the students in adulthood, they discovered that the legacy of kindergarten had re-emerged. Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.”

The economists don’t pretend to know the exact causes. “But it’s not hard to come up with plausible guesses,” Leonhardt notes.  ”Good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime — patience, discipline, manners, perseverance. The tests that 5-year-olds take may pick up these skills, even if later multiple-choice tests do not.”

It’s a fascinating study and thesis, but consider this is not a case of something new under the sun.  The well-known Perry Preschool study showed similar effects albeit with a much smaller sample size.   The lives of 128 African-Americans were studied beginning with their preschool years in Michigan in the mid-1960s.  By the time they reached middle age, those who attended a high-quality preschool program earned more, were more likely to be employed, had fewer arrests, and were more likely to have graduated high school than those who did not.

The new Tennessee study shows similar effects, including higher earnings.  “All else equal,” writes the Times’ David Leonhardt, 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.”

It’s the all else equal part that always undoes me.  All else is seldom equal given the limitless differences in inputs, interests and experience among even those with superficially similar lives.  Indeed, it strains the imagination to think that even the best kindergarten teacher can implant the traits of patience, discipline, manners, and perseverance so firmly into a five-year-old  that they persist for life.  It seems much more likely that children with those characteristics are more likely to thrive in an environment that recognizes and nourishes them.  Drop a seed into fertile ground and it will sprout.  Drop the same seed into dry sand and nothing will happen.  Coaxing that seed to sprout is clearly the first step, not the only one. This doesn’t diminish one’s appreciation for the skills of a great teacher–creating a positive, nurturing classroom environment is clearly a prerequisite for all other accomplishments.  But trying to point to a teacher as the prime mover shows a dogged and even simplistic determination to find the One True Factor upon which all others pivot.  It is entirely likely that noncognitive traits are more malleable than general intelligence, and more responsive to early intervention.  But common sense would suggest those traits still need to be reinforced and nurtured throughout childhood, by the majority of adults with whom a child comes in contact. 

One other question the study raises:  if perseverance, self-control and curiosity are the keys to life success, then why does improving those traits not lead to a measurable improvement in standardized test scores  at every step of a child’s academic career? 

The study has yet to be peer reviewed, and will no doubt be closely examined. Meanwhile, the idea of paying even the best early childhood educators north of a quarter of a million dollars a year is clearly fanciful.  Even if the study is unimpeachable, it’s impossible to know who these life-changing educators will be.  We can only identify them in retrospect, if at all.


  1. I, too, was a bit surprised to see that test scores hadn’t necessarily risen. It could be that test scores aren’t measuring everything that determines a student’s future success. (No, I don’t subscribe to the simple view that test scores are meaningless or unimportant.)

    It would be interesting to see if the researchers can begin to put their collective finger on the traits that helped those students succeed, and how they were instilled. That would be very, very difficult–all else equal, indeed. But, boy, would it be interesting.

    Comment by Claus — July 28, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

  2. [...] these findings, which Leonhardt characterizes as “explosive,” check out Early EdWatch, The Core Knowledge Blog, The Huffington Post, NPR, and the Money Blog at Did I forget [...]

    Pingback by Learning Solution – Online Education » Blog Archive » What’s a Good Teacher Worth? Try $320,000, Says New Study — July 28, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

  3. [...] Core Knowledge Blog, I wonder why these skills — especially discipline and perseverance – wouldn’t [...]

    Pingback by The $320,000 kindergarten teacher « Joanne Jacobs — July 29, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

  4. [...] over to Education Week, EdReformer, Core Knowledge or EdLab for additional [...]

    Pingback by Do Kindergarten Teachers Make a Difference? « — August 2, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

  5. This was a fascinating study that provides further evidence in favor of “nurture.” For more on this topic, check out my Psych Today blog posting:

    I welcome your comments!

    Comment by Susan Whitbourne — August 3, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

  6. [...] Decades of education research (see here, here, and here), as well as human capital research (see here, here, and here; or this research brief) by luminaries such as James Heckman, show that the most effective educational interventions – those with the largest payoffs, by far – occur at the earliest ages (0-5). For preschool-aged children, they provide what many poor parents don’t have the time or ability to provide on their own: exposure to more verbal interactions and knowledge and help with the basic non-cognitive abilities, such as motivation, social skills, and the like. These programs don’t rely on test scores to show success or failure, but provide the kind of cognitive and non-cognitive foundations that make those test scores actually mean something. Not all of them are as effective as the best ones (e.g., some of the results for Head Start are modest), but all else being equal, their benefits (including economic returns) far surpass those of other interventions in fashion today, both in strength and persistence. The recent study of kindergarten teachers’ effects - enshrined by the New York Times with the phrase “$320,000 kindergarten teacher” – is only the latest demonstration of the persistent, multifaceted benefits of earlier intervention (some good commentary on this study here). [...]

    Pingback by OUR UPHILL CLIMB TO CLOSE A GAP BY DIGGING UNDER IT « Shanker Blog — August 11, 2010 @ 11:40 am

  7. [...] over to Education Week, EdReformer, Core Knowledge or EdLab for additional perspectives. From: Education, Human Capital, Social Impact [...]

    Pingback by Do Kindergarten Teachers Make a Difference? | Columbia Social Enterprise Conference Blog 2012 — July 17, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

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