Friday, August 6, 2010

The Lasting Impact of Kindergarten

What's the effect of having a good kindergarten teacher? Common wisdom in social science is that it's nowhere near as important to the child's success as the education and socioeconomic status of the child's parents, but new research gives early education more importance. Based on a study in which students' kindergarten classes were randomized so that they "had fairly similar socioeconomic mixes of students and could be expected to perform similarly on the tests given at the end of kindergarten," similar scores were not found, nor were the students' futures similar:

Class size — which was the impetus of Project Star — evidently played some role. Classes with 13 to 17 students did better than classes with 22 to 25. Peers also seem to matter. In classes with a somewhat higher average socioeconomic status, all the students tended to do a little better.

But neither of these factors came close to explaining the variation in class performance. So another cause seemed to be the explanation: teachers.

Some are highly effective. Some are not. And the differences can affect students for years to come.

When I asked Douglas Staiger, a Dartmouth economist who studies education, what he thought of the new paper, he called it fascinating and potentially important. “The worry has been that education didn’t translate into earnings,” Mr. Staiger said. “But this is telling us that it does and that the fade-out effect is misleading in some sense.”

Mr. Chetty and his colleagues — one of whom, Emmanuel Saez, recently won the prize for the top research economist under the age of 40 — estimate that 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.


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