The Value of Teachers

In yesterday’s New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed with the same title as this blog entry. In the column he examined the results of a recently-released new research study by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities that identifies the value of good teachers. The study highlights test performance but also the actual long-term economic value of good teachers in terms of students’ future earnings. According to the study a student with a good teacher in fourth grade will go on to earn, on average, $25,000 more in his or her lifetime than a fourth grader with a teacher that is no so good. According to Kristof, that translates into approximately $700,000 in additional earnings per class. Furthermore, that fourth grader with a good teacher is 1.25% more likely to go to college and 1.25% less likely to get pregnant as a teenager.

Perhaps even more shocking than that is this assertion: “Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year.” Whoa! No school anywhere would allow a student to miss 40% of the school year and still move on to the next grade. Yet, based on these findings, students with ineffective teachers may attend school every day of the year and still end up just as far behind as if they had done exactly that. Kristof highlights the importance of the study’s findings by pointing out that if a good teacher announces his or retirement or plans not to return to the school the following year, the parents whose students would have had that teacher should hold fundraisers, pool their resources, or do whatever is necessary to offer that teacher a bonus of up to $100,000 to stay on for another year. That is how important it is for students to have a good teacher. On the flip side, Kristof says that poor teachers have such an adverse impact on students that parents of students who will have an ineffective teacher should offer that teacher $100,000 to retire or otherwise leave the school, assuming he or she will be replaced by a teacher of at least average quality. Now, neither of these things will happen, of course, and probably should not happen, but it is a powerful means of conveying the importance of quality teachers.

Kristof goes on to write that, “Our faltering education system may be the most important long-term threat to America’s economy and national well-being….” He laments that, given that level of importance, education is receiving so little attention in the current presidential race. In fact, he goes on to say that, “Candidates are bloviating about all kinds of imaginary or exaggerated threats, while ignoring the most crucial one.” (That word bloviating may be new to you. It was to me. It means “to speak pompously”). I agree with Kristof that it is imperative that students have, to use the phrase made popular in No Child Left Behind legislation, teachers who are highly qualified. There is no excuse for students in the United States to have inferior, incapable or just plain apathetic teachers. Of course, overcoming that is easier said than done, as Michelle Rhee and others have learned. Why teacher’s unions seem so intent on saving teacher jobs and seem to care so little about actual student success is beyond me.

But I think that it is important to take this a step further. Kristof, and the authors of the study he is writing about, are focused on public education. And given the number of students in this country who are in public schools I think it is important to look at those. As a Christian educator, however, and someone who is committed to the value and importance of education from a biblical worldview, this research highlights for me the fact that students receiving instruction lacking in biblical worldview, regardless of their age, will have long-lasting consequences of that education. If having an ineffective teacher will impact a student’s academic progress and ability for years afterwards, how much more does the worldview of a teacher impact a student’s development? If the consequences of worldview are even remotely close to the consequences of academics, a student–even as young as elementary school–who has a teacher that is at best “neutral” in their worldview (though that isn’t really possible) and at worst actively opposed to a biblical worldview could experience influence on his or her own worldview for years to come.

When there is that much at stake, does it really make sense to risk a child’s future by exposing him or her to a worldview that isn’t grounded in Scripture?

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