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What’s a Teacher Worth?

The future of our country.

It’s long been known that the education of young people, the up-and-coming generation, is one of the most crucial tasks societies across the world face. Almost all of a nation’s success, prestige, and development is dependent on the educational status of its people. Not only do the people of a given place need to be educated, they need to be proficient at passing on their wisdom and knowledge to the next generation of thinkers, leaders, and people in all parts of society.

Which is why it’s imperative that the people in charge of the education of young people are well-trained, well-reviewed, and highly competent at what they do. Public school teachers are some of the most undervalued members of American society (at least relative to their contribution), but they play a crucial role in the future of our country and its economy.

Before I go any further, I want to mention the main inspiration for this post, which was a recent episode of the Planet Money podcast, available here at the NPR website. You can download it right from that page, or on iTunes if you prefer that approach. I strongly encourage anyone and everyone reading this article to download the episode right now and give it a listen! (End Planet Money plug)

It’s because of this that the quality of teachers and professors in our schools, particularly our public schools, is top-notch. A good teacher can make all the difference in the development of a child’s education, and a bad teacher can do the same (though of course in a negative way). A nice way to think of this (thank you to Eric Hanushek for giving me this idea) is that a good teacher might succeed in getting a year and a half of learning done in a year, while a bad teacher may only accomplish a half year’s worth of learning. Take a moment to consider that, and you find that two equally matched students may find themselves an entire grade level apart education-wise, based solely on the quality of the teachers they’ve had.

You can see how this can quickly add up to both positive and negative consequences for students. If a lucky child gets a chain of excellent teachers, year after year, for say, 4 years, and another student has the misfortune of having a string of bad teachers for 4 years, the two could find themselves the equivalent of four academic years apart, even though they share the same grade level. This is a striking illustration of the dichotomy that can be created between students simply because of their respective educators.

This is a very important point as we’ll soon see. The fact is, higher-performing students tend to make more money over their lifetimes than lower-performing students. Those with higher grades and skills are more “economically advantaged” in general, as they have greater opportunity to make more money. If more people make more money, the GDP increases as well. And when a large part of students’ academic success (and thus future economic success) is based on the quality of their teachers, it becomes clear as daylight that these teachers must be top-of-the-line.

According to the educational researcher I mentioned earlier, Eric Hanushek, a good teacher of a class of 25 could be considered to be worth at least $500,000 a year in increased education (and thus earning potential) of students (If you want to know more, listen to the Planet Money episode I mentioned earlier). That’s a lot of dough. And conversely, a bad teacher can take away an equal amount of potential earnings from his/her students, simply by teaching them badly! Hanushek estimates that, if we were to replace the bottom 5-8% of teachers with average teachers, over the course of 80 years, we could add 100 trillion dollars to the economy. That’s a lot of dough.

So the simple fact is that, as Barack Obama put it, “Education is the economic issue of our time.” With so much potential economic growth from an improvement in teaching, and so much chance for decline if bad teaching is allowed to continue, the United States has no choice but to prioritize the responsible selection of public school teachers and the responsible teaching of the future earners of America.

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