A front-page story in the New York Times today (July 28) by David Leonhardt is provocatively titled "The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers". In what is described as an "explosive" new study, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have shed new light on the importance of quality early childhood teaching. The researchers examined the life paths of almost 12,000 children who were part of a Tennessee experiment, Project Star, that took place in the 1980s. In this study, students from similar socio-economic backgrounds were randomly assigned to different kindergarten classes. At the end of the year and into the first, second, and third grades, some classes made more progress than others. These differences were statistically significant, yet like other studies, as the children grew older, the difference began to fade out by junior high school, when assessed by test scores.
Importantly, the forthcoming study by the economists looked beyond test scores. The children in the study are now about 30 years old and so other indicators of life success can be used. The economists found that the students who learned more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college, were less likely to become single parents, were more likely to be saving more toward their retirements, and importantly, more likely to be earning more. And therein is the title of the article. As Leonhardt writes, $320,000 is the "present value of the additional money that a full class of students [with a standout teacher] can expect to earn over their careers."
As Leonhardt makes clear, the economists don't know exactly what these good teachers did to make the difference. While smaller class size and the composition of the class did make some difference, these factors don't come close to explaining the results. So what does?
Leonhardt writes that it isn't hard to come up with guesses: "Good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime--patience, discipline, manners, perseverance."
But this is more than speculation. A decade of reviewing the research on early learning has led me to the same conclusion. As I reviewed study after study, across multiple disciplines, from developmental psychology to neuroscience, it became abundantly clear to me that life skills make a difference in children's short-term and long-term success. And so I wrote Mind in the Making to make a case for intentionally focusing on promoting life skills in children. When adults promote life skills, children thrive.
For example, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University and a group of other academics recently reviewed six studies that followed children over time, offering a rare opportunity to evaluate what kinds of skills or knowledge acquired early in life matter most to children's later successes. They compared children's school achievement in math and reading between the ages of eight and 13 to assessments of these same children between ages four and six. Out of literally hundreds of analyses, only three skills that children had when they entered school were strongly related to their later success in reading and math. Two are obvious: the children who had good math and reading skills when they entered school had good math and reading skills years later. But the third skill is less obvious. It is "attention skills." As Brooks-Gunn says: "Attention [skills] allow children to focus on something in a way that maximizes the information they get out of it."
Similarly, Megan McClelland and her colleagues of Oregon State University have found that the skill of focus and self control is predictive of children's literacy, vocabulary, and math skills in preschool and in kindergarten. For example, children who scored highly on a task they use to measure this skill in the fall of kindergarten had spring math scores that were the equivalent of almost 3.5 additional months of math learning, 1.7 additional months of literacy learning, and 1.9 additional months of vocabulary learning.
All of the skills I see as life skills--such as focus and self control, perspective taking, critical thinking, and taking on challenges--are based on executive functions of the brain, functions that take place in the prefrontal cortex. These skills involve using working memory to keep a number of different things in one's mind at the same time while paying attention, thinking flexibly, and inhibiting the tendency to go on automatic pilot. Executive functions are always driven by goals.
I have worked in the field of education for four decades now and I have watched the field follow the desire for one quick fix after another. Thus, I hope that the publication of this important new study will not only be used to supercharge structural reforms--better pay for teachers, efforts to help teachers improve, and efforts to remove the lowest performing teachers. As important as these reforms are, if this is all we do, it won't be enough.
We can and must also focus on what teachers teach -- and it's not just the content. David Leonhardt's speculation must not be forgotten if we are to reduce the achievement gap and if we are to help all children have better life success: "good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime."