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Economists have generally thought that your kindergarten teacher has little impact on your success later in life. The assumption was that it makes a short-term difference, but fades after a while.
And in fact, by junior high and high school, children who had excellent early educational experiences do little better on tests than children who did not.
But according to David Leonhardt’s article in the NY Times, the caveat has always been that the fade-out effect was based solely on test scores and not on a broader set of measures — for example a child’s health, or their eventual earnings.
A Harvard economist cared enough about adult outcomes to do some research.
Raj Chetty and five other researchers examined the life paths of 12,000 children who had been part of a well-known 1980’s education experiment in Tennessee. By now, those children have reached the age of thirty, and they are established in their adult lives.
Chetty presented the findings at an academic conference in Cambridge Massachusetts this week. The results– not yet peer reviewed — have been “fairly explosive,” writes Leonhardt.
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.
Those students who had learned more in kindergarten
- were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds.
- were also less likely to become single parents.
- as adults, were also more likely to be building savings for retirement.
- were earning more money than people who did not have the kindergarten advantage.
All else being equal these people 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.
A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow too.
Economists don’t know the exact causes of these effects. They do make some plausible guesses: good early education can impart skills that last life-long: patience, discipline, manners, perseverance. The tests that 5-year-olds take may pick up these skills even if later multiple-choice tests don’t.
With the economy still terribly weak, now is a good time for such a study, writes Leonhardt. Many people are not sure that education is particularly valuable. They have watched even college graduates losing their jobs.
Newspapers and TV run stories suggesting that education is overrated. Even liberal groups like the Economic Policy Institute argue that education can’t protect workers in our global economy. (Not to mention, says Leonhardt, the conservative writers like Charles Murray and Ramesh Ponnaru who say those who haven’t graduated from college are just not smart enough to do so.)
The anti-education case, says Leonhardt, is anecdotal and factually selective. The truth is that the gap between the pay of college graduates and everyone else grew to a record last year, according to the labor Department; unemployment has risen sharply more for the less educated.
This is not simply because smart people — people who would do well no matter what — tend to graduate from college. Education itself can make a difference. A long line of economic research, by Julie Berry Cullen, James Heckman, Philip Oreopoulos and many others, has found as much. The study by Mr. Chetty and his colleagues is the latest piece of evidence.
Douglas Steiger, a Dartmouth economist who studies educational issues, calls Chetty’s work fascinating and potentially important. “The worry has been that education didn’t translate into earnings. But this is telling us that it does and that the fade-out effect is misleading in some sense.”
sole source: David Leonhardt’s article in the NY Times on 7/27/10. Visit http://tinyurl.com/34cnp8v
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