Improving the odds of accessing an expert teacher

By:

Aug 12, 2010

The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers” has been on the NYT.com top-ten-most-popular list for several days running.  In the article, David Leonhardt reports that economists are finding new evidence to suggest a strong link between children who are privy to an exceptional kindergarten teacher and their future earning power.  In fact, the researchers estimate that a stand-out kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year—the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers thanks to their good start.

The study has not been peer reviewed, but the idea that good teachers make a lasting difference is hardly new or counterintuitive. The Atlantic ran another story here about why some teachers can move kids three levels ahead in a year and others can’t.

While few dispute the value of a quality teacher, schools will only inch towards improved quality, one teacher at a time, unless fundamental changes shake up the founding paradigm. Here are a few possible versions of change:

First, virtual classrooms hold the promise of making masterful teachers accessible to far more students. Imagine if calculus students could learn about parametric curves from a menu of elite teachers, highly ranked for their ability to explain parametric equations and polar coordinates. I remember often feeling baffled by an explanation from my sleepy high school Spanish teacher. Online resources are bringing newfound access to better, and potentially more charismatic, explainers.

Second, software can help weave instruction from master teachers together into student-centric learning experiences. Imagine a platform that can assess each child’s day-by-day progress, determine which lessons the child needs to tackle for the day, then match the child with the optimal virtual teachers, modules, games and discussion groups to best master that day’s content.  As such software improves, master teachers can spend more of their time engaged in tutoring children in their expert fields, rather than in keeping order and commanding attention, as many do now.

Third, policy makers could stop funding existing schools of education that are churning out more of the same. Instead, they could embrace disruptive programs that are producing as good or better teachers at lower cost, such as Teach for America, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, and New Leaders for New Schools. Clayton Christensen and Michael B. Horn discuss this idea here.

Our local public schools are posting class lists this week to announce which 30 students will be with each teacher and factory-model classroom.  I look forward to the day when these lists will not feel like announcements of who has won the $320,000 lottery.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.