Screenshot of NPR website


High-quality early education packs a powerful financial punch.

“You can think of having a better kindergarten teacher as being worth something like $300,000 for a classroom of students,” Harvard economist Raj Chetty said earlier this month in an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast.

In other words, a classroom of kids with a high-quality kindergarten teacher will earn $300,000 more than a classroom without a highly skilled teacher. What makes a good kindergarten teacher? Chetty says this isn’t fully known, but strong teachers have key skills such as the ability to manage a classroom, to help children focus, and to inspire them.

What is clear in Chetty’s research is that kindergarten is one of a number of factors that promote long-term success. Children who have “soft skills” such as getting along well with others in kindergarten seem to do better as adults. These findings are based on an analysis that was done by comparing the past school records of nearly 12,000 people in Tennessee with information culled from their income tax returns and other documents.

So while some critics have complained that the power of early education seems to fade based on test scores, Chetty and his colleagues have found that the advantages of high-quality early education re-emerge in adulthood in the form of higher salaries, higher rates of home ownership and college attendance, and higher levels of saving for retirement.

Chetty also discusses the impact of cities and neighborhoods on people’s long-term outcomes. Among his findings is the fact that where children grow up and the schools that they attend can positively or negatively impact their life. What happens when families move from areas with poorer outcomes to areas with better outcomes? There is a gain, but largely for younger children who get to spend more time in better-outcome neighborhoods.

Chetty’s overall goal is to find the levers of the American dream in order to come up with policies that will help more children and families thrive.

“My big picture take is: We should be doing everything we can to try to have the best teachers in American classrooms,” Chetty says in the podcast.

That sounds like a good way to give more children a life-improving start.