Should We Pay Kindergarten Teachers More?

Or do more to support at-home motherhood?

A recent economic study has some people excited about the value of early childhood education:

The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers

Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

All else equal, they 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 $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.

The economists don’t pretend to know the exact causes. But it’s not hard to come up with plausible guesses. Good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime — patience, discipline, manners, perseverance. The tests that 5-year-olds take may pick up these skills, even if later multiple-choice tests do not.

As the wife of a school teacher, I am all for appreciating the value of education and even increased pay for our most effective teachers. When I read about this study, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: What kinds of skills are these “most effective” kindergarten teachers giving children that moms at home can’t give their children, even doing a better job of it in most cases?

Specifically, the study cites the skills of “patience, discipline, manners, and perseverance.” These are exactly the kinds of life skills young children readily learn in a healthy home environment with a full-time parent.  There might be some early phonics or math facts going in a classroom full of 5-ear-olds, but there’s an awful lot of basic childcare going on too—and it’s not academic learning that the study indicates is most effective in producing successful adults.

Instead of increasing kindergarten teacher pay, perhaps a better use of money would be to offer tax breaks and other incentives to make it possible for more moms to stay home with their young children. Shouldn’t we make it easier for more parents to be home with their own children full-time in order to give them the kind of hands-on, day-to-day attention, affection, instruction, and guidance that fosters the all-important life skills of “patience, discipline, manners, and perseverance”?

Unfortunately, as my fellow blogger Matthew Archbold noted earlier this week, our culture seems aimed in the opposite direction.

I value kindergarten teachers and I think many of them should be paid more for what they do. But let’s be honest about what exactly it is that the best kindergarten teachers do. At least according to this study, the very best early childhood educators are the ones that most closely mimic a mother’s role. They teach children basic life skills in small-sized classrooms that mimic family life. Let’s put the focus on and support for early childhood education where it belongs—in the heart of the family.