I’ll bet you can easily name your favorite elementary school teacher, no matter how long it has been since your elementary school days. (Mine was Mrs. Portia Patterson, my third grade teacher at P.S. 116.) A good elementary school teacher can encourage you to love school and set you on the path to academic success. A recent study conducted by Harvard and Columbia University economists suggests that their power and influence is even stronger than we think. According to their research, good elementary school teachers can boost a student’s college attendance rates, reduce teenage pregnancy, and increase a student’s standard of living and earning potential.

This “Long Term Impact of Teachers” study, found here and covered extensively by a Slate Magazine article found here, tracked a million children from a large urban school district from fourth grade to adulthood. It focused on the evaluation of teachers based on their impacts on students’ test scores, commonly known as the “value-added” approach. A teacher’s “value-added” is defined as the average test-score gain for his or her students over the course of their time together. This evaluation method has its supporters and critics. While some school districts are beginning to rely upon the value added approach to evaluate their teachers, critics worry that putting so much emphasis on standardized tests will create a culture of “teaching to the test,”. Moreover, they speculate about whether standardized tests really tell us anything useful about students, and whether the students are acquiring the skills they’ll need to lead successful lives.

The researchers sought to resolve some of the issues surrounding the use of the value-added approach. They sought to determine whether this approach accurately measures teacher’s impacts on scores, or whether it unfairly penalized teachers who may systematically be assigned lower achieving students. They also wanted to know if high value-added teachers improve their students long-term outcomes or were they simply better at teaching to the test. By following high and low value-added teachers for decades as they changed classrooms and schools, they found that a high value-added teacher resulted in a noticeable bump up in student performance at the new school, and a significant drop in student test scores at the school she had just left. The pattern was reversed for low value-added teachers. These patterns confirmed that the value-added scores were able to measure teacher quality.

As noted above, the researchers were also able to link a teacher’s value-added rating to their students’ outcomes later in life. A student who lucked into the classroom of a teacher in the top quarter of the district’s instructors was more likely to attend college than a student of a middle-of-the-road teacher—all the result of a single year of grade school education. Similar connections were found with respect to the students’ likelihood of avoiding teenage pregnancy and increasing their earning potential.

At the core of this is confirmation of what we already know: good grade school teachers can and do make an enormous difference in a student’s life. Are you focused on the strengths of your son’s elementary school teachers? Are there a good number of good ones at his school? Have the good ones made a difference in your son’s life? Important issues on which we should stay focused.