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EDUCATION: With Peter Clague, Kristin School

Proof Positive

As he prepares to depart after 15 years, Kristin School's Executive Principal, Peter Clague, offers praise to one of the North Shore’s greatest assets – its teachers.

In a world where one person's Facebook post is now apparently acceptable as a reliable news source, it is reassuring to still read the occasional story that is based upon research that took more than two mouse-clicks by a lazy journalist. What's building in the blogosphere or trending in the Twitterverse may be all very interesting, but my old-fashioned university education instilled in me an abiding respect for ideas that are backed by evidence. The more of it there is, the better the theory (and I'm not talking about 1,000+ followers or 2,000 'likes'). Show me new research based upon hundreds if not thousands of pieces of corroborating evidence and I will sit up and take notice.
Which is what I did when I read a study into the impact that teachers have on the future successes of their students. Conducted by three professors of Economics from Harvard and Columbia Universities, the research was based upon the school experiences of more than 2.5 million children in one of the America’s largest school districts over a 20-year period – now that is evidence. They then used other public records to follow the fortunes of the students after they left high school. Their findings were staggering. If a primary school student has an excellent teacher even for a single year, it boosts their future income by an average of about 2 percent per year. To put that in perspective, if a government could boost its GDP by the same amount, it would negate the entire effect of the global financial crisis.
It's true of course, that money isn't everything and certainly today's schools no longer educate students simply to take their place in the workforce. However, the study did not just confine itself to earning potential. The positive effect of being taught by what, rather impersonally, was referred to as an HVA (high value-add teacher) was not just financial. The researchers found that students who had been in an HVA's classroom were significantly more likely to go to college (or to a better college) and to live in a better neighbourhood. They were also much less likely to succumb to negative outcomes such as teen pregnancy or substance abuse. And what was even more notable was the fact that the effect applied universally, whether the students came from rich or poor backgrounds. That is, no matter what sort of school you encountered the excellent teacher in, it would always lead to greater future earnings and success.
None of which is a great surprise, I suppose – most of us can clearly recall the best and worst of our own teachers, no matter our age. In my former school, I talked with men in their eighties who could still vividly recount the names, demeanour and effectiveness of their old teachers.
In all the columns I have ever written for this excellent magazine, I have never once used my editorial to promote Kristin School alone. Channel is a wonderful celebration of the best of the North Shore and although I passionately believe that Kristin is part of that, we are in superb company. The educational community on the Shore, from the smallest day-care centre to the largest university is amongst the best in New Zealand and I am proud to have been a part of it. And it is world class precisely because of the types of teachers referred to above. Whatever school your children go to, seek out those incredible, life-changing teachers and don’t be shy in telling them how much they are appreciated. No matter how cynical the media view of our profession may be, it is still the best job in the world and the most important.

by Peter Clague