Will an excellent teacher increase a student’s lifetime earnings?

February 03, 2012

A recent study conducted by economists at Harvard University and Columbia University, examines the value of excellent teachers and found, in part, that if a classroom has a strong teacher for one year, students would earn approximately $250,000 more over their lives. These students are also more likely to go to college and less likely to become teenage mothers. Micky Cokely, Senior Fellow and Director of Master’s Programs in Education at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, provides insight into what makes a teacher exceptional.

1. What makes a great teacher?

A great teacher is one who can look at all children and see their potential and right to an education. A great teacher steps out of his or her lens and recognizes that students will learn and live differently from their experience. That is why we study to become effective teachers. A great teacher respects each child and family and embraces the challenge of creating a trusting, safe environment that promotes the love of learning.

A great teacher understands how students learn and designs their instruction to promote creative and cognitive development as well as an appreciation for the content and life-long learning.

He or she will reinforce risk-taking and learning from mistakes. This teacher will find strengths in every student and not allow any to quietly or actively hide from participating.

A great teacher is a leader, activist, advocate and team member in the educational environment and is committed to being open and flexible to change and seeking new ways to educate our society.

2. Do you agree with the study’s finding that a great teacher can affect lifelong earnings?

A successful learner has the highest potential for a successful career. My goal for teaching is to contribute to educating all individuals (locally, nationally and globally). I consider this our right, responsibility and privilege. Education can be the great equalizer in society and the route to alleviating the inequalities of poverty and socio-economic status. Without this opportunity and without great teachers recognizing the potential of all children to learn and achieve, it is logical that children’s eventual earning potential and quality of life will be impacted.

How “value-added” teaching is determined is controversial, but high quality and poor teaching clearly impact students, particularly those students whose environment may not supplement their classroom learning. Urban school districts, which have the highest percentage of attrition of teachers and, therefore, more new teachers, are disadvantaged by the quality of teachers. Teaching has been protected too long from eliminating weak teachers and developing quality-control like other professions. Unfortunately, testing of teachers and using test results from students has become the means of determining quality.

Teaching can be a great equalizer in society, which includes, but is not limited to, economic opportunity. Our goal is to improve the quality of life for all members of society.

3. Do you find teacher evaluations valuable?

Yes – when evaluations are meaningful, valid and improve instruction.

Valuable teacher evaluations include self and peer evaluations, videotaped teaching over time, an assessment of contributions of the teacher to the school and community, student progress, and other measures that contribute to the goal of improving instruction. The result will be identifying exceptional teachers and those who should not be in the field.

Graduate programs are designed to instill concepts that can be put to practice in the classroom. They challenge students to think creatively and evaluate their teaching style so that they continue to improve in their work, and ultimately provide their own students with an exceptional learning experience.


Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS) is committed to providing career-focused educational programs that are designed to accommodate the complex lives of motivated learners. Offered in a variety of innovative formats, CPS courses are taught by accomplished scholars and practitioners who have real-world experience. The result is an educational experience founded on proven scholarship, strengthened with practical application, and sustained by academic excellence.

Northeastern University is a global university with a tradition of partnership and engagement that creates an innovative, distinctive approach to education and research. Northeastern integrates classroom studies with experiential learning opportunities in 70 countries, and pursues use-inspired research with a focus on global challenges in health, security, and sustainability.