Search the Site

The Best Third-Grade Teacher Ever

One of the most important economic issues we face today is how much to spend on education, both individually and as a society. As tax revenues decline due to demographic changes and deteriorating business conditions, municipalities have to make tough choices about which programs to cut, and education is often an early victim. Because we don’t yet have good measures of all the future benefits produced by better education today, school programs are easy targets for cost-cutting measures, especially in lower-income regions where parents are focused on meeting more basic needs and less likely to put up a fight. But experiments like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone hint at the enormous impact that early educational support can have on lifetime achievement.

I have my own example: Mrs. Ficalora, the best third-grade teacher ever.

In 1968, as a third-grade student at P.S. 13—a neighborhood public elementary school in Queens, New York—I had the amazing good luck of being in Barbara Ficalora’s class. Mrs. Ficalora changed my life. A slender tallish woman with a radiant smile, a Jackie Kennedy hairdo, and a warm but commanding and confident presence, she was everything a third-grader wished for in a teacher. When she spoke, we all listened, and despite the fact that there were close to 30 students in her class, she always seemed to be speaking to each of us individually, managing to make each of us feel special, appreciated, and cared for. She lauded Richie Weintraub on his prowess in punchball during recess. She extolled the impressive acting ability of Bruce Bernstein in our school play. She cooed over the exotic sari worn by Nuri Tjokroadismarto at the international potluck dinner she organized for the students and their parents. And even when she teased the Vorcheimer twins for their messy desks—comparing them to Fibber McGee’s closet—we all understood that she did it with great affection and respect for the two boys, despite the fact that no one knew who Fibber McGee was or what his closet had to do with their desks.

In my case, Mrs. Ficalora did something remarkable. She appointed me “Class Scientist”.

How I came upon this enviable position I’m still not sure; I certainly don’t recall applying for it. It may have had something to do with the fact that she noticed my fascination with the magnets and iron filings that were in the back of the classroom. Or maybe it was because she saw that I borrowed more than the usual number of science books from the school library. Or maybe she sensed my frustration and impatience with certain parts of the curriculum, especially those involving numbers and memorization.

For whatever reason, Mrs. Ficalora saw something in me that caused her to give me time each day to work on simple experiments by myself, like making a galvanometer out of a lemon, a compass, and copper wire, or creating parallel and series circuits with a battery, a light bulb, and a switch. Best of all, at the end of these sessions, I would be allowed to show what I learned to the entire class. By today’s techno-gizmo standards, this was pretty boring stuff, but for an eight-year-old in 1968 it was exhilarating. Apparently, it must have made quite an impression on me, because 44 years later, I can still taste that thrill of discovery as I recall the details of each of those experiments.

What makes this story so remarkable is that throughout my early childhood, I had ongoing learning difficulties, particularly in mathematics. I struggled to learn the multiplication table, and no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t remember 6 times 7 or 7 times 8. Even now, I have to stop and think before concluding that 7 times 8 is 56. Although I was an advanced reader and did well in other subjects, math was the bane of my existence throughout elementary and middle school. In second grade, my mother received a note from my teacher informing her that I might be “retarded”—the term of art from more primitive times—and could use some extra help.

Being a single parent raising three children in New York on a secretary’s income, my mother didn’t have the luxury of time or money to have me tested by a specialist, even if she could have afforded one with just the right expertise. Today, any child psychiatrist would almost certainly diagnose my condition as a moderate case of dyslexia (or, more precisely, dyscalculia), and likely ADHD as well. But this body of knowledge wasn’t widely available back then. In 1968, the second edition of the now-famous Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or “DSM” had just come out. It was only 119 pages and the closest entry to my symptoms—other than the “Mental Retardation” section—was the section with the promising title “Specific Learning Disturbance”. This section was empty; apparently just a placeholder for learning issues that couldn’t be attributed to other conditions. Currently in its fourth edition, DSM is now over 900 pages, weighs about four pounds, and contains many detailed entries for learning disorders as well as diagnostics specifically designed for assessing children.

But this body of knowledge wasn’t available back then, so I was just considered “slow” by some of my teachers and guidance counselors. It was terribly frustrating for me. My mother was confident I wasn’t seriously mentally challenged—according to her, I was too articulate when arguing with her and my two older siblings—so she simply encouraged me to do my best, and asked my older sister to give me extra math problems to practice on (great, more homework; just what every hyperactive eight-year-old boy wants!).

This is why being appointed Class Scientist was so important to me at the time. Although it was a title and function Mrs. Ficalora created out of thin air, it gave me a much-needed boost of confidence that was based on specific accomplishments, not just empty praise that even a third-grader can see through. It also spurred me to set new goals for myself each week as I tried to outdo my previous presentations to my classmates because, after all, as Class Scientist I had to produce! Despite my learning issues, I blossomed in Mrs. Ficalora’s class, and I believe this experience was the seed that eventually flowered into my current academic career. I was given an opportunity to excel in my own small way, and this was enough to counterbalance my ongoing struggles with mathematics.

I’m no expert in K–12 education, but as a consumer of the product through my own childhood and now through my children, I can attest to the enormous impact that elementary school teachers can have on our career paths. As an economist, I fully appreciate the elegant mechanism by which supply and demand jointly determine the market value of everything, including teachers’ salaries. But does today’s median annual salary of $52,840 (This is a national median obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the occupation category “Elementary School Teachers, Except Special Education” (SOC code 252021), and was computed in the following way: “Annual wages have been calculated by multiplying the hourly mean wage by 2,080 hours; where an hourly mean wage is not published, the annual wage has been directly calculated from the reported survey data.” The data was extracted on May 11, 2012; see for further details.) really reflect a third-grade teacher’s potential value-added to society?

At that age, a child is like an ocean liner leaving port for a long voyage out to sea—a small angle of deflection in her course at the start of the journey can have dramatic consequences for her final destination. If we could only quantify the incremental impact of teachers on their students’ careers, the salary differences between the very best K–12 tea
chers and movie stars or Wall Street executives might not be as large as they are.

Many studies have attempted to measure the economic benefits of education. The challenge in these studies is to separate nature from nurture by controlling for the effects of natural intelligence (as measured by IQ, for example) and socio-economic factors such as wealth, race, and parental education. The estimated benefits of education are significant, but unfortunately these studies are still too coarse to quantify the remarkable talents of singular individuals like Mrs. Ficalora and the sustained influence that such teachers can have on their pupils’ lives years later. One of the most valuable lessons we learned from Mrs. Ficalora was “persistence pays off,” a simple ethic that she illustrated for us in many ways throughout that year, until we began to understand and practice it. This powerful idea she planted in me over four decades ago still benefits me today.

How do we take these talented individuals into account in our econometric analysis of the returns to education? And how do we protect our children from the opposite: the burned-out teacher who instills fear, shame, or apathy? In fourth grade, a substitute teacher took charge of our class during our regular teacher’s maternity leave, and on her first day, in response to a classmate’s speaking out of turn, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “IF YOU HAVE THE NERVE TO DO THAT AGAIN, I WILL BEAT THE GODDAMN LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF YOU!”

To this day, I remember her tirade word for word and can still see the tiny droplets of spittle spewing from her mouth as she ripped into that poor student. The entire class was stunned. Not knowing exactly what the “living daylights” were but imagining the worst, we no longer dared to ask or respond to any questions. For the remainder of her four weeks with us the class was eerily silent, as she probably preferred. I remember nothing else about her or anything she may have taught us during those four long weeks. This kind of “teaching” should be a felony offense.

Before we can make truly significant improvements in our school systems, we need to develop more refined metrics of educational efficacy across the spectrum of students’ learning abilities, teachers’ teaching abilities, and how they interact. My experience with mathematics is a case in point. Although being Class Scientist gave me renewed confidence that I could succeed despite my handicap in mathematics, I continued to struggle with the subject and had to work much harder than my classmates to overcompensate for this Achilles’ heel. But when I reached high school, something miraculous occurred after I was introduced to “Unified Modern Mathematics”, also known as the “new math”. Now widely considered to be a colossal failure, this pedagogical experiment of the 1970s involved replacing the standard high school mathematics curriculum—algebra, geometry, and trigonometry—with considerably more abstract topics such as sets, groups, rings, and fields. Most students were completely befuddled by these abstractions, but the same neurophysiological quirks that caused me so much grief with numbers now enabled me to see things faster and more clearly than my classmates. The transformation was breathtaking—almost overnight, I went from a “C” student to an “A” student in mathematics. It was only then that I realized my brain might be wired differently.

I don’t think Mrs. Ficalora had any idea about these subtle learning issues. But her willingness to see beyond my deficiencies, and nurture my curiosity and love of learning, allowed me to compensate for my own limitations in positive ways. I often wonder what would have happened if I had been assigned to another third-grade class, perhaps one with a teacher like that substitute who wanted to beat “the living daylights” out of us. She might have beaten the love of learning out of me as well. If we tell our students often enough that they’re slow and can’t do math, eventually they’ll come to believe it, even if it isn’t true.

When I was promoted to the rank of tenured associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, I typed a letter to Mrs. Ficalora thanking her for her part in helping me to achieve this milestone (yes, I actually typed the letter, on a brand new IBM Selectric typewriter; this was well before email, the internet, and Facebook!). I called the New York City Board of Education to get her current mailing address and was informed that the Board of Ed had a strict policy of not giving out teachers’ addresses. When I asked why, the receptionist replied that it was to protect the teachers from death threats by former students, of which there were apparently more than a few! I mailed the letter to the Board of Ed and asked that they forward it to her, but I never heard back from anyone, so I assumed it was a lost cause.

Years later, with the arrival of the internet and Google, I decided to search for “Barbara Ficalora” one evening and immediately got several hits. Three phone calls later I was talking to my third-grade teacher, and a few weeks afterward my wife, two boys, and I had dinner with her! I found out that I wasn’t the only alum to have reconnected with her, and that a number of her former students have been in touch with her over the years. Last month, several of us Ficalora students gathered together at her home for her surprise 80th birthday party. How many third-grade teachers inspire this kind of loyalty and gratitude in their students, and how much time and effort do we spend learning from them and lauding their talents?

Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of all time, acknowledged that “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I’ve been blessed with an inordinate number of inspiring teachers who have guided me throughout my life, and I wish I could thank each of them every time I show up for work and do something worthy of their respect: my mother Julia Lo, Henrietta Mazen, Sharon Oster, Andy Abel, Dick Caves, Nobu Kiyotaki, Jerry Hausman, Whitney Newey, and Bob Merton, to name just a few. But it all began with Barbara Ficalora in 1968, and I will always be grateful for the gift of love, wisdom, and lifelong passion for learning that she bestowed upon me. Mrs. Ficalora, Happy Birthday, and thank you!