The best way to understand earning power—no matter what your age—is to understand the factors that go into it. For example, most people who have careers that are plateauing usually have a learning problem that manifests itself as an earning problem.
And for parents, schooling discussions are really earning discussions. Because you can say that kids with a love of learning are lifelong learners (essential for workplace success today), but truly, who wants an unemployed Ph.D candidate? You don’t want a lawyer who can’t get a job because of poor social skills, you don’t want a kid with perfect SAT scores who marries for money because supporting oneself seems too hard. Every parent wants to raise a kid who is capable of supporting himself and capable of finding engaging work for a stable life.
Here’s how schooling affects earning power.
1. Focus on pre-K through third grade.
Why focus on pre-K? There is very solid data that the earning power of kids who attend a pre-K program is so much higher than kids who don't that Head Start is one of the most sacred of all publicly funded programs in the US. So the school impact on one's earning potential starts in pre-K.
Why third grade? Research from Project STAR shows that after third grade, the quality of one's classroom has little impact on one's future earning potential. There is clear data (spanning 25 years and researchers at six universities) that shows that test scores after third grade are not indicators of future earning potential.
2. Ignore standardized test results, obsess over self-confidence levels.
This means, of course, that it doesn't matter how one performs on national standardized tests since those test scores do not have impact on the sixty years one spends in the workforce.
And this conclusion is consistent with one of my favorite studies in the whole world: It is from Alan Kreuger, professor at Princeton, that shows that while it is true that kids who go to Harvard and Princeton have advantages over others when it comes to future earning, you can get those same advantages just by applying to those schools. It's having ambition and believing in yourself that are the real harbingers of success. The fancy diploma is a red herring.
3. Teach kids to find mentors.
Faye Crosby, professor at the University of Santa Cruz says that the two most important factors in a person's earning potential are quality of schooling and quality of mentoring. Now we know that the schooling part of this equation is up to third grade. So maybe, starting in fourth grade, we should be teaching our kids how to get the best mentors.
Let's consider what life would look like if you took all fourth graders out of school and started teaching them how to get mentors. First of all, the act of finding a mentor is very consistent with what current research on education reform says that kids should be doing: Following the paths that interest them and finding someone to guide them.
4. The best schooling after third grade is unschooling.
Here is a fascinating article from Psychology Today about why school reform will not work because schools are so incredibly ill-suited for teaching kids. In fact, the formula for school—telling kids what they should learn and how they should learn—is a method only for killing their creativity.
Lisa Neilsen, who manages teacher training for New York City public schools, also comes down hard on the classroom structure. She tells parents that kids should learn in a project-based program where the lesson plans are dictated by a child's current interests. Neilsen says that if the school won't do that for your kid, take your kid out of school.
5. Aim for out of the box. Way out of the box. That’s when things will look right.
So let's say you take the advice of people whose job is to study what is the best way to teach your kid. Let's say you take the advice of the reams of research about what factors influence a child's future earning potential.
What you are left with is waking up every day, asking your child what he or she wants to do, and then finding someone to help them, if you are are not the right person. Some days you will offer up some ideas, some days your kid will say no to everything and decide to play video games.
Here's what I'm doing to increase my fourth-grader's earning potential: Pottery.
He told me he wanted to do clay. He said he's upset that each year of school he got to do a clay project, and this year, since we're homeschooling, he's going to miss it.
So I did a little Googling, and I found a pottery studio: Bethel Horizons. (It is Christian, of course. Everything in rural America that has funding is either government or Christian.)
The minute I walked into the studio, I knew we were so lucky. Krista is the pottery teacher, and she took incredible care to make sure each step was a way to focus mentally and “connect with the clay.”
She showed him how to use machines and tools and she showed him that part of the process is keeping the workspace neat and clean so the brain and the hands can work in peace.
Then Krista told my son he’d make a pot each time he sits at the wheel. I thought about the study about pottery in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Students who were asked to make one, great pot, learned much slower than kids who made a terrible pot each time at the wheel. Greatness comes from lots of terribleness, so I liked that we were on that path.
I coach so many people who want advice about their career, but so often, these people really just need to learn how to figure out what they want: experiment, find what might be fun. Try it for a bit. People need coaching on how to take risks and not worry if they fail. People need coaching on how to find a mentor who is invested in their particular path. I see that all these things are related to earning power, and all these things are what kids learn when they direct their own curriculum.
So, my son probably will not grow up to make expensive pots to sell. But I know that while he’s skipping school and managing his pottery-learning himself, his earning power is going up, and it’s a joy to watch.