Obama's State of the Union and the Merits of PowerPoint

Those who watched President Obama’s State of the Union address online on Tuesday night may have noticed that the speech was “enhanced” this year with a series of PowerPoint slides that added an Al Gore-like emphasis to Obama’s major policy points. But Danny Yagan didn’t notice, in part because the 27-year-old Harvard Ph.D. candidate in economics was buried in his work and didn’t remember that the address had started. Then, about 19 minutes into the speech, his phone began buzzing with texts. And his mom called to congratulate him.

Yagan is a member of the Harvard economics team that’s been researching the value of well-trained teachers in early education. The group’s recent findings have determined that an effective teacher can have a lasting impact in the lives of children — their students are more likely to go to college, earn higher incomes, and less likely to be teenage mothers. The research was the basis for one of the major policy points Obama hammered home during his speech:

“We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies — just to make a difference.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones.”

For over a minute and a half while Obama spoke, the slide touting the $250,000 income difference hovered alongside him, one of the most powerful billboards an academic could ask for. Yagan knew that the White House had read their research, but he had no idea it’d be featured so prominently in the State of the Union address. “It’s just incredibly exciting,” he says, and hopes that it will help make the case for paying teachers more for their work in order to attract and retain the best.

“It’s now part of the zeitgeist, it’s not just academic,” he says. “I think we as a nation have a take no chances attitude when it comes to our children’s health. We need to have the same mindset for our children’s education.”

You can see Yagan’s research highlighted at around the 19 minute mark: