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16 October, 2012

Teacher Pay Again. Refuting the Heritage Foundation.

A month ago, I wrote what I thought was a pretty simple post highlighting the misleading information about teacher pay. What triggered my post was an article presenting "average" pay in cities nationwide, including Olympia, Washington, where I pay taxes and school my kids. My point was that the reported salary, close to $60,000, is not a reasonable basis for discussion of teacher compensation, since it represents an anomaly that will disappear in a few years when the baby boom of senior teachers retires. Strangely (I thought), I got comments from a couple of present and former school board members taking me to task (without contesting the thesis of my post). Coming from the political right and left, these two men seemed united in the opinion that teacher pay, in general, is either plenty or too much. Apparently, it is not just a right-wing opinion that public school teachers are overpaid.

But the Right certainly  takes the lead in demanding lower pay and benefits for teachers. Which explains the school board member from suburban St. Louis sending me a Heritage Foundation article claiming to demonstrate that public school teachers are paid far more than their market value, $120,000,000,000 too much in the estimation of the authors, Jason Richwine and Andrew Biggs, a couple of guys who have made careers out of insisting that public sector workers get paid too much.

In this case, they make a two-pronged argument. First: public school teachers should not be compared to workers with similar levels of education, since teachers are beneficiaries of grade inflation while at the same time exhibiting less "cognitive ability" (a term left conveniently undefined) than the general public. Second: the market value of a teacher should equal that of private school teachers, who are the proper cohort for comparison. Typical Heritage Foundation fare: socialism rewards the undeserving, and all disputes should be resolved by "the market," whatever that is.

What the market is, as it happens, has a lot to do with why the Richwine-Biggs paper (which, a good teacher would recognize, adds nothing to earlier work by Podgorsky, risking a big fat F for plagiarism, or at least scorn for parroting) is BS. The authors and their sponsor fail to grasp a central lesson of US history, that our greatness was fostered by an economic system that mixes socialism and capitalism, and "the market" that everyone likes to tout is not free of regulation or independent of government spending. Schools are one of those socialist holdouts in our capitalist system, like firemen, police, a huge chunk of the healthcare system, libraries, roads, military,…you get the picture.

R & B begin their paper by attempting to establish why teacher compensation should not be compared with that of other people with similar levels of education. [Ironically, the Parkway MO school district where the conservative school board member who sent me this article serves touts the advanced education level of its teachers as evidence of its excellence.] I would readily agree with their assertion that level of education does not equate to intelligence or ability to do a job well (Exhibit A: Richwine and Biggs both had PhD degrees, Exhibit B: several PhD holders in my own profession are not so bright), but it is ridiculous to assert, as they do, that this is especially true of teachers, but not engineers and business majors. The authors make a series of assertions that are either misleading or mistaken, such as equating the "intended major" of a high school kid with her eventual profession. I would argue that even today, high school girls are bound by gender stereotypes to declare traditionally acceptable occupations such as "teacher" before they get a college degree and real world experience. Besides, how many people graduate with the major they thought they wanted when they were 17? The article also suggests that Education majors receive inflated grades, since their averages tend to be higher than other majors. "Easy" grading is only one explanation for this. I have exactly as much reason to say that Ed majors score higher because they are more motivated, smarter, or spend less time getting wasted. If the authors wish to demonstrate that it is easier to get an A in Ed than it is in some other field, they have failed to marshal the data needed. I know this on the basis of a decent public education.

But they are more interested in moving to the second shaky leg of their argument about teachers not being comparable to other similarly educated people; the assert that teachers have lower "cognitive ability." Too bad they do not use measures of specific types of "cognitive ability," a term that on its own is so vague as to be meaningless. They mention IQ a few times, and seem to be aiming for characterizing that, but rather than using scores from recognized IQ tests, they use the SAT (again, a test taken in high school and linked to Education by "intended major," years before a kid actually chooses and practices a profession) and the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, neither of which is recognized by professionals as a valid measure of IQ.

The failure of the data to demonstrate the point (despite conflation of correlation with causation, sneaky substitutions, and uncontrolled stats) does not slow down the authors, who consider it proved, and move on to suggesting that private school teachers are the only reasonable group to compare with public school teachers. Refuting this in glowing prose takes too much energy, so here's  a list of why that is BS:
A. Comparison with private school teachers begins with one huge assumption that has no basis: that private school teachers represent the "market;" they are in fact a strange niche, with the overall market represented by the majority public school teachers, who do not live in Cuba or North Korea.
B. The authors cite Podgursky, who claims to have 'controlled' for the peculiarities of certain private schools by focusing on 'general education' schools, but will not reveal how he controlled for individual attributes of teachers. 
C. Even if you accept B, there are numerous differences in the jobs performed in public schools (hey have to teach whoever shows up rather than a selective student body, they must adhere to more regs and mandates, they must submit to greater accountability, then often must pass certification requirements not required in private schools, their schools cannot rely on fake, opaque, or profit-dirven accreditations, they are called upon to provide social services abrogated elsewhere, and so on). Public school teachers as a group have a far more expansive and demanding job description.
D. Public school teachers, being smarter than some would acknowledge, choose to collectively negotiate their compensation and eschew powerlessness, a market force that most private schools have avoided. This depresses private school compensation.
E.Many other forces that put downward pressure on private schools: trustafarian and legacy teachers (progeny of the schools, sometimes) who do not need the money, the profit/endowment protection instinct of private boards and administrators, a glut of graduates, a lesser glut of willing romantics/ascetics, the prestige of paling for academic farm teams, parents will only pay so much tuition (the cost is borne by the student's family, rather than being distributed across the county population), and so on.

Having again assumed that their slipshod reasoning is Truth, R & B move on to the next phase of their polemic, which is to "prove" that public school teachers are compensated at exorbitant rates. Part of this argument hinges on data showing that people who did something else and then become teachers get a pay raise, whereas people who move from being teachers to something else take a pay cut. Nowhere are we assured that the alleged pay cut controls for maternity leave or retirement or the tendency of burned out teachers (the flame rises faster when pay is not commensurate with difficulty) to flee to whatever job is available. The raise in pay that a new teacher gets relative to his last job is often attributable to his having earned a credential, a typical gatekeeping function in public and private sector upward mobility; often, the credential is earned by passing the state certification tests, and not just a degree (although the authors acknowledge this phenomenon among non-teachers), a variable not among those listed as having been "controlled." Interesting, too, for a paper that makes so much of data, that the 'leaving teaching means a pay cut [for women, anyway]' conclusion is based on fewer than 150 cases cobbled together from three separate iterations of the SIPP, yet this is considered to have the same 99% "significance," (what exactly to they mean?) as the 25,000 control cases.

Another facet of the over-compensated public school teacher argument is that since teachers get summers off, their per hour pay is very high. As anyone who knows a teacher can attest, they spend a hell of a lot more than the minimum required contract hours prepping, grading papers, and so on; include these uncompensated hours in the mix and the pay rate decreases. And then there's the simple fact that teachers are paid an annual salary for an annual job. They cannot go get a temporary professional summer career to fill in the gaps, especially given the widespread tendency for districts to move away from one long summer break to a more year-round calendar. As a society, we have long agreed that the teacher is a vital civic function, and we agree to pay them annually so that there is some degree of security and they will be around next year, instead of depending on a fresh batch of neophytes every Fall.

The luxurious benefits packages enjoyed by public sector workers also play in to the R & B paper. Defined benefit plans may have become a genuine burden in California and other places where politicians (not teachers) committed to rich benefits without setting aside sufficient investment, but just as often this characterization boils down to the same ploy used by many corporations when they duck into bankruptcy to shed pension plans that they could have supported had they chosen to invest prudently and honor their contractual obligations (are contracts negotiated in good faith not part of the 'market'?).  It is especially feasible to pay out on defined benefits when working with a government, which presumably has enough employees and stability to plan for the long term. Retirement health care is another target, but again, teachers have been smart enough to negotiate collectively to attain a sort of socialized coverage, despite the government's failure to provide the universal health care available in most other civilized capitalist countries. It sucks that most private sector jobs have been stripped of such benefits, but are public sector employees to blame for trying to protect themselves? I say no.

The of course there is the hoary theory that public school teachers never get fired, never face consequences for the poor behavior that inevitably follows when a workforce is insulated from unfettered free enterprise (in which the poor behavior resides at a higher level). R & B's writing here was incredibly boring, but I was able to notice that their solution is--yawn--unlimited ability to hire and fire teachers. That's as much a Stalinist belief as a free market belief. It is telling that the evidence of bad teachers always consists of outrageous anecdotes. In fact, contracts generally include procedures for termination with cause. The union demands due process, and it is hardly theirs or the  teachers fault that school administrators rarely seem to implement this. If you want anecdotes, I have a trunk full of ones from teachers who are frustrated with administrators who tolerate ineffectiveness. [While I'm at it, why does the discussion of bad teachers almost never mention any option between termination and status quo? Is there no appetite among critics for improvement?]

Finally, we arrive at the inevitable conclusion of any Heritage Foundation economic analysis: Let the market decide. Public school teacher compensation, they say, inflated as it is by undeserved pay and copious benefits, should decrease to the actual market value established by private school teachers. The money is better spent elsewhere, they say, blithely ignoring constitutional and statutory directives on how state tax revenues should be spent; the envisioned savings would mostly have to remain in the education funding, just not to be spent on the educators themselves, who some of us educated people consider to be the most important part of the education system. R & B do allow as how maybe you could re-structure contracts to allow for pay tied to merit or the 'value' of the subject taught, and to increase flexibility in hiring and firing, but dismiss this because unions would never cooperate. Interestingly, some unions are doing just that, and states are like Washington offer pay incentives in return for rigorous national board certification.

The union roadblock is of course ridiculous, since union operate in the same 'market' as the overall economy, albeit in a sector that the Ain't Randians still occupy; teachers get paid what they do because they work collectively, instead of adopting the self-destructive 'every man for himself' model. I would argue that since most kids go to public schools, then public school teacher pay is the result of market choices. Redefining reality to make the US 'market' a purely private enterprise affair,  the authors propose transferring education to a private sector "market-driven pay-for-performance system" without a hint of irony, given that the core of "the market" in the financial sector is one where pay is not based on performance, but on fees collected whether the investment works or not, massive government welfare, rumor and emotion-driven decisions, and delusions of grandeur.

Vouchers, they say (hoping it sounds innocuous and reasonable to a nation  of consumer-citizens), would be a great solution. This is one means by which universal eduction would become a caste system. The K-12 'market' would end up doing what the college market is doing: crappy degree mills cashing in on GI bill money and ignorant students with no support for completion and often useless degrees if you do make it. meanwhile, the rich enjoy a hefty credit toward their fine education, which remains unaffordable to the masses. The 1% would rather not recognize this, but such a situation is a nice incubator for revolution. Even Otto von Bismarck understood that a little bit of socialism buys a lot of domestic tranquility.

But let's suppose, as economists are wont to say when launching into speculation, that the authors got their way, and $120 Billion were stripped from public school teacher compensation. the dedicated nature of ed funding I mentioned would guarantee that until laws were changed, there would a huge pot of money drawing in carpetbaggers with all manner of snake oil for sale to school boards and executives (for it is never the teachers who allocate district funds, and unfortunately the school boards can be populated with ideologues and fledgeling politicians as often as with teachers), and  large percentage of the money would immediately leave the county. Meanwhile, a large group of middle class people who live in the community year-round would have less money to spend. In a state like Washington, where revenues derive entirely from sales tax, this would be devastating, at the least reducing revenues, and potentially stoking a negative feedback that would necessitate further cuts. [I'm honest enough to admit that I offer no data to support this, but did warn you that I was in a supposing mood.]

Even if my predictions of disaster do not come true, I find myself wondering why the disparity in public and private school teacher compensation should be decided by reducing public pay , instead of giving private school teachers a break. I've seen the balance in our hybrid economy veer further in favor of the private sector ever since Jimmy Carter, but we are nearing a point of grave imbalance when every dispute needs to be decided in favor of unfettered (and yet subsidized and bailed out) capitalist enterprise. Sure, raising teacher pay might give a few deadbeats an undeserved raise, but why do we as a society have so little regard for the people who nurture our future? Wouldn't it be easier to make a stink at the school, the district, or the school board if your kid's teacher sucks, instead of insisting that all teachers take a pay cut? Exactly why should a lawyer or marketing VP make so much more than a teacher?

I understand why right-wingers would be astonished at my attitude, and don't expect any of them to acknowledge the above dismantling of Richwine and Biggs' poppycock, but it was interesting to have someone who seems fairly progressive insist on the "yes, but" response to my original post. Luckily for me, he did not link to a fake academic paper, but stated his case straightforwardly. It seems like the breaking point for him was sitting on the school board and having the union leader tell him that he would rather protect existing teachers' pay than have them take a cut so that cheaper, younger teachers could be hired to reduce class size. I happen to be one of those people who finds flaws with studies saying that small class size has no benefit (another post, perhaps), but I also happen to object to the concept that the solution to a tight budget is to ask seasoned professionals to take a pay cut. In a free economy, they negotiated and achieved a deal they could live with, a deal protected by a contract. "Think of the children," is the argument here, but teachers do think of the children every day. The union has to think of its members, and the precedent they would set by accepting a cut in pay or benefits at the outset of every economic downturn (and keep in mind, they did accept a pay cut in the end, it just wasn't their opening offer). If parents and the people who have to live among these children as they grow care, then  they might seek cuts elsewhere, or face up to chipping in a few more bucks. Thinking of children--not just your own, but the future citizens in general--should be the job of society as a whole, and if we don't think enough to pay their educators as the professionals they are, then woe be unto us.

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