Four fallacies of the ‘teachers are overpaid’ argument

The paper's arguments are based on a number of logical fallacies that undermine its conclusions.

The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have released a new paper arguing that public school teachers are overpaid relative to the private-sector market, and therefore policy makers can balance their budgets by cutting teachers’ benefits without affecting teacher recruitment and retention.

The paper is sure to provoke a great deal of thought and debate, but its arguments are based on a number of omissions and false assumptions that badly undermine its conclusions. Here are four such fallacies.

1. Teaching degrees aren’t as valid as the academic credentials of other professionals.

Public school teachers earn about 19 percent less in wages, on aver­age, than non-teachers with the same level of education, the paper found. But it dismisses this finding by arguing that advanced degrees for teachers aren’t as valid as those earned by private-sector employees.

The paper’s researchers then compare the wages of teachers and non-teachers with similar “cognitive abilities” instead (as measured by scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test) and conclude there is no measurable difference—meaning teachers aren’t underpaid in relation to their abilities.

Where to begin in deconstructing this elitist argument, which invokes the feeble old stereotype of teachers as “those who can’t do”?

The paper claims that an education degree isn’t as academically rigorous as a degree in other fields, based on the results of two studies that suggest the grade point averages of education majors are higher than those of other students. Upon closer scrutiny, however, this argument falls apart like a newspaper left out in the rain.

For one thing, the grading in an education course is subjective—unlike, say, that of a math or science course, where there is only one right answer. Comparing the GPAs of education majors with those of engineering majors is like comparing apples and pineapples—it’s not a valid comparison.

What’s more, it requires a dizzying leap of logic to claim that higher average grades in a field of study mean it isn’t as rigorous, or that its practitioners aren’t as skilled.

Citing the conclusions reached by one of the GPA studies, the paper’s authors, Jason Richwine and Andrew G. Biggs, argue that overall student effort is lower when the standards for grading are lower—and therefore education majors are likely learning less than their peers in other studies. While I would agree that grade inflation is a problem across higher education, that kind of broad generalization about human behavior is so ridiculous, it’s shocking to find it in a serious policy paper.

Dennis Pierce

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