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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.

I majored in English at college. I earned mostly A’s. Though I haven’t done the research to support my hypothesis, I’m fairly certain the English department doled out more A’s than the organic chemistry department during my time at school. I guess that means I didn’t learn as much as my pre-med friends. For that matter, if you subscribe to Richwine’s and Biggs’ logic, the average humanities major in general must be an unskilled buffoon.

The claim is based on a 2011 “working paper” from an assistant professor at the University of Missouri that analyzes GPA data from Missouri and two other institutions. For those who are unfamiliar with how research works, a working paper hasn’t been vetted yet by the research community; it hasn’t been subject to peer review. Yet, this paper is cited as scientifically valid research to support Richwine’s and Biggs’ argument. (I wonder what my pre-med friends would have said about that.)

The other study they use to support their dubious assumption about the quality of education degrees examined the GPAs of 5,000 students who graduated from a single college from 2001 to 2009. I might be an unskilled buffoon, but even I recognize that data from a single institution shouldn’t be used to draw universal conclusions.

But here’s the biggest hole in their logic: The papers they refer to both examined the GPAs of undergraduate education majors—and yet Richwine and Biggs cite this “research” in arguing why advanced education degrees aren’t worth the sheepskin they’re printed on. This intellectual sleight-of-hand approaches academic fraud.

Richwine and Biggs further justify their dismissal of wage comparisons that are based on similar academic credentials by arguing that years of study have no bearing on how successful a teacher is.

In supporting this claim, they refer to a 2005 study that found “years of schooling, certifications, and experience beyond the first few years of teaching show little to no relationship to student achievement.” But they ignore other studies that have reached different conclusions.

For example, a study released this fall by the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research found that the academic progress of public school students can be traced, in part, to where their teachers went to college—suggesting that a teacher’s schooling does, indeed, play an important role in student achievement.

The UW study also suggests that education degree programs vary widely with respect to academic outcomes, and it might be true that several such programs need to improve the rigor or relevance of their curriculum.

But it doesn’t follow logically to assume that education degrees in general are worth less than advanced degrees in other fields—and therefore shouldn’t factor into wage comparisons.

Which brings me to fallacy No. 2…

2. Public school teachers aren’t as skilled as private-sector employees with comparable degrees.

Richwine and Biggs base this assumption on the faulty logic of fallacy No. 1, but then they steer their argument into the gutter by using college entrance exam scores to further imply that public school teachers, as a group, aren’t as bright or talented as college graduates as a whole.

Without getting into the accuracy of their data analysis, of which I have no knowledge, I’m surprised to see their argument built around such a limited—and deeply flawed—view of what it means to be a “skilled” employee.

Does emotional intelligence not play a critical role in a teacher’s success? Of course it does. How about communication skills? You bet. The ability to challenge? Motivate? Inspire? Yep. Ditto. Absolutely.

None of these characteristics are measured on the SAT or GRE, and yet they’re instrumental to the teaching profession. Omitting them in a blanket judgment about teachers’ skills and abilities would be like judging the abilities of concert pianists or fighter pilots based on test scores alone.

To use an example that free-market analysts like Richwine and Biggs might appreciate, let’s compare the economic worth of a floor trader on the New York Stock Exchange and an ornithologist at a local museum. Let’s assume, also, that both have a master’s degree.

Does it matter to his economic value that the stockbroker’s GRE scores might be lower than those of the scientist’s? Of course not. What matter most to his professional success are the knowledge he learned in his field of study and the personal skills he brings to his job, such as aggressiveness, self-confidence, quick thinking, good judgment, and analysis—skills that might, or might not, have led to higher scores on his graduate school entrance exam than the bird researcher.

Richwine and Biggs would never dream of suggesting that someone who makes fistfuls of dollars for his high-powered Wall Street firm is worth less money than someone who toils in the back of a dusty museum—even if stockbrokers as a group were found to have lower average scores than ornithologists on standard measures of cognitive ability. So, it’s pretty clear that “cognitive ability” is a poor proxy for overall skills—and it has no bearing on one’s economic worth or earning potential.

Yet, Richwine and Biggs clumsily swap “cognitive ability” for academic credentials in their analysis, just so they can devalue teachers. They didn’t like the results when they compared professionals with similar levels of education, so they manufactured a way to cherry-pick the data that was more favorable to their desired outcome.

This convenient substitution doesn’t make logical sense. Their research paper would have a hard time meeting the criteria for publication on Wikipedia, never mind a serious academic journal.

3. Working conditions aren’t a significant factor in teacher compensation models.

Comparing the wages and benefits of public school teachers with those of private-sector employees without also examining working conditions, or the level of satisfaction these groups have with their professions, is another omission that further damages the researchers’ credibility.

Public school teachers often have to deal with dangerous, unmotivated, or unruly students, because public schools must serve all students in their jurisdictions and must go through a rigorous legal process before removing dangerous or unruly students. Besides knowledge of their specific content areas, then, public school teachers also must be adept at classroom management techniques and child or adolescent psychology. Not only are they teachers of academic content, but also disciplinarians, counselors, role models, and social workers for dozens of students.

Public school teachers learn these additional skills in classroom management and child psychology in the education programs that Richwine and Biggs have tried to discredit; it’s a key reason why public school teachers are required to earn advanced degrees and certifications in education.

Many people think public school teaching is easy, and they point to all the vacation time teachers get, but this perception just doesn’t match reality. During the school year, teachers work long hours in grading papers, planning lessons, mapping their curriculum to standards, communicating with parents and students, attending staff meetings and professional development, and taking part in school functions—not to mention their six hours per day delivering instruction.

Besides classroom discipline problems, teachers often have to deal with inadequate budgets, unsupportive parents or administrators, and a host of other issues. What’s more, teachers often don’t get time to collaborate or interact with their adult colleagues, unless it’s on their own time outside of school. These are among the many reasons the teaching profession has such a high turnover rate: Nearly half of public school teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

I haven’t done the research, but I’d strongly suspect that this turnover rate is much higher than the overall average for professionals with similar credentials. If teachers are so overpaid, then why are so many of them leaving the profession in their first few years?

In response to my queries, Biggs argued that attrition rates are high in the early years for all jobs, as employees discover that the job or career isn’t right for them. He further argued that attrition rates within the first few years of teaching are especially high, because “it’s only then that you can fire a poor performer,” before he or she earns tenure.

“What matters is overall attrition rates, which I’m very confident are lower for teachers,” Biggs said, though he failed to cite any research supporting this. His reasoning? Because teachers’ pension plans “make it financially insane for a mid-career employee to quit—you leave literally hundreds of thousands of future retirement benefits on the table.”

In other words, a strong incentive for mid-career teachers to continue in the profession is the generous retirement benefit they receive. Take this incentive away, Biggs implies, and teacher attrition would be even higher.

Doesn’t this logic collapse his premise in the first place: that, because teachers are overpaid compared to private-sector employees with similar skills, policy makers can cut teacher benefits without affecting teacher recruitment and retention?

4. Slashing teacher compensation won’t diminish the quality of teachers in the nation’s schools.

I’ve shown why I think it’s a fallacy to argue that teachers aren’t as skilled as private-sector employees with similar credentials. But, if you take this supposition at face value, think about what it suggests: that our current teacher workforce isn’t as talented as it should be.

If our goal is to attract more top-tier students to the teaching profession, then isn’t that actually an argument for why teachers should be paid more, and not less, than their current level? As Jonathan Chait wrote for New York magazine, “You get the teachers you pay for.”

When asked about this apparent contradiction, Biggs dismissed it as insignificant. “The best and the brightest won’t want to bother with” the teaching profession, he said, even if you raise teacher compensation.

He bases this belief not on any scientific evidence, but on his opinion that—as long as teachers are not paid based on a system of merit—many of the brightest students will continue to pass on a teaching career, because they cannot be compensated in a way that reflects their abilities.

“If you simply raise pay but do nothing else, you might raise [teacher] quality a little bit,” he said—but you’ll be overpaying the majority of teachers even more in the process.

I think Biggs is right in one respect: Offering more money alone will not help with recruiting and retaining highly skilled teachers. But it’s open to debate whether the current pay-scale practices supported by unions are the primary factor in discouraging more top-tier students from becoming teachers … or whether other factors are more likely responsible, such as the blatant lack of respect for the teaching profession that Biggs, his colleague, and many other Americans are guilty of.

While offering more money alone is unlikely to bolster recruitment and retention, cutting teacher salaries or benefits is a surefire way to hurt these efforts—despite what this policy paper argues.

Wisconsin officials already have seen the effects of their decision to cut the benefits of teachers in that state: Nearly 5,000 teachers opted for early retirement. If policy makers want to see a mass exodus like this in their own state or community, they need only follow the advice in this report.

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Dennis Pierce

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