Romanticized fiction trumps facts

By Larry Sand
October 1, 2019

A blockbuster report exposes myths about the teaching profession, but will it matter?

People love stories, and the gooier and more heart-rending the better. Few are more likely to send readers running for a box of tissues than the tale of a dedicated, but woefully underpaid teacher who is forced to take a second job, “just to make ends meet.” The teachers unions, especially, are masters at spinning this type of prattle. Practically on a weekly basis the National Education Association trots out some tearful story about a teacher who is a single mom and can’t quite pay the electric bill without getting a second or even third job.

But now we’ve been blessed with a masterpiece. Andrew Biggs, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jason Richwine, a D.C.-based public-policy analyst, have written “The Truth about Teacher Pay,” an essay for National Affairs, that unmercifully destroys mountains of teacher union twaddle with data.

Like skilled surgeons performing a delicate operation, they remove metastasizing myths like the “teacher pay gap,” which allegedly leads many educators to take second jobs, as well as other tall tales of woe , including the “teacher shortage,” that “teachers are leaving the field in droves,” that “teachers work more than other professionals,” et al.

Regarding the teacher “pay gap,” Biggs and Richwine take issue with The Economic Policy Institute, an NEA supported group, which claims that teachers’ salaries are 21 percent lower than similar college educated private-sector workers in the U.S. But as Biggs and Richwine explain, the report assumes that “in comparing teachers’ salaries and private-sector pay, educational attainment is a skewed variable because it assumes that quantity of education equals quality of education.”

Clearly that assumption is erroneous. As the Urban Institute’s Matthew Chingos notes, “The fact that teachers with master’s degrees are no more effective in the classroom, on average, than their colleagues without advanced degrees is one of the most consistent findings in education research.” Also a recent report by the National Council on Teacher Quality shows that “Over and over again, research finds that teachers with master’s degrees are rarely more effective than teachers without them.”

Richwine and Biggs also explore some history behind the “teacher shortage” canard. The Learning Institute’s Linda Darling-Hammond is a prime force behind the shortage claim; she predicted an impending shortfall in 2016. Richwine and Biggs point out that this report mirrors one she wrote in 1984. The authors then continue, “From the fall of 1987 through the fall of 2015, the number of public-school students increased by 20%, but the number of public-school teachers increased by 64%. More recently, in the four years leading up to the 2015-16 school year, teacher employment grew by 400,000, even as the number of students barely changed.”

Richwine and Biggs also claim that the union-promulgated tale of the overworked teacher is bogus, explaining that over a full calendar year, including vacations, “teachers work at most 83% as many hours as private-sector professionals.”

The authors also note a bit of forked-tongue talk by the unions and others in the education establishment. One day they will talk about “the vital work that teachers do.” But then they will turn around and say that it is unfair to blame failing schools on teachers as poverty holds kids back. The authors write, “One cannot assert that teachers are nearly powerless to overcome outside obstacles to student learning and simultaneously maintain that teachers require higher salaries for the vital work they do.”

Richwine and Biggs also examine and explode other false narratives including that teaching is more stressful than other jobs, that teachers earn more if they switch professions and that teacher salaries are lower today than in the past, after adjusting for inflation.

But sadly, as Mike Antonucci points out, this stellar report won’t make any difference. “The people on the jury – the media, public and other assorted interested parties – have already decided which story they like best. It’s not the one Biggs and Richwine tell.”

For most people, pure data ain’t sexy. A heart-tugging story is…whether true or not. Pure truth-telling has its limits. For PR people, a golden opportunity awaits.

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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network– a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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