Friday, October 9, 2015

The literature advances. Political debates don’t.

Do teachers earn less than the minimum wage?
When “teaching hours” are quantified, one may argue that teachers’ salaries are adequate for the hours they work. But I can attest that if anyone ever quantified the hours that I, and many of my colleagues, submit to create and maintain cutting-edge instruction, we would be making less than minimum wage and we’d be better off flipping burgers.

Read more here:
That quote comes from a teacher making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would need to work about 21 hours per day, 365 days a year, to reach the average annual teacher salary of $56,000.

Road map for navigating political debates.

But what's bothersome isn't the exaggeration. It's this part: "...if anyone ever quantified the hours..." If? People have been quantifying teacher working hours for years. (See our working paper on the topic, and note the literature review in particular.) Instead of repeating the talking point that teachers work some extremely large but unknowable amount of time outside of the classroom, why not look into the research? We actually have data that measure teacher work time as definitively as anyone could hope for, and the paper linked above has all of the details. (TL;DR: Teachers work about 41 hours per week during the school year.)

I've noticed a depressing pattern in Washington. Even as the literature advances, politicians and reporters still have the same old debates featuring the same old talking points. Sometime soon, there will be another person who says that teachers have it easy because the school day is less than eight hours. Then someone like Ms. Futterman will respond that teachers work a lot at home. And then the debate will stagnate, without anyone bothering to investigate whether those work hours at home could be quantified. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It's true of so many issues. (Don't get me started about a certain topic in psychology.) Each side has their talking points, and the reporters seem uninterested in moving beyond them. Another example is the Cato Institute's new report on federal pay, which mentions that Feds make 78 percent more than private-sector workers before any adjustment for skill differences. Predictably, critics responded that the greater average education and experience of federal workers could explain the difference. And then... stalemate.

I've seen this movie before. Five years ago, the same events transpired, and no one in the media seemed interested in testing whether education and experience actually do account for the difference. Andrew Biggs and I decided to do that analysis, and it inspired several other reports that compare similarly-skilled workers in each sector, including one from the CBO and a summary of each report from the GAO. The new literature established that federal workers do receive, on average, greater compensation than their private-sector counterparts.

So the debate in Washington moved on to how to reform pay, right? No. The new Cato point about a 78 percent premium without skill controls, and the mechanical reaction to it about the need for such controls, indicate that we've come full circle. Federal pay is back to being he-said-she-said. I noticed a few years ago how the careful studies summarized by the GAO were dismissed by the media:
The takeaway from the [GAO] report has often been depicted by news sources as something like: “All these studies give different answers, so we just don’t know how federal pay stacks up.” Or: “All of the studies have limitations of some kind, so we shouldn’t trust any of them.”

Is that really the best interpretation? Let’s compare the results of the five studies that attempted apples-to-apples comparisons by matching workers or jobs between sectors. These are the aforementioned AEI, Heritage, and CBO studies, a report by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), and the federal government’s official annual wage comparison conducted by the President’s “Pay Agent.”

In summary, four of the five studies find that total federal compensation is higher than private-sector compensation. The fifth study (the Pay Agent report) cannot come to any conclusion because it does not consider benefits. So all of the studies reviewed by GAO that actually reached a conclusion found that federal workers are overcompensated...
When not a single study has yet even claimed to overturn the basic conclusion drawn by Heritage, AEI, POGO, and the CBO, one would think the media would sound less discouraged about ever getting a definitive answer to the federal pay question. One would think.
So why are so many issues stuck in this perpetual cycle of talking point, counterpoint, rest, repeat, even as the literature advances beyond those disputes? I can think of a few reasons, but this post has already used up my quota of cynicism for the day.


  1. As a former friend shouted at me a decade ago: "I don't care about facts. I know what I believe!"

  2. In May 2013 I challenged all comers thus:
    A bottle of fine French wine sent to the first person who can show that Hispanic/Latino American intelligence and scholastic ability is on the same level as European American intelligence and scholastic ability.

    The bottle of wine is still unclaimed.

  3. Dr Richwine, you are mistaken in thinking that people are interested in truth. People understand what they want to understand in the way that they want to understand it. If you want to get people to come around to your way of thinking you not only have to offer them "truth" but you have to give them a reason for seeing your viewpoint.

  4. Here is another idea that you could advance as well that I believe. I think that many of our institutions and social arrangements discriminate against higher iq individuals that it constitutes a public health problem. Extending adolescence, forcing people of mismatched ability in the same learning environment, giving student loans to people who have no way of paying them back, punishing intelligence. The people who created these policies are not innocent. Treating people unequally in order to achieve equality is a gross injustice.

  5. We need to treat intelligence tests like a controlled substance, only to be administred by credentialed professionals in order to fulfill mlk’s dream. My fear is that a black market in intelligence tests will be developed. If we ban iq tests then only criminals will have iq tests. I wish to be the Al Capone or Pablo Escobar dealing in black market iq tests under such a system, finding talented inappropriately credentialed white children. Its not that hard to assess mental abilities using the internet. What happens to affirmative action if private credentialing mechanisms are developed?