Garbage in, Garbage Out: The Circular Logic of Richwine and Biggs

The following comments were made to a rebuttal from Jason Richwine and Andrew G. Biggs titled: Are Teachers Overpaid? A Response to Critics.

Ah, the fine art of pseudo-science; otherwise, known as economics. It must be nice to believe so much in yourself and your “data” that you can stretch circular logic as far as these two gentlemen.

Here is my perspective of their logic.

First, let’s start with a premise: teacher skills are not that valuable, or the market would pay them more. Now, let’s compare the (low) average teacher income with the overall compensation package of those making the same average income as teachers, which shows that teachers receive an imputed 50 cents [sic “extra for every dollar”] of additional income compared to those “harder-working” souls in the private-sector. The benefit differential is likely true; most in the private sector making that level of (low) income receive few benefits since their skills are not valued much either. The market knows there will be another needy soul coming along shortly to fill any opening left when the incumbent moves on in search of a “living compensation package.” And the ability of these employees to negotiate for improved benefits, or pay, via collective bargaining is considered anti-American, or worse, socialist or communist, so their ability to receive health care or any retirement related benefits has effectively been neutered by the “market.” Then, start making loosely coupled claims that teachers are grossly overpaid for their “equivalent” “skills,” said comparison solely based on a proxy having no relationship to skills. Pile on as further “evidence” that teachers are paid less when they leave the profession; do not forget that the “market” values them so highly that they should expect to make so much more than what they actually end up receiving. Imply that teachers should be happy they receive any paycheck at all, and lo and behold, you have a data-driven research influencing the public, and those who control education budgets. And this is supposed to survive scrutiny as research??

Let’s look at a few of their unsubstantiated claims (i.e., assertions).

1.) “Although some may well be underpaid, the typical public school teacher makes roughly $1.52 for every dollar made by a private-sector employee with similar skills.”

Yes, teachers have been able to eek out something close to a living compensation package, with a modest annual income, and a fraction of that amount starting 30 years later as a pension. Now, compare that to what it actually takes to live in any metropolitan area in the country, and you’ll see it requires a very Spartan life, indeed; one that our esteemed researchers would cry foul over if they needed to live that way.

2.) “…college diplomas aren’t equal measures of skills valued by the labor market.”

If they are trying to say the value of a college diploma depends upon the field of study, and granting institution, then, okay. So, what’s new? However, if they are trying to say college diplomas do not signal skill differences, why is there a pay differential for those with degrees versus those without one?

There’s also the ambiguity of their wording, “valued by the labor market,” which I find to be the Achilles’ Heel of their argument. Of course, the labor market does not value teachers; otherwise, they would be paid more! Instead, our nation benefits from the self-sacrifice made by many teachers, who tolerate conditions most people would consider close to abusive, because they feel a calling to sacrifice so that the greater good benefits; something many people do not comprehend since it defies “free-market” doctrine. “Why in the world would someone not try to maximize their income level?” they think to themselves. That is surely un-American!

3.) “…teachers should still receive no more and no less than fair-market compensation for their skills. Only the data can tell us whether that is happening.”

Yes, the “data,” the arbiter of all truth, its sanctity sacrosanct. Numbers are pure, unadulterated indicators of reality; at least that is the economist’s Faustian bargain. For without this abdication of reason, the ironclad facts that spout from economists’ minds might be rendered meaningless. And what might that do to the market value for economists?

Speaking of “fair-market,” since when were teachers traded, or wagers placed on their value? I posit that if teachers walked off en masse, the “efficient frontier” would assert itself, and replacement teachers would demand greater compensation for their efforts, much like mutual fund managers demand higher returns for the same level of risk; something economists might be able to understand. By the way, this is all so hypothetical since teachers would never do this, given our commitment to our students, but for the moment, let’s suspend reality, like the economists’ do all too often and all too readily.

4.) “…our study analyzed salaries using more-objective measures of ability, such as SAT and GRE scores, and we found that teachers are paid salaries right around where we’d expect, given their skills as measured by these metrics.”

Right, standardized test scores are objective; they are numbers, which are objects. So I will grant them their measure is objective, by definition. However, where is their demonstration of the linkage between their proxy and reality? What is the R-squared value between the SAT and GRE scores and the skills required to be a teacher? And what leads them to imply that the SAT and GRE scores are predictive measures of ability? Hmmm, that is the linchpin of their entire study, too.

Their entire research is purely circular logic. Reminds me of the adage from my computer science days, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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4 Responses to Garbage in, Garbage Out: The Circular Logic of Richwine and Biggs

  1. Patti Harris says:

    No matter what the SAT or GRE score, no matter what the degree, people must be paid enough to remove the money issue as a concern. We are quickly getting to the point where teachers will have no choice but to find a job that actually pays the bills. Already most of my colleagues do work outside the classroom to pay off their mortgage in the wake of ever decreasing and more expensive retirement benefits, put kids through college, pay for their own continued education, etc. money is becoming a great concern as more and more requirements are heaped on the classroom teacher in an effort to bring about reform. Last year it was core standards, this year it is engagement, next year who knows, but always something more to make us more “effective” with less pay, less benefits, less classroom support. The breaking point is coming…


  2. Lyndon Johnson once said that economics is like pissing down your own leg. It seems hot to you but an embarrassment for everyone watching. It was his way of saying economists were full of crap. The only economists worth their salt were the Institutional Economists, who were valuable because they did not use data and instead examined how human institutions shaped economic decisions.


  3. Bon Crowder says:

    Money isn’t a motivating factor – but it is a huge DE-motivating factor. I agree with Patti. Paying people competitive to what they earn in industry is the only way to recruit and maintain lots of great teaching talent.

    Right now we have great teaching talent – but it turns over quickly and the ones who wind up staying are either great and poor, or they suck and are poor. Why not have lots of great teachers who are paid in such a way that there is competition for their jobs – so we can get even better than great teachers – all the time!


  4. Pingback: Links for Learning January 14, 2012 | scienceformath

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