For Higher Pay Raise the Prerequisites

In his column urging higher wages for teachers Nicholas Kristof produces virtually every specious argument about which I’ve complained for some time in one compact paragraph:

In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

There are so many problems with this line of reasoning it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s just blurt some of them out:

  • The statutory school year in New York is 180 day compared with a conventional work year of 250 days.
  • An associate at a big law firm is routinely expected to bill at least 200 hours a month.
  • Most starting teachers are bachelors in education in only; nearly all lawyers nowadays have received three years of education after their undergraduate degrees and many have JDs.
  • Law schools are harder to get into than undergraduate ed schools.
  • $2,000 in 1970 was a lot more than it is now (not $100,000 more, admittedly, but a lot more nonetheless).
  • Not all lawyers go to work for “prominent law firms” but the majority of all teachers work in the public schools

Additionally, as I’ve pointed out before, incomes in the practice of law are in a bimodal distribution; that is not the case in education. That means that talking about averages or medians is largely meaningless. The lawyers in the upper distribution of income earners are predominantly graduates of one of the top 15 law schools, a highly select group, many of them serving the financial industry. Which could explain high starting attorney incomes in New York.

However, despite their meaninglessness if you insist we can talk about median incomes. Although I can’t speak authoritatively on the situation in New York the median wage for a lawyer in Chicago is around $80,000. Not for a starting lawyer. For all lawyers. The starting wage for a new teacher in Chicago with bachelors only for a nine month position is $45,000.

Also, why single out lawyers? Since 1970 the median incomes of all professionals including engineers, lawyers, dentists, and physicians were tightly clustered. Starting in about 1970 the median incomes of physicians grew at a substantially faster rate than did those of other professionals. And the incomes of physicians don’t exhibit the bimodal distribution that the incomes of lawyers do. My guess is that the income of lawyers working for large law firms in New York due to the peculiar and idiosyncratic conditions in New York assist Mr. Kristof’s case in a way that the incomes of other professionals would not.

I also think that it bears mentioning that, since public school teachers are heavily unionized and unions tend to insist on seniority as the basis for pay, increasing teachers’ wages necessarily means increasing the wages of the teachers already employed more than it would attracting new, presumably more qualified teachers to the profession. Also, in Chicago the number of students enrolled has decreased by 10% over the last decade. That doesn’t sound like the conditions that would encourage the hiring of significant numbers of new teachers.

In some jurisidictions the issues are even thornier. So, for example, in California for several years requirements for educational training were reduced or even waived for graduates with degrees in interest studies, another area with notoriously hazy academic standards.

There would be a better argument for raising teacher pay if teaching weren’t viewed as an entry level job with entry level wages. Note that I’m not arguing that it should be merely that it is.

I believe that there are serious issues involving teacher qualifications incentives, and compensation and I’ll try to discuss some of them in a later post. However, I don’t believe that founding such a discussion on specious claims, spurious comparisons, and unlikely outcomes advances the conversation.

As a postscript I want to confess that columns like Mr. Kristof’s brings out my inner technocrat. I am a person of contradictions. In a real technocracy a lawyer (like Mr. Kristof) wouldn’t be allowed to cite statistics without having his claims reviewed by an actuary.

7 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    That’s one of the strangest comparisons I’ve seen made.

    Kristoff and McKinsey are comparing starting salaries at prestigious New York law firms with starting salaries at New York public schools.

    I wonder why more people don’t become lawyers at prestigious New York law firms?

    (To my ear, Kristoff engaged in a little exaggeration by substituting the word “prominent” for “prestigious.” I think the class of “prestigious” firms must be smaller than “prominent.”)

  • steve Link

    It is odd to compare lawyer salary with teacher salary. What you forget on your list is combat pay. It is not easy working with a lot of inner city kids. Of course the problem there is that all city teachers get paid the same. I do think it telling that teachers are willing to work in private schools for much less. Perhaps we should replicate those conditions so that we can hire public school teachers for less.


  • PD Shaw Link

    Or find lawyers working in some of the less attractive areas of practice and observe how the pay works.

    Or better yet examine the area of lawyers in union shops . . .

  • michael reynolds Link

    I used to work at a prominent and (I think) prestigious K street law firm where I updated CCH’s, tracked down documents by pretending to be other people, did some non-legal research and slipped, um, douceurs, to employees of the Government Printing Office to get preferential treatment.

    My employers actually offered to help me get into law school — having overlooked the fact that I was a high school drop-out — and I very politely said, are you kidding? You work associates like galley slaves. Secretaries are better treated. The janitorial staff were better treated. And every one of these guys (and a few girls) was law review from Harvard, Yale or equivalent.

    They chained those poor bastards to a library carrel, buried them up to the neck in books and never let them out for six or seven years until at last some partner would come along and tell the pale fungus that had once been a man that he was, “Not on the partner track.” Or in English: f**k off, loser, and good luck with your student loans.

    At the top there are guys like my lawyer — a name partner at a Madison Avenue law firm — but there are a lot of casualties along the way.

    People should bear all that in mind when hating on those d-bags.

    Well, they are still d-bags.

  • steve Link

    Lawyers are a special case. I think tournament rules apply. Makes it hard to compare them with other jobs.

    Only a minority are d-bags, but the ones who are really are major d-bags.


  • I used to work at a prominent and (I think) prestigious K street law firm where I updated CCH’s, tracked down documents by pretending to be other people, did some non-legal research and slipped, um, douceurs, to employees of the Government Printing Office to get preferential treatment.

    I performed much the same chores for my dad when I was in high school (before he died). Plus looked up precedents at the law library, made dunning phone calls, and generally read law.

  • PD Shaw Link

    michael, points to another big problem with the comparison. The McKinsey study points to one of the biggest changes in the past 40 years, which is that teaching was once largely a female occupation, and females in other college degreed occupations were rare.

    Prestigious law firms don’t retain female associates; they’re generally out in four, usually on to government, for smaller paychecks and better quality of life.

Leave a Comment