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.