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Who's Overpaid, Teachers or the Wonks Who Write About Them?

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A recent study from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) argues that public school teachers are actually overpaid, which seems contrary to the conventional wisdom regarding educators' salaries. These "fat cat" elementary teachers with second jobs must have been doing it for fun all this time. I guess mixing it up with the 99% reminds teachers of what it was once like to be human.

Cue the understandable outrage from public school and teacher advocates: for example, Nancy Flanagan from Education Week underscores all the contingent work that makes the profession far from the 8-3 job that many accept as truth. As a former elementary teacher and current teacher educator, I am totally of the belief that teachers are worth millions in lip service and little else. That is, if salary is a true judge of one's worth.

Rather than go through the myriad reasons educators of all stripes should be paid more, I have a slightly different perspective. Let us take a look at one of the authors of the study, AEI economics scholar Andrew Briggs. Response to Briggs' report has not been purely ideological, namely that this is yet again an unoriginal and familiar castigation of the teaching profession from conservative sympathizers. The methodology of the Briggs study is questionable as well.

A recent post in the Atlantic suggests that the authors don't really understand the profession they're studying, as evident by lumping all teachers together regardless of geography and specialty to draw their conclusions. So, as an educator, I probably shouldn't be trying to write about economists, but that's just me.

Maureen Downey in her Atlanta Journal Constitution column, "Get Schooled," had a little help from graduate fellow Jordan Solomon, who attended the AEI study's little release party. With an incredibly astute eye for methodology, Solomon argues that the study is a very thinly veiled ideological treatise. The report is so methodologically flawed and humdrum in its conclusions that its only purpose could possibly be to whip up the derision of conservative governors who are looking for any excuse to make cuts to various public services, namely education.

As I said before, I have my own take on this debate. AEI's Form 990 from 2009, as reported to the Internal Revenue Service, indicates that Mr. Andrew Biggs received $140,100 in salary for his scholarly work, which is estimated at 50 hours per week. Let the record reflect that, as a public school teacher, it was not uncommon for me to work nearly 60 hours per week at roughly a third of the salary. As another curious aside, a Mr. Richard Cheney did an hour of work for AEI that same year and received $80,230 in compensation.

So here's my question: who's overpaid, the prototypical teacher or Mr. Andrew Biggs? In addition to teaching, I spent years honing my craft as a researcher. I am continually held to account for my chosen methods and my work has to go through rigorous reviews before publication. And for the most part, work from skilled education researchers doesn't receive a fraction of the audience that Mr. Briggs is receiving for his questionable scholarship. It is somehow the economists that get all the attention when it comes to research in education.

Perhaps it will thus take an economist to explain something to me: how can a market that should value expertise pay someone like Mr. Briggs so much money to do work in an area that he seems to know so little about? Last week on my own blog, I revealed that Michelle Rhee receives upwards of $50,000 for speaking engagements made payable to something called Rhee Enterprises, LLC, managed by her brother. It is apparent that folks like Briggs and Rhee who trash teachers and denigrate their profession are paid handsome sums of money for really amateurish work.

I hear the argument all the time that the market sets the rates, so Rhee will get paid for her simple ability to stew controversy and Briggs will get his six figures a year from AEI to produce easily debunked and highly redundant research on a subject familiar to him only through regression models. As the invisible right hand of the market pushes charlatans into the one percent, and into the spotlight on education reform, the left hand is giving educators a giant invisible middle finger.