John Brummett, a columnist in a local paper in Northwest Arkansas called the Morning News, posted on his blog that he is going to write another column attacking me. At least he gives fair warning.
In 2007 he wrote an angry column in response to a report I co-wrote with Marcus Winters about teacher pay. The column concluded:
What’s inherently nonsensical — no, breathtakingly offensive — is for someone interested in those very reforms to be so politically lead-footed as to write an article saying teachers are paid plenty already, and do so while he pulls down $160,000 or more in a public education faculty position himself, and while he is underwritten by a foundation created by wealthy heirs of a fortune gleaned in part from low employee wages and sparse employee benefits.
At the time I hadn’t started this blog, so I didn’t think there was a reasonable forum to address his piece. But now that the blog is pulling in a daily readership that is not too far off the daily readership of his column in the Northwest Arkansas Morning News (daily circulation 33,582), I’ll respond to the old column and anticipate his new one.
Other than being angry himself and asserting that I had said “something crazy that makes every school teacher in Arkansas throw an eraser across the classroom,” it is not clear what substantive objection Brummett has to what I wrote. He never disputed the accuracy of the facts I presented on teacher pay, nor could he. The numbers I presented were taken directly from the U.S. government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
I suppose one could object to how the BLS calculates hourly pay, based on the argument that it fails to fully capture teacher hours worked outside of school more than it fails to capture hours worked outside of the office by other professionals and white collar workers. But we addressed that concern in the report by comparing teacher wages to those of other white collar and professional workers on a weekly basis. Teachers still earn more than other white collar and professional workers. Teachers do earn less on an annual basis, as we said, but having breaks during the Winter, Spring, and Summer is worth money. If you don’t think it is, how do you think teachers would feel if we asked them to work all year for the same annual pay they get now?
In addition, I never said that teachers are overpaid, despite Brummett’s suggestion to the contrary by describing my view incorrectly as “teachers get paid plenty already.” In fact, in the report we explicitly stated: “we offer no opinions on the proper level of pay for public school teachers. We are simply offering facts, almost entirely obtained from an agency of the federal government, that we believe ought to be included in any policy discussion about teacher pay.” Instead, our point, other than providing descriptive information, was to suggest that teacher pay was roughly comparable on an hourly or weekly basis to that of other white collar and professional workers.
We did provide an exploratory regression analysis showing no relationship between the level of teacher pay and student outcomes, controlling for observed demographics. And we did suggest that higher pay might yield better student achievement if it were more explicitly connected to achievement via a merit pay system. But these arguments do not suggest that teachers are paid too much, only that we should explore paying them differently.
What’s even stranger about Brummett (and others) being offended by my report, is that it is not clear what would be bad about saying that teachers are reasonably well-compensated. In business schools they routinely brag about how well-paid their graduates are. Doing so helps them attract more and higher quality applicants. Why wouldn’t we want to do the same in Education colleges? I understand that some teachers and their unions may nurse the false grievance of being paid significantly less than other professionals in order to gain leverage in seeking pay increases in the future. But why should researchers, journalists, and Education college officials suppress accurate and truthful information to assist them in that effort?
Brummett may get angry again tomorrow. He may throw his column across the room. He may talk about how much I get paid. He may offer more political advice, as if researchers should tailor their reporting of the facts to suit political interests. He may say I’m controlled by the Waltons or Keyser Soze.
But he can’t change the facts. The BLS numbers are what they are. He can try to distract his readers from that evidence, but he can’t make a substantive argument against what I’ve reported.
UPDATE —Sure enough, Brummett threw his tantrum. He opens with name-calling: “He’s right-wing and quite the zealous advocate of many education reform notions.”
Then he assigns to me responsibility for all sorts of things that aren’t actually attributable to me. For example, he says (dripping with sarcasm): “He gives [teachers] summers off and calculates their hours of actual classroom instruction and concludes that he knows people in other professional fields who aren’t doing as well or significantly better.”
I didn’t do any of those things. Teacher contracts with schools give them the summers off. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates their hourly and weekly pay. The BLS reports that teachers, on average, make more than other white collar and professional workers on both an hourly and weekly basis. I just repeated what the BLS reported.
He continues falsely attributing to me claims that were not invented by me: “He faulted [Fayetteville schools] for spending federal stimulus dollars not to stimulate the economy, but to pay teachers what he assumes to be twice their usual hourly rate for something they would have been doing anyway, and for much less, without the stimulus.” (emphasis added) I didn’t assume that teacher pay was doubled with the stimulus dollars. The Northwest Arkansas Times reported that fact and I, again, just repeated it.
Finally, he makes the case for this use of stimulus dollars: “This is a new and different program that wouldn’t have been undertaken without the extra Title 1 money from the stimulus, [district officials] say. This will be high-intensity summer session with innovative techniques and individualized instruction and counseling, they say.”
I never disputed that the program might be a beneficial one. As I wrote in my initial post on this topic: “The Leap Ahead program may well be a good one.” My objection is to paying teachers twice their normal rate (as reported by the NWAT) and three times what teachers in neighboring Springdale are being paid for the same program. Nothing in Brummett’s column justifies that. And he conveniently neglects to mention how Springdale teachers are being paid 1/3 as much for the same thing.
It’s clear that John Brummett uses his column to prosecute his own personal, political agenda. That’s acceptable for a columnist, but normally they have to be constrained by facts and logic in doing so. He can’t falsely attribute to me claims that are not my own. And he can’t switch the issue from doubling (or tripling) teacher pay for a program to the desirability of that program. At least, his newspaper shouldn’t let him do these things with their paper.
Who exactly is the zealot here — the person repeating the factual claims of the BLS and the Northwest Arkansas Times or the person omitting crucial facts, falsely attributing claims, and changing the subject?
(Edited for typos. See a follow-up post here.)