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In this week’s CommenTerry, I review some of the problems and challenges associated with the teacher pay rankings published by the National Education Association.

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I have been discussing teacher pay rankings for years.  In fact, three years ago I wrote a newsletter piece titled, "Education spending in North Carolina: The ranking problem."  In that piece, I outlined the major problems associated with the National Education Association (NEA) rankings of teacher pay included in their annual "Rankings and Estimates" publications.  I pointed out the following:

  • The current-year rankings were educated guesses based on the budgetary trends from previous years;
  • NEA comparisons do not take into account cost-of-living differences among states;
  • NEA researchers also do not address variations in how states, localities, and districts fund their public schools; and
  • Because of these difficulties, NEA researchers urge caution when citing state-by-state estimates published in "Rankings & Estimates."

Many of the issues and themes addressed in the newsletter referenced above were reiterated in subsequent analyses of the rankings, which can be found here and here.  In addition, Don Carrington’s Carolina Journal article on the relationship between teacher and private sector pay is an incredibly valuable contribution to the discussion.

Every year, NEA researchers send two short surveys to state education agencies, asking them to provide and update basic demographic, economic, enrollment, financial, and personnel data for the state (See Facts and Stats below).  They acknowledge that the data they receive can be dicey,

The NEA recognizes that each state’s department of education (DOE) has its own system of accounting and reporting for state executive and legislative branch purposes. As a result, it is not always possible to obtain completely comparable data for every state. ("Rankings and Estimates 2013-14," p. 97)

NEA researchers encourage states to provide clarifying information, but only about half do.  North Carolina is not one of them.  In most cases, it is difficult to know what elements are included or excluded from states’ average salary figures.

On the other hand, Illinois reports that salary data "may include extra-duty pay."  Education officials from Oregon write, "Where applicable, ‘average teacher salary’ includes the contract amount plus 6 percent for the employer portion of retirement contributions."  New York declares that their "teacher salary data are medians, not averages (arithmetic means)." Given these and other variations in reporting, it is safe to say that the NEA data do not lend themselves to apples-to-apples comparisons.  Unfortunately, that has not stopped the mainstream media and public school advocacy groups from exalting the report.

If there are crippling problems associated with the NEA report, why do we use it?  The answer is simple.  There is nothing else out there.  Data collected and reported by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) often lags by two years or more, depending on their data collection schedule.  Even when they report statistics in a timely manner, NCES researchers encounter many of the same methodological challenges that plague the NEA.

Elected officials use the NEA report to declare that North Carolina is ranked X in average teacher pay (Democrats) or will rank X next year when we raise teacher pay (Republicans).  Unfortunately, few have been informed that the rankings they cite are terribly flawed.  Others simply choose to ignore that fact.

Facts and Stats

NEA "Rankings and Estimates" methodology is as follows:

Twice a year, NEA Research submits current-year estimates of more than 35 educational statistics to each state’s Department of Education for verification or revision. The figures submitted by NEA Research are generated using regression analyses, which are standard statistical techniques designed to make predictions for the current year using numerical data from prior years. Only if an education department does not replace these projections with its own estimated data does the NEA use regression-generated figures in this report. Such NEA estimates are identified with an asterisk in the summary of state data and state-by-state tables. (Technical Notes, p. 64)

Acronym of the Week

NEA — National Education Association

Quote of the Week

"Of course, no set of tables tells the entire story of a state’s education offerings. Consideration of factors such as a state’s tax system, provisions for other public services, and population characteristics also are needed. Therefore, it is unwise to draw conclusions based solely on individual statistics in this report. Readers are urged to supplement the ranked data with specific information about state and local service activities related to public education."

– National Education Association, "Rankings of the States 2013 and Estimates of School Statistics 2014," March 2014, p. vii.

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