Quick Thoughts on the Damon-ized Education Debate

Last Saturday, a movement called Save Our Schools held a rally in DC. You probably wouldn’t know it, save for one thing: actor Matt Damon addressed the participants, was interviewed by Reason.TV, and suddenly cable anchors and others declared that Mr. Damon had wiped the floor with anyone who’d dare say anything negative even slightly connected to teachers. That Mr. Damon had uttered little of substance – that he had mainly delivered assertions about teachers working themselves to death for an, um, fecal-matter salary – seemed irrelevant. He had delivered his thoughts with conviction, and the matter, apparently, was settled!

This is a sad commentary on the state of the education debate. For one thing, that a rally largely objecting to top-down standards-and-testing dictates (though also school choice and “privatization”) will likely be remembered mainly for a movie star’s impassioned talk is unfortunate. There are numerous potent reasons to object to government-imposed standards and tests – reasons I’d love to see get lots more attention – but, unfortunately, many SOSers seem content to simply frame the problem as evil “corporatists” trying to attack and punish teachers. That’s some weak sauce, but the primary meme of the event was basically that anyone who’d dare critique public schooling is really assaulting Howard Hesseman. It was, essentially, an ad hominem attack on anyone who advocates reforms that some teachers don’t like, and as a result it’s a message that, sadly, deserves little attention.

Which brings me to the lack of substance in Damon’s most celebrated assertion, the one about salaries. As Nick Gillespie at Reason elucidates and I explore at length in a recent Policy Analysis, it’s not true that public school teachers, on average and based on hours worked, make small money relative to other professionals. That’s in no way to say individual teachers are making the “right” salary – that can only be determined in a free market, in which salaries are ultimately determined by the priorities of both education producers and consumers – but it is, to say the least, a stretch to describe teachers’ salaries as Damon did. Indeed, using Bureau of Labor Statistics data, I found that teachers made more per-hour than accountants and auditors, registered nurses, and insurance underwriters. Even first-year teachers, as I illustrate in the PA, make enough to live quite comfortably.

Oh, and Damon’s assertion about teachers working “really long hours”? Many absolutely do, and teaching can be a very draining job. It’s one of many reasons we need to move away from rigid, union-demanded salary ladders that keep good teachers from getting rewarded for their hard work. We also, even more importantly, need a free market so that parents can direct money to schools that succeed with their children, and all their teachers can get rewarded. That said, according to a 2008 BLS “time diary” study, on average, during periods when teachers are working – so not including vacation times – teachers do not toil longer than other professionals, including work beyond contract hours.

It’s sad that it takes a contentious interview with a celebrity going viral on the Internet to get attention paid to what are real, and complex, problems in education. It is even more depressing that when attention is paid, the message one hears is so divorced from evidence and substance.