There Will Be Numbers: The limits of wonkery
Since the teachers in Chicago went on strike, Ezra Klein’s blog of gritty numerics has published four posts on the subject. Each has been, as one might expect, mired in the most precise and useless kind of wonkery available.
Monday morning, wonk apprentice Dylan Matthews made sure to leave debate (over the actual merits of the strike) aside, and instead explain what strikes mean for the students. His findings? “Nothing good, the best empirical evidence suggests.” Think. About. The. Kids.
Later that day, Matthews published another post on the strike, this time explaining “Everything you need to know about the Chicago teacher’s strike.” And what are the two sides actually fighting about?
- Teacher evaluations
- Laid off teacher recalls
- Smaller class sizes
- Air conditioning
He discusses teacher pay and benefits, as well as a host of other issues for which there are plenty of accessible numbers to crunch, copy, and paste (like, for instance, how Chicago schools compare nationally in terms of assessment results and the length of the school year). He then launches into a flurry of numbers concerning the city’s finances.
Finally, a short section outlines how test scores would play a larger role in teacher evaluation anyway once “Race to the Top” is implemented. There aren’t too many numbers there though, so Matthews doesn’t dillidally. The one bit of numerical information he does have is that test scores are scheduled under current law to make up 20-40% of evaluations anyway. Oh, and he makes sure to note that the students are in limbo right now because, per his original post, the strikes leave them with no place to go.
What he doesn’t do is give any real information or analysis for what he himself claims are the real issues: what the evaluations will actually consist of, how teacher recalls to fill vacant positions would actually work, what the effects of smaller class sizes are on outcomes and how much that would cost, or the number of schools without air conditioning. How much would installation and a year’s energy bill afterward cost, I wonder? Alas, that info is probably not so easily linked to, despite how much more important it is.
Instead, on Tuesday morning, Matthews puts together an even more involved post that deals with how much teachers in Chicago make, despite the fact that this is admittedly not what the strike is about. Nevertheless, Matthews debunks the Union’s alleged average and median salary numbers, doing a bit of high stakes arithmetic to show that the median income for Chicago teachers is probably closer to $71,017 once you account for differences in payroll taxes, etc.
However, still nothing, numbers or otherwise, on the issues that the strike is supposedly really about.
And now today, while I was listening to the final minutes of NPR’s Morning Edition, Matthews filed his fourth post on the subject, this time comparing Chicago teacher’s pay to the national average no less. He’s still at it! I know Matthews is eager to flex is wonk muscles and show us all what’s really going on in Chicago according to the numbers. And indeed I am eager for him to do that as well! So why is he still talking about teacher pay?
It turns out that Chicago teachers have the highest starting salary, and one of the highest maximum salaries of any similarly situated school district.
But wait for it, here’s how Matthews signs off after bestowing this crucial little kernel of insight,
“Again, this says nothing about the propriety of Chicago’s pay schedule. Maybe they’re paying teachers adequately and most other school districts are shirking them. Maybe it could use to raise its maximum pay to New York levels to attract highly educated teachers. But in any case, Chicago teachers make significantly more than average, no matter their education or experience level.”
This is a textbook case of passive aggressive wonkery. Matthews isn’t trying to make a value judgment here, he’s just laying out the facts so that others can make that decision with more information.
Now the problem isn’t that Matthew’s has sided against the Chicago Teachers Union. I don’t care who he sides with. The problem is that he masks it in such phony neutrality. It is in fact more deceptive than if he were to just lay out his biases up front. He’s not giving readers all of the information related to the situation, or even most of the numbers. Instead he’s fueling a particular side’s talking points by NOT attempting to uncover, tabulate, or otherwise analyze the information which is actually relevant to the strike, per his own, hand-typed, “all you need to know” guide.
If you’re going to try and report on the news from a numbers and cents angle, then do so for all the relevant sides of the issue, not just one.
OR, if you’re not attempting to be neutral, don’t mislead by agenda setting and then with a straight face try to pretend that’s not what you’re doing.
One question Matthews might ask himself is why, if teacher pay is not what the strike is about, or even what the CTU and CSD really disagree about, he has wasted so much of his time talking precisely about the part of the story which is a non-story.
Wonkery without context is useless. It can even be worse than ignorance in some instances, in the same way that being misinformed can be worse than just being uninformed. Wonkery that actually skews the context, and paints a misleading picture of what’s going on by playing up non-issues though is simply irresponsible.