This spring’s teacher walkouts have spurred renewed attention to the question of teacher pay. The topic is a serious one, warranting the extensive reportage it’s received. At times, however, the media’s progressive sympathies, the allure of hard-luck tales, and concerted PR by teachers’ unions have yielded some questionable coverage. A recent case has been the spate of stories suggesting that teachers routinely reach into their own pockets to spend extraordinary sums on classroom materials.
“There is no other job I know of where the workers subsidize what should be a cost borne by an employer as a necessary ingredient of the job,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten has thundered. Numerous recent stories have echoed her sentiment, repeatedly stating that the average teacher spends nearly $500 a year, unreimbursed, on school supplies. “The average teacher spends $479 a year on classroom supplies, national data show,” read a typical headline in Education Week. The Washington Post reported the same finding, in a story headlined “Teachers shelling out nearly $500 a year on school supplies, report finds.” A Time story explained, “Nearly all public school teachers report digging into their pockets to pay for school supplies, spending nearly $480 a year.”
Such claims make for attention-grabbing headlines. But, as with some of the other assertions made in the teacher-pay debate, they can be misleading. It’s less that the coverage is “wrong” than that it’s credulous and sometimes deceptive. So, let’s take a moment to clear things up.
The data in question are drawn from the 2015–16 National Teacher and Principal Survey, a nationally representative study of teachers and principals in public schools, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Using the survey results, NCES calculated average teacher spending for the 94 percent of teachers who said that they spent money out of pocket — excluding the 6 percent of teachers who did not report such spending, though the coverage frequently skips past that qualifier. (Including those other teachers lowers the average by about $30 a head.)
In reporting the “average” figure, news outlets have made the odd choice to focus on mean spending rather than the more typical median figure. There’s a reason most such data are reported in terms of medians (e.g., “median household income”). The median, after all, is the figure midway between the top and bottom of a distribution, meaning it represents the middle of the pack. A mean, on the other hand, can be dramatically moved by a few outliers. Including Warren Buffet or Bill Gates in a sample of average household income would make the typical household look much wealthier than it really is; similarly, a small number of teachers claiming big outlays can move the mean a lot. Indeed, NCES says that just one in five teachers reported spending more than $500, and the median teacher reported spending $297 — or about 60 percent of the widely quoted $479 figure.
Even these qualifications elide the real concern, however, which is the trouble with placing too much weight on a self-reported figure like this one. Journalists have generally ignored the problem inherent in asking respondents about how much they claim to do a good or noble thing. Self-reporting in such cases is highly susceptible to what social scientists term “social-desirability bias”: the tendency of respondents to say things that cast them (consciously or subconsciously) in a more favorable light. Studies show, for instance, that respondents substantially overestimate the number of days per week that they exercise, claim to watch the news three times as much as they actually do, and dramatically over-report their weekly worship-service attendance.
Now, let’s be clear. We are not suggesting that teachers are lying about their spending. But we are suggesting that, when teachers filled out the survey, precious few probably took the time to comb through twelve months’ worth of receipts and credit-card statements. Most of them probably guesstimated, and it’s safe to assume that their guesstimates tended to be on the high side.
We have no desire to diminish the real sacrifices many educators make, much less to deny that some teachers do indeed dig deep into their own pockets on behalf of their students. Spending even $100 or $200 per year out of pocket, especially for a teacher making $45,000 per year, is a big deal, and we don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But serious conversations about teacher pay should be informed by accurate data and careful analysis. Public deliberations about how much teachers should be paid, and whether raises ought to be funded by new taxes or cuts to other programs, are best served by reporting that meets that standard.