Blog: The Educated Reporter

Salary databases: Lots of data, lots of interest … except from me.

Several times a year, a reporter contacts me and asks what to do with the database of teacher salaries they just acquired. When a journalist asks me whether or not to write about a piece of research that just arrived on his desk, if I don’t think there is a story there, I feel comfortable saying no. When the reporter has FOIA’d his tail off and massaged the ensuing data to the nth degree and then some, “I don’t think there is a story there” is not a very useful response.

Yet. I look at these Excel spreadsheets and too often say to myself, “So what?” Don’t get me wrong: I think there is plenty to say about teacher salaries—how they are determined, the direction they are headed in, how they compare to neighboring districts, whether back-loading salary scales provides perverse incentives, whether the salary scales make sense at all. There are interesting policy questions to ask, like whether a high school physics teacher should be paid the same as a high school dance teacher or a kindergarten P.E. teacher. But teacher-by-teacher salary data in a district—that is just not all that interesting. “But readers love to find out how much their kid’s teacher makes!” is not a hugely compelling argument for spending resources creating databases where people can do so. Sometimes reporters write about intra-school differences in pay as a proxy for writing about experience. Sometimes, researchers warn me, salary data provided by districts are not reliable.

Surely others out there disagree with me and see lots of value in this sort of work. Have you read or done something good on the topic? If so, please share.