Don’t Write About Teachers


It was a Sunday, a day like any other Sunday.  I went to look at the NCES Digest of Education Statistics to see if any more tables from the 2013 version had been released.  To my delight, I found some interesting stuff; but most of the NCES Tables are designed to be printed as reports, and are in no shape to be pulled into the software I typically use, Tableau.

But this one on teacher salaries was in pretty good shape, even though I almost always focus on higher education data.  A couple clicks, and I was ready to visualize.  I did so and put it up on my other blog, Higher Education Data stories, here. One of the meta-reasons for doing so is to show how much more understanding of an issue you can impart with a picture as opposed to a table of data. I hope you agree.

I sent it off to some groups, and posted it to the NACAC e-list, an email group of college admissions professionals and independent and high school counselors.  It’s an open list, and Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post asked if she could share it.  It’s a blog and it’s public, so I happily agreed. It was up that afternoon, and you can read it here.

In addition to the hundreds of comments this has drawn on the WaPo site (which could be a post in themselves), I’ve received lots of emails and posts about the visualization.  They fall into several groups:

  • I’m trying to hurt teachers by showing how high salaries are
  • I’m trying to help teachers by showing how low salaries are
  • The data can’t be trusted because it’s from the Feds
  • The data doesn’t account for costs of living
  • The data doesn’t account for average service
  • The data isn’t split by union/non-union states
  • The data can’t be right because someone’s cousin makes way less than this
  • The data can’t be right because someone’s cousin makes way more than this
  • I shouldn’t have used red-green scales (and this person was right; I should know better).

Lessons learned, but good to repeat:

  • You can only viz the data you have
  • The limits of means as a measure of central tendency are not widely understood
  • Everyone’s an expert
  • I’m an idiot for stepping into this without understanding what a political landmine teacher pay is.

Lessons learned, internalized, and acted upon.  Stick to higher education.

And for those of you still reading, I had no political agenda at all; I simply thought the data was interesting, and that it would make a good visualization.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t Write About Teachers

  1. I agree on the color scale change, not only because of colorblindness but because the red-green scheme politicized the map even further than the numbers alone would have done. I’m actually going to keep the original image to demonstrate how creative choices lead to symbolic content, regardless of intention (I’m an English teacher). Having the high salaries in red (stop) and the low in green (go) implied a position, even if erroneously.

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  2. I believe the fault lies in the table itself. When data is “estimated” forward for a number of years using history of years past there is always a danger.
    Statistical analysis being what it is, wouldn’t it have been better if the data had been actual rather than extrapolated based on past performance. As an example, Louisiana had an increase in the Minimum Funding across all Parishes in the School Year 1979-1980. During each of the School Years between 2009-2014 there has been a decrease in the Minimum Funding. This means Teacher Pay was decreased at every level of Education in the State of Louisiana from Pre-Kindergarten to University in every year from 2009-2014.
    I believe this is an exact opposite of the data reflected in your Table.
    The Minimum Funding Level for a PhD. with a Doctorate of Education with 25 years experience Teaching would be around $16,000 per year I believe. Any money above that would depend on the Parish being taught in.

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