“Smell something, say something!” Teachers’ unions do not hurt student outcomes.

August 20th, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Welcome to the first edition of a new OTE feature, dedicated to the parting admonition of the great Jon Stewart: when it comes to BS, “smell something, say something!

To be clear, I’m not trying to emulate the fact checkers out there. Nor am I going to peruse the papers, like Dean does so effectively, to find errant economics reporting.  Instead, I’m just going to occasionally pounce on a specific brand of assertion: a stylized, accepted fact that isn’t a fact at all.

For example, conservative partisans (as well as many centrist D’s) consistently assert that teachers’ unions are bad for student outcomes, and if we want to improve such outcomes, we must diminish the impact of teachers’ unions. Most recently, this negative role of unions was a featured assertion in a Republican primary debate.

That claim smelled bad to me, as in I know of no body of evidence to support it. I know it’s a constant refrain, but I figured I’d have seen something from the deep academic community that runs analyses of such issues over the years to support it, and I haven’t.

Maybe I missed it. So I asked some experts in this field and they confirmed my intuition.

–Berkeley econ prof Jesse Rothstein, who’s done important work on “value-added-measurement” in teacher evaluations, confirmed my priors that such evidence is wanting.

–He and education policy expert Kevin Carey made the same interesting point: there’s a significant measurement challenge in that school districts that don’t have unions, and would thus serve as a useful control, “tend to have teachers associations and/or contracts that aren’t too different from what unionized districts have” (Rothstein).

–The unions themselves will correctly tell you that states with fewer unions, including “right-to-work” states, have worse student outcomes. And there are countries, like Finland, that have very high unionization rates and consistently rank highly in international comparisons of student outcomes. But, as Carey stressed, right-to-work states are also poorer, and Finland ain’t the US, and there’s the quasi-union arrangements noted above, even in non-union states. So it’s very hard to make an all-else-equal run at this question.

–Larry Mishel shares this paper by himself and Emma Garcia. It tests–rigorously, I thought–for correlations–again, we’re not talking causality–between the strength of teachers unions and whether unions shift more experienced and higher credentialed teachers away from poorer schools. Their results fail “to show an association between the strength of unions in the states and the allocation of teacher credentials across schools. We find no negative or no association between the allocations of credentials in average schools or in high poverty schools and the unions’ strength…we find no association between the unions’ strength and the misallocation of credentials among high poverty schools relative to the average.”

In other words, there is nothing like a well-established consensus that teachers’ unions have any impact one way or the other on student outcomes. That doesn’t mean teachers’ unions are great for kids either. It means that when you hear a politician bashing teachers’ unions on behalf of students, they’re BS’ing…so: smell something and say something.

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12 comments in reply to "“Smell something, say something!” Teachers’ unions do not hurt student outcomes."

  1. Tom in MN says:

    I would argue that teachers unions are bad but in the opposite sense: teachers should be treated as professionals that don’t need unions, as many college faculty are. Unionization of educators at all levels is an indicator that compensation and working conditions have deteriorated to the point unionization is needed to give the workers the ability to fight these declines. It is these declines in support for education that are the real culprit and unionization is only a symptom. The people fighting teachers unions want to further erode our educational system and their complaints about unions hurting educational outcomes are just a way to get unions out of the way. Teachers unions are easy to get rid of, all you have to do is pay teachers more and spend more on schools. But that’s not the solution these people are looking for.

    Thanks for saying something!

    • Gary says:

      Tom: Have you checked your university to see how many “Adjunct” professors there are? How many are on SNAP? Receiving supplemental housing allowances? Check and see how many professors are tenured verses 10 years ago. Check to see how the administration has grown in comparison.
      Colleges and universities, whether public or private, have gotten out of the education business and into making money business. Look the the monuments to chancellor’s egos are being built to the tune of millon$ and milion$ of dollars for football stadiums, art centers, locker rooms, etc.
      The money that is being spent on one football stadium can pay for 5500 students full time tuition. Think about that. This football stadium will only host 8 events a year! Talk about a money loser?

  2. Ben Groves says:

    It is usually politicians who want to strip Teacher power that hurt students.

  3. Amateur says:

    This one is hard for me to judge, and I find myself agreeing with the good man Jared.

    I’m in favor of teacher’s unions in general, but I’m not in favor of the tremendous retirement packages they negotiated. When Scott Walker killed the Wisconsin teacher’s union, he had a lot of support largely because of the jealousy towards the retirement benefits.

    Scott went way overboard. Outlawing collective bargaining is unAmerican in my view.

    My kids have had fantastic teachers, and I think it is largely because many fantastic people feel comfortable being teachers because of the union. I think the results will show up in a decade and later when we realize the best people have avoided the profession.

    It is a shame. But for now, my kids can ride the tide that the union created before it goes out forever.

    I knew one of the representatives for the union and talked to him a few times about it, and he was a really nice guy. As soon as they killed the union, the teachers got spooked. They’re more hesitant to speak up for themselves and they feel afraid. Fear is not a good motivator for open teaching.

    Many people don’t realize how many parents complain about good teachers. All it takes is one or two bogus complaints about how the teacher handles their children and they can get fired. It is sad.

    Unions in general, I believe, should be worked into the government just like in Germany. Workers need rights, and they need champions within the government.

    • daveeckstrom says:

      People who think Scott Walker was doing something good and just when he busted the unions in my state, need to look at how Wisconsin teachers had such good retirement plans in the first place.

      A previous governor, Tommy Thompson, one of Walker’s personal heroes, tried to raid the WI public employee retirement fund, which was and continues to be in excellent financial health. He was resisted by the unions and lost the battle. In retaliation, a law was pushed through that limited total teacher compensation increases to 3.8% annually. The deal that was made to push this through was that teacher benefits would have to be held as constant as possible.

      This was made during prosperous times, when people in the private sector were seeing their pay go up at better rates and during times when good benefits were relatively cheap and were common in the private sector. This law was in place for years and shortly after its passage the cost of health care began to rise dramatically, eating up the whole 3.8% or nearly so, resulting in almost no pay increase for about 15 years. But, by law, the benefits had to stay the same. So teachers were, after 15 years of no raises, being labeled by Walker as oppressing the “hardworking taxpayers” because the law required our school boards to keep our benefits.

      It was never about the money, because Walker threw away on his business buddies almost the exact same amount he extracted from the teachers, so there was no change in the budget. It was only ever about politics. He needed to eliminate the power of the unions, who traditionally support Democrats.

    • Paul says:

      “Tremendous retirement package” ? If you mean a negotiated pension in leu of salary increases to offset the need to invest in our own retirement, then yea, that’s tremendous.

      The basic idea is that instead of paying a fair wage, school boards negotiate a lower salary on the promise of taking certain living expenses off the table, such as retirement planning and health benefits. The argument (from the boards side) is that it’s cheaper for them to pay into a pension system, than to face the argument of paying a living wage that include retirement planning. So, the teacher’s union backed down, took the pension deal, but never ask, “You Promise?”. My board has cut my pension, increased my contributions towards it, and increased my health contributions to the tune of $10,000 a year, all AFTER the salaries had been negotiated on the promise of the opposite. Essentially, the teachers are subsidizing residential property-tax breaks.

    • Amateur says:

      All of this is just a tit for tat political argument. It all started back when SS was created and many government jobs were exempted for political reasons.

      Therein started the argument about the fairness of private-sector employment vs. public sector employment and the retirement benefits that go with them.

      Most public sector employees have had better retirement benefits than private sector employees, and everyone knows it.

      I’m just providing the explanation. I’m not defending it. Perception is perception, and politics are about perception.

      As long as there are differences in retirement benefits for government workers vs. private sector workers, there’s going to be a lot of ammunition against government employees and government in general. Was this by design? No, it just developed out of the tit for tat arguments that began with SS.

  4. urban legend says:

    “Nothing like a well established consensus”

    Way too nice. There is no evidence whatsoever. In fact, there isn’t even a half-decent theory for how having a union may be bad for students. They make teachers lazy because they can’t be fired or make more money? They can be fired if they are bad. It happens all the time when an administration is willing to do basic information-building. Most of the time, weak teachers quit either (1) on their own because they know after a short miserable time they are not cut out for it, or (2) they are unwilling to put up the fight in a termination proceeding that will be unpleasant at best They keep bad teachers in the system? That’s always based on nothing more than anecdotes, such as ones collected in a bought and paid-for propaganda film like “Waiting for Superman.”

    I do not understand how a progressive can give the slightest credence to claims that being able to collectively bargain and be accorded basic due process rights in a contract somehow weakens the performance of those covered. Especially teachers, who virtually always choose the profession because they want to teach kids, niot for making big money.

  5. Paul says:

    Teachers and teachers unions are easy targets for two main reasons.
    1. It is a female dominated profession. 76% of public school teachers k-12 are female. It’s easy to deny a living wage to a largely female workforce.
    2. Teachers unions have forgotten that they DON’T represent students. They represent teachers. Student outcomes should never be part of the argument. Salary and benefits, period.

    • urban legend says:


      Your point No. 1: Bingo! Wait until someone also figures out that all these great innovations in compensation and easy termination will disproportionately impact African-American as well as female teachers. When they do, they can accuse Bill Gates and Arnie Duncan of misogyny and racism or, at least, indifference thereto — and see how long they stick to their (poorly constructed) guns.

      Your point 2: salary, benefits AND working conditions — which requires significant teacher input into local district policies.

      Finally, rather than formulate the state comparison issue in terms of a claim that states with weak unions have poorer student outcomes — which puts the burden of proof in the wrong direction — how about casting the state results in a more positive vein, e.g., as states like Minnesota with strong teachers unions having the strongest results? Yes, there are many factors, but Minnesota and some other states compete very, very well in international tests with other countries like Finland that are held up in mainstream media as paragons of educational excellence — even though even Minnesota is probably significantly more racially, culturally and economically diverse than Finland. That in itself pretty much buries the idea that unions somehow weaken the teaching process. It’s up to those hostile to unions to prove that they have a negative impact, rather than the pro-union people to prove they have a positive impact.

  6. Denis Drew says:

    Chicago public schools may have uniquely cracked what I call the ghetto code: that ghetto schools fail because students (and teachers!) don’t seen anything remunerative enough waiting for them in the labor market post graduation to make it worth putting out the extra effort. This down and discouraged vicious circle was revealed by Berkeley political scientist Martín Sánchez-Jankowski in his book Cracks in the Pavement. The professor spent nine years on the ground in five NYC and LA impoverished neighborhoods. He spent the previous ten years with street gangs.

    “U.S. News and World Report just released its annual rankings of the nation’s best high schools: Six of the top 10 in Illinois are in CPS and another three in the top 20.”

    “from 2003 to 2013 and found Chicago students grew 11 points on the 8th grade math test and 7 points on the 4th grade reading test. The state grew just 7 points and 3 points, respectively.”

    “[B]etween 2006 and 2014, the percentage of CPS students earning a bachelor’s degree within 6 years of high school graduation jumped from 8 percent to 14 percent. The national rate is 18 percent. … They found that Latino students enrolled in CPS are more likely to graduate high school than their counterparts in many suburban districts, including Maine Township High Schools and Evanston Township High School.”

    “Salary figures provided by the Chicago Public Schools show teachers here have the highest average salary of any city in the nation. But, according to the Chicago Teachers Union’s calculations, Chicago teachers would rank second behind New York City.”

    On Wisconsin; to nearby states with your children where they can still get a first-class education without you reaching into your pockets to waste 300 million tax payer dollars.

  7. Liz says:

    As a retired NJ school social worker, I learned the value of our local and state education association for the student, faculty, and community. I was fortunate to work for a community that highly valued education. Many of our teachers and support staff lived in the community and their children & grandchildren attended the local public schools. Our local education association (or union as some refer to the organization) advocated for contractual guarantee off small classroom sizes (25 for kindergarten through 8th grade), preparation time for staff to collaborate with other teachers, a thirty minute uninterrupted lunch with exceptions for emergency situations and travel time separate from lunch time for staff with multiple school settings, professional development. Our local association fought for these “contractual agreements” as it was in the best interest of the students and they fought to make sure that the administration abided by the contract. Our local association also worked hard for a fair salary increase based upon the national and local economy. In lean years our association accepted lower pay increases and in good years they fought for a higher pay increases. In exchange for better working conditions, our association accepted lower salary increases and a longer work day.

    In states without strong education associations/unions, educators working conditions are left to the whim and desires of the administration. If you have a principal, supervisor, or superintendent who recognizes that small classroom sizes, preparation time for teachers, a bathroom/lunch breaks are important for student learning, teachers and support staff will have good working conditions.

    Educators in states with strong unions/associations have much better working conditions. These better working conditions were not achieved without a strong organization. The reason the private sector and the right have gone after teachers is simple. They want to privatize education to make more money for themselves. They are not interested in the betterment of society or education.

    It is very sad and unfortunate for this country that the common man believes the orchestrated PR campaign of an elite and monied group of individuals whose goal is to make more money by paying the common man/woman less.