Monday, August 22, 2016

How Do Unions Really Affect Schools?

Back in February, Eunice Han at Wellesley College put out a paper entitled "The Myth of Unions' Overprotection of Teachers: Evidence from the District-Teacher Matched Panel Data on Teacher Turnover." Han reaches some really interesting and, perhaps for some folks, counter-intuitive findings, and they're worth a look.

But full disclosure right up front-- I can't really make sense out of her methodology. Han takes sixteen pages just to explain how she did what she did, and it includes all sorts of economist equationing and data mumbo-jumbo that is just plain beyond me. Things like this:

Han has a Ph.D. from Harvard and she has, no kidding, an impressive bucket list. And I can follow the reasoning behind her data crunching, but not the crunching itself. And if her findings seem vaguely familiar, it's because they have been covered elsewhere (check out this interview with Han from Edushyster). But there are some pieces of research that are worth re-blogging about. You say "redundant;" I say "amplifying the message."

So here are the conclusions Han reached with her data crunching.

Union Strength Affects Teacher Pay-- But So Do Other Factors

Much to nobody's surprise, districts with stronger collective bargaining units end up with higher-paid teachers. Generally that "wage premium" is paid for teachers with the most experience.

However, there are other factors that figure in. Districts with a high percentage of minority students pay their teachers more. But teachers who work in districts with a large student population, and teachers who work in districts with a large free/reduced lunch enrollment are paid "significantly less." And of course, where collective bargaining is illegal, teachers get paid less (so those legislators who have stamped out collective bargaining have achieved one of their goals-- congratulations, you cheapskates). As has been pointed out innumerable times, the "right to work" does not go along with the "right to be paid a great wage."

Union Strength Affects the Dismissal of "Bad" Teachers

But not the way you would expect it to. To listen to the rhetoric of the past years, one would think that unions are out there building fortresses around the worst teachers, allowing those terrible teachers to commit professional malpractice, suck the brains out of students, and kill puppies with impunity. Changing the system so that Bad Teachers can be gotten rid of has been consistently raised as one of the great educational concerns of the age, and unions have been painted as the principal obstacle to the bad teacher jettisoning.

Not so, says Han. It's a little more complicated than that.

from Han, The Myth of Unions' Overprotection (2016)

So, high collective bargaining districts fire the largest number of their new, untenured teachers. And schools where there are no collective bargaining rights at all fire the fewest of their new hires before they can become tenured. No collective bargaining schools also fire the largest percentage of tenured teachers.

There's actually an economics rule for this, which basically says that the more you pay for something, the more inclined you are to demand quality. True for toasters, new cars, and, Han asserts, for hiring teachers as well. Districts that pay big-- well, bigger-- bucks are more inclined to make careful use of their tenure system, says Han.

Union Effect on Retention

When it comes to teacher retention, districts with strong collective bargaining do the best job of holding onto their people. Districts with no collective bargaining are most likely to lose teachers through voluntary departure.

Han also notes that voluntary retirement is a U-shaped curve, with most folks checking out either very early in their career or after many, many years. This fits with an assertion many have long made, which is that what mostly happens to Bad Teachers is that within a year or two they look around and decide they want to get out of dodge. While reformsters search for punishments that will drive bad teachers out, the best discouragement for any person is to return day after day to face a roomful of students one is not equipped to teach. Teaching badly is really hard on a person, and very few people can stand to teach badly for more than a year or two.

Union Effect on Quality and Achievement 

Let me lead with the usual disclaimer-- we aren't really talking about teacher quality or student achievement. We're talking about test scores, which is a useful metric for almost nothing. But it's the metric many folks love, so let's see if-- by their metric-- unions have any kind of effect.

Surprise. Teachers in the high collective bargaining schools were 5% more likely to be high quality teachers than those in the no collective bargaining schools. Student test scores are maybe a bit better; unionism seems to have no real effect on the dropout rate.

Restricting Bargaining Rights and Retaining Teachers

Taking away bargaining rights causes many teachers to start looking for greener pastures. We needed an economist to figure this out?

Other Conclusions? 

Han's observation is that strong collectively bargained pay systems do a better job of attracting and retaining teachers than things like merit pay and performance bonuses. Also, a strong union results in less turnover of staff, which provides more stability for the school and students.

In short-- where you find a stronger union, you will find a stronger school district.

Now, I do see some caveats here. Some of Han's data is five years old, which is a lot of time in the current climate. I am also wary that with all these factors flying around, there may be some confusion between correlation and causation. Strong unions may be a symptom of a strong school community, and not a cause.

But that doesn't change one significant part of the findings-- the notion that busting unions will make schools better has absolutely no data to support it. "If we could just get rid of the union, we'd have better teachers in our schools," is bunk without a leg to stand on. Reformsters should welcome one finding here-- Han's work finds one more way to support the notion that schools in poor communities are not getting the best teachers in their classrooms. What reformsters may not like is the notion that one way to strengthen those schools (beside, you know, getting the government to fully fund them) is by strengthening the local union.

Imagine that. Test results come in showing a struggling school, so policy makers and legislators and school leaders put their heads together and say, "Well, we need to call the NEA and the AFT and see how we can get a stronger union in these buildings." Wouldn't that be an interesting new approach to school reform.


  1. I am very interested in the connections between this post and the post asking whether "rock star teachers really need a union." In my experience, administration tends to not touch tenured teachers (regardless of what kind of a teacher they are) and fire non-tenured teachers on both sides of the bell curve (and leave those in the middle alone.) In many schools, the path toward tenure seems to be a path towards conformity with school culture, for better or for worse, and those who stick out for any reason are promptly dismissed because they can get into the system and really effect change.

    I have found that the reasons for dismissing these teachers do not tend to be test scores (especially in early elementary, before there are state-mandated standardized tests.) Teacher evaluations (as you've written brilliantly about before!) are notoriously subjective, and admin can do whatever the frick they want to justify their decisions.

  2. Four perspectives, one as an older candidate for teaching (age 37) of 19 years in a rural, suburban high school district, a former student attending a different school every year of my life in six states before going to same high school for a year and a half, a Cesar Chavez, migrant worker union activist before becoming a teacher, and a writer, historian, museum consultant while teaching. Also, having a son in a charter school and an ex-wife on the state board of charter schools. Collective bargaining provides better pay and benefits while providing structure, empowerment and security behind the scenes. People attracted to teaching are often the ones that value these attributes most. Students who had strong relationships with their teachers while going to school are often the ones who go on to teach. Almost all teachers come in idealistic and are shaped by their family of origin view of unions or a favorite education professor's views. Most teachers are moderate to conservative in their social to political views and see their unions as a necessary evil. As teachers experience lots of sexism, they do tend to get more active. Most teachers are rarely active. Males tend to be more concerned with job benefits and less let's sacrifice "everything for the students." Good ole boy networks, cronyism in administration, an indifferent community, determine an effective school district more than union or non-union membership. However, morale and esprit de corps suffer where teachers are treated as expendable low wage help. The for profit schools in our area have the worst reputation for high turnover, low quality teacher candidates. The best ones leave for public schools as soon as they can secure an opening. Strong, disciplined, flexible, personable, liberal (broad view of how students achieve success) administrations who allow for the greatest teacher autonomy within clearly defined, achievable goals are the most likely to pull the best out of their staff. Making unions the bogeyman are a right wing agenda and escape goat. I've seen the few "bad,"" teachers. mostly burnouts, protected more often by good old boys, and lazy administrators using them as scapegoats to protect their incompetence or lack of due process record keeping. Of course, this is subjective but it comes from a lifetime of journaling and 20 years as an editor of a community labor newspaper Work In Progress West Michigan. Nice to see a mjor study take on this pernicious myth. I've belonged to eight different unions in the public and private sector in too many jobs to count. Unionize companies tend to be better managed and attract better workers. They have to be to survive and flourish. the worst non-union exploit their workforce to cover up for inefficiencies I've experienced. I've been in both labor and management.