You Lost Me At South…

There is a lot to recommend in this commentary by Pedro Noguera, but right at the end he tosses out one of today’s most popular and misleading lines:

“…we must also acknowledge that if unions were the problem, the South would have the best schools.”

It must be fashionable to say this because you hear it all the time from a variety of people.  Problem is, it doesn’t make much sense.  For starters, you’d think people who are quick to point out that out-of-school factors and school finance matter to student outcomes would be quicker to appreciate some aspects of schooling in the South.   But even more to the point, public schools in the South operate a lot like public schools elsewhere and there is more homogeny across geographies than one might think.  That’s in part because many of the rules and regulations that are commonly assumed to exist in teachers’ contracts actually exist in state policy (pdf).  Politically, state teachers’ associations in the South operate much like their Northern counterparts and there are elections in the South, too.  And it’s also because culture is powerful in education and there are pretty strong cultural norms around how schools and school districts are organized, regardless of geography.   In other words, whether or not there is collective bargaining in a state is not an especially strong variable in terms of student achievement.  Someone should do a book…oh wait…

To be sure, while they have some culpability for today’s educational problems, teachers’ unions do get blamed for a variety of ills that are not their fault and pretty much everything gets dumped at their feet in the public back and forth about schools.   But, this business about how education in the South proves something about unionism is not their strongest talking point in that debate. 

16 Replies to “You Lost Me At South…”

  1. We make this point about the south as the second line of defense. You are taking part of our syllogism out of context. So what culpability DO we have exactly? The point that you seem to miss here is that teachers’ unions aren’t to blame for any of this nonsense. Take the unions out of the picture and the educational situation is the same or worse. Your second paragraph pretty much proves that.

    Unions aren’t responsible; out of class factors are.
    If unions were responsible, then places where unions are rare wouldn’t have these problems.
    Those places where unions are rare are actually worse, so unions must not be the problem.

  2. First, I think you mean “homogeneity.” Also, thank you for pointing out that unions are not the Antichrist. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need unions, but if we all hold our breath and wait for that to happen, well, you can guess what outcome that will have.

  3. 1) The teachers’ union is stronger in Alabama than it is in Maine.

    2) Aren’t Arlington County and Alexandria in the South?

    3) There are no states “where [teacher] unions are rare.” There are states without, or with restricted, collective bargaining. Every state has a teachers’ union affiliated with NEA, AFT, or both. The national unions subsidize and supplement affiliates in right-to-work states.

    4) Does California’s school system count against the North or the South?

  4. Loren, are unions in any way partially culpable for the current status of General Motors?

    Ie, do you believe unions never impose any inefficiencies on any organizations? Or just that teachers unions do not fall into that category?

  5. This was a pretty nitpicky criticism of a thoughtful, balanced article. But I guess we have to make it inflammatory somehow, right?

    This unions vs. “reformers” thing is already so tiresome. All it does is lead to gridlock and leave the door open for some other party (aka ultra conservatives who want to abolish public education altogether) to come in and take over the policy agenda. Unions are not inherently bad, nor are they the ultimate cause of the failings of the education system (which was Noguera’s point). But they need to be more open to new ideas and acknowledge practices that are not helpful to improvement. Same with “reformers” – they have many good ideas, but they’re not the knights in shining armor they make themselves out to be and their incessant harping on teachers and the “establishment” distracts from their substance.

    As for the power of teacher associations in the south, I’m in TX and have lived in MI and CA. TX associations are influential, but they’re nothing compared to real unions with collective bargaining rights. To compare their power is absurd. I always laugh at administrators here who complain about the “teacher groups” because they don’t know how good they have it…

  6. As a former teacher, I taught in both union and non-union (‘right to work’) states. In my experience, there is very little difference in the hours, working conditions or other employment variables between the two. Even the teacher credentialing requirements are established by the government, not by unions (to the best of my knowledge). For example, the California state legislature could pass a law requiring all teachers to take X course in order to maintain their credential, and that would become law. It had nothing to do with unions. It is baffling to me that so many people blame teacher unions for school conditions or student outcomes; I saw very little negative (or positive) differences between unionized school districts and non-unionized school districts.

  7. GGW
    If I’m the CEO of a corporation, anything that is good for my employees is probably inefficient from my point of view. Slavery is probably one of the more efficient systems. Not so great for the slaves though. Your GM question is a red herring. Beyond that, GM has been run by the most narrowminded backward management in history. You can’t blame their ineptitude on the union.

    Unions aren’t against all education innovations, just the ones that don’t work.

  8. I’ll just repeat a comment that I left at Bridging Differences when Diane Ravitch (!) tried to use the same nonsensical line about unions and the South:

    Surely you’re aware of the concept of controlling for other variables. Here are two completely obvious reasons why, say, Mississippi would have “low performance” compared to Massachusetts:

    1) Mississippi population: 61% white, 37% black. Massachusetts: 88% white, 7% black.

    2) Mississippi median income: $26,908. Massachusetts median income: $56,592.

    Anyone remotely familiar with social science should know this stuff.

  9. John Doe,

    Anyone familiar with social science stuff wouldn’t make such an obviously racist insinuation. Furthermore, all you are doing is proving the teachers’ unions point that the unions aren’t to blame for the US education “crisis, ” but that other factors outside the classroom are more important. As a teacher of critical thinking skills, I would label your logical flaw a shift to a more defensible position, since the earlier point was too weak to defend. In addition I would point out that a poor urban school in the North probably has similar ethnic ratios and socioeconomic conditions as MS, and still outperforms that state.

  10. A review of the literature concludes that Diane Ravitch is correct in stating that: students from states where teachers belong to unions outperform students from states where teacher unions are scarce or nonexistent. However, there are some mitigating factors that make the correlation a bit grayer than it appears on the surface.

    The Wagner Act of 1935 allowed states to form unions. However, at the insistence of Southern legislators, Congress exempted agricultural and domestic workers from being able to form unions. By permitting these exceptions southern states were allowed to preserve their heritage of cheap labor from the time of slavery. Somehow, this legislation remains in place today.

    Also contributing to poor school performance of children nationwide is poverty. Historically, poor children have not performed well in school, are more likely to drop out, less likely to attend college, more likely to go to an emergency room for health care, more likely to wind up in prison, and less likely to pay taxes. As well, their children are more likely to repeat a similar cycle of poverty in their lifetimes.

    According to 2007 figures for median household income by states, only one southern state, Georgia, makes the top fifty percent, sneaking in at number twenty three. Of the ten poorest states in the country by median household income, eight are from the “Old South” along with New Mexico and Oklahoma. The five poorest in median household income: (46) Alabama, (47) Kentucky, (48) Arkansas, (49) West Virginia, and (50) Mississippi.

    The South’s high incidence of poverty has clearly had a negative impact on many of the South’s schools. Can this poverty be traced in any way to the Wagner Act and doomed millions of these youngsters for the past seventy years to futures of diminished opportunity?

  11. Anyone familiar with social science stuff wouldn’t make such an obviously racist insinuation.

    It’s not racist to observe that, here and now, there is an achievement gap in America between black and white students. Your contention is idiotic. You can’t do anything about the achievement gap if you think it’s racist even to mention it.

    So if some highly educated fool says, “Hey, look at Massachusetts, its students are doing fine and there are strong unions, while the deep South has weak unions and poor students,” the obvious response is that there are lots of reasons why the South would have lower academic performance than Massachusetts. If you really want to know how unions affect academic performance, you’d find some natural experiment wherein single states like Massachusetts dramatically strengthened or weakened their union laws, and then see what happened afterwards within that state.

  12. JD,

    Perhaps if you mentioned that the achievement gap is socioeconomic, not ethnic, your comment would be less offensive, and your conclusion would be better science than the one you originally made.

    No one is saying that the students are doing better because of unions. My original point was that other factors need to be addressed in order to reform education. Just keep bashing the teachers’ unions and we’ll get nowhere. BTW, of course I’m an educated fool- I went to college in the South. Haha

  13. But it’s not just socioeconomic, and whoever told you that is lying. Black students in high school currently score about 4 years behind white students. That difference partly goes away if you control for socioeconomic difference, but not entirely. Why do you think there are so many books written about how to solve the achievement gap?

    Anyway, the only point is that Mississippi has lots of poor black students; Massachusetts does not. It’s fundamentally dishonest for a purported social scientist to pretend that the differing academic performance of those two states proves anything about whether unions are good for education or not.

  14. JD: Have you read Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom’s book about racial differences in educational achievement? It’s very interesting, and backs up what you say: Cultural differences (over and above socioeconomic factors) do appear to have an impact on student performance. I believe the studies cited in their book show that (controlling for measurable socioeconomic variables), on average, Asian students outperform whites, whites outperform Hispanics, and Hispanics outperform blacks. Of course, these differences are exacerbated by real socioeconomic differences in the real world, which can make the gaps more extreme. It’s a very interesting read, although the book doesn’t propose any magic fix to cure this situation. And to be honest, we’d have to ask ourselves: Do we want to “cure” cultural differences completely?

  15. Yes, I’ve read that and many other books about the achievement gap, such as Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips’ book, the recent “Steady Gains and Stalled Progress: Inequality and the Black-White Test Score Gap,” edited by Katherine Magnuson and Jane Waldfogel.

  16. The 2 of you are completely off the issue. Neither of you has an answer to the problem that you yourself bring up. It seems that you can’t really talk about the post, so you bring up and run with a tangent. I tried to find the post where I claimed to be a social scientist, but I couldn’t. Oh yeah, I didn’t. And Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom are against affirmative action programs; that’s what they believe to be the major point to take away from their research. What that has to do with unions… I make no claim that unions improve schools. My point is that the education system is affected by so many factors that you can’t blame teachers’ unions. It isn’t my responsibility to prove or disprove your totally unconnected point.

    So AttDC, so you believe we should keep the Blacks and Hispanics in their proper place and not cure the achievement gap? Or did I misunderstand you?

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