Teachers’ Unions And Student Achievement Redux, With Bonus Rules For The Eduroad!

Prompted by Diane Ravitch, who best I can tell is now a stronger teacher unionist than most of my friends actually active in teachers’ unions, Mike Petrilli hosted a lively debate on the question of whether or not teachers’ unions get in the way of reform — using the landmark Massachusetts reforms as a test case.   All the installments can be found through this post.  Like most large state reform packages, Massachusetts had its own set of idiosyncrasies and the discussion plays some of those out. 

On the more general question, it’s a common one but it’s the wrong question.    My take remains pretty much what’s in this post from a few months ago:  In today’s education system “unionization” per se tells us very little about the norms and operations of schools and there isn’t solid systematic evidence one way or the other.  See Dan Goldhaber’s chapter in the book on teachers’ contracts Jane Hannaway and I did a few years ago for more.  I thought Leo Casey was going to make the same point when I saw the title of this EdWize post.   But alas no.

This debate goes on and on.  A few years ago you’d go to dinner parties and be asked about vouchers, then it was performance pay, now it’s teachers’ unions.   So here are the three most common assertions related to the debate that I’ve heard and some basic rules for non-eduwonks:

  1. What’s good for teachers is good for students.   Well, not quite.  Teachers’ unions are not inherently at odds with what’s good for students but neither is everything they want in the best interest of students.   Overall, most of what they want (funding, better professional development for teachers, etc…) is for the good, but not all.  And that is where the action is today.   Their resistance to better performance measures for teachers and support of rigid salary schedules and seniority policies are one example of stances where the interests of the workforce and the interests of the students diverge.  So is their general opposition to allowing more providers of public education — for instance public charter schools — into the marketplace to better serve students who are not well served now.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone, to varying degrees most interest groups are mixed bags.  It’s the nature of the beast.  The NRA, for instance, supports a lot of problematic gun measures that are at odds with public safety, yet they also promote very good gun safety programs for youths.  Overall I prefer the NEA to the NRA, but you get the point.
  2. Schools in the South aren’t very good and they don’t have unions so unions must not be a problem.   Actually, schools are pretty similar across the country in their norms and their procedures.   Visit a lot of schools, not the outliers on the high-or low-end but rather the average schools that define the system, and it’s striking how alike they generally are in how they approach things.  State and local policies are, too, to a large extent.  That’s why “unionization” actually tells us very little.  Culture and institutional norms are powerful in this field.  Virginia, for example, has some of the weakest “unions” in the country but you wouldn’t know it based on how the commonwealth runs its schools.
  3. Education is unique among human endeavors so what works elsewhere can tell us little.   Education is not as unique as its insiders often try to make it out to be.  The idea that the education field is completely an N of one and consequently best left to its elites is a strategy to build prestige and hoard power.  It’s undemocratic considering the democratic imperative of good public schools.  And the basic norms of human behavior don’t stop at the schoolhouse door.  So, when thinking about education policy questions, ask yourself, in a large field, a mass service profession, with complicated, dispersed, and sometimes opaque work, does x or y make sense?  For instance we don’t link student data to teacher data in most places, does that really make much sense if we’re allegedly committed to using data and evidence to improve the system?  Sure, education has some peculiarities that policymakers must be cognizant of and some complex implementation questions, but more often than not comparative analysis can serve a useful purpose here in thinking through various strategies and revealing proposals that really don’t make sense for what they are.

5 Replies to “Teachers’ Unions And Student Achievement Redux, With Bonus Rules For The Eduroad!”

  1. Re: the second point, “Schools in the South aren’t very good and they don’t have unions so unions must not be a problem. ”

    Southern states tend to have relatively powerful professional associations that can assume many of the advocacy functions that unions tend to take on. Also, in lieu of building compensation structure into collective bargaining agreements, non-union states often codify the same teacher-friendly, yet student-neutral terms (i.e. seniority, pay scales, tenure) into the state’s regulatory scheme.

    All of this is to say, it’s not necessarily “unions” that are a problem, but rather the contract terms, policies, and compensation schemes that often have little to do with student achievement. I know I’m splitting hairs, but it’s an important bit of nuance.

  2. Andy, could you elaborate on JCC’s point above or point us to some data about this? JCC says that “non-union states often codify…” It would be really helpful to understand how often contract terms and compensation schemes are written into non-union state regulatory schemes. Because I think the second point about southern schools not having unions is a really strong argument against the anti-union argument, and I don’t think your answer in your post is that satisfying. But if it is true what JCC says, that explains a lot and that is indeed an extremely important bit of nuance.

  3. I’d like to concentrate on your third point, and restate it, but I have some quick questions first. What was your problem with Leo Casey’s blog?

    Secondly, if you want SUSTAINABLE reforms then what’s bad for teachers will always be bad for kids in the long run. Let’s just say that “reforms” do benefit this generation of students at the cost of teachers’ contractual rights, autonomy in the classroom, and even our pensions. Throwing teachers at the mercy of the market and management to produce sustainable educational improvements makes as much sense as destroying the nursing profession to improve efficiencies in the health care industry.

    Thirdly, our words under #2 just clarify why unions aren’t the problem. You accurately write,
    “Actually, schools are pretty similar across the country in their norms and their procedures” and “Culture and institutional norms are powerful in this field (education).” Isn’t that true of all institutions?

    So getting to your point #3, education is not different. We’re unique only in that a cadre of “reformers” are determined to transform it using data-driven accountability. The universe is full of realities that can’t be measured accurately. Teaching and learning is just one of many phenomenon that can’t be chopped into pieces and measured.

    Think of some other failed institutions that we should rebuild, or build for the first time. We need to rebuild the family, and I’m sure that we as a society could make huge improvements in that area. But if we set out to rebuild the family, a) metrics wouldn’t be seen as the driving force, and b) nobody would be making grandiose statements that we know how to meet the challenge if only we had “high expectations.”

    We need to institutionalize proper nutrition and healthy behaviors. The challenge of teaching all students to master high academic Standards is comparable in many ways to the challenge of teaching and institutionalizing the consumption of healthy food. In both cases metrics should be used as tools, but nobody is demanding that nutritionists use data-driven accountability to transform our diet. Why? Because that would be widely dismissed as absurd. What is less absurd about the idea that data-driven accountability can drive the reform of education?

    Until recently, EEP supporters condemned efforts to push for social services saying that they are just an excuse, and they haven’t worked in the past. Social services haven’t been transformative, but think for a second. That just undercuts the EEP’s assumption that society already knows how to solve these problems and we need to defeat “the status quo.” Metrics would be a far more practical tool in reforming the distribution and effectiveness of social services (as children grow to high school the complexities of measuring their learning grow geometrically if not exponentially), but nobody is attempting to use data-driven accountability to drive the overhaul of our service providers, or claiming that we know how to reform those systems . Again, education is like many other areas where we surely could figure out better systems; it is unique in that a cadre of newcomers are a) so confident that they know the answers, and b) data-driven accountability must be the driving force.

    I just finished Helen Epstein’s New York Review of Books article on America’s prison system. Apply your logic to that issue. Nobody would attempt to reform our prisons by, primarily, holding guards accountable. Nobody would try to reform our criminal justice system by imposing metrics on judges or lawyers. Nobody would try to improve policing by attacking their unions. The point is that teachers are like guards, judges, cops or whatever. We’re just one part of complex systems. Education is unique only in that “reformers” in our field think that they can address the complex system by focusing on just one part, and primarily using one type of tool.

    You wouldn’t try to fight drug abuse by data-driven accountability … Oops! Society did try that, and it backfired filling our prisons with nonviolent Blacks and Hispanics and worsening the problems in the inner city, and thus in inner city schools.

    The old saying “for every complex problem there is a solution that is cheap, simple, and wrong” applies to a full range of realities. Educators are unique only in that a) “reformers” mandated a set of tools for reform without respecting educations “culture and institutional norms” and b) we educators happened to be the ones chosen as the scapegoats.

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