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US: new study reveals that unions boost quality of education

published 3 August 2016 updated 5 August 2016

Teachers’ unions do not overprotect tenured teachers, according to a recent study, in fact they create a net positive for educational quality by contributing to increased teacher quality and higher educational attainment for students.

In her study, “The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers: Evidence from the District-Teacher Matched Panel Data on Teacher Turnover”, Eunice Han, PhD in economics from Harvard University and senior research associate at Harvard Law School, debunked the notion that tenured teachers cannot be fired because of trade unions. Han undertook the study for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The Bureau is an American private nonprofit research organisation “committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community”.

Han said: “The facts are the opposite of what people think: highly unionised districts actually fire more bad teachers”. She made her comments in an interview with Jennifer Berkshire, author of the Edushyster website and freelance journalist and public education advocate. Berkshire previously edited a newspaper for Education International affiliate the American Federation of Teachers for six years.

Dismissal of ineffective teachers

By demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure, she explained, adding that highly unionised districts dismiss more underperforming teachers because it costs more to keep them. Using three different kinds of survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, she confirmed that unionised districts dismiss more low-quality teachers than those with weak unions or no unions.

Since unionised districts dismiss higher numbers of ineffective bad teachers while retaining more good teachers, unionised districts also retain more high-quality teachers relative to districts with weak unionism, she stressed. “No matter how and when I measured unionism, I found that unions lowered teacher attrition,” she insisted.

Unions lead to higher salaries and higher employment

Han noted that “we know that unions increase salaries and benefits, but people also argue that unions make it harder for teachers to get fired” but “rarely do you see those two things happening at the same time”.

Based on microeconomic theory, she said, as salaries go up, employment goes down because the employers cannot afford both unless there is some dramatic increase in revenue. This is especially true in districts that are under intense financial pressure, she insisted. But “for some reason, when it comes to teachers’ unions, the claim is made that they are getting both: higher salaries AND higher employment”.

Unions improve teacher quality

Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee, and Wisconsin all changed their laws in 2010-2011, dramatically restricting the collective bargaining power of public-school teachers, Han said. She was able to compare what happened in states where teachers’ bargaining rights were limited to states where there was no change. “If you believe the argument that teachers’ unions protect bad teachers, we should have seen teacher quality rise in those states after the laws changed,” she said. Instead, she found the opposite: the new laws restricting bargaining rights in those four states reduced teacher salaries by about nine per cent. Lower salaries reduce the incentive for districts to “sort out” better teachers, thus lowering the dismissal rate of underperforming teachers. Lower salaries also encouraged high-quality teachers to leave the teaching sector, contributing to a decrease in teacher quality, Han said.

Reduced dropout rates

Since there is no available data on student performance by school district levels with nationally representative samples, she used high-school dropout rates as a measure of student achievement. Her study shows that unions reduce the dropout rates of districts.

“This is where my study differs from some earlier ones that found that unionism either had no impact or had a negative effect on the dropout rate,” she said. The difference, she detailed, can be explained by the fact that she defines unionism more broadly than those earlier studies: “It is not just collective bargaining that matters; it is the union density of teachers in a district that is important. Union density measures the strength of the union, because even when teachers cannot engage in collective bargaining, they can use their collective ‘voice’ to influence the educational system.”

And her study shows that union density significantly decreased the high-school dropout rate, even in districts without collective bargaining agreements. When unions, via high union density, reduce the dropout rate, they improve the educational attainment as well as the welfare of all children in the area.

Han concluded by saying: “I hope that people open their eyes to these results and move beyond their prejudice. I used to share that prejudice before I did this study. Obviously, if people can accept the findings of my paper, the direct policy implication is that we should be promoting union-friendly environments.”

You can read the study here