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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/25/2010

The real effect of teachers union contracts

By Valerie Strauss

Teachers unions are a big target today of some school reformers who view these organizations as the biggest obstacle to improving student achievement. The film "Waiting for Superman" certainly did. So why are states without binding teacher contracts among the lowest-performing in the nation? Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute, located in Washington, D.C., looks at this issue. A version of this post originally appeared on the institute’s blog. A follow-up to this post presented a supplemental analysis of the data.

By Matthew Di Carlo
For years, some people have been determined to blame teachers’ unions for all that ails public education in America. This issue has been around a long time (see here and here), but, given the tenor of the current debate, it seems to bear rehashing. According to this view, teachers unions negatively affect student achievement primarily through the mechanism of the collective bargaining agreement, or contract. These contracts are thought to include “harmful” provisions, such as seniority-based layoffs and unified salary schedules that give raises based on experience and education rather than performance.

But a fairly large proportion of public school teachers are not covered under legally binding contracts. In fact, there are some 10 states in which there are virtually no legally binding K-12 teacher contracts at all (there are none in AL, AZ, GA, MS, NC, SC, TX, and VA; there is only one district with a contract in LA, and two in AR). Districts in a few of these states have entered into what are called “meet and confer” agreements about salary, benefits, and other working conditions, but administrators have the right to break these agreements at will. For all intents and purposes, these states are largely free of many of the alleged “negative union effects.”

Here’s a simple proposition: If teacher union contracts are the main problem, then we should expect to see at least somewhat higher achievement outcomes in the 10 states where there are basically no binding contracts.

So, let’s take a quick look at how states with no contracts compare with the states that have them.

In states where there are binding contracts, there is some variation in coverage (the percentage of teachers covered under contracts). In most of them (34, plus Washington D.C.), districts are required to bargain with unionized teachers, and coverage in these states is very high. There are a few other states in which contracts are binding once they’re finished, but districts are not required to bargain (Louisiana also technically falls into this category, but since Katrina, there is only one contract in force). The results for these states are virtually identical to those for the bargaining states.

In the table below, using data from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), I present average scale scores for states that currently have binding teacher contracts and those that don’t. The averages are weighted by grade-level enrollment, and they include only public non-charter schools (since most charters in all states have no contracts).


Average 2009 NAEP Score By State Teacher Contract Laws

States with binding teacher contracts
4th grade: Math 240.0 Reading 220.7
8th grade: Math 282.1 Reading 263.7

States without binding teacher contracts
4th grade: Math 237.7 Reading 217.5
8th grade: Math 281.2 Reading 259.5

As the table shows, the states in which there are no teachers covered under binding agreements score lower than the states that have them. Moreover, even though they appear small, all but one of these (8th grade math) are rather large differences.

To give an idea of the size, I ranked each state (plus Washington D.C.) by order of its performance —its average score on each of the four NAEP exams – and then averaged the four ranks. The table below presents the average rank for the non-contract states.


Average Rank Across 4 NAEP Tests

Next to each state is its average rank

Virginia....... 16.6
Texas......... 27.3
N. Carolina.. 27.5
Georgia.......36.8
Arkansas.....38.9
S. Carolina...38.9
Arizona........43.3
Alabama......45.5
Louisiana.....47.8
Mississippi...48.6

Out of these 10 states, only one (Virginia) has an average rank above the median, while four are in the bottom 10, and seven are in the bottom 15. These data make it very clear that states without binding teacher contracts are not doing better, and the majority are actually among the lowest performers in the nation.

In contrast, nine of the 10 states with the highest average ranks are high coverage states, including Massachusetts, which has the highest average score on all four tests.

If anything, it seems that the presence of teacher contracts in a state has a positive effect on achievement.

Now, some may object to this conclusion. They might argue that I can’t possibly say that teacher contracts alone caused the higher scores in these states. They might say that there are dozens of other observed and unobserved factors that influence achievement, such as state laws, lack of resources, income, parents’ education, and curriculum, and that these factors are responsible for the lower scores in the 10 non-contract states.

My response: Exactly.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 25, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Matthew Di Carlo, Standardized Tests, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  naep, national assessement of educational progress, shanker institute, teachers union, text scores, union contracts, waiting for superman  
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Comments


Of course there are other factors besides whether or not a state has a union contract. That's not the point, the point is, is it necessary to pay teachers off market public sector monopoly union benefits and compensation in order to have a good school system. Is it appropriate to endlessly raise taxes on private sector employees to ensure the public sector maintains above inflation pay increases?

the fundamental question is the appropriateness of extracting off market benefits by terrorizing the public and government leaders via strikes and threatened strikes. it's just not appropriate anymore given the extraordinary compensation already enjoyed by the teachers union. enough is enough, time to focus on children, not teachers

Posted by: Spencer99 | October 25, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Matthew Di Carlo - Thank you. This is the same type of reasoning I repeat endlessly to discourage people from associating rising test scores with Michelle Rhee's "reforms," when DC's NAEP scores have been rising for over a decade under six different superintendents.
http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/ (then click on “District of Columbia”)

Reformers get the credit; unions get the blame and neither makes any sense. It's simplistic, non-academic thinking that is an embarrassment to the educational community.

Posted by: efavorite | October 25, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

efavorite - the simple point is taxpayers can no longer afford off market non-merit based public sector monopoly union compensation anymore. even if it were found that unionization is associated with higher score, the money isn't there anymore. it makes no sense to demand above inflation cost of living adjustments. it makes no sense to demand off market pensions with no contribution by employees along the way. these things are not affordable, period. people are upset with teachers unions precisely because they are insisting on off market benefits and terrorizing us by threatening strikes. it's not solely because the schools are or aren't doing well.


Posted by: Spencer99 | October 25, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Spencer99, where do you live that you are constantly under threat of teachers striking or threatening to strike?

Are the teachers in your district really receiving above inflation pay increases? Please site the "extraordinary compensation" that is already enjoyed by the teacher's union, in the district(s) you are referring to. Thanks.

Posted by: researcher2 | October 25, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

@spencer99: Where do you live? In MD teacher strikes are illegal. In Montgomery Co., teachers have voted to give up their cost of living raises a second year in a row in order to keep class sizes down and maintain services for our students. The public doesn't seem to understand that we care about what happens to our students and we feel that the services provided are important to maintain.

The public doesn't seem to understand that a negotiated agreement is not only about salary and benefits. There are a lot of things in there that directly impact one's ability to do their job better. These things are in there because without the agreement, many would not be provided. Planning time is a big issue that is specifically spelled out in the contract. So is having a desk, file cabinet and locking storage. One would think that something so basic wouldn't need to be spelled out, but it does!

Posted by: musiclady | October 25, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

@spencer99: Where do you live? In MD teacher strikes are illegal. In Montgomery Co., teachers have voted to give up their cost of living raises a second year in a row in order to keep class sizes down and maintain services for our students. The public doesn't seem to understand that we care about what happens to our students and we feel that the services provided are important to maintain.

The public doesn't seem to understand that a negotiated agreement is not only about salary and benefits. There are a lot of things in there that directly impact one's ability to do their job better. These things are in there because without the agreement, many would not be provided. Planning time is a big issue that is specifically spelled out in the contract. So is having a desk, file cabinet and locking storage. One would think that something so basic wouldn't need to be spelled out, but it does!

Posted by: musiclady | October 25, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Facts can be so inconvenient to those whose only reasoning tools are bumper sticker memes. I've been pointing to this data for a long time. The right-to-work states rank consistently at the bottom of state rankings of educational achievement.

Every provision in a negotiated teacher contract arose from an administrative abuse that needed to be addressed.

I will say again: If there is an incompetent or unskilled teacher standing in front of a group of students, then there is in administrator not doing his or her job. Teachers don't just magically appear in a cloud of smoke in front of a classroom of students. They are screened, hired and supervised by one or more administrators. That is a fact.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | October 25, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

This is absurd- you have louisiana, arkansas,alabama,missisippi, texas and other states that are at the bottom of every quality of life statistic in this country and then even imply that the (only slightly) lower scores are a result of teacher unions not being in those states. What do you take us for. The problem with teacher unions ramping up the per pupil cost to 15-20K(fully weighted) is that there is no room to expand the day and year because you are paying as if you had a full year school system. You have paid for lexus and got a Yugo

Posted by: olderbutwiser | October 25, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

@olderbutwiser: Most teachers work the number of hours that typical full year employees work. Teachers typically put in 55 - 60 hours a week. Over the 10 months we work it balances out. That doesn't even included required college courses that we have to continue taking. Increasing the school day or year without additional employees to pick up some of the slack just won't work unless you are willing to have a constant revolving door of personnel. People working 80 hours a week doing emotionally draining work typically burn out rather quickly.

Posted by: musiclady | October 25, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

olderbutwiser, the reason the per pupil costs have risen so much has more to do with laws like IDEA; providing services for children with varied disabilities..some of which are very costly (physical disabilities that might require physical and occupational therapists etc) and services for students whose native language isn't English. Class sizes for special needs students are much smaller, and other services like PT and OT are part of those costs.

Posted by: researcher2 | October 25, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Spencer,

My deep and long experience in business tells me it is ineffective.

OlderbutWiser - Learn about the costs of special education - mentally retarded, physically disabled, autism and other disabilities. You will understand school costs better if you do.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 25, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Olderbutwiser said:

"This is absurd- you have louisiana, arkansas,alabama,missisippi, texas and other states that are at the bottom of every quality of life statistic in this country and then even imply that the (only slightly) lower scores are a result of teacher unions not being in those states."

You missed the end of the aricle where he stated

"They might say that there are dozens of other observed and unobserved factors that influence achievement, such as state laws, lack of resources, income, parents’ education, and curriculum, and that these factors are responsible for the lower scores in the 10 non-contract states.

My response: Exactly.

PLEASE REREAD THE END OF THE ARTICLE.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 25, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Olderbutwiser,

Yes, per pupil spending has gone up. However, it would take a myopic person, indeed, to think that unions are the sole cause for this phenomenon. You may be older and you say wiser, but you certainly lack common sense.

I do like some of your embedded ideas, however. Expanding the school day or year would be great, and it happens to be one of the time-tested methods for improving education. However, the big elephant in the room is costs. A longer school day or year means increased costs in everything that keeps schools afloat, everything from electricity and water costs to maintenance, teachers, food workers, and administrative costs. Everything will just cost more. Cutting back per pupil spending will only exacerbate problems. Any noob who runs his business for a month will have the basic knowledge to realize this fact when he expands his operating hours.

There is a difference between wisdom and intelligence, and I sure do hope that you figure that out one day.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 25, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Here in British Columbia we have an excellent public education system. It is under attack by the neo-liberal provincial government, which is under-funding it probably with the aim that privatization would reduce costs. The teachers' union is really strong, and is actively defending the public education system, as it is an essential part of the economy and society, creating wealth through an educated workforce, rather than being a drain on the public purse. More than 85% of kids attend public schools. Our results on international tests show that we are ranked with Finland and Alberta as the best school system in the world. Teachers work with union protection, and the union also actively promotes professionalism, including ethical behaviour, and professional development that includes the teachers in planning and delivering improvements. The teachers' union also advocates in the political realm for proper and generous funding of education, reduction of poverty in the society, and for many other issues. Clearly, the teachers' union here is helpful to the process of school improvement, and the fact that teachers are well paid is a part of the quality of education.

Posted by: Canadianteacher | October 27, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Just as the Unions are bashed for being the fault of poor scores, based on these statistics, the argument FOR Unions is more correctly based. Perhaps the non-Union states should be Unionized because their schools then would improve.
I'm tired of this "we can't afford" good education for our children. Then don't compare our scores to Countries (All but 4 others)who do afford it but have higher taxes. They obviously have their children as a higher priority. Guess you get what you pay for.

Posted by: classichammond | October 27, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

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