The real union record in public education

Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, decided to write a post about the role of unions in public education after reading a piece in the Economist which included “among the most utterly stupid statements I think I’ve ever read in my life.”

…no Wall Street financier has done as much damage to American social mobility as the teachers’ unions have.

After taking apart that statement and noting that he has no stake in the discussion of teachers unions (as a young teacher in 1990s, he said, “the local union actually ran me out”), he proceeds to answer with data and charts questions. You can read the whole article here; following are some of the issues he analyzes:

How is union strength related to funding levels and funding fairness?

States “which tend to be more educated and progressive happen to both have stronger teachers unions and to spend more on education,” he wrote, with the exception of states like California where the education system has lost resources as a result of voter referendums. And states “with weaker teachers unions also tend to have less fair funding distributions – or are systems where it is more likely that high poverty districts have systematically fewer resources per pupil than lower poverty ones.”

 How is union strength related to competitiveness of teacher pay?

States with stronger teachers unions generally have more competitive teacher wages, he shows.

 Is union strength associated with National Assessment of Educational Progress achievement levels?

“Adjusted NAEP scores are somewhat though hardly systematically lower in states with weaker unions,” he writes. “What we certainly do not see here is that NAEP scores are systematically lower in states with stronger unions. That is, unions certainly aren’t driving NAEP scores into the ground!”

Is union strength associated with NAEP achievement gaps?

” What we see is little or no relationship between union strength and achievement gaps. While this does not illustrate that stronger unions lead to smaller achievement gaps…. It also does not by any stretch illustrate that stronger unions lead to larger achievement gaps… an expectation that might reasonably be derived from the claim made in the Economist.”

Baker’s conclusion

“What does this all mean then? Are unions good, or are they bad? Do they increase inequality and lower quality? It’s certainly difficult given the data provided above to swallow the bold assertion in the Economist that teachers’ unions are the scourge of the nation and primary cause of declining social mobility.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 19, 2012