Are Charter Schools Better Able To Fire Low-Performing Teachers?

Posted by on January 23, 2013

Charter schools, though they comprise a remarkably diverse sector, are quite often subject to broad generalizations. Opponents, for example, promote the characterization of charters as test prep factories, though this is a sweeping claim without empirical support. Another common stereotype is that charter schools exclude students with special needs. It is often (but not always) true that charters serve disproportionately fewer students with disabilities, but the reasons for this are complicated and vary a great deal, and there is certainly no evidence for asserting a widespread campaign of exclusion.

Of course, these types of characterizations, which are also leveled frequently at regular public schools, don’t always take the form of criticism. For instance, it is an article of faith among many charter supporters that these schools, thanks to the fact that relatively few are unionized, are better able to aggressively identify and fire low-performing teachers (and, perhaps, retain high performers). Unlike many of the generalizations from both “sides,” this one is a bit more amenable to empirical testing.

A recent paper by Joshua Cowen and Marcus Winters, published in the journal Education Finance and Policy, is among the first to take a look, and some of the results might be surprising. Read More »


Moving From Ideology To Evidence In The Debate About Public Sector Unions

Posted by on January 18, 2013

Drawing on a half century of empirical evidence, as well as new data and analysis, a team of scholars has  challenged the substance of many of the attacks on public employees and their unions –urging political leaders and the research community to take this “transformational” moment in the divisive and ideologically driven debate over the role of government and the value of public services to deepen their commitment to evidence-based policy ideas.

These arguments were outlined in “The Great New Debate about Unionism and Collective Bargaining in U.S. State and Local  Governments,” published by Cornell University’s ILR Review.  The authors – David Lewin (UCLA), Jeffrey Keefe (Rutgers), and Thomas Kochan (MIT) – point out that, with half a century of experience, there is now a wealth of data by which to evaluate public sector unionism and its effects.

In that context, the authors spell out the history, arguments and empirical findings on three key issues: 1) Are public employees overpaid?; 2) Do labor-management dispute resolution procedures, which are part of many state and local government collective bargaining laws, enhance or hinder effective governance?; 3) Have unions and managers in the public sector demonstrated the ability to respond constructively to fiscal crises? Read More »


Jobs And Freedom: Why Labor Organizing Should Be A Civil Right

Posted by on April 13, 2012

Our guest authors today are Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill. Norman Hill, staff coordinator of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Velma Hill, a former vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is also the former civil and human rights director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They are currently working on a memoir, entitled Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain.

Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit have done a great service by writing Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice, an important work with the potential to become the basis for a strong coalition on behalf of civil rights, racial equality and economic justice.

In the United States, worker rights and civil rights have a deep and historic connection. What is slavery, after all, if not the abuse of worker rights taken to its ultimate extreme? A. Philip Randolph, the founder and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, recognized this link and, as far back as the 1920s, spoke passionately about the need for a black-labor alliance. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s protégé and an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., joined his mentor as a forceful, early advocate for a black-labor coalition. Read More »


The Indiana Model

Posted by on January 27, 2012

Indiana is well on its way to becoming a ‘right-to-work’ state this week, with the state’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives approving new legislation and the Senate poised to follow suit. The legislation weakens union protections and enables individual workers to refuse to pay their share of union representation costs, even if a majority of their coworkers have voted for union representation and the union is legally obligated to pay to bargain for and protect their rights on the job. It is the first Midwestern manufacturing state to pass such a bill, though other Republican-dominated state legislatures are considering similar legislation.

One of the most interesting things about this move is just how unpopular it is. According to the AFL-CIO, only one-third of Indiana voters favor the legislation and more than 70 percent of them want the question submitted to a vote, via a state referendum. So why, in an election year, have Republican politicians decided to push forward? Read More »


The False Conflict Between Unionism and Professionalism

Posted by on November 8, 2011

Some people have the unfortunate idea that unionism is somehow antithetical to or incompatible with being a professional. This notion is particularly salient within education circles, where phrases like “treat teachers like professionals” are often used as implicit arguments against policies associated with unions, such as salary schedules and tenure (examples here, here, here and here).

Let’s take a quick look at this “conflict,” first by examining union membership rates among professionals versus workers in other types of occupations. As shown in the graph below, if union membership and professionalism don’t mix, we have a little problem: Almost one in five professionals is a union member. Actually, union membership is higher among professionals than among any other major occupational category except construction workers. Read More »


Schedule Conflicts

Posted by on November 7, 2011

As most people know, the majority of public school teachers are paid based on salary schedules. Most (but not all) contain a number of “steps” (years of experience) and “lanes” (education levels). Teachers are placed in one lane (based on their degree) and proceed up the steps as they accrue years on the job. Within most districts, these two factors determine the raises that teachers receive.

Salary schedules receive a great deal of attention in our education debates. One argument that has been making the rounds for some time is that we should attract and retain “talent” in the teaching profession by increasing starting salaries and/or the size of raises teachers receive during their first few years (when test-based productivity gains are largest). One common proposal (see here and here) for doing so is reallocating salary from the “top” of salary schedules (the salaries paid to more experienced teachers) down to the “bottom” (novice teachers’ salaries). As a highly simplified example, instead of paying starting teachers $40,000 and teachers with 15 years of experience $80,000, we could pay first-year teachers $50,000 and their experienced counterparts $70,000. This general idea is sometimes called “frontloading,” as it concentrates salary expenditures at the “front” of schedules.

Now, there is a case for changes to salary schedules in many places – bargained and approved by teachers – including, perhaps, some degree of gradual frontloading (though the research in this area is underdeveloped at best). But there is a vocal group of advocates who assume an all-too-casual attitude about these changes. They seem to be operating on the mistaken assumption that salary schedules can be easily overhauled – just like that. We can drastically restructure them or just “move the money around” without problem or risk, if only unions and “bureaucrats” would get out of the way.** Read More »


The Teachers’ Union Hypothesis

Posted by on October 21, 2011

For the past couple of months, Steve Brill’s new book has served to step up the eternally-beneath-the-surface hypothesis that teachers’ unions are the primary obstacle to improving educational outcomes in the U.S. The general idea is that unions block “needed reforms,” such as merit pay and other forms of test-based accountability for teachers, and that they “protect bad teachers” from being fired.

Teachers’ unions are a convenient target. For one thing, a significant proportion of Americans aren’t crazy about unions of any type. Moreover, portraying unions as the villain in the education reform drama facilitates the (mostly false) policy-based distinction between teachers and the organizations that represent them – put simply, “love teachers, hate their unions.” Under the auspices of this dichotomy, people can advocate for changes , such as teacher-level personnel policies based partially on testing results, without having to address why most teachers oppose them (a badly needed conversation).

No, teachers’ unions aren’t perfect, because the teachers to whom they give voice aren’t perfect. There are literally thousands of unions, and, just like districts, legislatures and all other institutions, they make mistakes. But I believe strongly in separating opinion and anecdote from actual evidence, and the simple fact is that the pervasive argument that unions are a substantial cause of low student performance has a weak empirical basis, while the evidence that unions are a primary cause of low performance does not exist. Read More »


The Cutting Edge Of Teacher Quality

Posted by on October 11, 2011

The State of Michigan is currently considering a bill that would limit collective bargaining rights among teachers. Under the proposal, paying dues would be optional. This legislation, like other so-called “right to work” laws, represents an attempt to defund and create divisions within labor unions, which severely weakens teachers’ ability to bargain fair contracts, as well as the capacity of their unions to advocate on behalf of of public schools and workers in general.

Last month, Michigan State Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekoff (R- West Olive) was asked whether he thought the bill would pass. He responded in the affirmative, and added:

It’s an opportunity to let teachers get farther away from union goons. That should give them a better chance to break away from the mediocrity. That should make things better for our schools and our children.

Well, there you have it, folks. We’ve been wasting our time by designing rigorous standards and overhauling teacher evaluations. The key to improving teacher quality is not training, compensation or professional development.

It’s goon proximity. Read More »


For Many Teachers, Reform Means Higher Risk, Lower Rewards

Posted by on September 29, 2011

** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

One of the central policy ideas of market-based education reform is to increase both the risk and rewards of the teaching profession. The basic idea is to offer teachers additional compensation (increased rewards), but, in exchange, make employment and pay more contingent upon performance by implementing merit pay and weakening job protections such as tenure and seniority (increased risk). This trade-off, according to advocates, will not only force out low performers by paying them less and making them easier to fire, but it will also attract a “different type” of candidate to teaching – high-achievers who thrive in a high-stakes, high-reward system.

As I’ve said before, I’m skeptical as to whether less risk-averse individuals necessarily make better teachers, as I haven’t seen any evidence that this is the case. I’m also not convinced that personnel policies are necessarily the most effective lever when it comes to “attracting talent,” and I’m concerned that the sheer size of the teaching profession makes doing so a unique challenge. That said, I’m certainly receptive to trying new compensation/employment structures, and the “higher risk, higher reward” idea, though unproven in education, is not without its potential if done correctly. After all, teacher pay continues to lose ground to that offered by other professions, and the penalty teachers pay increases the longer they remain in the profession. At the same time, there is certainly a case for attracting more and better candidates through higher pay, and nobody would disagree that accountability mechanisms such as evaluations and tenure procedures could use improvement in many places, even if we disagree sharply on the details of what should be done.

There’s only one problem: States and districts all over the nation are increasing risk, but not rewards. In fact, in some places, risk is going up while compensation is being cut, sometimes due to the same legislation. Read More »


Collective Bargaining Teaches Democratic Values, Activism

Posted by on September 16, 2011

Some people must have been startled by President Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand on collective bargaining in his jobs speech to the Congress last week. Specifically, the President said: “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy.”

Given the current anti-union tenor of many prominent Republicans, started by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it seems pretty clear that worker rights is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the 2012 campaign. Collective bargaining rights as presidential campaign plank? It wasn’t that long ago that anything to do with unions was considered to be an historic anachronism – hardly worth a major Republican presidential candidate’s trouble to bash. Times have changed. Read More »


Wisconsin: Will It Be “Cool Hand Luke” Or “Norma Rae”?

Posted by on July 13, 2011

As the implications of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining begin to sink in, some local officials have eagerly embraced one possibility opened up by the new anti-bargaining law: replacing union workers with convict labor.

This is not a new idea, at least not in Racine County. Last summer, budget problems led the county to try to replace unionized seasonal workers with prison labor. Teamsters Local 43 sued, arguing that the move violated the union contract. The judge sided with the union, but changes in the state’s collective bargaining law since that time have altered the legal picture, and Racine County administrators are taking another look at the idea.

How has the new law changed things? Not only did it strip unionized workers of their right to negotiate over health care and retirement issues, it also removed their contractual rights to their jobs – in the sense that they can no longer claim that certain jobs fall within the scope of the union contract and should be filled by union workers. This gives state and local officials the ability to hire private contract workers and even prison inmates to take those positions.

This is a “win-win” situation, according to Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig. While conceding that the idea is unpopular, he argued that “once people see things are still running smoothly, running efficiently, a lot of the fears will be alleviated.” While the prisoners do not get paid for their work, they may earn time off their sentences, he said. Read More »


Q: Do We Need Teachers’ Unions? A: It’s Not Up To Us.

Posted by on June 21, 2011

I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions.” These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…,” followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid.” In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary.

I’d just like to make a very quick comment about this line of reasoning, one that is intended to be entirely non-hostile. The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions,” though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.

It’s not up to “us.” The choice belongs to teachers. Read More »


A Wisconsin Moment For Our Education Policy Debate

Posted by on February 24, 2011

There is an obvious, albeit somewhat uncomfortable connection between what’s happening in Wisconsin and what’s been happening in education policy discussions.

A remarkably high proportion of the discussion is focused – implicitly or explicitly – on the presumed role of teachers’ unions. The public is told that our school systems are failing, and that teachers’ unions are at least partially to blame because they protect bad teachers and block “needed” reforms such as merit pay. In this storyline, unions are faceless villains that put the interests of adults above those of children.

Wisconsin represents a threat to this perspective in at least three important manners. Read More »


Revisiting The Effect Of Teachers’ Unions On Student Test Scores

Posted by on February 22, 2011

The Wisconsin protests have predictably spurred a great deal of information-seeking, with union supporters and opponents alike searching for evidence that supports their cases. One of the most prevalent topics over the past week or so is the effect of teacher collective bargaining on student test scores. As a result, a couple of our previous posts have been shared widely. The first (also republished here) compares NAEP scores in states that allow binding teacher contracts with those in states that do not (or have only one or two); the second, follow-up post offers some additional, multivariate analysis.

Although it is true that the first post (which was at least partially satirical – see the last few sentences) shows that states without binding contracts are among the lowest-performing in the nation, I want to clear something up: As I noted in both posts, neither the data nor my argument offer any conclusive proof that teacher contracts act to increase student test scores. The intention of those posts was to address the age-old counter claim – that teacher contracts are somehow injurious to student achievement – and to provide very tentative evidence that the contracts appear to have little discernible impact either way (which is what the follow-up post, using state-level models that controlled for basic student characteristics, indicated, along with the requisite caveats).

This speaks directly to those who seek to blame unions for poor achievement in the U.S. – if union contracts were in fact a major contributing cause of low test performance, it might be reasonable to expect to find at least some clear differences between states that did and did not allow them. Although my analysis was extremely limited, I found no such evidence.

But this also applies to those who have been claiming recently – many in the Wisconsin context – that teacher bargaining clearly improves these outcomes. Read More »


Teacher Contracts: The Phantom Menace

Posted by on October 13, 2010

In a previous post, I presented a simple tabulation of NAEP scores by whether or not states had binding teacher contracts.  The averages indicate that states without such contracts (which are therefore free of many of the “ill effects” of teachers’ unions) are among the lowest performers in the nation on all four NAEP exams. 

The post was largely a response to the constant comparisons of U.S. test scores with those of other nations (usually in the form of rankings), which make absolutely no reference to critical cross-national differences, most notably in terms of poverty/inequality (nor to the methodological issues surrounding test score comparisons). Using the same standard by which these comparisons show poor U.S. performance versus other nations, I “proved” that teacher contracts have a positive effect on states’ NAEP scores.

As I indicated at the end of that post, however, the picture is of course far more complicated. Dozens of factors – many of them unmeasurable – influence test scores, and simple averages mask them all. Still, given the fact that NAEP is arguably the best exam in the U.S. – and is the only one administered to a representative sample of all students across all states (without the selection bias of the SAT/ACT/AP) – it is worth revisiting this issue briefly, using tools that are a bit more sophisticated. If teachers’ contracts are to blame for low performance in the U.S., then when we control for core student characteristics, we should find that the contracts’ presence is associated with lower performance.  Let’s take a quick look. Read More »


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