Are Teachers Changing Their Minds About Education Reform?

Posted by on December 14, 2012

** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

In a recent Washington Post article called “Teachers leaning in favor of reforms,” veteran reporter Jay Mathews puts forth an argument that one hears rather frequently – that teachers are “changing their minds,” in a favorable direction, about the current wave of education reform. Among other things, Mr. Mathews cites two teacher surveys. One of them, which we discussed here, is a single-year survey that doesn’t actually look at trends, and therefore cannot tell us much about shifts in teachers’ attitudes over time (it was also a voluntary online survey).

His second source, on the other hand, is in fact a useful means of (cautiously) assessing such trends (though the article doesn’t actually look at them). That is the Education Sector survey of a nationally-representative sample of U.S. teachers, which they conducted in 2003, 2007 and, most recently, in 2011.

This is a valuable resource. Like other teacher surveys, it shows that educators’ attitudes toward education policy are diverse. Opinions vary by teacher characteristics, context and, of course, by the policy being queried. Moreover, views among teachers can (and do) change over time, though, when looking at cross-sectional surveys, one must always keep in mind that observed changes (or lack thereof) might be due in part to shifts in the characteristics of the teacher workforce. There’s an important distinction between changing minds and changing workers (which Jay Mathews, to his great credit, discusses in this article).*

That said, when it comes to the many of the more controversial reforms happening in the U.S., those about which teachers might be “changing their minds,” the results of this particular survey suggest, if anything, that teachers’ attitudes are actually quite stable. 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 »


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 »


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 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 »


Performance-Enhancing Teacher Contracts?

Posted by on October 1, 2010

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

Please check out our two other posts (here and here), which present summaries and discussions of the actual evidence on the relationship between unions and test scores.

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 ten states in which there are no legally binding K-12 teacher contracts at all (AL, AZ, AR, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TX, and VA). 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 free of many of the alleged “negative union effects.”

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

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


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