New Study Blames Collective Bargaining for Education Stagnation

by Andrew Stiles

Over the past several decades, American teachers’ salaries and benefits have increased steadily, while the academic performance of the nation’s students has stagnated. In a new paper released on Wednesday, Sally Lovejoy and Chad Miller of the American Action Forum argue that teachers unions’ and their collective-bargaining policies are at least partly to blame for both issues.

The authors cite an array of studies examining the impact of teachers’ unions and their negotiating strategies. The majority of these studies have found that collective-bargaining agreements typically focus on higher teacher pay and benefits and greater job security, with little consideration given to student performance. In fact, teachers’ unions have historically resisted most efforts to hold teachers accountable for the academic performance of their students, and have succeeded consistently. Tenure policies, for instance, make it virtually impossible to fire unqualified or ineffective teachers. Most states award tenure automatically after about three years, and do not test a new teacher’s mastery of even the most basic reading and math skills. Perhaps not surprisingly, this has had a largely negative impact on the students themselves, especially those in large urban school districts with a high percentage of black and Hispanic students.

The paper compares student-performance data from two such districts, New York City and Chicago (both of which require collective bargaining), with data from Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas, urban districts in states where collective bargaining is banned for public employees. The two different situations reveal how collective bargaining is inflating salaries, compensation, and job security while it’s strangling policies that could help student achievement.

Public-school teachers in New York and Chicago recently signed collective-bargaining agreements that increase pay and benefits, but place little emphasis on student performance. In Chicago, for example, the union fought to ensure that “student growth” counts for only 30 percent of teacher evaluations to determine performance pay. In New York, the union agreement offers pay and benefit increases for teachers based on experience and education levels without any consideration for student performance.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that students in New York and Chicago have consistently underperformed those in Charlotte and Austin, and perform considerably lower than the national average. In 2011, only 20 percent of Chicago fourth graders performed at or above grade level in math, and only 18 percent were at or above grade level in reading, compared with national averages that year of 40 percent and 32 percent, respectively. Students in New York performed slightly better, but are still below average. Charlotte and Austin, meanwhile, saw much better results, beating the national averages. Nearly 50 percent of Charlotte fourth graders performed at or above grade level; 36 percent did so in reading. Austin was close behind.

Research indicates that high-quality teachers have a significant impact on student achievement both in school and beyond, making the teachers’ unions’ resistance to performance-based evaluation all the more frustrating. One study by professors at Harvard and Columbia found that students assigned to teachers classified as “high-value added” instructors attend better colleges, earn higher salaries, and are less likely to have children as teenagers. Furthermore, simply replacing a “low-value added” teacher with an average one can increase students’ lifetime earning by as much as $1.4 million.

The authors note, optimistically, that more states appear to be adopting policies that at least include objective student-achievement data in teacher evaluations. Twelve states now require student performance to be the primary consideration in such evaluations. Not surprisingly, right-to-work states have proven to be most eager to do so — the National Council on Teachers Quality lists Florida, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Tennessee as the most successful states in terms of identifying effective teachers and removing ineffective ones, and among those only Rhode Island mandates collective bargaining.

The American Action Forum authors write that these kinds of policies “are seemingly common sense,” but teachers’ unions continue to block them via collective bargaining.

But there’s hope for reform, and more achievement focused policies, the study says. Many states, especially right-to-work states, are moving in the right direction, but stumbling blocks remain. “Sadly, if teacher unions continue to oppose such efforts, our students will continue to fall behind,” the report concludes.