The New Unionism, Legislative Version

By 04/15/2011

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An expanding list of states has joined in legislative battles over the future character of collective bargaining, a territory that was completely uncharted six months ago.  A combination of state fiscal crises plus newly elected Republican legislatures and governors, has emboldened the legislatures in the traditionally union-friendly states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.  They are joined by states as diverse as Idaho, Alabama, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.  But, what is it all about?  Or, more interestingly, what should it be about?

The headline story has been fiscal issues – salaries, retirement and health benefits, and the bargains agreed to by legislatures past.  But these issues have morphed into issues more fundamentally threatening to the unions – the right to strike, the ability to bargain about nonsalary issues, and the like.  In response, the teachers unions have mounted a concerted counter-attack aimed at restoring their prior position.

The fiscal issues are important, but I do not think they are the most important ones.  In a recent article in Education Next, “Valuing Teachers,” I presented evidence about the huge economic impacts of highly effective teachers.  A parallel calculation also reveals the huge costs to highly ineffective teachers.  To me, this is what we should be talking about.  The quality of our teaching force determines the level of student achievement, and student achievement directly determines how our economy will develop in the long run.

I argue elsewhere that the teacher unions would be better off getting in front of the teacher quality issue.  The low public regard for teacher unions is, I would argue, a result of public perceptions that concern for student outcomes ranks very low relative to the income, convenience, and preferences of the teachers themselves.  The public – generally very supportive of teachers – does not understand union positions that over-protect the small number of teachers who are harming kids.  The unions can try to rebuild their image (while doing good for America) by actively participating in efforts to figure out how to evaluate teachers and how schools can make personnel decisions based on those evaluations.

But, it should also be recognized that others in the schools are not innocent.  First, the current fiscal problems of school systems, with excessive retirement and health packages, were the result of prior agreements by legislatures, administrators, and school boards.  They were not unilaterally imposed by the unions.

Second, even in states without collective bargaining, there are precious few decisions made on the basis of teacher effectiveness.    There is scant evidence that performance in states without collective bargaining is better than in states with strong collective bargaining.

Returning to the opening question:  what should the current discussions be about?  They should, in my mind, focus on how the incentives, rules, and actions can be arranged to ensure that there is indeed an effective teacher in every classroom.  This in turn really means focusing on student learning.

The unions have to quit defending the worst of the worst.  The majority of very good teachers need to quit tolerating the few bad teachers in their midst. The administrators have to quit hiding behind the “it’s all the unions’ fault” slogan and figure out how to evaluate teachers and to use that information in pay and retention decisions.  The districts must hold administrators responsible for their decisions and set incentives for them that parallel those for teachers.  The legislatures must reward districts for getting it right, not for getting it wrong.

The switch to a focus on student outcomes would be a dramatic change for all parties.  And, returning to my underlying motivation, whether or not we can do this will have a lot to say about the future economic well-being of America.  The contrasting futures of America with and without improvement of our schools are dramatically different.

-Eric Hanushek

Comment on this article
  • Steve says:

    One aspect of Unions and contracts is the due process that must be followed to get rid of “ineffective” teachers. It is up to the administrators to make sure they follow all the proper policies and procedures outlined for a “proper” dismissal of a teacher. Teachers are protected so that there are no capricious dismissals that would be allowed should collective bargaining be undermined or completely dismissed. Unions have made concessions in the past and are willing to do so in the present and future. There are many Unions who are supporting, in large part, the “new evaluation” policies that are being developed as long as teachers are heavily involved. Unions want students to succeed as well, but at what price to the careers of those who are endeavoring to teach. There is already a shortage of teachers. With all the focus and malice that has been in the news of late how many people do you think will be attracted to the teaching profession? I believe if anything there are individuals being forced from the profession.

  • Miriam Kurtzig Freedman says:

    How refreshing it would be if we focused on student learning, as this blog urges. With the national discussions of reform, testing, unions, funding, and all the rest of it–the actual focus on teaching and learning is not yet our front page story. Would that students came first.

    This hope is so true also in the arena I work–special education. After all the rules, regulations, bureacracy, administrators, lawyers, advocates, psychologists, procedures, due process, and all the rest of it, come the students and teachers. One informal survey several years ago showed that teachers spend about 19% of their time actually teaching–the rest goes for all of the above.

    How bad is that.

    Let’s hope articles like Rick’s move us in the right direction.

  • J.B. White says:

    A shortage of teachers? I doubt that. There’s a limitation on people interested in working as teachers that guarantees there will be a shortage of effective teachers. That’s a substantively different situation than any current indication of a shortage of teachers.

    Barriers to entry should be relaxed and methods developed to genuinely test and review the teaching ability of new entrants outside the purview of the union template.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Yes, let’s figure out how to better prevent truly poor teachers from entering teaching and how to remove poor teachers in teaching if they will will not improve. However, it is not exactly clear how to do that, and there is massive disagreement about what good teaching is–some of the things the NCTQ study considers good teaching I consider bad teaching.

    I understand that economists necessarily think in terms of rewards and incentives (a person with a hammer thinks every problem a nail), but most healthy motivation to learn and workplace motivation has nothing to do with extrinsic incentives at all. We need to be thinking about how to support healthy motivation to do the right think, not what Stephen Covey calls “the primitive paradigm of carrot-and-stick motivation.”

  • NYCee says:

    Fattened salaries and benefits?

    Yeah, living a comfortable middle class life in states like mine, NY, that have high taxes and rent, high priced real estate and gas, etc and so on… yeah, that’s a sin. Oh, and in a city like NYC that has multimillionaires galore. We have enough money concentrated in a select group to change our license plates from The Empire State to “The Empire State for the Few! (And we aint kidding!)” But let’s extract another pound of flesh from one of the few successful remaining sectors of the middle class, the unions and their members… instead of going after all those Wall Street/Real Estate tycoons who are robbing us blind.

    Yeah, that’s mighty swell of you. But no thanks, I’ll pass.

    There are bad teachers who are let go, and the unions dont stand in the way. They make sure the rules are observed. What, shall we just let it be every man for himself, every crazy boss to his or her whim? When the KIDS are at stake? What about the folks who dream up all these interfering reforms and paperwork, that prevent teachers from teaching? They bear no responsibility for weakening the quality of teaching? What about unhelpful and downright bullying and kinda crazy administrators? Guess what? They exist.

    The reformers who portray the unions as being the harmful players in our economic woes are arguing, whether intentionally or not, to weaken the middle class more. Lets get rid of tenure and seniority! Fire all those old teachers, you know, the “bad”ones, (you know, the higher paid ones!) and let’s get those newbies (so cooperative, so low on the pay scale!) That’s the latest full bore Bloomberg/Reformist ad blitz.

    Oh, and speaking of real estate moguls in NY, they contributed buckets of money to Cuomo. And now Cuomo refuses to stave off austerity measures by reinstating the Millionaires’ Tax. Close those senior homes. Lay off those teachers. But hands off those real estate folk.

    And yet, and yet… blame the teachers and their unions.

    I am beyond sick of it.

    Focus on the monied crowd that is getting away with murder re screwing on our economy. Focus on them and their political bedfellows, focus on them like you mean it, until justice is done.

    Then come to me and complain about the teachers and their unions.

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