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Do Teacher Strikes 'Hurt' Students?

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At the start of each school year, as the news of school districts experiencing a strike is circulated, the debate recurs as to whether teacher strikes should be prohibited. One of the most common assertions of parents and policymakers who argue against teacher strikes is that they "hurt kids.'' When asked to be more specific, they argue that teacher strikes have significantly harmful academic effects on students.

For example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is currently considering a lower-court decision that ruled, with citations to some research studies, that teacher strikes violate the provision in the state constitution for a "thorough and efficient education.'' At the same time, the Pennsylvania legislature recently enacted further restrictions on teachers' limited right to strike.

Similarly, a trial-court judge this fall ordered striking Detroit teachers back to work based on the finding that the strike caused "irreparable harm'' to students. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1992.).

Most lay and school people are willing to accept the assumption that strikes by public school teachers have a significant deleterious effect on the attitudes, attendance, and achievement of students in the struck schools. Interestingly, however, in a survey of 124 school districts that had experienced a teacher strike in the early 1980's, the majority of the responding administrators disagreed with the statement, "Students are negatively affected by teacher strikes.'' Less surprisingly, a Pennsylvania survey revealed that the majority of unionized teachers are of this uncommon view.

Who is right? Anecdotes and impressions are too subjective. Educational research offers a better basis for answering such questions. Although the applicable research has been relatively extensive, starting in the late 1960's, it has not been synthesized until recently. (For the details, see my article in the Journal of Collective Negotiations in the Public Sector, volume 21, issue 2.) An overview of the studies will suffice here.

Academic effects are generally understood to refer primarily to students' attitudes toward school, their attendance or dropout rates, and their achievement in basic subjects, such as reading and mathematics. These three successive variables may be pictured, as a way of organizing this overview, as concentric circles, like a target with academic achievement as the small circle in the center.

  • Academic Attitudes. Early studies found largely positive, or at least not significantly negative, attitudes of students, as compared with those of their parents, in the wake of a teacher strike. However, in addition to remoteness in time, these studies are notably limited by design defects, such as the lack of pre- and post-measures and a comparison group. The more recent research has tended toward improvements in design, culminating in the 1983 Pennsylvania study by William Caldwell and Loretta Jeffreys. For the majority of the analyses of the two primary attitudinal variables ("interest in school and learning'' and "self-esteem'') in the three grade levels of their study (5, 8, and 11), they found statistically insignificant differences between the strike and no-strike groups of school districts.

Thus, on balance, the commonly held assumption that teacher strikes have a notable negative effect on students' academic attitudes is subject to serious question.

  • Attendance and Dropout Rates. The story is similar, albeit not quite identical, with respect to the next circle of academic effects. The research about the effects of teacher strikes on student attendance and dropout rates is more limited in number and location. Yet the two clusters of studies, one in Canada and one in Pennsylvania, yielded nonsignificant differences with regard to dropout rates and conflicting findings with regard to attendance rates.

Thus, the not atypical observation that "[s]everal studies have shown that attendance and student dropout rates are affected by teacher strikes'' is an overstatement bordering on misstatement.

  • Academic Achievement. The bull's-eye for such academic-effect research, like that concerning effective schools, is academic achievement. Despite differences in time, place, and approach, the overall findings for the long line of research has been surprisingly consistent. In studies in Canada, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the clear majority of the statistical analyses resulted in nonsignificant differences between strike and nonstrike samples with regard to student achievement.

For example, the Pennsylvania researchers Caldwell and Jeffreys found that the students in the nonstrike districts significantly exceeded those in the strike sample in only two of 10 analyses with respect to achievement in grades 5, 8, and 11. When the results are examined for only reading and math, they were significantly different in only one of six analyses (math at grade 5). The results of a more recent study found significant differences in only two of 18 analyses.

Over all, research to date reveals that the effect of teacher strikes on student achievement is partial and short-lived at most. Perhaps more sensitive instrumentation and more refined designs will yield a different answer, but more likely, like school vacations and the summer break, the question is more one of parental convenience than student progress. In any event, at this point the unqualified generalization that teacher strikes have significantly deleterious effects on student achievement is a political proposition, not a supported hypothesis.

In sum, the verdict that strikes have notable negative academic effects must be reversed and remanded with regard to students' school-related attitudes, their attendance and dropout rates, and their academic achievement. The preponderance of the proof to date, with due weight for quality combined with quantity, is that student harm is largely a myth.

The debate does and should extend beyond this "academic'' question. But to the evident extent that courts and legislatures rely upon the irreparable-harm or educational-effectiveness criterion, they should replace their knee-jerk emotional response with a more objective and reasoned consideration. In some ways, "kids'' are being made the goats, or scapegoats, of other parties' interests.

Perry A. Zirkel is the University Professor of Education and Law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

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