Education’s ‘Dark Continent’

By Ann Bradley — December 04, 1996 14 min read

When education researchers gathered this year for their annual convention, they found before them a dazzling array of seminars, discussions, and presentations on the most important issues in their field.

There were 56 sessions on assessment, 50 on curriculum, 43 on collaboration, 54 on professional development, 52 on mathematics education, and more than 100 on teacher education and teacher development.

On teachers’ unions, there were two.

By all accounts, the unions wield broad influence over public education, and are alternately hailed as its defender or denounced as its scourge--especially in urban districts.

In one of the most notable attacks of the recent presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole singled them out for blame: “I say this not to the teachers, but to their unions: If education were a war, you would be losing it. If it were a business, you would be driving it into bankruptcy. If it were a patient, it would be dying.”

Yet the teachers’ unions, which claim more than 3 million members and negotiate contracts in 34 states, have been all but ignored in recent years by the research community. One of the most definitive studies of unions and education reform, for example, was published in 1988, drawing from data collected several years earlier.

Why do education researchers overlook such a crucial part of the education landscape?

Some say it’s a question of anti-union bias. Others point out that it takes time and money to do the kind of in-depth studies that offer insight into the true nature and effect of unions. Compared with more popular topics in education, they say, money for research on teachers’ unions is harder to raise.

Much of the work that does get done is “God-awful,” said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association. “It’s so textbookish, it’s a quarter-century behind, and it’s sloppy.”

‘Flying Blind’

Scholars weren’t always uninterested in the workings of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and their affiliates. When teachers’ unions gained collective bargaining rights 30 years ago, labor economists and other academics crunched numbers to determine whether they would drive up the cost of education. Other researchers studied the effect of unionism on the authority of principals and on school operations.

But as unions have become a fixture, they’ve faded into the background. Indeed, the handful of scholars who devote their time to studying them make up a small club, said Julia E. Koppich, an education consultant in Berkeley, Calif., and the co-author of a forthcoming book about teachers’ unions. “Generally, people have their minds made up about unions,” she said.

Charles Taylor Kerchner, an education professor at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif., agreed.

“Policy people have basically painted unions as a problem to be fixed,” said Mr. Kerchner, who worked with Ms. Koppich on the book. “And the [unions] depict themselves as political influentials that, by definition, don’t need to be fixed. In that conversation, there are no research questions.”

That’s too bad, said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, because there are plenty of issues worth investigating.

First among them, he said, is: What has been the impact of changes in teaching contracts over the past decade as school boards have offered policy modifications instead of salary increases?

“We’re flying blind out there,” Mr. Kirst complained. “What is in the contract? How is it incrementally changing things over a long period of time? We don’t know.”

Second, he said, policymakers need to know more about the effect of political activity by teachers’ unions at the local level. Anecdotal evidence suggests they’ve stepped up their involvement in electing the 95,000 school board members in the United States.

‘Almost Zilch’

If so, that raises questions about unions “electing both sides of the collective bargaining table,” Mr. Kirst said. “We know about their involvement [in politics] at the federal and state levels, but at the most important point of policymaking, the role of unions is a dark continent.”

While a number of universities have respected schools of industrial and labor relations, most of the scholars in them ponder labor unions in the private sector. After all, those unions came first, and more money has been available to study them.

Mr. Kirst, a member of the senior research staff for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, said scholarship in education policy is “very current-events oriented.”

“Charters are hot, collective bargaining is cool,” he said.

Mr. Kerchner believes that teachers’ unions rank with desegregation and the advent of categorical federal funding as the most important developments in education policy of the past 50 years.

“Certainly, relative to the amount of attention that the other two have received from the research community, unions are virtually uninspected,” he said.

After all the debate this fall, however, it seems certain that the teachers’ organizations will face more scrutiny.

In September, a study concluding that teachers’ unions have a negative overall effect on student dropout rates made the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.

The article prompted an angry letter from Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, disputing the conclusions, which in turn brought a rebuttal by the study’s author, Caroline Minter Hoxby, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University.

Conservative think tanks, including the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington, Va., now churn out analyses of the political contributions made by the NEA and the AFT.

“The more important something is, the less we know about it in education,” said Myron Lieberman, an adjunct scholar at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, who is writing a book about political involvement by teachers’ unions.

“Here is a process that decides how 80 to 90 percent of school board money is spent,” he said of collective bargaining, “and the number of people who know about it is almost zilch.”

Mr. Lieberman, a former union activist turned critic, believes the labor laws that govern public employment have put a stranglehold on competition. Instead of abolishing unions, which would give managers unfettered discretion, he favors legal changes that would allow more teachers’ associations to spring up.

Gregory Fossedal, the executive chairman of the Tocqueville Institution, agrees. He concluded in an October paper that the NEA and the AFT, when compared with teachers’ unions in 20 other countries, wield great political power and are virtually identical to each other ideologically and operationally.

Mr. Fossedal, who found more variation among teachers’ unions in European countries, concludes that American teachers would benefit from more choices of organizations.

Pro-union researchers also have weighed in recently with studies of their own. Mr. Dole’s barbs, and Ms. Hoxby’s well-publicized study, prompted a researcher from the AFT and two collaborators to fight back.

In a study released in October by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, a Milwaukee research center, F. Howard Nelson, Michael Rosen, and Brian Powell concluded that in states with high levels of teacher unionization, students on average score higher on the SAT and on the 4th grade reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress than in moderately unionized or non-union states.

Rather than the unions, they blame “growing poverty, social instability, high rates of mobility, and household disorganization” for public education’s problems.

A former superin-tendent of the Milwaukee school system also plans to weigh in. Howard Fuller, who resigned last year after the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association helped elect school board members who opposed his reform agenda, has received a $47,000 grant to study changes in the Milwaukee teaching contract over the past 30 years.

The union has cried foul, arguing that his conclusions may be biased. Mr. Fuller, who heads the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, said he has no intention of union bashing.

These dueling studies, conducted by people with sharply defined ideological and political viewpoints, underscore the need for independent research that looks at the effect of teachers’ unions on education policy at the local level.

‘The Little Picture’

Bruce S. Cooper, who edited a 1992 book that compared teachers’ unions in 15 countries, pointed out that the United States has a remarkably disjointed education system.

“When it comes to education policy at the school and district level, it’s a long way from the NEA to the classroom,” said Mr. Cooper, a professor of administration, policy, and urban education at Fordham University in New York City. “In the big picture, unions are big,” he said. “But in the little picture, they don’t matter very much.”

The first research on teachers’ unions, which began to win collective bargaining rights in the 1960s, was done by specialists in labor relations and focused on wages and strikes. Those efforts, says Susan Moore Johnson, an education professor and academic dean at Harvard University, were “basically quantitative studies at a great distance from the place of education.”

Early researchers also looked at which items were negotiated by unions and school boards. Initially, negotiators focused on wages, hours, and working conditions. But gradually, Ms. Johnson said, contracts began to encompass education policy.

Later research that has looked at the effect of unions on student achievement has drawn many different conclusions.

Some studies have linked unionism to falling SAT scores; others have found that unions have a positive effect on test scores.

Union leaders frequently point out that teachers are highly unionized in industrial countries whose students outperform American children. They also note that many Southern states, which don’t permit collective bargaining, trail other regions in student achievement.

As teaching contracts expanded, and as the movement to give teachers greater authority spread, researchers realized that the most interesting questions involved how individual districts approached these issues. It wasn’t until the publication in the late 1970s of studies by Ms. Johnson, Mr. Kerchner, and other researchers that people began to realize that this local variation was important.

But to conduct good research at the local level, researchers need more time and money than are required for analysis of already available sets of numbers.

Researchers were quick to write case studies of some of the more newsworthy attempts by labor and management to forge closer relationships, such as those in the Cincinnati, Rochester, N.Y., and Toledo, Ohio, districts. By now, though, most of those studies are almost a decade old.

“It would probably be very useful now to follow up” on these case studies, Ms. Johnson said, “because many of the things that were fashioned collaboratively have fallen apart or fallen back.”

Ms. Johnson’s 1984 book, Teacher Unions in Schools, is one of the most frequently cited works on teachers’ unions. (See ” Teachers’ Unions: Additional Reading.”)

It highlights the variation in the ways individual schools in a district implement their teaching contracts. Insiders know that in large districts, some buildings are considered “union schools” that strictly follow the contract, while others play looser with the rules to accomplish shared goals.

Christine E. Murray, an assistant professor at the State University of New York College at Brockport, is writing a book on the emerging new roles of teachers in four districts, including Rochester.

Even in an active union local like Rochester’s, “teachers’ roles as union members are quite peripheral,” she said. “Except for those few who are union activists, the union does not figure largely in teachers’ thinking about their work.”

‘Mirror Images’

Regardless of where they stand, one thing unites the few researchers who actually study the unions and the many commentators who have an opinion about them: Everyone wants them to change.

Ms. Koppich, the Berkeley consultant, said unions have developed a “curious symbiotic relationship” with school districts. “They are mirror images of one another,” she said. “Unions are too centralized. So are districts. They’re accused of being bureaucratic, and so are districts.”

Some scholars believe that when it comes to unions, policymakers have boxed themselves in by emulating industrial unionism.

Many state laws governing teachers’ unions were written to reflect a 1930s conception of work, with a sharp delineation of duties. The unions watch over the economic and day-to-day concerns of their members, while management sets policy and makes operational decisions.

But the pressure on schools to improve has called this factory-style organization into question. Many reformers believe that schools need much greater flexibility and that teachers need to exercise more professional judgment in organizing schools.

“We have made it very difficult for the parties to cooperate,” said Ray Marshall, a professor of economics and public affairs at the University of Texas, who served as U.S. secretary of labor under President Carter. “We’re in a world now where you either cooperate or you’re in a good deal of trouble, whether it’s Xerox, IBM, or the schools.”

Mr. Marshall is writing a book about teachers’ unions with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He’s also working closely with the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN, a group of leaders from the NEA and the AFT who are trying to come up with a new model of teacher unionism. (“Prolonged Budget Fight Alters Terms of Debate on Education Spending,” May 8, 1996.)

The project involves faculty members and graduate students at the University of California at Los Angeles, who are acting as “friendly critics” by analyzing the discussions among the union leaders.

“It’s fascinating to watch them going through very much the same discussion that the trade unions were having 10 years ago,” said Wellford W. Wilms, a professor at the graduate school of education and information studies at UCLA and the author of a book about labor-management relations in manufacturing industries.

“This is research on changing the structure and culture of public schools,” he said. “Teachers’ unions are a part of that conversation--Bob Dole notwithstanding.”

Closing the Breach

The alliance that the TURN network has formed with the UCLA scholars is unique, although some researchers elsewhere are working more closely with unions.

Ann Lieberman, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, says researchers must do more than study teachers’ unions. They need to roll up their sleeves and help the unions rethink their business.

She noted that education researchers in many areas are struggling to get “closer to practice"--to make their work more relevant and useful to people struggling to educate children. Working with unions is one way to do that.

“We’re coming through a long period where a lot of people felt that unions were very negative and a little slow on the uptake,” Ms. Lieberman said. “It may very well also be that unions haven’t been that expansive and open.”

Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, said he welcomes solid research on unions. Not surprisingly, he believes such research would show a positive impact on school operations and student learning.

Although the NEA says it has spent $70 million on school-reform projects since 1983, it does not directly support research. Mr. Chase said the results would be considered suspect.

At one time, the NEA itself was part of the American Educational Research Association. But the advent of collective bargaining--regarded in some circles as inappropriate for teachers--caused a breach with the research community that has yet to fully heal.

Three years ago, a group of researchers interested in unions and teachers’ work formed within the Washington-based AERA. The 90-member group includes scholars from Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Norway. Several of them are quite skeptical of the talk about labor-management cooperation, fearing that teachers’ rights will be infringed.

A growing number of scholars also are evaluating and guiding union-sponsored reform projects.

Nina Bascia, an associate professor of education at the University of Toronto, is working on a study of the NEA’s Learning Laboratories project, which encourages school improvement at the district level.

And the AFT has invited researchers to help with its project to disseminate education research to teachers and to participate at its QuEST conferences, which focus on education reform.

By working closely with teachers’ unions, scholars can learn about the important questions they now face, said Joseph B. Shedd, an associate professor of educational leadership at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. He is working with school districts that are experimenting with shared decisionmaking.

Even in districts that aren’t in the midst of reforms, Mr. Shedd noted, local unions are having a hard time figuring out what their roles should be. “School districts don’t want compliant, complacent teachers who sit back and wait to be told what do,” he said. “They need a more actively engaged teaching force.”

The Research section is being underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 1996 edition of Education Week as Education’s ‘Dark Continent’