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Education Opinion

Teachers’ Unions: Shades of Grey

By Guest Blogger — November 16, 2015 6 min read
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Note: This week, Katharine Strunk, Associate Professor of Education and Policy in the Rossier School of Education and the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, joins us as guest-blogger. This particular piece is co-authored with Joshua Cowen, Associate Professor of Education Policy at Michigan State University.

I am honored (I think) to have been asked to fill in for Rick for a week on RHSU. This week I’ll be sharing some of the lessons learned from my own research, most of which addresses problems of teacher and district policies. I’ve asked several of my co-authors to join me—one each day— to help me elaborate on what we’re learning and what we think it means for education research and policy. Today I’m joined by Josh Cowen from Michigan State University to discuss what we know (and don’t) about teachers’ unions. Tomorrow Brad Marianno, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, will help me elaborate on this theme. Next, Dan Goldhaber from CALDER and the University of Washington, will join me to discuss some of our newest findings about RIFs and layoffs. And last, Julie Marsh (also from USC) and I will tackle the question of school turnarounds.


The United States Supreme Court will rule this spring on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case in which the plaintiffs— teachers who are members of their local teachers’ unions— are seeking to prohibit unions from requiring public employees to pay membership dues. As others have written, the Friedrichs decision could significantly weaken teachers’ unions across the country.

This case is the latest in a series of legal and legislative initiatives that will ultimately determine the extent to which teachers’ unions continue to influence district and state education policy. In June 2014, for example, the California Superior Court ruled that teacher seniority and tenure protections violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution (Vergara v. State of California, 2014), and the ruling is now being appealed by the state and its two teachers’ unions, who asked to be named as co-defendants in the case. Similar lawsuits are being filed in New York and discussed in other states around the country.

Beyond the courts, legislatures have actively passed reforms aimed at teachers and their unions. Overall, 44 states have passed substantial laws affecting teachers’ rights traditionally contained in state law or in the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs, or contracts) negotiated between local teachers’ unions and district administrators. Twenty-five states now limit unions’ abilities to collect the sort of membership dues that the Friedrichs plaintiffs are seeking to prohibit everywhere. Perhaps not surprisingly, unions and their allies are beginning to fight back, as new lawsuits challenging the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and union-led efforts to reduce standardize testing are beginning to materialize.

The problem is that there is little in the way of research-based evidence to inform policymakers about what unions actually do, and how those activities ultimately promote or hinder student success. Are teachers’ unions, their CBAs, and their long-held legal protections actually harmful to districts, schools, students and to our system of public education? If so, then yes, we should be passing legislation that reduces unions’ negative impact and pursuing judicial remedies where legislative proposals are not successful. However, if the answer is no, then perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree, or even making matters worse.

So, what do teachers’ unions actually do? In a forthcoming paper, we describe three main ways in which teachers’ unions affect policy and district operations. The first is at the bargaining table itself: unions represent teachers in their negotiations with school districts over higher pay, working conditions and other day-to-day aspects of employment. The second is through the political system: teachers’ unions are some of the most active and well-funded interest groups in the country, supporting candidates and ballot initiatives at state and local levels and in federal elections. The third, often absent from much of the debate, is professional: unions provide support for their members in a variety of ways related to teaching in a public school district.

But does any of this matter for students? In the same paper, we describe how the most recent and technically sophisticated studies largely find little or even negative union impacts on student outcomes overall, whether measured by achievement on standardized tests or other outcomes like district dropout rates. Only recently have researchers begun to publish systematic evidence to demonstrate which activities—the specific provisions in teacher contracts, for example—are related to different district outcomes. This research suggests that districts with stronger CBAs have lower student achievement, especially in districts and schools with high proportions of minority and low-income students.

Moreover, available studies suggest that unions have been generally successful over time in raising teacher salaries and benefits. Even where salaries themselves have not increased, overall expenditures may be as much as 15% higher in unionized districts, largely because the CBAs negotiated by unions and administrators compel districts to prioritize teachers with more experience and credentials, both with respect to how teachers are compensated and in making transfer and layoff decisions.

A notable element to this research base is that very little of it can make causal claims about the impacts of teachers’ unions and their activities on district and student outcomes. This means that many of the outcomes that both critics and supporters argue are the results of teacher unionization—lower student achievement or higher teacher pay, for example—may be driven at least in part by other factors.

In short, neither supporters nor opponents of teacher unionization and collective bargaining definitively know what the strengths and weaknesses of these organizations actually are—at least not in such a way as to unambiguously suggest that wholesale reductions in union influence will improve education outcomes, nor to mount an intransigent defense of teachers’ unions and their CBAs.

As social scientists, we believe policymakers should go where the evidence leads, but for now, the evidence on teachers’ unions remains nuanced. Like much else in education research, there is little about teachers’ unions that is black or white. Rather, there are shades of grey. The danger is that, in the absence of clear evidence, anecdotes rule the day. And without a clear answer— an obvious “good” or “bad"—norms, values, personal preferences and beliefs may sway decision-makers in school districts, state legislatures, courtrooms and other places where the debate now rages.

Perhaps with more attention to uncovering the facts, we can begin to inform the debate with evidence rather than vitriol. Fittingly for a question so central to American education, when it comes to teachers’ unions, we still have much to learn.

--Katharine Strunk and Josh Cowen

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.