Sunday, October 28, 2012

Teachers, Unions, and School Performance

Teachers and their unions are under continual attack. They are blamed for undermining our public education system, and are assumed to have not only crippled us economically, but to have also compromised our national security in the process. It will be argued that teachers’ unions are irrelevant to the issue of school performance, and that the source of our problem is not so much failing schools, but failing societies.

These criticisms of unions do not come from those seriously working with educators to provide the best learning environment for our students. Rather, they come from those with an agenda to be pushed. Often their goal has little to do with education itself.

On two recent occasions I came across references to teachers unions in which an attack was levied without any attempt to justify the assault. The first comes from the conservative economist perspective. An article in The Economist was describing what it considered "true progressivism" to be. Out of nowhere came this comment:

" Wall Street financier has done as much damage to American social mobility as the teachers’ unions have."

In this view, privatization and the planned obsolescence of public education are good things, and teachers unions are bad because they would inhibit the efficiency of lower wages, and complicate the plans of the financial types who would control the schools. The author of that statement has presumably bought the verbiage that emanates continuously from conservative think tanks.

As an example of the gullible being captured by the think-tank propaganda we have Lawrence Lessig. In his book, Republic Lost, he produces this statement:

"According to Professor Eric Hanushek of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, if we could eliminate just the bottom 6-8 percent of bad teachers, we could bring our results up to the standards of Finland, perhaps the best in the world."

Unions are deemed evil because they place constraints on the ability to fire teachers. Lessig takes this bait and runs with it. Teachers unions are compared to a deadly virus that attacks children, and the lobbying activities of the unions are lumped in with those of the tobacco industry and other merchants of death.

The truth is that public education utilizing unionized teachers has produced some of the best school systems in the world—and they are right here in the US. If Massachusetts, for example, was a country, it would be ranked up there with Finland and the best of the Asian overachievers.

US students have been participating in a measurement of reading and mathematics skills administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This PISA test can be used to evaluate the students and school systems as to their status within the body of nations, and with regard to progress over time. A recent study by Paul E. Peterson, Ludger Woessmann, Eric A. Hanushek, and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadon provides an analysis of the most recent data available. This would correspond to the high school class of 2011 being tested at the age of fifteen.

This study provided fascinating data by mapping individual state achievement scores onto the country data so that each US state could be compared on the international scale. This effort was discussed in How Your State’s Students Compare with Those from Other Countries. Charts ranking states and countries can be found there or in the link to the original article.

The net result is that we have state school systems that rank with the best in the world and we have state school systems that rank with the worst in the world. If Massachusetts was a country, it would be ranked ninth, just behind Switzerland and just ahead of Japan in math achievement. Finland is fifth. In reading proficiency Massachusetts is ranked fifth and is positioned below Hong Kong and above Singapore. And just below Singapore comes the great state of Vermont. If Mississippi was a country, it would be ranked below Bulgaria and above Uruguay in math proficiency. It does somewhat better in math, finding itself below Lithuania and above Turkey.

Our problem is not that we can’t produce good students in our public schools; our problem is that we are not a single nation. We are a single country made up of multiple nations with different cultural values and histories. The societies and cultural histories of Mississippi and Massachusetts differ by so much that they might as well be considered separate countries.

Let us consider the relationship between teachers’ unions and academic performance. This site produced this chart of percent unionization of teachers by state.

If teachers’ unions are so detrimental to education, that would imply that a Bostonian should probably pull up roots and head to Mississippi in search of a good education for his children.

What is the correlation between unionization and performance?

The top five states in reading proficiency are Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, Montana, and New Hampshire. The bottom five, starting with the lowest, are New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana, Hawaii, and Alabama. In math proficiency, the top five are Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, North Dakota, and New Jersey. The bottom five are Mississippi, New Mexico, Alabama, West Virginia, and Louisiana.

If one had to determine a correlation, it would favor highly unionized states as being more effective in education, and indicate that a lack of union representation suggests poor performance. But that simplification would be misleading, because the degree of unionization also follows cultural boundaries. West Virginia is highly unionized and it performs poorly. One must suspect that it is the stronger cultural ties with the similarly underperforming Southern states that are the dominant consideration.

There is no evidence to support the notion that teachers’ unions are, by their nature, a detriment to educational performance. Our school systems have problems, but they lie elsewhere.

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