Sunday, 6 March 2011

Seems unions are good for teachers but bad for pupils


Over recent times I’ve banged on a bit about teachers unions and specifically about a feeling I had that the power and influence of these unions was compromising efforts to raise educational attainment. At the heart of my concern was that the funding and support for opponents of ‘free schools’, academies and other reforms to education was coming predominantly from these unions.

Commenting on the Government's plans to set up Free Schools, Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers' union said;

"The Government's commitment to 'free schools' will create chaos at local level. Groups setting up their own schools irrespective of local planning needs would be a retrograde step that will lead to planning gridlock and social division.”

Now I’m not planning here to dissect the confused opinions of Ms Blower – or indeed of other teacher union leaders – but to explore the impact of unions on education itself. And, in this exploration, the events unfolding in Wisconsin where the Governor wishes to end union collective bargaining rights have provided some help.

Let’s start with the case for collective bargaining in education as put by the New York Times’ pet Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman:

And in low-tax, low-spending Texas, the kids are not all right. The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings. Nationally, the state ranks fifth in child poverty; it leads in the percentage of children without health insurance. And only 78 percent of Texas children are in excellent or very good health, significantly below the national average.

Now much of Mr Krugman’s argument is a familiar one to us in that it is centred on sustaining levels of public spending rather than on defending collective bargaining. But, of course, for left-wingers like Mr Krugman such things go hand in hand. Here in the UK, of course, in that peculiarly totalitarian manner beloved of the last Labour government and continued by the current regime, teachers pay and conditions are set by Parliament on the recommendation of the School Teachers Review Body. In effect ‘collective bargaining’ is nationalised with the unions engaged through the review body in determining pay for every teacher from Berwick to Penzance.

To return to Mr Krugman’s argument – or more specifically the statistics he marshals to support his contention that places with union collective bargaining agreements and high spending outperform places with lower taxes and no union collective bargaining agreements. It seems that the great brain of Mr Krugman has tripped over something called Simpson’s Paradox and, as a result, his comparison is almost wholly a false one. As you can read at the Iowahawk blog:

“...white students in Texas perform better than white students in Wisconsin, black students in Texas perform better than black students in Wisconsin, Hispanic students in Texas perform better than Hispanic students in Wisconsin. In 18 separate ethnicity-controlled comparisons, the only one where Wisconsin students performed better than their peers in Texas was 4th grade science for Hispanic students (statistically insignificant), and this was reversed by 8th grade. Further, Texas students exceeded the national average for their ethnic cohort in all 18 comparisons; Wisconsinites were below the national average in 8, above average in 8.”

So despite spending less money on schools and not working hand-in-glove with teacher unions in the running of those schools, Texas has at least as good results – mostly better – than heavily unionised Wisconsin. This doesn’t say that collective bargaining is a bad thing but that it does no discernable good for education. 

However, there a little bit of a further twist to all this which starts with Caroline Hoxby, Professor of Economics at Stamford University who says:

“I find that teachers’ unions increase school inputs but reduce productivity sufficiently to have a negative overall effect on student performance.”

So teacher unions do their proximate job really well – if you define that job as being to represent the interests of teachers – in that they succeed in getting more cash into the budget. But in doing so these unions are damaging the overall education system. It seems that my suspicion that teachers’ unions damage education has some academic foundation.

What Prof. Hoxby goes on to say is that the unionised system is very poor at:

1.       Rewarding the best teachers and keeping them in the classroom
2.       Getting rid of poor and underperforming teachers
3.       Identifying the best teachers in the first place

Central to this argument is the idea that teachers – like everyone else – will respond to incentives. At present teachers join unions because it is in their interests to do so – unions have the dominant say over pay and are good at getting the resources needed to ensure this situation continues. However, it is in the interests of education to pay teachers on the basis of outcomes, to reward them for actually raising student attainment. This does not suit the unions – or the tidiness of bureaucracy – as it undermines their power. So teachers are paid an agreed amount regardless of whether they are any good at the job.

And the findings don’t just play out in the USA – here’s a study from India:

This paper examines the relationship between teacher unionization, student achievement and teachers’ pay using a cross-section of data from private schools in India. We use differences in student mark across subjects to identify within-pupil variation in achievement and find that union membership of the teacher appears to strongly reduce pupil achievement. We find no evidence this could be due to the unobservables not controlled for by this procedure. A school fixed effects equation of teacher pay shows that union membership substantially raises pay and in this case too we find that remaining unobservables are unlikely to explain this outcome. We thus have in this data clear evidence that unions raise cost and reduce student achievement.

So it does seem that unions are good for teachers but bad for pupils.



The Double Zero said...

Interesting, as always.

Is it fair to argue that such thinking extends to the public sector as a whole? i.e. standardised (arbitrary) pay structures reward those who are able - and willing - to stay at the crease, rather than those who add genuine value to the role lest jealous colleagues - backed by their labour union - cry foul, victimisation and so forth.

A cynic might say that labour unions exist to extort other people's hard-earned cash to boost membership and influence rather than improve outcomes but what do I know?

Richard E said...

It would appear from studies in the United States that this apparent correlation is not too clear: there are too many factors involved to identify a clear relationship.

Now, obviously the situation in the UK may be dramatically different to that in the US, but as you mention the USA in the piece, it might be worth bearing in mind.

Here's a useful article.