Teachers unions aren’t to blame

Once hostile to teachers’ unions, Education Realist now thinks unions are blamed unfairly for many education problems. She starts with teachers’ cognitive ability.

. . .  high school teachers have always been pretty smart, and drawn from the top half of the college grad pool. . . .  testing and knowledge standards for elementary teachers was once low, is now much higher and more than reasonable since the states dramatically increased the credentialing test difficulty as part of their adherence to NCLB.

However, “this dramatic increase did not result in either improved outcomes or evidence that new teachers who qualified with tougher tests were superior to teachers who didn’t,” she writes. “The research at best shows that smarter teachers give a teeny tiny boost to outcomes.”

States — not unions — set knowledge requirements for teacher credentialing, she writes. They struggle with disparate impact. “Set credentialing standards high, and you lose your black and Hispanic teachers.”

Reformers “unions promote pay scales that give all teachers the same raise, regardless of quality” and oppose performance pay.

Okay. So the very notion of a union is antithetical to getting competitive, performance-driven people who want rewards for their hard work.

But “there’s no point to performance pay if the objectives are delusions, she argues. If competitive, high-performance people became teachers, they’d be unable to raise outcomes and they’d quit.

The “big Kahuna of teacher union beefs” is that it’s hard to fire bad teachers.

If government unions ceased to exist tomorrow, teachers would still have Loudermill, the relatively recent Supreme Court decision that says that employment is a property right, and states can’t deprive their employees of property rights without due process. And most states have tenure written into their laws, independent of union contracts. So the changes necessary to undo teacher rights are far more than just dumping unions.

Oregon dropped tenure in favor of renewable two-year teaching contracts, but nothing changed. Oregon is below average in teacher dismissal rates, reports the Center for American Progress. While some states without tenure laws have high dismissal rates (Alabama, Alaska), others have low ones (Mississippi, Texas). The “bulk of the apparently onerous dismissal laws are encoded in state law, not in union contracts.

Teacher unions to blame for big pensions and “a compensation structure that repels competitive, performance-driven workers,” Education Realist concedes. However, “many of the teacher protections and all of the standards lie at the state level, entirely out of the union’s purview.”

Of course, teachers’ unions have a great deal of influence on state law.

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  1. I am perplexed by people who seem to look upon a high rate of teacher dismissals as a desirable goal, regardless of its effect on student outcomes. Call me old fashioned, but I always thought that education was supposed to be about student learning rather than about firing large numbers of teachers. Now if high dismissal rates were shown to be related to higher student achievement, then fire away. Is Alabama an education powerhouse? Then it would make sense for other states to follow Alabama’s example and start dismissing a similar number of teachers. For what it matters, teachers in Finland and South Korea have much stronger job protections than teachers in the US.

    • CA_Public_ED says:

      I think you are engaging in hyperbole by describing a “high rate of dismissal” as the goal. In reality the problem is the rate of dismissal is minuscule when compared to virtually every other profession. In New York City in 2008, three out of 30,000 tenured teachers were dismissed for cause. The statistics are just as eye-popping in other cities. The percentage of teachers dismissed for poor performance in Chicago between 2005 and 2008 was 0.1 percent. In Akron, Ohio, zero percent. In Toledo, 0.01 percent. In Denver, zero percent. In no other socially significant profession are the workers so insulated from accountability. I find it difficult to believe teachers in Finland or South Korea have stronger job protection than this.

      • Actually they do. Teachers in Finland and South Korea are given tenure the minute they are hired. It is almost unheard of for a teacher in these countries to be fired. Reports of dismissals with cause of tenured teachers ignores the reality of how schools are run. First it takes years of satisfactory performance to get tenure. Second, most principals don’t fire with cause because it’s too disruptive during the school year. They wait until the end of the school year and either counsel out or fail to renew. For what it matters, over the first five years around 50% of people who enter teaching leave the profession. That should be a high enough rate to satisfy anyone. But you’re still ducking the only important issue, which is student achievement. Does Alabama high rates of dismissal lead to better student outcomes?

        • The number of people who drop out of teaching after a few years is irrelevant; because people in lots of other occupations also switch to a different field. My DH, three of my four kids and two of my daughters-in-law did so and none were, or are, teachers. The same is true of many of their friends. The issue is the level of job security and people in government jobs of all types have far more than do people in the private sector.

          Comparisons to Finland and South Korea are also largely irrelevant, because the entry standards and cultures are so different. A close relative is Korean, with most of her relatives still in South Korea, and the school/family/community approach to education is vastly different and light-years different from our weakest schools.

          • Once again, you continue to dodge the only issue that matters. Does it improve student learning? Show me any evidence that firing higher numbers of teachers leads to higher educational ahchievement, and you’ve won the argument.

          • Mark Roulo says:

            “Show me any evidence that firing higher numbers of teachers leads to higher educational ahchievement, and you’ve won the argument.”


            “Any evidence” is much too low a bar. With enough hunting (and enough lack of concern for statistical validity), I’m quite sure that I can find one study somewhere that shows this.


            But it also misses the point. For many folks, the goal isn’t firing lots of teachers. The goal is to be *able* to fire teachers (in theory, those who are underperforming).


            Why do most private K-12 schools *NOT* give tenure? And most companies? Or, alternately, what is so special about public school K-12 teaching that the teacher-employees should have tenure(*)?


            (*) I actually have an answer that I’m fairly happy with, for what it is worth…

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            Point among the great unwashed, otherwise known as concerned parents, is not firing a certain percentage of teachers each year.
            It’s firing the one complete and utter failure/oblivious incompetent/drunk who is ruining MY kid’s education.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Lest anyone get the wrong idea, in a system with tenure, a principal cannot simply “fail to renew” a tenured teacher’s contract. All tenured teachers have to have their contracts renewed unless there is a “reduction in force” so large that there are no non-tenured teachers left. Traditionally (and still in most places today), “failures to renew” then have to be done on the basis of system-wide seniority, with the most recently hired teacher going first. This is sometimes called LIFO: last in, first out.

          One of the great unknowns in education is how often administrators try to, and how often they are successful in, easing out teachers they don’t want, perhaps by letting the teacher know that he can look forward to an unfavorable schedule or room placement for as long as he continues at the school.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            When I say “easing out,” I mean getting teachers to quit who can’t be legally fired, who the principal can’t legally “fail to renew.”

            Okay, Mark Roulo, I’ll bite. What do you think “is so special about public school K-12 teaching that the teacher-employees should have tenure(*)?”

          • In MoCo, MD, it was referred to as the “dance of the lemons”, wherein the undesirable teachers were simply sent to another school. Yes, it was usually one where the parents didn’t know and/or care.

            There were also other scenarios; (1)my eldest’s third grade teacher, who was senile but was being allowed to stay until she’d maxed out her retirement (she’d been there for ages and had been a good teacher, until her memory gave out), even though her classes hadn’t learned anything for several years, and (2) my third’s female URM science teacher who was both content-incompetent and abusive (“I hate you all and I wish you’d all die” had been recorded, among other gems), on whom the admin had started an incident record practically on her arrival, but the county wouldn’t even try to remove her without years of records. In both cases, private schools would have had them out the door, soonest. (headmaster of a top local private school heard about her from two teammates of his son’s and couldn’t believe she was still allowed in the building, going on three years of that stuff).

    • That’s the spirit!

      Keep on shoveling the same, old shyte even as the ground washes away from around your feet.

      The moral authority of teachers started eroding the minute the MEA went from being a professional association of dubious value to an industrial union representing the worst of human values.

      Nothing the MEA has done since has slowed that erosion until finally the diminishing faith in the public education system, and the teachers who are its face, has brought us to today. Previously unquestionable assumptions are getting a vigorous knocking around in the political sphere and many, if not all, of the assumptions which shielded the public education system from substantive change are being discarded.

      Among those assumptions are tenure and good riddance. If ever there was a policy that worked in opposition to the stated goals of the organization saddled with that policy tenure’s got to be near the top of the list. Far from giving teachers a motivation to excel, or even stay awake, tenure ensures that competence is the product of pride alone with more then a few reasons to avoid its somewhat inconsistent call.

      Unions, to the detriment of education, have made tenure even more difficult to puncture. But that period in American education seems to be coming to an end. I suspect future generations, freed from growing up with the assumptions that have shielded public education from critical scrutiny will scratch their heads wondering why anyone would think such an institution capable of anything useful much less educating children.