Friday, September 22, 2017

The Wars on Public Education and Teacher Unions

Back in 1983 the economy was not particularly healthy, and countries such as Japan and Germany seemed to have passed us by economically.  Someone had to be at fault.  A group was convened during Reagan’s administration to determine how our education system could be the problem.  This group issued a document titled A Nation at Risk.  One of the conclusions of the report was that average SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test—used for college admission) scores had been falling for a considerable period; therefore our schools are failing us and putting our national security at risk.  This is just what Republican politicians wanted to hear.  They wanted to be able to blame liberals for all the nation’s troubles and they wanted to divert the massive education funding devoted to public schools in a more conservative direction.

Since this report was issued the propaganda machines of political parties and varied moneyed interests have propagated the notion that public schools are heading steadily downhill and taking our students with them.  The problem with this story is that the conclusion of the report was false.  Whether from malice or stupidity, the authors performed a statistical analysis that would have received an F grade in any of the public schools they had criticized.  It is well-known that SAT scores correlate closely with parental income.  Once college attendance was a benefit reserved mainly for the financially well-off.  As time went on college attendance became available to many more people of lower financial status.  As a consequence, the average SAT score began to drop.  But did this mean that the schools were falling in performance?

It is possible for average scores to drop for a given population while scores for all subgroups within the population are rising provided the population of the subgroups is changing.  For some reason, a group of scientists in the Department of Energy (DOE) was asked to reevaluate the data considered in the A Nation at Risk report.  When the students were broken into groups by income level, the scientists showed that all income groups were actually improving in performance over time—exactly the result a healthy school system should be providing.  However, the DOE study did not provide the desired answer and the report was buried, only to appear in an obscure publication years later.  More on this topic can be found here and here.  

The net result has been decades of sniping at traditional public schools and the teachers who work in them.  One of the latest to bemoan this situation is Erika Christakis in an article for The Atlantic.  The piece was titled The War on Public Schools in the paper edition and changed to Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake for the online version.

Christakis describes the low esteem granted to our public schools and then provides some needed perspective.

“….contempt for our public schools is commonplace. Americans, and especially Republicans, report that they have lost faith in the system, but notably, nearly three-quarters of parents rate their own child’s school highly; it’s other people’s schools they worry about.”

“….Americans tend to exaggerate our system’s former glory. Even in the 1960s, when international science and math tests were first administered, the U.S. was never at the top of the rankings and was often near the bottom.”

“Since the early 1970s, when the Department of Education began collecting long-term data, average reading and math scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen significantly.”

“These gains have come even as the student body of American public schools has expanded to include students with ever greater challenges. For the first time in recent memory, a majority of U.S. public-school students come from low-income households. The student body includes a larger proportion than ever of students who are still learning to speak English. And it includes many students with disabilities who would have been shut out of public school before passage of the 1975 law now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which guaranteed all children a ‘free appropriate public education’.”

Perhaps the worst of the anti-public-education invective is directed at teachers’ unions.

“In 2004, Rod Paige, then George W. Bush’s secretary of education, called the country’s leading teachers union a ‘terrorist organization’.”

“Our secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has repeatedly signaled her support for school choice and privatization, as well as her scorn for public schools, describing them as a ‘dead end’ and claiming that unionized teachers ‘care more about a system, one that was created in the 1800s, than they care about individual students’.”

Teachers and their unions are an easy target for assigning blame.

“Our lost faith in public education has led us to other false conclusions, including the conviction that teachers unions protect “bad apples.” Thanks to articles and documentaries such as Waiting for ‘Superman,’ most of us have an image seared into our brain of a slew of know-nothing teachers, removed from the classroom after years of sleeping through class, sitting in state-funded ‘rubber rooms’ while continuing to draw hefty salaries. If it weren’t for those damned unions, or so the logic goes, we could drain the dregs and hire real teachers.”

Christakis exults in referencing a study that actually demonstrates that school systems with strong unions do a better job of maintaining teacher quality than weak or nonunionized systems. They do this by campaigning for higher wages that attract better teachers.  The higher wages make the tolerance of poor teachers more expensive, thus encouraging them to eliminate subpar performers before they gain tenure.  Besides encouraging the dismissal of the weaker teachers, the higher wages encourage the good performers to stay on the job. These results are derived from the work of Eunice S. Han: The Myth of Unions' Overprotection of Bad Teachers: Evidence from the District-Teacher Matched Panel Data on Teacher Turnover.

Han provided a long and detailed study..  A succinct summary is more easily accessible in an interview of Han that was reproduced in a Washington Post piece by Valerie Strauss: Think teachers can’t be fired because of unions? Surprising results from new study

When asked to describe her results, Han provided these comments.

“By demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure. Highly unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers because it costs more to keep them. Using three different kinds of survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I confirmed that unionized districts dismiss more low-quality teachers than those with weak unions or no unions. Unionized districts also retain more high-quality teachers relative to district with weak unionism. No matter how and when I measured unionism I found that unions lowered teacher attrition. This is important because many studies have found that higher-quality teachers have a greater chance of leaving the profession. Since unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers while keeping more good teachers, we should expect to observe higher teacher quality in highly unionized districts than less-unionized districts — and this is exactly what I found. Highly unionized districts have more qualified teachers compared to districts with weak unionism.”

When asked about the four states that had restricted or eliminated collective bargaining for teachers in 2011 and whether that offered data to support her results, Han had this reply.

“Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee and Wisconsin all changed their laws in 2010-2011, dramatically restricting the collective bargaining power of public-school teachers. After that, I was able to compare what happened in states where teachers’ bargaining rights were limited to states where there was no change. If you believe the argument that teachers unions protect bad teachers, we should have seen teacher quality rise in those states after the laws changed. Instead I found that the opposite happened. The new laws restricting bargaining rights in those four states reduced teacher salaries by about 9 percent. That’s a huge number. A 9 percent drop in teachers’ salaries is unheard of. Lower salaries mean that districts have less incentive to sort out better teachers, lowering the dismissal rate of underperforming teachers, which is what you saw happen in the those four states. Lower salaries also encouraged high-quality teachers to leave the teaching sector, which contributed to a decrease of teacher quality.”

If highly unionized systems produce better teachers, then there should be evidence in student performance.  When asked about this Han had this reply.

“Since there’s currently no data on student performance by school district levels with nationally representative samples, I use high-school dropout rates as a measure of student achievement. My study found that unions reduce the dropout rates of districts. This is where my study differs from some earlier ones that found that unionism either had no impact or had a negative effect on the dropout rate. I define unionism more broadly than those earlier studies. It’s not just collective bargaining that matters; it’s the union density of teachers in a district that’s important. Union density measures the strength of the union, because even when teachers can’t engage in collective bargaining they can use their collective “voice” to influence the educational system. What I found was that union density significantly decreased the high-school dropout rate, even in districts without collective bargaining agreements.”

Let us return to the notion that there is a war being waged against public education.  Christakis pleads with us to not allow that war to be lost.  The real issue is not the performance of individual students but the performance of the nation as a whole.

“My point here is not to debate the effect of school choice on individual outcomes: The evidence is mixed, and subject to cherry-picking on all sides. I am more concerned with how the current discussion has ignored public schools’ victories, while also detracting from their civic role. Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole. As a result, a cynicism has taken root that suggests there is no hope for public education. This is demonstrably false. It’s also dangerous.”

Christakis ends her piece by referring to a comment from Benjamin Barber issued in 2004.

“America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling.  America as a democratic republic cannot,”



The interested reader might find the following articles informative:




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