Unions and education


in Economics, Law, Politics

Education is one of relatively few remaining industries that are heavily unionized in industrialized countries, including Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Given the societal importance it has, it seems worth examining whether that state of affairs serves the interests of the public at large. I certainly remember the disruptiveness of school strikes when I was growing up, and there is a plausible case that unions are one of the most powerful forces protecting the worst teachers. They also seem to have consistently opposed efforts to reward the best, preferring to reward seniority rather than competence. Arguably, the result is mediocrity in the profession and a lack of accountability. For instance, Eric Hanushek – an economist at Stanford – has concluded that if you could replace the bottom 5-8% of the worst teachers in the United States with teachers of average competence, the overall academic performance of American students would rise from near the bottom of international math and science rankings to near the top.

Arguably, unions are also able to exert undue political influence. They are able to lobby left-leaning political parties for favourable treatment, using money collected from membership dues. That is the basic model of lobbying employed by all interest groups, of course, but what is potentially worrisome is how that political support can be used to block the emergence of promising policies that would threaten union power, such as offering parents vouchers which they can use to cover a portion of private school fees, or merit-based pay schemes for teachers. Unions may be able to use wealth from an unjust status quo to fund the perpetuation of that same problematic state of affairs.

Are there any plausible or proven benefits to unions in education, except from the perspective of those who are members of them? Are there ways in which students would be worse off if they were taught by a non-unionized workforce, or one with a more limited right to strike? If so, can those benefits be said to adequately compensate for the harms that seem convincingly documented? If it is indeed the case that unions in the educational sector harm society at large – while benefiting their membership – it seems especially regrettable. Not only would it represent a situation in which a minority is exploiting its power over the population at large, but they would be doing so within an institution that is meant to be one of society’s great levelers. Those who lack access to decent educational options cannot plausibly be expected to thrive subsequently in many important areas of life, such as employment and informed and effective participation in public life.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

. January 18, 2011 at 10:40 pm

The battle ahead

The struggle with public-sector unions should be about productivity and parity, not just spending cuts

LOOK around the world and the forces are massing. On one side are Californian prison guards, British policemen, French railworkers, Greek civil servants, and teachers just about everywhere. On the other stand the cash-strapped governments of the rich world. Even the mere mention of cuts has brought public-sector workers onto the streets across Europe. When those plans are put into action, expect much worse.

“Industrial relations” are back at the heart of politics—not as an old-fashioned clash between capital and labour, fought out so brutally in the Thatcherite 1980s, but as one between taxpayers and what William Cobbett, one of the great British liberals, used to refer to as “tax eaters”. People in the private sector are only just beginning to understand how much of a banquet public-sector unions have been having at everybody else’s expense (see article). In many rich countries wages are on average higher in the state sector, pensions hugely better and jobs far more secure. Even if many individual state workers do magnificent jobs, their unions have blocked reform at every turn. In both America and Europe it is almost as hard to reward an outstanding teacher as it is to sack a useless one.

. January 18, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Unions have also made it almost impossible to sack incompetent workers. In Greece there is a law against sacking government workers solely on grounds of poor performance. In other countries there might as well be. Mary Jo McGrath, a Californian lawyer, says that “getting rid of a problem teacher can make the O.J. [Simpson] trial look like a cakewalk.” In 2000-10 the Los Angeles school district spent $3.5m trying to get rid of seven of its 33,000 teachers, and succeeded with only five. The problem extends across the country…

Public-sector unions combine support for higher spending with vigorous opposition to more accountability. Almost everywhere they have demonised competition, transparency and flexible pay. Teachers’ unions have often acted as the Praetorian Guard in this fight. In Poland they are up in arms against attempts to increase the number of hours a week (a mere 18) they have to spend teaching. In São Paulo state, in Brazil, teachers have organised huge marches against government attempts to link promotion to performance and to reduce the number of days they can take off without notice. In Greece they have fought four consecutive education ministers from different parties over performance reviews. In Britain they are trying to kill “free” schools, which can be set up outside local-authority control. In America they have fought relentlessly against charter schools (which escape union rules about pay and promotion) and scholarship schemes (which give choice to parents).

The teachers’ unions have an impressive record of terminating reformers. When Marietta Giannakou, the education minister in the last New Democracy government in Greece, insisted on teacher accountability, she lost her seat at the next election. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the awful school system in Washington, DC, closed failing schools, fired more than 200 ineffective teachers and principals, and advocated merit pay. But the unions fought her every step of the way, using their muscle first to get rid of her patron, the city’s mayor, and then to bring about her own resignation.

oleh January 19, 2011 at 3:36 am

Education is too important too allow a particular stakeholder group , the teachers, to protect themselves with an institution, the union, to the detriment of the key stakeholder group , the students.

It is also not that we have to change most teachers. Most teachers are quite good.

Re “Eric Hanushek – an economist at Stanford – has concluded that if you could replace the bottom 5-8% of the worst teachers in the United States with teachers of average competence, the overall academic performance of American students would rise from near the bottom of international math and science rankings to near the top.”

This may be goal to reduce the most ineffective 5 to 15 %.

I realize that determining who those are will be a challenge. However, too much is at stake not to do so. Education is too important and outside of healthcare , our number fiscal expenditure.

Sarah January 19, 2011 at 11:42 am

I think it’s undeniable that without unions teaching staff would be worse paid and have far less job security, which would make it a much less attractive profession for bright graduates. Several of my friends from Oxford went into teaching, which offered much lower pay than the private sector careers they could’ve walked into, and I doubt a single one of them would have become teachers if it didn’t have excellent job security. I haven’t read Hanushek’s research, but my guess is that it rests on a false ceteris parabus premise, i.e. that you could fire the worst teachers without having an impact on all the good and competent ones. If it was easy to fire teachers then a lot of the good ones – who tend to be passionate, motivated, intelligent people who would succeed in other fields – wouldn’t have decided to become teachers in the first place.

Milan January 19, 2011 at 6:18 pm

That’s a fair point.

Do you think teacher unions could be reformed so as to be less protective of the worst teachers, while still making the profession relatively appealing to people who would be good teachers?

Byron Smith January 19, 2011 at 6:35 pm

What have the unions ever done for us?

(OK, it’s from an Australian context, but it’s still good. The original, for those who might not have seen it.)

Milan January 19, 2011 at 7:18 pm

I agree that unions have helped to produce some important societal reforms, like those listed in the videos.

My question in this post is more specific. Are unions of teachers beneficial for students and society at large, or do they harm the interests of people in general in order to serve the interests of their members?

Byron Smith January 19, 2011 at 7:53 pm

If they have achieved some of the benefits mentioned in the video, then they have contributed to a better teaching environment (as well as also possibly contributing to a worse teaching environment in the ways that you have mentioned). For instance, a university lecturer who knows that her union will fight against unfair dismissal may well be more likely to teach what she believes to be true rather than what she thinks her bosses want her to teach. (Yet a lazy lecturer who knows that her union will fight to prevent her being sacked may also cut corners in her preparation.)

I guess I’m saying that unions are a double-edged sword. On balance, I’m very glad they exist, though freely admit to their having numerous problems and downsides.

Tristan January 20, 2011 at 1:14 am

” do they harm the interests of people in general in order to serve the interests of their members?”

What “people in general”? People in general are not a group, they are divided into sub groups which have their interests over-against each other. We live in a “class” society; the interests of the upper middle class rarely coincide with the interests of the lower middle class, nor with the working class. Of course their are exceptions, but those need to be substantively demonstrated, not assumed.

If “people in general” includes the working class, then the people in general are absolutely made better off by any change in policy which makes unionization easier and more common. American planners knew this – this is why they created conditions during the new deal that improved conditions for unionization, which along with the war and housing subsidies, created the most prosperous period for the largest number of people that the world has ever known (USA 50s-70s).

Tristan January 20, 2011 at 1:33 am

As for the neo-liberal love of productivity in the name of excellence – it just isn’t very easy to evaluate teachers. Any attempt to use standardize tests to evaluate their competence invariably leads to teaching-to-the-exam, and the slow death of thought in the classroom.

De-unionizing, or reforming the teaching unions to allow superficial evaluations will, I believe, further cement the direction of public school down the road of treating kids as cogs and wheels, sorting them according to their aptitude at pre-determined set tasks. The critique of the industrial-revolution model of education is hardly something I should have to make 50 years after the 1960s.

oleh January 20, 2011 at 2:57 am

I agree with paying good teachers well, and great teachers even better. I would support a model that does that. Therefore I do not suggest any lowering in pay for teachers .

My interest lies in raising the overall standard of teachers through removal of the ineffective teachers.

Sarah, I expect that the passionate, motivated and intelligent teachers you write about are not at risk in a system where there is a removal of the marginal ineffective teachers , perhaps 10%.

Furthermore, I would hope that those in the lower half would be motivated to do better so as to maintain their work.

The difficulty is identifying the ineffective teacher. Performance of their student on standardized tests would not be a significant criteria.

Any ideas on how to deal with that the ineffective marginal teacher?

Do you think the totally ineffective teacher (the bottom 5-10% percent) should be allowed to continue to teach for 30 to 40 years subjecting hundreds or perhaps thousands of students to their ineffective teaching because they are protected by unions and seniority?

I think “excellent job security” should be the result of doing your job well, or at least adequately – say in the top 90%. However I would not want ineffective teachers (the bottom 10%) to have “excellent job security”. I would like them not to be teachers.

BuddyRich January 20, 2011 at 7:15 am

In theory, I have no problem rewarding excellence and punishing failure.

However, as soon as some sort of metric is applied and performance becomes quantifiable and monitored, rather than simply doing your job to the best of your ability, most people will game the system and distort the reward and punishment objectives. Not to mention the workplace itself will become competitive rather than collaborative. Competition with your peers does that. Watch Glengary Glen Ross for an example.

Also what would that metric be? You could be the best teacher in the world, but still not affect the test scores of your students as the results, ultimately, are outside your control. Also a teachers’ posting, to a certain extent, would greatly predetermine the “winners” and “losers”, with teachers in affluent area doing better on average, and teachers in less-affluent areas doing worse. It would be hard, if not impossible to create a fair metric.

If education was something completely or even mostly in the control of a teacher then sure reward and punish them, but its not fair to do so when most of the responsibility and criteria of success is not in their control but in that of their students.

. January 20, 2011 at 4:32 pm

“The Obama administration wants schools to do a better job identifying which teachers are effective in the classroom and which ones are not. The administration is offering billions of dollars through its Race to the Top initiative to get school systems to adopt new evaluation systems. To be eligible for the money, states cannot have laws that prevent teacher evaluation from being tied to student test scores. Teachers’ unions fought hard for those laws; they have long opposed using test results to evaluate teachers. But some state legislatures are scrapping their bans to get federal money.”


Tristan January 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm

There is an alternative approach to teachers evaluation: teachers could be evaluated by their peers rather than someone in a position of power over you. This kind of approach has already been successfully implemented in democratized workspaces like Semco. From my experience at the Co-op, a top-down, undemocratic management structure is a major source of bias in performance reviews, and, as a result, inefficiency.


BuddyRich January 20, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Some districts in the US do use peer review. Though the use of master teachers would still make it an top down review relationship. i assume it is to counter accusations of bias and collusion in true peer review.


R.K. January 20, 2011 at 5:52 pm

How can we be confident that teachers won’t just band together and give one another positive reviews regardless of their actual performance?

Tristan January 21, 2011 at 12:00 am

“How can we be confident that teachers won’t just band together and give one another positive reviews”

You can’t. You can’t secure the world against everything that could possibly go wrong if you try something new. But if you don’t try something new, you become anachronistic, poorly adapted to your environment, cruel, unhappy, and dead. Acting in the absence of certain outcomes is the characteristic of heroes, and societies and institutions which don’t fail.

oleh January 21, 2011 at 3:30 am

I agree that other teachers are in a good position to know if their fellow teacher is effective. Others who would know are the students, parents and principals. Test performance relative to the the performance of other classes in the school could also be a factor. What if each of these 5 factors were somehow surveyed but only for the purpose of culling the ineffective teachers?

For example, students and parents could fill out questionnaires on each teacher in which to evaluate and provide feedback as to what works and does not work. In elementary school, it could be more parents and in secondary school more the students. Administration and other teachers could also identify who they perceive are ineffective teachers. Finally test results could be a factor. Perhaps each of these measures could be used to weed out the 10% of ineffective teachers every few years.

Byron Smith January 21, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Having been a teacher in both secondary school and university contexts, my 2p worth on peer review is that it can actually be quite difficult to know how good a teacher one’s peers are, since you are rarely in the classroom with them. Most of my knowledge of the reputation of my colleagues came secondhand through students.

Tristan January 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Perhaps the model of “one teacher, one class” is something to move away from. I certainly benefited the most from University courses where the teaching load was shared. I see no reason, in principle, that larger shared classes couldn’t be more involving and interactive than the “30-40 student, 1 teacher” form.

Of course, it would require high schools to be rebuilt with different sized rooms. A bit annoying how architecture restricts our possibilities that way. But in general – why not have every class move between one larger “together” session with many professors, and other smaller seminar/tutorial sessions with a single professor. Is there any reason this model would be more alienating to certain high school students than the current model?

Byron Smith January 24, 2011 at 7:37 am

Tristan – Sounds like an excellent suggestion. Something like this would be necessary (or at least desirable) if peer review of teaching quality were to be implemented. I was simply speaking from my experience. Other teachers may have been better at seeing their colleagues in action. As a new teacher, it was all I could do to keep my own head (barely and occasionally) above water.

oleh January 25, 2011 at 2:33 am

Team teaching – good idea – would also provide ideas for teachers to learn from each other and become better teachers.

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