Unions protect bad teachers? Not so says a new report

Back in April of this year, a rather sensationalist piece of journalism was produced by the CBC seemingly directed  at undermining public confidence in teachers. Looking more like something from FOX than a publicly owned entity, an episode of Marketplace focussed on teacher discipline. The episode suggested quite openly that teacher discipline in Canada was in dire straits indeed. The big beef seemed to be that unless a teacher had broken the law, it was very difficult, in many areas, for parents to discover if a teacher had ever been disciplined.

Now, sensationalizing an issue is certainly nothing new for the media, although one might hope for better from the CBC. However, there was an overall tone to the piece that many teachers found quite disturbing, as it painted the entire profession in a negative light. According to the report, underperforming and, indeed, abusive teachers were running amok in our schools, and nothing was being done. Much of the blame for this inaction was directed, perhaps not surprisingly, on teachers’ unions. “Right now,” one source claimed, “teachers are better protected than students.”

Painting teacher unions, indeed all unions, in a negative light seems to be a rather common trend these days. Certainly here in Nova Scotia, the McNeil Liberals have been anything but union friendly. One does not have to look far to find commentary that suggests that unionism, particularly in teaching, leads to all sorts of bad practice. Unions, some would have us believe, exist to protect bad teachers.

Well, a new report out of the U.S. would beg to differ.

This past week, an article appeared in The Washington Post focussing on the research of one Eunice Han, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. Han has spent the last few years authoring a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, and in February of 2016, she published a very interesting paper entitled: The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers: Evidence from the District-Teacher Matched Panel Data on Teacher Turnover. The paper, available here, shatters a number of oft perpetuated but seldom validated myths about the role of unions in education, including the idea that they protect bad teachers. In fact, Han’s research showed quite the opposite was true. “Highly unionized districts” she told the post, “actually fire more bad teachers”.

Han spent considerable time looking at information from public schools in the United States, and her research is impressive. She was able to draw a number of solidly backed conclusions around the impact of a strong union base on the collective strength of the teachers in a district, and, not inconsequentially, on student outcomes. Using the United States’ nationally accepted definition for a high quality teacher, (HQT)* Han looked at a number of areas of teaching where a strong union and good collective bargaining rights would impact the teaching force of a jurisdiction. Not only does it appear that having a strong union leads to an overall increase in teacher quality, but also lead to less teacher attrition, and even higher graduation rates.

For one thing, jurisdictions with a strong teachers union tend to have more stringent probationary periods for new teachers.  According to her research  “[unionized]…districts fire more teachers with dissatisfactory performance during a probationary period ” Probationary periods allow for more scrutiny of new teachers, so many B.Ed. graduates who may not be suited to the profession are weeded out, or chose to leave voluntarily. These probationary periods are often created with the full co-operation and, indeed, on the insistence of unions.

When it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers, it seems that unions can again have a positive impact. Han points out that “with current compensation schemes and the unpopularity of the teaching profession, it is difficult to attract high-quality applicants into the teaching sector. Even if high-quality individuals start a teaching career, they are likely to leave for non-teaching occupations.” However, in areas where there are strong unions, teachers are usually treated well and are fairly compensated. This means that those quality teachers who have survived the probationary period may indeed be much less likely to look elsewhere for employment.

Han,’ research also suggests that not only does higher pay lead to more retention of quality teachers, but actually increases the likelihood of a teacher being dismissed for underperforming. She writes “more teachers are dismissed in high-paying districts than in low-paying districts. An increase in salary schedules by 10 percent raises the dismissal rate by 2-3 percent.” 

The result of both recruiting and retaining better teachers is, not surprisingly, improved outcomes for students. Looking at school drop out rates, Han discovered that in areas where unions were active, drop-out rates were reduced. Since dropping out of school has been shown time and again to negatively impact such things as future earnings of children and their ability to positively contribute to society in general, Han draws the conclusion that teachers’ unions are actually “likely to improve educational attainment and the welfare of all children in the area.”

Finally, when it comes to collective bargaining, Han discovered that, again, not surprisingly, any attack on the collective bargaining ability of teachers negated all these positives. Using the examples of Idaho, Indiana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin where collective bargaining had come under a sudden attack in 2011, Han was able to show that such things as teacher attrition rates were negatively impacted. In short, reduced collective bargaining led to higher turnover rates, a reduction of teaching quality, and, ultimately, had a negative impact on kids.

So, having a strong union that is able to negotiate through the collective bargaining process attracts higher quality candidates to the profession, creates more stringent probationary periods, reduces teacher turnover and increases student outcomes, all the while increasing the likelihood that underperforming teachers will be dismissed.

Seems like the unions are not quite as bad as some folks might like us to believe.

Now, this is just one study, and the research is based out of the United States, so one must be careful of making too many blanket statements about how these results can be applied to our region. Still, the logic is sound. Improved working conditions and better compensation packages are unlikely to have a negative impact on any workforce, including teachers.

There is a cautionary tale here for us of course. The current Liberal government under Stephen McNeil has come out as decidedly anti-labour, and will return to the House of Assembly in the Fall with Bill 148 safely tucked into its back pocket. They are also currently locked in negotiations with Nova Scotia teachers, and there are rumblings of an election on the horizon. Politically, there may be a will to come down hard on teachers in the name of austerity.

However, a word to the wise. If strong teacher unions result in positive educational outcomes for kids, then attacks on teachers’ collective bargaining rights can only have the opposite effect.

And the CBC Marketplace vision of our schools being filled with underperforming teachers may very well become a reality.

*In her paper, Han explains: “Generally, to be a Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT), a teacher must meet the states’ requirements: 1) have a bachelors’ degree; 2) hold full state certification or licensure, including alternative certification; and 3) demonstrate competency in the subject area they teach, such as passing a subject area test administered by the state.”

(Originally published in localxpress, July, 2016)

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Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Professional Development, Public education, Quality education, Teacher autonomy, Teacher certification, Teacher Training, Teacher Unions

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