Teachers’ Unions May Have to Put Students First, Rethink Opposition to Education Reforms
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Teachers’ Unions May Have to Put Students First, Rethink Opposition to Education Reforms

”What’s best for teachers is what’s best for kids” isn't always true.

The nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA), is reeling right now. Six months ago, the Supreme Court ruled that government workers, including public school teachers, can’t be forced to pay union fees in the case Janus v. AFCSME. Since then, the organization has lost 17,000 members.

Labor economists predict teachers unions could lose up to a third of their total membership in the coming years. But this won’t be a blow to public schools, as it’s often projected to be. For decades, the unions have blocked needed reforms and helped keep the beleaguered public school system frozen in place — to the detriment of American children. Hopefully, the union’s decline will have them rethinking their faulty objectives.

It’s not unusual to hear union leaders say, ”What’s best for teachers is what’s best for kids.” But, often, this isn’t true. For instance, more than 60 percent of teachers in the United States work in districts that are under a union contract. Despite mounting evidence that teacher quality is one of the most important factors in a child’s long-term success, these contracts typically contain seniority rules that make firing ineffective teachers almost impossible. A 2011 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that replacing a highly ineffective teacher with even an average teacher raises each student’s lifetime income by $52,000 — or roughly $1.4 million for a single classroom. Clearly, protecting bad teachers hurts kids.

Union contracts also force districts to base teachers’ salaries on experience and education level — two factors that are hardly correlated to teacher effectiveness. A study from the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) found that students of teachers with advanced academic degrees don’t perform better than students learning under teachers with less education, and sometimes do even worse. As for salary increases on the basis of years of experience, more research from CALDER shows that after the first two or three years of teaching, quality gains from each additional year of experience plateau. In other words, the differences between a teacher with five years of experience and a teacher with 20 years of experience are, on average, quite small. Yet, the teacher of 20 years makes a much higher salary than the other — regardless of how well their students are doing in comparison.

A school district can really help out its students by retaining high-quality teachers and getting rid of ineffective teachers, but unions continue to be one of the largest obstacles standing in the way of a better K-12 education system.

Union defenders may object by noting that northeastern states with strong teacher unions are consistently ranked highest in the U.S. News and World Report’s K-12 education rankings. On the surface, these trends seem to suggest a connection between union strength and education quality. But according to researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas, Stan Liebowitz and Matthew Kelly, the rankings have two big flaws.

First, the U.S. News rankings don’t account for racial distribution differences across states. Seeing as minority students don’t perform as well as white students on traditional measures, failing to account for these differences reward states that are more white-dominant. Second, the U.S. News rankings reward states for simply spending more money on education—regardless of whether that money actually boosts student learning. When the UT-Dallas researchers constructed their own ranking system to evaluate state K-12 systems on quality and efficiency —or getting more bang for their education bucks—the correlation between union strength and education quality disappeared. In fact, Liebowitz and Kelly found that more union strength actually has a powerfully negative effect on a state’s academic performance.

If they are going to survive in the post-Janus world, teachers’ unions need to start rewarding talented teachers and stop shielding incompetent ones. They should also view charter and private schools, which pay teachers what they’re worth and give them freedom to innovate, as partners in developing new approaches to educate kids as opposed to threats to their status quo. Putting students first — even ahead of union interests — is the only viable path forward.

This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.