Why Public Education Needs Teachers Unions


I consider it important, indeed urgently necessary, for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their own economic status and also, generally speaking, to secure their influence in the political field.” – Charter member of AFT Local 552 (c. 1938)

There have been many assertions made over time about the negative effects of teachers unions on student performance. A number of states have moved legislatively to curtail the collective bargaining rights of teachers and, indeed, some states have never allowed teachers’ collective bargaining.

Conservative critics of teachers unions – the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for example – claim there is no relationship between high levels of union membership and high levels of student achievement. There are 10 states where there is little or no collective bargaining by teachers. If Fordham and other teachers union critics are right, these states should demonstrate student achievement that ranks very high, or at least above the national average, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). According to commentary in the Washington Post by Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute, out of the ten [non-union] states only one (Virginia) has an average rank above the median, while four are in the bottom ten and seven are in the bottom fifteen.” The article concludes that states “without binding teacher contracts are not doing better, and the majority are actually among the lowest performers in the nation.”

There are studies that refute the position of the conservatives and assert that teachers unions have a positive effect on student achievement. These include work done by researchers Brian Powell, Lala Carr Steelman and Robert Carini, “Do Teacher Unions Hinder Educational Performance? Lessons learned from State SAT and ACT Scores,” published in the Harvard Educational Review (Winter 2000), as well as  “Teachers’ Unions and Collective Bargaining Agreements: Roadblocks to Student Achievement & Teacher Quality or Educational Imperatives?” The study concludes that “…excluding teachers from policy-making is dangerous because teachers have vital experience and knowledge and should play a prominent role in policy-making. Teachers are also essential advocates for their students because their needs are bound up with the needs of their students to the extent that concessions for teachers benefit students and enhance teacher quality and student achievement.”

Many argue that, regardless of the number of studies pro or con on the teachers union/student achievement question, it is difficult to draw more than correlational relationships, not causal ones, on the issues. They argue that student demographics, state spending and other policies, as well as the economic status of the states are more important drivers of student achievement. What can be concluded looking at NAEP, ACT and SAT scores state by state, though, is that teacher unionization does not guarantee low student achievement and a lack of unionization does not guarantee high achievement. Teacher unionization does allow for teachers to have a stronger voice in professional matters and also allows them “to secure their influence in the political field.” State education funding per student tends to be higher in unionized, higher achieving states.

Other educational experts have spoken out on the topic of teacher unionization.

  • Diane Ravitch, in her blog, notes that unions give teachers a voice in policy decisions and allow them to be advocates for higher education spending.
  • Linda Darling-Hammond is a Stanford University education professor and chairs California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Darling-Hammond asserts it is the education professionals who hold the keys to successful school reform: “We need the union of professionals to step up and say we care how our profession will be treated.”

The self-styled reformers frequently use international test scores to emphasize that U.S. economic competitiveness is being sacrificed to the “self-interest” of adult educators and the unions that represent them. (They never note that when scores are controlled for poverty the U.S. scores near the top.)

Finland is a small country that typically scores near the top in the vaunted international tests. Do teachers unions have any inhibiting effects on Finland, where 95 percent of teachers are unionized? According to Pasi Sahlberg, a director at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and now a visiting professor at Harvard, “Without the union, we really cannot implement anything. Its role is securing and protecting the rights of teachers. … It’s a very important part of the system.”

Another voice on the efficacy of teachers unions is that of the AFT charter member whose quote begins this essay. You have likely heard of him. His name was Albert Einstein.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

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