Tag Archives: Whitney Tilson

What Can We Blame Teacher Unions For?

My dad, a blue-collar Dem, is a die-hard union man and I grew up in a pro-union household. But I was a temp worker most of my working life until becoming a teacher, and prefer to set my own rate and negotiate my own terms, even though I’m probably not very good at it. Consequently, I was not ever a big fan of unions, and until three or four years ago, agreed with the classic reform positions on teacher unions: they were responsible for keeping smart people out of teaching, they were responsible for ballooning education costs, they stood in the way of good teachers getting the job done with ridiculous rules and regulations, they protected bad teachers.

My views have changed, and the change began even before I became a teacher.

Do Unions Keep Smart People Out of the Profession?

If I could beat one new reality into the nation’s head, I would choose teacher cognitive ability, and that beating would take four parts. First, that high school teachers have always been pretty smart, and drawn from the top half of the college grad pool. Second, that testing and knowledge standards for elementary teachers was once low, is now much higher and more than reasonable since the states dramatically increased the credentialing test difficulty as part of their adherence to NCLB. (see table). Third, that this dramatic increase did not result in either improved outcomes or evidence that new teachers who qualified with tougher tests were superior to teachers who didn’t. (Cite: This is the dog that didn’t bark. All research since 2001 still shows that new teachers aren’t as effective as experienced teachers until they’ve taught for a couple years. Ergo, harder tests to find smarter teachers didn’t make a huge difference.)

ETScredreqs

2007 ETS Teacher Quality report, page 23

Fourth, that the research at best shows that smarter teachers give a teeny tiny boost to outcomes, and if we’re just being reasonable instead of squinting hard, shows no real relationship at all between teacher cognitive ability and outcomes. Both progressive and reformer discussion of teacher quality begins with the premise that mouth-breathing morons predominate. Yet the data clearly shows we are not.

Besides, unions have next to nothing to do with teacher credentialing, which is where content knowledge requirements are set. That’s a state function. The states have, as I mentioned, dramatically raised content knowledge for elementary school teachers at least once (twice if you count the original institution of Praxis I and variations). I assume unions protested, although I’m not sure why. But the states have a much bigger problem than unions—namely, disparate impact. Set credentialing standards high, and you lose your black and Hispanic teachers, something I’ve documented at length here, here, and here, and that Stephen Sawchuk has been covering vis a vis the CAEP push to raise standards.

So unions aren’t responsible for stupid teachers, both because there really aren’t that many, and because that’s the state’s job.

But that’s not all, reformers say. Unions promote pay scales that give all teachers the same raise, regardless of quality. They pay old teachers more than young teachers and protect the first at the expense of the second. They oppose merit or performance pay. The best teachers, the really smart ones, the ones who could be hedge fund managers or financial analysts, the ones we’d like to have instead of these dreary wage slaves we’ve got now—well, those sorts of people want competitive salary structures and the knowledge that they’ll be rewarded for their excellence. Otherwise, they’ll sneer at teaching and take jobs that pay them millions to obliterate the country’s financial stability.

Okay. So the very notion of a union is antithetical to getting competitive, performance-driven people who want rewards for their hard work. I’ll pretty much agree with that. But in blaming teacher’s unions, I thought—perhaps wrongly—that the gravamen of the charge was that unions weren’t in and of themselves the problem, they just needed to improve. However, this charge can only genuinely be resolved by killing teachers unions entirely. Good luck with that.

Sure, there are efforts to come up with merit pay or other pay for performance plans. Most of the research shows they don’t work. I have written up my results for algebra I growth in my students, both in algebra I and in algebra II and geometry. I subtitled one of these “Why Merit Pay Won’t Work”, even though I didn’t mention the subject directly.

I realize I am offering anecdata, but I assert here and now that my anecdata is supported nationwide, that the bulk of high school students who enter a math class will leave it scoring at roughly the same percentile of ability. Performance pay of any sort will not alter this fundamental reality. And once everyone else realizes this, no one’s going to pay big bucks to move kids taking algebra I for the third time from Far Below Basic to Below Basic. I suspect that reading ability suffers from the same constraints.

So I’ll agree that the union compensation structure keeps competitive, high-performance people from even thinking about teaching. However, were such people to enter teaching, the realization that the nation’s stated goals for educational outcomes are utterly disconnected from reality would drive them right out again. No point in performance pay if the objectives are delusions.

Do Unions Increase Costs of Education?

Are unions responsible for the ballooning costs of education? Not on a day to day basis. The bulk of increased costs is due to special ed, and we can blame politicians for that one. I agree that unions and politicians are responsible for pension costs, although teacher unions aren’t any worse than any other government union on that count. In fact, given that teachers can’t work overtime per se and retire at an average age of 59 (cops work 20 years and out, and while I can’t find average national data, California cops and firefighters have an average age of 54), teachers are probably among the least offenders. Less likely to get disability, too.

Districts are far more interested in figuring out how to keep teachers than fire them. Teacher turnover is a huge issue and major expense, and one that can’t really be laid at the union’s door.

So I would argue that unions own responsibility for the huge pensions, but day to day costs, I’d want to see more evidence. And where’s the evidence that teacher unions are worse than other government unions?

Do Union Rules and Regulations Prohibit Productivity?

Yeah, this is nuts. What are you all talking about? I assumed, before becoming a teacher, that there’d be union reps all over the place telling me what I can and can’t do, that teachers were busy bitching out other teachers who worked harder and made them look bad. Where is this happening, and is Nick Nolte on the staff?

Just one example: class assignment often results in English and history teachers getting classes bigger than the contract stipulates (usually 34 or 35). I know teachers who have had 40 kids in a class. They complain. Let me be clear: the teachers complain. The teacher union rep (who also has overlimit classes), in response to the complaints, fills out forms and encourages everyone else to do the paperwork. Some do, some don’t. In this last year, the issue was never resolved. The union didn’t attack the school. They get the difficulty of assigning classes. But at the same time, they continue to work the problem—and will probably escalate it. The union is not enforcing rules and regulations that the teachers are fine with, insisting on arcane objectives that no one gives a crap about any more, but rather responding to teacher complaints about onerous work conditions. How is that not its job?

As a math teacher, I’ve been over the limit a couple times, and I didn’t much care—it’s a whole different issue in math than English and history, with grading time being the chief determinant. However, I didn’t have enough desks. So after a union meeting, I went to the rep and mentioned that I had 35 students but only 32 desks.

“You are overlimit! You should grieve it,” she said, instantly.

“Yeah, it’s just not a big deal. But I need more desks.”

Did she insist that I grieve? Look at me with disapproval? She did not. She just gave me the bad news: other teachers had an even higher ratio of missing desks to students, and short of going out and buying my own desks, I was screwed. She didn’t deliver the news with snark, but with understanding sympathy, since her missing desk to student ratio was 6:1. We commiserated, agreed that attrition would probably fix most of the problem, but wasn’t it annoying that we had to wait? For desks, even!!

It was a nice conversation.

Again, I don’t get this complaint at all. I try to think what else it could be, what case it is that unions, as opposed to teachers, insist on silly rules that stop “progress”—which is, of course, whatever the complainer thinks would be a rilly cool idea. Examples?

Do Unions Protect Bad Teachers?

Ah, the big Kahuna of teacher union beefs. It’s hard to fire bad teachers, because unions make administrators lives living hell in order to discourage them from even trying.

There’s an easy out on this one, though. If government unions ceased to exist tomorrow, teachers would still have Loudermill, the relatively recent Supreme Court decision that says that employment is a property right, and states can’t deprive their employees of property rights without due process. And most states have tenure written into their laws, independent of union contracts. So the changes necessary to undo teacher rights are far more than just dumping unions. Moreover, even the states that have eliminated tenure, like Oregon, seem to hold onto most of their teachers. Oregon dropped tenure for 2-year teaching contracts; a story just two years later reported that nothing had changed. This CAP report report on teacher tenure shows that Oregon is below average in teacher dismissal rates. While some states without tenure laws have high dismissal rates for that year (Alabama, Alaska), others have low ones (Mississippi, Texas).

In fact, as this second CAP report on state tenure laws spells out, the bulk of the apparently onerous dismissal laws are encoded in state law. So how is that the unions’ fault?

Naturally, there’s state laws, and then there’s enforcing state laws. Once, I noticed that one of my employers (a large national corporation) wasn’t paying me overtime. I thought that odd. I emailed someone in HR, and was ignored. I emailed again, no response. I emailed a third time, was told that I misunderstood the law. This annoyed me. It wasn’t the money. In fact, I knew that the employer would simply stop me from working overtime, if they took the law seriously. But they didn’t. So I reported them to the state, who eventually subjected the company to a regional audit, and months later I got a nice check. The company had to revamp its time sheets, at considerable expense, and educate managers on overtime laws by state. (To the company’s credit, I wasn’t fired. A senior HR person called me, I told him I don’t like it when companies ignore the law, he observed that I’d probably saved them a class action suit years down the line.)

This took upwards of a year to resolve, and this was on an issue that I had the corporation dead to rights–around 9 separate incidents of submitted timesheets showing overtime, and paychecks showing no overtime. And yet the corporation ignored me, figuring what the hell, it could break the law. Had my case not been so easy to prove and I been less adept at documentation, I’m sure the corporation’s strategy would have proved out.

It will not shock anyone to learn that private corporations routinely ignore state employment law.

So unions merely force their employers to follow state law. Down to the letter. They do it so effectively that districts are loathe to incur the costs of dismissal.

The CAP report I linked in makes a good case for changing state laws. I suspect that unions will fight any attempt to change, but so what? The “onerous” process required for firing government employees involves state law and federal case law. That unionized government employees simply have the means of forcing their employers to follow the law whereas employees of private corporations are screwed unless the violations reach the level of class action suit says more about the state of employment in America than it does about unions. We shouldn’t need unions to ensure the law is followed. Clearly, we do.

Of course, your average eduformer doesn’t want a state law change. Reformers want to abolish all protection for state employees, barring the usual ones, and give principals a free hand. They are okay with competent teachers being fired simply because the principal wants a younger teacher, a different style, or simply a different teacher (which of course means a cheaper teacher). Checker Finn: “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Whitney Tilson: ” Ending LIFO is a critical first step to getting to what’s really necessary: that every principal has the full power to hire and fire every adult (not just teachers) in the school and he/she sees fit..”. Rick Hess, whose new book Cagebusting might be subtitled “How to Fire Teachers Quickly and a Few Other Administrative Tips I Threw In So No One Can Say This is Just a Book about Firing Teachers”, encourages administrators to use private philanthropy to get the equivalent legal power on their side, but at least he’s working within the system instead of ignoring its realities.

So should unions eat the blame for denying reformers their holy grail of hire and fire power? I think not. Go change the state laws and get back to me.

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So in the end, what are teacher unions to blame for? Big pensions—and even then, they were just doing their job with politicians who didn’t want to do theirs. A compensation structure that repels competitive, performance-driven workers. Many of the teacher protections and all of the standards lie at the state level, entirely out of the union’s purview. But there’s another point to consider.

It can’t have escaped notice that most of the beefs against teacher unions are, in fact, true for all unions. So I repeat a question I’ve written about before: why the big push against teacher unions? Cops and firefighters are just as hard to fire. DMV employees harder still, no doubt. As Richard Posner points out, judges also get paid whether they are any good or not, and without a union, even (I have other good things to say about that Posner essay). So do politicians, who get paid with taxpayer dollars if they’re elected, even if they’re horrible, also without a union.

Education is big business and education reformers are often, but not always, Republicans, a group who—totally coincidentally, I’m sure—favors an outcome that weakens or obliterates a big pile of Democrat money. Neither of those facts, however, explain why it’s apparently okay to single out teachers, castigating them for “privileges” that are de rigueur for all government employees. I just cited two separate Center for American Progress reports calling for a weakening of teacher tenure, and unless I’m mistaken CAP is one of the few pro-union organizations left. I’ll leave that question unanswered save for my previous wonderings, but it is something that nags at me.

I am no more in favor of unions for myself than I ever was. I was just reading Andrew Old’s diatribe about scabs—in fact, I think that essay was the cause of this one, because I realized again that I just couldn’t see myself going out on strike. My view of unions have undergone a profound change, but I don’t think of myself as a union member. I get paid, I go to work. I would probably strike if I voted to strike, but there’s the rub, since I can’t see voting to strike. This is visceral. I’m not sure if I can even explain it. (Note: Andrew Old’s views have changed, but I think he’d still call me a scab for not striking.)

But the past decade has made me much more sympathetic to unions in general. I was just rereading this piece by Kevin Drum on the death of unions, realizing that I would have scoffed at it back in the 90s. I still believe that America is largely antithetical to true union thinking, that union acceptance in the post-war period was a fluke due to our economic dominance in the global market. But the disappearance of work will undoubtedly travel up the pay scale, and I’m much more open to the idea that we need to constrain businesses from putting profit before everything, that stockholders don’t really matter more than workers, and that Amazon’s work practices are obscene.

Is my sympathy caused by my job change? Perhaps, but remember that I am not protected by tenure and may never attain it. Speedy termination until I’m too old to hire is a high-probability outcome for me, which is depressing, but at least suggests my opinions aren’t of the “I got mine, Jack” category.

I will grant anyone that unions make education more expensive, both by scaring politicians and, importantly, by holding onto some of the compensation value the private sector has lost because it doesn’t have the same protections that government employees have —unionized or not.

But are unions responsible in any way for our failure to achieve our educational goals, those lofty objectives that declare all high school graduates will be ready for college or career training?

No. Put another way: Pretty much everything Terry Moe says is wrong.

Those who think that teachers, or unions, or poverty causes our educational outcomes are kidding themselves. Our expectations are absurd. Criminal. The cruelest thing our education system does to our kids is not give them terrible teachers protected by thuggish unions, but ignore the role that cognitive ability plays in their ability to learn the material. Our system punishes bright kids, makes life too easy for middling ability kids, and as for the lowest ability kids, disproportionately poor, we give them all sorts of attention coupled with all sorts of absurd expectations, and leave them feeling hopeless and disconnected.

No one is comfortable admitting that. Reformers tried blaming parents, but they just got tagged as racists. Teachers are the only people left to blame. Unions are just a convenient proxy, a way for reformers to try to avoid alienating the largest profession in the country while still gutting its wages and protections—let’s assume, generously, in the genuine belief that teachers are genuinely responsible for student outcomes in an educational world with absurd and cruel expectations.

In fact, I believe teachers could make more of a difference in educational outcomes if we educated by cognitive ability and set goals accordingly. I believe we should spend more time teaching content to low-mid ability kids, and critical thinking and analysis to mid-high ability kids. But all of this starts by accepting the role that cognitive ability plays in outcomes, and coming to terms with the fact that unions have nothing to do with them.