Terry Moe on Teacher Unions

December 21, 2011

Rick Hanushek interviews Terry Moe about his new book, Special Interest, which is the definitive, new work on teacher unions and education.

Teacher Union Blues

November 28, 2011

My colleague, Bob Costrell, and I each had a piece published last week about problems with teacher unions.  Bob’s appeared in the Wall Street Journal and focused on the fiscal dangers of public sector collective bargaining, especially over benefits and especially at the local level.  My piece appeared in Education Next as part of a forum with Richard Kahlenberg and focused mostly on the harms to students and their families posed by unchecked teacher collective bargaining over working conditions, hiring, and termination procedures.

I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in Ed Next and I don’t want to speak for Bob, so I would just urge you to read these pieces for yourself.  But just to anticipate objections, let me emphasize that I have no problem with unionization and collective bargaining in a competitive private market.  People should be free to associate and free to negotiate the terms of providing their labor.

The problem with teacher unions and public sector collective bargaining is that the checks and balances provided by market competition are absent.  So, public sector unions can get “management” to increase revenue for the industry and for union members without having to improve productivity.  They can just increase taxes or shift spending from other public purposes.  Private sector collective bargaining is constrained by the reality that they cannot just print their own money and must agree on productivity improvements so that there is more revenue to split.

In addition to the lack of incentives to improve productivity in public sector collective bargaining, we have the additional political distortions that unions, as a more concentrated and well-organized interest, have enormous political influence.  So, the unions are essentially sitting on both sides of the bargaining table.  This problem is more severe at the local level, since local political contests are less salient and more easily captured by well-organized interests.  At least in the private sector management usually tries to represent the interests of shareholders, but in the public sector the diffused interests of taxpayers are much less likely to be represented.

And in case any of you have idealized visions of teacher unions protecting the worker dancing in your head, a little snippet from the Education Intelligence Agency should awake you from your slumber:

In August, the American Federation of Teachers began an audit of the Broward Teachers Union’s (BTU) finances. Who at BTU asked for the audit is a matter of contention, but AFT uncovered several anomalies in the course of its two-month investigation.

Among them was the apparent reimbursement out of union dues for campaign contributions made by 26 ”employees, board members and their relatives.” This is, needless to say, illegal. The Broward State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Elections Commission were notified, and both agencies opened an official investigation.

Members of BTU’s executive board accused union president Pat Santeramo of not only being complicit in the reimbursement, but also covering up a $3.8 million budget shortfall and accepting salary overpayments….

Whatever Santeramo has done, he is actually the least reprehensible recent BTU president. He took over the position in 2001 after his predecessor was charged and plead guilty to attempting to entice a minor into a sex act and sending child pornography over the Internet. He was sentenced to 48 months in prison. And Santeramo’s actions are small potatoes when placed aside those of Pat Tornillo.

Special Interest: Teacher Unions and America’s Public Schools

April 14, 2011


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Terry Moe has spent years carefully researching this new book on the education unions.  I look forward to seeing Terry’s research, which informed his taking of the teacher unions to the woodshed in a debate a couple of years ago. Terry’s opening statement was very powerful: 

What we are saying is that the unions are and have long been major obstacles to real reform in the system. And we’re hardly alone in saying this. If you read “Newsweek,” “Time Magazine,” the “Washington Post,” lots of other well respected publications, they’re all saying the same thing: that the teachers unions are standing in the way of progress. So look. Let me start with an obvious example. The teachers unions have fought for all sorts of protections in labor contracts and in state laws that make it virtually impossible to get bad teachers out of the classroom. On average, it takes two years, $200,000, and 15% of the principal’s total time to get one bad teacher out of the classroom. As a result, principals don’t even try. They give 99% of teachers — no joke — satisfactory evaluations. The bad teachers just stay in the classroom. Well, if we figure that maybe 5% of the teachers, that’s a conservative estimate, are bad teachers nationwide, that means that 2.5 million kids are stuck in classrooms with teachers who aren’t teaching them anything. This is devastating. And the unions are largely responsible for that.

They’re also responsible for seniority provisions in these labor contracts that among other things often allow senior teachers to stake a claim to desirable jobs, even if they’re not good teachers and even if they’re a bad fit for that school. The seniority rules often require districts to lay off junior people before senior people. It’s happening all around the country now. And some of these junior people are some of the best teachers in the district. And some of the senior people that are being saved are the worst. Okay. So just ask yourself, would anyone in his right mind organize schools in this way, if all they cared about was what’s best for kids? And the answer is no. But this is the way our schools are actually organized. And it’s due largely to the power of the unions.

Now, these organizational issues are really important, but they’re just part of a larger set of problems. Our nation has been trying to reform the schools since the early 1980s. And the whole time the teachers’ unions have used their extraordinary power in the political process to try to block reform and make sure that real reform just never happens. Consider charter schools. There are many kids around this country who are stuck in schools that just aren’t teaching them. They need new options. Well, charter schools can provide them with those options. But charter schools are a threat to teachers’ unions. If you give kids choice and they can leave regular public schools, then they take money and they take jobs with them. And that’s what the teachers’ unions want to stop. So what they’ve done is they’ve used their power in the political process to put a ceiling on the numbers of charter schools. As a result in this country today, we have 4,600 charter schools. There are like well over 90,000 public schools. So this is a drop in the bucket. And mean time charter schools have huge waiting lists of people who are desperate to get in. In Harlem, for example, the charter schools there got 11,000 applications for 2,000 slots recently.

So just to give you an idea of about how the politics of this works out, in Detroit a few years ago, a benefactor came forth and said he was willing to donate $200 million to set up additional charter schools for the kids in Detroit who obviously need it. What did the union do? The union went ballistic. They shut down the schools, went to Lansing, demonstrated in the state capitol and got the politicians to turn down the $200 million for those kids. This is good for kids? I don’t think so. This is about protecting jobs. The same kind of logic applies with accountability. Accountability is just common sense. We obviously need to hold schools and teachers accountability for teaching kids what they’re supposed to know. But the teachers’ unions find this threatening. They say they support accountability but they don’t want teachers held accountable. Any sensible effort to hold teachers accountable, they brand as scapegoating teachers. They don’t even want teachers performance to be measured. Right here in New York City, Joel Klein indicated a while ago that he was going to use student test scores as one factor in evaluating teachers  or tenure. What did the union do? Now, this is something that Obama supports, that Arne Duncan supports. It’s unbelievable. What the union did is they went to Albany and they got their friends in the legislature to pass a law making it illegal to use student test scores in evaluating teachers for tenure anywhere in the state of New York. It’s just outrageous. And makes no sense from the standpoint of what’s best for kids. The “New York Times” called it absurd. This is how the unions approach accountability. Okay, well, I don’t have a whole lot of time left here.

So let me just quickly say our opponents are going to say tonight, and Randi has already said, there is really no conflict between standing up for the jobs of teachers and doing what’s best for kids. But the thing is there is a conflict. And that’s why we can’t get bad teachers out of the classroom, because they protect them. That’s why the schools have totally perverse organizations imposed on them, and that’s why totally sensible reforms are seriously resisted in the political process. Now, what you’re going to hear, I’m sure, throughout the evening is that union leaders and unions around the country, they’re actually reformers too. They want to get bad teachers out of the classroom. They say they’re for charter schools; they’re all in favor of accountability. Well, not really. Talk is cheap. What counts is what they actually do. And what they do is to oppose reform. This is the reality.

In the MSNBC clip with Derrell Bradford a couple of posts below, you will see Derrell taking it to Randi Weingarten, and then an official for the Obama administration go into a litany of “this finger pointing has got to stop.” Derrell did not stop, nor should any of us, as this is exactly wrong. If we want a more effective system that provides the basic academic skills necessary for success in life we must first understand why we have the system we have today. The Dance of the Lemons, LIFO, charter school caps, rubber rooms, fake accountability systems with fuzzy labels and dummied downed tests- none of these things happened on accident. Nor will any of them go away by a “cuddle up to Randi and ask for reform nicely” strategy.

Borders is rushing my copy of the book to me as we speak. I can’t wait to read it.

Teachers Unions Gone Wild

October 25, 2010

HT to DB for this hidden-camera window into a New Jersey teacher union meeting.  Beside the bad attitudes and bad language, it looked like a pretty lame party.  They haven’t hung out with Ladner.

Blog Envy

December 4, 2009

I’m suffering from blog envy.  Other blogs have had some great posts — much better than what I’ve come up with recently.  If I can’t beat them I might as well link to them and poach their material.

First, Brian Kisida has a superb post at Mid-Riffs on the predictable waste and banality of consultant reports in the political and education arena.  He demonstrates this using as his examples a “curriculum audit” that the Fayetteville school district has commissioned from Phi Delta Kappa for $36,000 as well as a “visioning” report that the City of Fayetteville commissioned from Eva Klein & Associates for $150,000:

To be sure, the report that Phi Delta Kappa comes up with won’t look exactly like the same ideas the community gave them.  They’ll be re-written in such a way that any resemblance or lack of substance will be obfuscated by consultant-speak gobbledy-gook.  For example, when the Rogers School District hired Phi Delta Kappa to conduct an audit, one of the recommendations they received was:

Develop and implement a comprehensive curriculum management system that delineates short- and long-term goals, directs curriculum revision to ensure deep alignment and quality delivery, and defines the instructional model district leaders expect teachers to follow in delivering the curriculum.

Translation: Establish a system to set and achieve goals. And make it a good one.

Here’s another recommendation from the Rogers audit:

Research, identify and implement strategies to eliminate inequities and inequalities that impede opportunities for all students to succeed.

Translation:  Do what you and every other school district has already been doing (or should have been doing) for decades.

I’m willing to bet Fayetteville’s audit will contain many of the same recommendations given to Rogers.  These types of consultant groups have stock boiler-plate language that they recycle time and time again.  I also expect to see some of the views of the community rewritten in consultant-speak.  Here’s some of the comments and concerns the Northwest Arkansas Times picked up from teachers and parents at one of the focus groups:

  • Weaknesses in foreign languages
  • lack of flexibility, especially at the high school level
  • poor communication about special programs
  • lack of strong leadership in some schools
  • the need for more vocational classes, including in middle school
  • too many different intelligent levels in the classroom
  • special needs and at-risk students need more technology
  • need more literacy coaches, especially one at the high school
  • more coordination in all programs
  • need more time for physical activity
  • need more writing in classrooms
  •  I got this list from the newspaper, which cost me fifty cents–a whopping $35,499.50 less than Phi Delta Kappa is going to charge for repackaging these ideas in consultant-speak.

    I don’t know exactly why organizations pay money to outside consultants, like when the city paid Eva Klein & Associates to tell us that the University was one of our strengths, and that the perception that Fayetteville was anti-business was one of our weaknesses.   Don’t we already elect and pay people to think about these things and have a vision for what we need to do?  So why are they sub-contracting out their duties?

    Wow.  Great blogging!

    And Paul Peterson is hitting his stride as a blogger over at the Education Next Blog.  There he notes the political difficulty posed by teacher union financial might for President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s efforts to turn Race to the Top rhetoric into reality:

    The National Education Association (and its local affiliates) gave $56.3 million dollars to state and federal election campaigns in 2007 and 2008, more than any other entity. That’s what we learn from the recently released report issued by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) together with the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

    The much smaller American Federation of Teachers tossed in another $12 million dollars into political campaigns….

    The money is wrested directly from teacher paychecks as an add-on to their monthly dues (unless teachers specifically object), a power granted unions by school boards as part of collective bargaining deals.  So the NEA’s slush fund is in fact built by taxpayer dollars, which flow directly to the NEA instead of into the teacher’s own bank account.  Yes, some individual teachers object and don’t make the political contribution, but unions typically collect the money by default.

    With all that cash in hand, unions are in a position to tell state legislatures what to do, if they want campaign dollars next time around.  Significantly, over $53 million of the $56.3 million dollars went for state-level expenditures, a clear indication that unions know that the action is not in Washington but in state capitols.

    This enormous cash nexus that swamps anything any business entity has contributed creates a huge problem for President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who is asking states and school districts to put merit pay into place.

    Over There (But Not Over Here)

    September 21, 2009

    Several years ago I was part of a delegation sent by the U.S. Department of Education to a conference in China on private education.  The U.S. Dept of Ed believed that encouraging the expansion of private education in China would help promote democracy.  Apparently, they thought private schools were good for democratic values over there, but not over here. 

    I was reminded of that experience while reading a recent New York Times article about severe problems with education in South Africa.  The piece states:

    Despite sharp increases in education spending since apartheid ended, South African children consistently score at or near rock bottom on international achievement tests, even measured against far poorer African countries. This bodes ill for South Africa’s ability to compete in a globalized economy, or to fill its yawning demand for skilled workers. And the wrenching achievement gap between black and white students persists.

    Sound familiar?

    And what does the NYT tell us is a central part of the problem:

    The teachers’ union too often protected its members at the expense of pupils, critics say. “We have the highest level of teacher unionization in the world, but their focus is on rights, not responsibilities,” Mamphela Ramphele, former vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said in a recent speech.

    I see.  Teacher unions over there = bad, while over here = good.  Sometimes you have to get people outside of their vested set of domestic interests to see how they really think the world works.

    Greg on Voucher PR Gains in PJM

    August 4, 2009

    Greg has long been arguing that rhetoric matters.  In a column in Pajamas Media today he notes the shift in the political rhetoric and tactics from voucher opponents.  Here’s a highlight:

    Because the unions have lost the fight for public opinion, both at large and within the Democratic Party. And they know they’ve lost it. And they’ve apparently decided that they’re OK with that. So they’re just not even bothering to pretend to care about kids anymore.

    Let’s not indulge in naïve optimism. Having lost the public relations battle may in some ways makes the teachers’ unions more dangerous, not less. America’s last education labor reporter, Mike Antonucci, offers a sobering observation:

    The public perception battle is over, and the teachers’ unions have lost. But will it have any effect on Congress and state legislatures? The NRA, tobacco companies, PETA, the ACLU and Big Oil all have negative public images they can’t shed, yet they are still effective in getting their way. What if NEA and AFT stop caring what other people think?

    On the other hand, there is a key difference between the teachers’ unions and the other groups Antonucci mentions here, and that gives us considerable grounds for hope. All of those groups have retained power in spite of their bad public images either because (for the NRA, tobacco, and oil) what they really represent is the desires of consumers who want their products and mostly just want to be left alone and aren’t trying to mess around with other people’s lives; or else because (for PETA and the ACLU) they care very intensely about a narrow set of issues that most Americans just don’t care much about.

    The teachers’ unions, by contrast, are fattening themselves by destroying the lives of America’s children. That’s just not in the same ballpark.

    Update: Link corrected.

    This is the Song That Never Ends

    May 20, 2009

    The AFT’s Leo Casey of union cue-card check and sock-puppet fame has written a blog post for his “steakholders” once again accusing me of cherry-picking.  The last time Leo accused me of cherry-picking voucher studies I produced what I believe are comprehensive lists of random-assignment voucher participant and high-quality voucher competitive effect studies.  Given his inability to substantiate that cherry-picking charge, I’m a bit surprised to see that he is a glutton for punishment and wants to make the charge again.  I guess Leo has joined with Shari Lewis, Lambchop, and all his sock-puppet friends to make this cherry-picking charge another song that never ends.

    This time the issue is whether teacher unions tend to raise costs and lower student achievenement.  Leo noticed my guest posts over at Flypaper on this and asserts: “if you think that the scholarly literature on the subject is a guide, it clearly comes down in a place quite different from that suggested by Greene.”

    Leo’s claim hinges entirely on what “scholarly literature” means and whether all “studies” should be treated equally.  For example, I could claim that the scholarly literature shows that candy improves student achievement, citing as scholarly literature papers written by my 5th grade son and friends whose research design involved describing how smart they felt after eating candy.

    Leo doesn’t go quite that far but he does cite a study by the AFT’s very own Howard Nelson that makes a cross-sectional comparison of test scores controlling for a handful of observed demographics.  He also cites literature reviews that consist mostly of these cross-sectional analyses controlling for observed demographics. 

    The problem is that there is a serious design flaw with these studies — unobserved factors that are associated with unionization may also be associated with student achievement.  For example, wealthier communities may be more likely to produce unionization because those communities have the wealth to bear the higher costs associated with unionized teachers.  Wealth may be associated with higher student achievement, but our controls for wealth (free lunch status) may not fully or accurately capture the differences in wealth.  So, unobserved and uncontrolled factors would bias the results from these cross-sectional studies.

    Caroline Hoxby’s study, upon which I base my claims, employs a vastly superior research design that addresses this problem.  I’ll let her describe the problem and how she solves it:

    “The … most serious obstacle is the identification problem caused by the difficulty of differentiating between the effects of a union on a school and the characteristics of a school  that make a union more likely to exist.  Even after controlling for observable characteristics of a school district such as demographics, there are presumably unobservable school characteristics associated with unionization.  The unobservable school characteristics that promote unionization may themselves affect the education production function….  My third, and probably best, attempt to solve the identification problem combines differences-in-differences and instrumental variables estimation.”

    Her instrumental variable strategy involves using changes in state laws regarding unionization to derive unbiased estimates of when schools would unionize.  The change in the state law would help predict whether a school unionizes without being associated with the academic achievement in that school.  This is a far better way to estimate the effect of unionization than simply looking at whether unionized schools have higher or lower scores, since the scores and other factors associated with school quality could themselves be causing the unionization.

    I’d put much more confidence in this rigorously designed study than a dozen weakly designed cross-sectional analyses.

    But even if Leo insisted upon relying on the literature reviews he cites rather than the higher quality research, he would have to accept some results that aren’t very flattering to teacher unions.  Those lit reviews find that unionization raises the cost of education by about 8% to 15%.  In addition, they find that unionization tends to hurt the academic achievement of high-achieving and low-achieving students while benefiting more typical students found in the middle of the ability distribution. 

    As Leo’s authority, Eberts, Hollenbeck and Stone, put it: “While on average students fare at least as well, if not better, in unionized schools, atypical students – students well below or above average ability – do appear to fare less well because instructional settings are more standardized, less individualized in unionized schools.”

    So, if Leo wants to say that unions exacerbate the achievement gap for disadvantaged minority students while driving up costs, I guess he can rely on that literature review.  I prefer to rely on Caroline Hoxby’s rigorously designed study in a top economics journal.

    Dems v. Teacher Unions: More Cracks in the Facade

    August 25, 2008

    (Guest post by Greg Forster)

    Do not miss Mickey Kaus’s firsthand account of stunning anti-teacher-union backlash from delegates at the Democratic National Convention:

    I went to the Ed Challenge for Change event mainly to schmooze. I almost didn’t stay for the panels, being in no mood for what I expected would, even among these reformers, be an hour of vague EdBlob talk about “change” and “accountability” and “resources” that would tactfully ignore the elephant in the room, namely the teachers’ unions. I was so wrong.

    In front of a gathering of about 500 delegates, four “smart, young, powerful, bald** black state and local elected officials” (Kaus’s description; the asterisks lead to a note conceding the presence of some hair on one guy’s head – but only on the sides) denounce teachers’ unions, explicitly and in strong terms, and recieve vigorous applause. “In a room of 500 people at the Democratic convention!” (emphasis in original)

    Most satisfying line: “John Wilson, head of the NEA itself, was also there. Afterwards, he seemed a bit stunned.”

    Promising signs that the facade is cracking faster than we may have thought. And my pals at the Friedman Foundation who decided to make this topic the cover story of the latest issue of the School Choice Advocate sure do look prescient.

    The Establishment Mindset

    June 16, 2008

    (Guest post by Jonathan Butcher)

    In education policy, as with any policy area, when discussion turns to reform, there are some basic questions: what are the problems that need fixing?  Who are the interested parties—what is at stake?  Should the change come from the bottom up or from the top down?  Is it raining?  Did I leave my car’s top down?  Do I own a convertible?

    Actually, those last few questions only come up if the discussion is taking place inside a government building in Washington because, as everyone knows, there is no place to park in Washington.  So if you left your top down and it starts to rain there is no way you will make it back to your car in time to put it up.  You probably had to park in a metro lot in some swanky Northern Virginia suburb where gas cost $5 before the recent spike in oil prices and there are more Lexus LX’s per capita than any place in the world.  

    Change to large systems such as public education can be frightening—but it is often simply because the ideas are misunderstood.  Take a story in the Washington Post last week about charter schools in Louisiana, for example.  New Orleans is now the first city of its size where more than half of the students attend charter schools.  Certainly this is a drastic change: 

    “For these new schools with taxpayer funding and independent management, old rules and habits are out. No more standard hours, seniority, union contracts, shared curriculum or common textbooks. In are a crowd of newcomers — critics call them opportunists — seeking to lift standards and achievement. They compete for space, steal each other’s top teachers and wonder how it is all going to work.”  

    Hold the phone!  Replacing a system the Post said had a “dismal record and faint prospects of getting better” with new management and scrapping portions of the old system that helped drive it to such a dismal state?  And using public dollars to create this change?  This sort of reform hasn’t happened since…well maybe it was…let me get back to you.

    Critics of this change offer a revealing look at the establishment mindset.  One critic charges that “Louisiana school authorities have ‘opened a flea market of entrepreneurial opportunism that is dismantling the institution of public education in New Orleans.’”  Note that this quote uses the word “entrepreneurial” and the idea of taking apart New Orleans’ public education system as though they are bad things.  Well yes, please, bring back union contracts, students sure missed them.  

    These charter school operators are “opportunists” in the sense that they are taking advantage of an opportunity to open schools for children whose lives were throttled by Katrina.  One charter school was open for business six weeks after the storm hit, while a public school bureaucracy with more levels than Halo 3 was still looking for its PlayStation.  These charter schools are actually competing for talented teachers in an effort to make the best educational opportunities possible available to students―compare that to an establishment mindset that wistfully refers to the days of payscales.

    There are sure to be some challenges for these new charter schools, and as with any change in public policy, the results may be less than perfect.  But students in New Orleans deserve something better than an otherwise “dismal” record.

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