Collectively, Not a Bargain for America

Are teachers unions and collective bargaining bad for STEM education? One technology expert shares his opinion.

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On November 7, 1960, one day before the historic Nixon/Kennedy presidential election, Levine called for the city's 45,000 teachers to participate in a one-day strike. Though the strike was considered unsuccessful (only 10,000 teachers participated), it succeeding at capturing the attention of one of the most powerful union bosses in America: George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO.

Meany directed his New York City leaders to get a meeting for Abe Levine with Robert Wagner, the mayor of New York City who was facing re-election in November 1961. Though no serious contender threatened Wagner, the mayor needed the 45,000 teacher votes. He agreed to meet with Abe Levine, who demanded that the City of New York give the United Federation of Teachers the ability to collectively bargain work contracts with the city. Wagner listened and promptly appointed a special fact-finding committee to study the union's demand.

One year later, after the mayor was successfully re-elected, the committee made its recommendation to Mayor Wagner: grant the United Federation of Teachers the right of collective bargaining. The United Federation of Teachers now had what their colleagues in Wisconsin had -- the power to collectively bargain – but with one significant difference: their leader, Abe Levine, knew exactly how to leverage this newly gained power.

The November 1960 United Federation of Teachers strike in New York City was a pivotal turning point for public education in the United States. Richard D. Kahlenberg, an expert on education labor issues, says the adoption of collective bargaining in the 1960s transformed teacher unions from "sleepy organizations" into "the most powerful forces in education."

The power of collective bargaining, without doubt, spurred amazing growth in teacher union membership. According to the chart below, in 1960 about 800,000 K-12 teachers belonged to a teacher union. By 2009, union membership ranks had swelled to 4 million teachers. Kahlenberg's "sleepy organizations" had indeed woken up!

But has the power of collective bargaining delivered an equally impressive return on investment when it comes to improvement in student test scores in the classroom? Unfortunately, collectively bargained work contracts for teachers have had no discernible impact on student learning in America for nearly four decades!

The proof is in the results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress math and science achievement tests for eighth grade students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress test is the test that teachers "teach to." The U.S. Department of Education promotes it as "the nation's report card." Test results, which are open for public review here, are categorized by average numeric scores for math, science and reading (and other subjects) for students in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

I separated the 2011 mathematics and science scores for eighth graders into two groups: states where collective bargaining is "explicitly illegal" (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Georgia) and states/districts that "require/permit" collective bargaining (the remaining 46 states/districts). I assumed that student scores in states that "require/permit" collective bargaining privileges for teachers would be higher than those in states where the labor practice was illegal. Why? Because teachers working with the assurances of collectively bargained work contracts would be better paid, have more productive working environments and wouldn't have to worry about being unjustly fired by tyrant administrators. Hence, the potential for higher student test scores.

My premise was wrong. In math, students in states that "require/permit" collective bargaining scored an average of 284.7 on the 2011 NAEP. In states where collective bargaining is "explicitly illegal," they scored an average of 284.8. The results were similar in science as well: Where collective bargaining took place, the average score was 152.4, and in states where it is prohibited, the average was 152.2. In other words, there seems to be no difference in student math and science test scores between states that allow collective bargaining for teacher unions and those states that don't.

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