Teachers’ unions: Good for teachers, good for learning?

“Did you know that teachers in Wisconsin make $100,000 a year?”

“Maybe that’s why their students rank second in achievement.”

This is how rumors get started—and how public opinion is shaped. In the wake of the heated, national debate over the elimination of teachers’ unions’ collective bargaining rights, including bargaining for salary rates, many such “facts” have surfaced. However, a quick check on FactCheck.org shows that $100,000 is not the average salary, but rather the total average compensation package, salary and benefits, for teachers in Milwaukee. The claim that Wisconsin ranks second in combined SAT and ACT scores is based on questionable data from more than a decade ago.

Much of the back-and-forth discourse in the media about teachers’ unions can distract us from what matters most: Do they help make teaching better for teachers? If so, does it translate into better learning for students? In a chapter from School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence (Molnar [Ed.], 2002), Robert Carini of Indiana University Bloomington examined the effect of teachers’ unions on student achievement in 17 studies. He found that unions “modestly” raise achievement for most students in public schools, especially on math and verbal sections of standardized tests. However, Carini also found that unions were “harmful” for the lowest- and highest-achieving students.

Others, like Andrew J. Coulson in the CATO Journal article, “The Effects of Teachers Unions on American Education,” argue that achievement has stagnated while unions and the cost of schooling have grown dramatically. The value of unions for its members, he asserts, is protection from having to compete in the educational marketplace—essentially a “government school monopoly.”

Have unions affected your job, your teaching, and your students, for better or worse? Do you think they help or hold back education?

Maura McGrath is Knowledge Management Specialist at McREL.

8 Comments

  • Love C. Diogu says:

    k

  • Ellyn says:

    Wonderful article! I am in full support of teacher unions, and I am glad that I am not the only one trying to make the people around me realize the importance of the unions. How will the students benefit from taking away the teachers unions?

  • Amy says:

    Unions are the only voice many teachers have these days. Teachers in Tennessee have been told they can now individually bargain with their school boards, but imagine this situation:
    10 teachers show up to a school board meeting to negotiate benefits, etc. All are heard. At the next meeting 25 teachers attend, hoping to negotiate for themselves. Will they also be allowed to speak?
    At some point, school boards will begin to set a limit, or more drastically, not allow these 25 or so teachers to speak or to even be on the agenda for the school board meeting. Teachers have very little say in some states’ education these days, and with all the strict new standards and limitations on what teachers can and can’t (read–not enough time)teach, the least they should be able to have is a voice to speak for them in a unified manner.

  • Christina Fox says:

    Of course, this is just one person’s opinion, but I wish the focus of the union leaned more toward what would better education instead of teacher salary. As a non-traditionally trained teacher, was in the private sector for many years and salary was rewarded based on performance not merely on years of service. It is frustrating for me to see really good teachers that work very hard not be compensated for their efforts simply because they have not been teaching as long as others. We all know that there are “good” and “bad” teachers; is it truly fair to base salary simply on how many years you have been doing the job? I believe that my performance speaks for itself and would love for the union to be more proactive in fighting for positive and realistic adjustments to curriculum standards and issues that directly affect the classroom rather than salary. No one gets into the teaching profession for the salary, we are all here because we want to change the world one student at a time. That is where the focus of the union should lie. This is how I believe that the union can directly affect learning.

  • Deb says:

    All unions are different and not all schools have the same unions and/or union leadership. I belong to our state’s educational union and I firmly believe they are looking at more than a teacher’s salary. I am in this profession for better or worse and changes need to occur in schools. However, current legislation is not the answer. Our states current legislation has limited what we can negotiate for in our contracts. Teachers want their students and their schools to succeed. The vast majority are willing to work together to see that changes occur. However, we continue to get new legislation that limits are ability to make decisions. It is being dictated to us by people who are not in the classroom. In this last legislative session, I and many stood up for our beliefs through visits, phone calls, and letters. I do not feel we were listened to at all. They kept saying we, teachers, were only fighting for more money. I never mentioned money to them one time. I always spoke about their legislation and the impact I felt it would have on education and our students.
    I agree with Christina Fox above that we need to look at pay. However, basing pay on test scores is not the answer. If you look at the data, test scores have not went up based on merit pay. Every year, your students are different. It is possible one year for your students scores to earn you extra pay and the next year you may not earn merit pay. It is not because you are a worse teacher. It has to do with the makeup of your class. There are so many variables everyday in a classroom that may interfere with a child’s learning.
    I also understand why teachers may be asking for pay increases. I am not a frivolous spender. I budget my money. However, I find it difficult to be a single parent raising two kids on my salary. My car is eleven years old. As an educated professional, I should not have to struggle to care for my family. Our pay is frozen. There will not be any pay increases in the near future. We have not had a pay increase in over two years, but everything else keeps increasing. If things do not improve, I may have to get a second job.
    I come from a business background. In business, I could ask for a pay raise. I could negotiate my hours. Pay increase may be frozen at times, but when business improved, they would begin to reward those of us who worked hard and stuck it out. In the business world, we were allowed to take time for collaboration and working together. It was not something we did once work ended. In the teaching profession, you end up doing you collaboration on your own time after school is out. We have 30 minutes of prep time at the end of our day. Most of the 30 minutes is used for IEP meetings, data meetings, staff meetings, parent phone calls/meetings and possibly professional development. We might have a little time to evaluate lessons, prepare materails for the next day, grade or do lesson plans. This does not include any tutoring I may do for free with my students.

  • Stacey says:

    Good article with many good points. Our own union is losing the ability to do as much as it once could do for teachers. If a teacher has an issue there seems less and less the union can do to help him/her. It seems there hands are tied all too often. I understand some districts have unions and some do not. I would hate to “loose” my union and need that support/back up in the future. I’d like to say that I want unions to have more power but then again that may not be such a good thing for teachers either.
    It’s a tough issue….

  • Deidre says:

    Unions were formed years ago to protect people. Teachers need this protection at times, just as many other professionals have found unions beneficial. It keeps unfair reprimands from causing a very competent educator from being disciplined and prevents them from losing benefits due to changes in budgets. If union-busting tactics are successful, there will be less security in schools. Security in one’s job helps that person perform at their peak potential. If one feels like s/he has to worry about losing one’s job, losing medical benefits, or getting evaluated unfairly, then s/he will not be able to do the very best for his/her students. This is due to stress. Overall, unions benefit not only teachers, but their students as well. I hope and pray that unions do no become nonexistent.

  • Tom says:

    There is no doubt that one of this country’s greatest needs in the past was for fair treatment of employees (teachers). Being a U.S. History teacher has allowed me to study in-depth, the rise of the unions in America. For many decades, the corporations had a strangle hold on municipal governments, state legislatures, including their electing of U.S. Senators (Seventeenth Amendment allowed for the popular election of U.S. senators in 1913), and even the White House. With this kind of control on government, came the ill-treatment of millions of workers, including teachers. Thanks to the Progressive Era legislation of the early twentieth century, as well as later reform movements dealing with labor, this is no longer the case. I believe that today’s teacher unions are more about the teacher and less about the student. And this seems to be the perception of those in the media and the majority of the general population, as well. I am not saying that unions do not have a place, but instead, we might want to consider major reforms in what we focus on. Let’s get rid of the political agenda and start focusing on student achievement and ways to improve teacher performance.

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