Is Unionization of Teachers Good for Students?

Published July 1, 2001

“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
Albert Shanker, former president
American Federation of Teachers (1985)

“When workers at General Motors go on strike, they are too honest to try the public’s patience with self-serving claims that they are really only trying to improve the quality of Chevrolets.”
Boston University Chancellor John Silber
Lowell Sun, April 30, 2001

When teacher unions bargain on behalf of their members for higher pay, better benefits, and improved job security, do their efforts also have the effect of worsening children’s education, as indicated by lower test scores?

A newly published study in the Winter 2000 issue of The Harvard Educational Review contradicts that view, finding states with higher SAT scores tend to be unionized states, and concluding unionization does not hinder educational performance. However, the nation’s leading authority on the teacher unions has faulted that conclusion, saying it is based on “poor logic.”

In the Review article, “Do Teacher Unions Hinder Educational Performance?” authors Lala Carr Steelman, Brian Powell, and Robert M. Carini write: “[W]e find a statistically significant and positive relationship between state teacher unionization rates and state standardized test scores, after controlling for potentially confounding factors. In other words . . . states with greater percentages of teachers in unions tend to report higher test performance of their students.”

“Clearly, our study challenges the ‘rent-seeking’ view . . ., which envisions teacher unions at odds with what parents desire from schooling, namely, the educational advancement of their children,” they continue, suggesting their findings “should give pause to those who characterize teacher unions as adversaries to educational success and accountability.”

Study Suffers from “Major Deficiencies”

But Education Policy Institute Chairman Myron Lieberman believes those conclusions should be rejected by the research community because of what he calls “major deficiencies” in the study.

For example, Lieberman points out that average SAT scores in Connecticut were high even before teachers there became heavily unionized. Also, the test scores in large urban districts–where the teacher unions are the strongest–are lower than the test scores of the remainder of the test-taking population. However, that correlation does not necessarily mean the teacher unions hinder educational performance in urban districts.

“[T]o demonstrate the impact of teacher unionization, it would be essential to provide data on educational performance before and after unionization,” says Lieberman, noting “the article does not discuss or even cite some of the best recent research on the impact of the teacher unions on educational achievement.”

One unreferenced work is a study by University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman, who found increasing teacher unionization to be strongly associated with the decline in SAT scores during the period 1972-1981. Lieberman finds this omission “surprising” since Peltzman’s findings are discussed in a book cited by the authors as one that criticizes teacher unionization without any empirical evidence to support its conclusions.

Teacher union membership jumped from less than 4 percent in 1960 to over 84 percent in 1989, with almost all membership concentrated in two unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. But during that period, composite SAT scores–before later recentering–fell almost 10 percent, from 980 in 1963 to 890 in 1981. Peltzman conducted a careful state-by-state study of the 1972-81 period.

“[T]he decline in [student] performance did go furthest in those states whose legislatures were most responsive to teachers unions and in which the pioneer union (AFT) scored its earliest success,” he concluded. “However, early success by the AFT’s initially reluctant rival (NEA) is associated with improved school performance in the 1970s. This is offset in the 1980s, and there is an unambiguously negative association of union growth and school performance in this period.”

The deterioration in student performance did not occur because the teacher unions “are indifferent or hostile to student achievement,” stressed Peltzman. In fact, just the opposite may be the case. But union concerns and education concerns do not necessarily go hand in hand.

“Union-style job security, for example, is not compatible with flexibility in replacing mediocre or poor teachers,” noted Peltzman.

For more information . . .

Myron Lieberman’s commentary, “Do Teacher Unions Hinder Educational Performance? Why a ‘No’ Answer Must Be Rejected,” is available at the Education Policy Institute’s Web site. Point your Web browser to