What If Everything You Thought You Knew About Teachers Unions Turned Out to be Wrong?

Iowa just became the latest state to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers. In other states, that’s meant big salary cuts for teachers…

Jennifer Berkshire: It’s a well-known true fact that teachers unions make it much harder to get rid of bad teachers. But you conducted a study that purports to find the opposite. In fact, you titled your study The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers. Tell us about what you found.

Eunice Han: What I found is that the facts are the opposite of what people think: that highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.

Berkshire: That sound you just heard was of jaws collectively dropping. While we give readers a chance to re-combombulate themselves (and arm themselves anew with anecdotes), can you walk us through your argument? And feel free to use a formula. 

Han: It’s pretty simple, really. By demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure. Highly unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers because it costs more to keep them. Using three different kinds of survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I confirmed that unionized districts dismiss more low-quality teachers than those with weak unions formula2or no unions. Unionized districts also retain more high-quality teachers relative to district with weak unionism. No matter how and when I measured unionism I found that unions lowered teacher attrition. This is important because many studies have found that higher quality teachers have a greater chance of leaving the profession. Since unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers while keeping more good teachers, we should expect to observe higher teacher quality in highly unionized districts than less unionized districts – and this is exactly what I found. Highly unionized districts have more qualified teachers compared to districts with weak unionism. Continue reading →