Public Sector Collective Bargaining, Teachers Unions, and the Future of Education in America.

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at

Author’s note: When originally published, this article inspired more criticism than any other in the magazine’s long history. Soon thereafter, my wife and I were actually assaulted by a teachers union supporter. This is one among many reasons why I despise politics and avoid political minds.  I do value education, however. Although reasonable people might disagree on this issue, we should all be able to openly and candidly discuss it without resorting to personal attacks or violence.

“If Governor Walker wanted to balance the budget on the backs of middle class workers, he had the concessions he’d asked for, but … he is more interested in busting state unions.” Jennifer Shilling, Democratic Assembly person and recall candidate for the Wisconsin State Senate, in a letter to the author.

Cruel tyrants, some say, have seized local power across the nation.  They despise American workers and are bent on ripping their states apart at the socio-political seams over the sensitive issue of public employee collective bargaining rights.

The ghastly spectacle began here in Wisconsin on February 11, 2011 when the newly-elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, unveiled his plot to severely limit such rights for most government workers—supposedly in an effort to balance the state’s distended budget.  An equally zealous Republican-dominated legislature seemed poised to pass their leader’s so-called “budget repair bill” in very short order.

But the allegedly noble opposition had other plans.  Claiming it had already tendered fair and generous concessions, the state’s largest teachers union summoned its angry members to rally.  Incensed educators called in sick, forcing public schools to close.  Tens of thousands of slogan-toting protestors descended on the capitol in Madison to “fight for working families.”

To impede the legislative process, all fourteen Democratic senators abandoned their elected posts on February 17.  They fled the state and surveilled the fallout from a secret hideout in Illinois.  Recall petitions—first targeting Republican, then Democratic senators—would soon circulate through previously peaceable neighborhoods, including mine.

Following a three-day filibuster, Assembly Republicans passed Walker’s bill that same day.  As they exited the chamber, Democrats clad in matching blaze-orange union t-shirts rose for the television cameras, pumping their fingers and shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” in eerily perfect unison.

On March 9, Senate Republicans devised a means to pass a revised measure without contribution from their still-truant counterparts.  Threats on the Governor’s life poured in; one group’s letter promised to murder each Republican senator along with his or her family to “save the rights of 300,000 people.”

Walker signed the bill two days later, but Democrats quickly sued to enjoin its implementation, alleging a technical violation of the legislature’s open meetings law.  They were victorious in liberal Dane County, but the Republicans appealed instantly.

Meanwhile, a Wisconsin Supreme Court election ensued.  Normally a lackluster affair, the high-court contest became an instant media sensation as a referendum on the governor’s controversial bill.  The sober fact that state justices rule on a wide variety of important issues and serve lengthy ten-year terms seemed completely lost on both the general public and the popular press.

Before the mêlée in Madison began, the sitting conservative justice, David Prosser, was expected to win re-election handily.  But embarrassingly crude advertisements—announcing that “Prosser is Walker,” for example, quickly flooded the airwaves.   Prosser eventually prevailed, but only after the projected result was flipped by a reliably conservative district’s late-coming tally and a lengthy, expensive, and ultimately fruitless recount demanded by the Justice’s liberal challenger.

By March 12—after a three-week hiatus, the Democratic senators had returned to work.  Some greeted them as heroes to the working class, others as self-serving traitors to both their constituents and the democratic process.   The “Wisconsin 14”would be the first group ever to win the National Education Association’s “Friend of Education” award.

Nine recall applications were certified for six Republicans and three Democrats.  In the six Republican recalls, including the one in my district, the Wisconsin Republican Party forced expensive primaries by running “fake” Democrats, thereby providing the “real” Republican candidate with additional time to campaign.

Subjected to dissenting accusations of political bias from the liberal Chief Justice, the Wisconsin Supreme Court majority—piloted by Justice Prosser—terminated the lower court’s injunction.  A swarm of public employee unions led by the Wisconsin Education Association Council then sued in federal court alleging the collective bargaining bill’s violation of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  And lest we worry that local histrionics were spent, by the end of June, Justice Ann Bradley had publicly accused Prosser of choking her during an argument in her chambers.

Modern politics in the typically congenial Dairy State are rarely so toxic and divisive.  Can these humiliating events be explained simply as predictable responses to an overzealous political power-grab committed by a vicious, middle-class loathing governor and his lock-step minions of party toads?

Or is it more likely, perhaps, that certain special interest groups—extremely powerful, with legendary reputations for surreptitious and heavy-handed tactics—suddenly feel threatened and are now working extremely hard in Wisconsin and elsewhere to ferment poisonous brews of political polarity, class warfare, and social unrest?

Are Public Employee Unions So Different?

“All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Can a progressive-minded person oppose collective bargaining rights for public employees without being a “union buster”?   Can such a person still appreciate the vital roles that private unions continue to play in the American economy?  Organized labor has served America well, I would respond, contributing mightily to both the design and implementation of key legislation pertaining to worker health and safety, child labor, and inappropriate discrimination, for example.

But if the process works well enough in the private sector, why shouldn’t it prevail in its public counterpart?  To understand the distinction, let’s begin with some basic history.  It was FDR, of course, who championed organized labor in 1935 when he signed the National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act, thus forcing private employers to engage in collective bargaining and making it illegal for them to discriminate, spy on, harass, or fire unionized workers.

Yet FDR vehemently opposed the extension of collective bargaining into the public sector.  “The very nature and purposes of government,” he observed, “make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations.”  “The employer,” he reminded us, “is the whole people.”  In other words, FDR recognized that public sector collective bargaining would prove inherently anti-democratic.

Nevertheless, it was FDR—along, perhaps, with the Republican-sponsored Labor-Management Relations (or Taft-Hartley) Act of 1947, permitting government supervision of union activities and influence and allowing states to pass “right to work” laws eliminating forced union membership—who also forever wed organized labor to the Democratic Party, for better or for worse.

The NLRA’s short-term effects were astounding: union membership leapt from fourteen percent of the private, nonagricultural workforce in 1935 to thirty-five percent in 1949.  On the other hand, few public workers in the U.S. were unionized before 1960 and almost none enjoyed collective bargaining rights.  Wisconsin, ironically, became the first state to grant such privileges to some of its employees in 1950.

But a remarkable transformation in organized labor would occur over the next few decades.  By 1983, private unions could claim only seventeen percent of the private workforce, and, by 2009, that number had plunged below eight percent.  During the 1960s and 1970s, however, states began passing labor laws specifically designed to promote public unionism and collective bargaining.  Since then, organized labor in the public sector has thrived, prospering in self-assured immunity to the market forces that sealed the private sector’s fate: In both 1983 and 2009, thirty-seven percent of all public workers were unionized.

Thus, the engines of political power shifted rails from the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers, and the United Mine Workers of America to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union, and the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  Today, although public employees make up just seventeen percent of the total workforce, they comprise a whopping fifty percent of all union members.

How can we account for this revolution in American labor?  The fall of private unionization can be explained in part by escalating competition in an increasingly global and technology-driven market.  Prior to the 1970s, limited competition sheltered the U.S. auto industry, for example.  Because consumers faced severely limited options, unions could demand more on behalf of their members and employers could safely raise prices to compensate for those demands.

But markets for most goods are now truly international.  Competition is fierce and consumers enjoy nearly inexhaustible choices.  Employment in America has migrated in recent decades from highly unionized manufacturing to weakly unionized services, from the well-organized Rust Belt to the relatively unorganized Sun Belt.  As a result, union membership and, thus, union power—at least in the private sector—has waned considerably.

All of which leads us squarely to the question at hand.  Government agencies generally face no competition and their “business” is rarely, if ever, mortally threatened by the increased costs and restrictive work rules that collective bargaining can produce.  As such, public unions have little or no incentive to temper their demands with considerations of affordability or efficiency, let alone for the very existence of their members’ livelihoods.

“The public environment is very different,” insists Terry Moe, Stanford University professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.  “[P]ublic sector unions know they are not putting their agencies or jobs at risk by pressuring for all they can get,” he argues, “however costly, however disabling to productivity.” (Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Brookings 2011)).

And like many others, Moe is particularly concerned about the undemocratic accretion of overwhelming political power.  “To the extent that public sector unions can wield power in elections,” he warns, “they can literally select the ‘employers’ they will be bargaining with, and who will make all the authoritative decisions about government funding, programs, and policy.”

Nor should we forget the role of party.  Democrats especially, Moe adds, given their longtime alliance with the unions, “clearly have incentives to promote collective bargaining, give in to union wage and benefit demands, go along with restrictive work rules, add to the employment roles, and protect existing jobs … even if they know full well that the result will be higher costs and inefficiencies and that the larger population of citizens will not be well served.”

“In the private sector, consumers have the right to opt out,” observes Reason Magazine editor Peter Suderman, “the right to buy less, or to go elsewhere.”  But taxpayers cannot just opt out, so when public employees collectively bargain for increased salaries or benefits, taxes have to be raised or services cut.  “This is why the power of public sector unions is such a big deal,” Suderman contends: “When they negotiate … the majority of taxpayers usually end up forced to bear the cost, somehow, whether they want to or not.”

In sum, the government must not be thought of as just another industry.  Leveraging collective bargaining against our elected representatives produces bizarre results, many of which abuse the general public.  Allowing public employee unions to force special negotiations on government entities—behind closed doors, most often—is inherently anti-democratic, providing these organizations with disproportionate access and advantage at the expense of individuals and other important groups.

Moreover, as courts routinely ruled prior to the public sector labor revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, public employee collective bargaining is an improper and potentially despotic delegation of crucial political powers to unelected special interest groups.  Some such groups, of course, are more powerful and self-sanctimonious than others.  And in one very sensitive context, the social stakes for average citizens and their children are extremely high.

Collective Bargaining and Public Education: An Especially Dangerous Combination.

“People who do well under the status quo, whether it’s the unions, whether it’s the politicians … those are the groups that will protect a status quo that serves their needs, even if it doesn’t serve the needs of students.  We have to move to a customer-focused school system.” Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools (2002-2010).

Thanks in no small measure to Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary, Waiting for Superman, many Americans are now well aware of the foul treatment and demoralizing struggles students often face in our public schools—especially minority students in poor districts.  The film featured a number of desperate families across the country that want nothing more than to save their children’s lives by helping them to escape from their local schools.

Although Guggenheim is a liberal (private-sector) union member himself, his new hit movie highlights the role of teachers unions in protecting bad teachers and their perverse seniority rules, for example, in opposing charter schools, and, perhaps worst of all, in making constructive change so gallingly difficult.

Superman also highlights the infamous “Rubber Rooms” of New York City.  Beginning in 2009, these Temporary Reassignment Centers quartered more than 700 teachers considered too incompetent to remain in their classrooms.  They didn’t teach, of course, but they arrived at and departed from the rooms every day at the regular time, as if they were still working.  They were paid a full salary and received full benefits.  They had vacations and summers off too.

In salary and benefits alone, these defective teachers siphoned between $35 million and $65 million per year from the top of their city’s already impoverished school budget.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein wanted to detach them from the payroll, but state tenure laws, restrictive collective bargaining contracts, and the United Federation of Teachers—which dared to compare their members’ Rubber Rooms to the prisons at Guantanamo Bay—made such a just and common sense solution impossible.

How could this happen in a community that truly values education?  “The New York City school district is not organized to provide the best possible education to its children,” argues Moe.  Instead, thanks to union-influenced laws and the contemptible rules contained in the collective bargaining contract, “The district is literally organized to protect bad teachers and to undermine the efforts of leaders to ensure teacher quality.”

Today, the NEA and AFT are more than 4.5 million members strong and clearly the most powerful interest groups in American education, perhaps in all of politics.  Union dues alone provide them with astounding sums of cash every year for campaign contributions and lobbying strategies.  They rank first among the top twenty-five all-time donors in federal elections, for example, having contributed $59,354,731—ninety-five percent of which went to Democrats—between 1989 and 2010.  During the 2010 election cycle alone, the NEA spent $40 million, giving $2 million directly to Democratic candidates.  At the same time, the AFT gave $2.6 million directly to Democrats compared to a paltry $8000 to Republicans.

They send armies of well-trained activists to every political district in the country; they can finance highly effective media campaigns on any topic or for any candidate they like at any time.  “No other group in the politics of education” says Moe, “representing administrators, say, or school boards or disadvantaged kids or parents or taxpayers, even comes close to having such weaponry.”

So how much of this power is ever converted into beneficial education policies?     Unions cause increased spending, for example, but money per se has little if any effect on student achievement.  Unions fight hard for across-the-board teacher pay raises, but children lose when bad teachers are paid more and good teachers are paid less than their actual worth.  Unions love smaller class sizes too, but, contrary to popular belief, normal reductions in class size have almost no impact on students’ ability to learn.  “The unions pursue their own interests,” Moe confirms, “and policies good for the unions are often bad for kids” (“Union Power and Education of Children,” 2006.  In Jane Hannaway and Andrew Rotherham, eds., Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today’s Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press).

Let’s glance at just a few of the rules that typically show up in collective bargaining contracts:

-Rules requiring that teachers be paid on a salary schedule, based only on years of experience and education, and never on their performance.

-Rules that make it nearly impossible to dismiss teachers for poor performance.

-Rules that mandate complex, time-consuming grievance procedures.

-Rules requiring principals to give advance warning to teachers before visiting their classrooms.

-Rules allowing teachers, not principles, to make decisions about transfers and class assignments.

-Rules limiting the number and duration of faculty meetings and parent conferences that teachers can be required to attend.

-Rules limiting the number of minutes teachers can be required to be on campus.

-Rules guaranteeing teachers a certain number of minutes of “prep time” away from their students.

-Rules limiting teachers’ non-teaching duties, including lunch duty and hall duty.

-Rules giving teachers time off for union purposes.

Unions may claim what’s good for teachers is always good for students, but most people, Moe guesses, “would be absolutely shocked” to know what’s lurking in the collective bargaining contracts that in no small measure govern their kids’ education.

How Do Teachers Unions Affect Student Performance?

“I find that teachers’ unions are primarily rent seeking, raising school budgets and school inputs but lowering student achievement by decreasing the productivity of inputs.” Caroline Minter Hoxby, as Professor of labor economics at Harvard University in 1996

The professional, peer-reviewed literature, however, has remained frustratingly silent on the issue.  But fortunately two district and school level studies—as opposed to those at the state level, which tend to be poorly controlled—have been published in top-quality academic journals.  Each concludes that collective bargaining for teachers yields a significantly negative effect on student performance.

The first, “How Teachers’ Unions Affect Education Production,” was a national study produced by Caroline Hoxby in 1996 (The Quarterly Journal of Economics 111(3): 671-718).  Hoxby set out to explain three related “empirical puzzles.”  First, and most generally, why did school inputs (government spending) have a significant effect on student outputs (performance) prior to around 1960—when states began granting teachers the right to collectively bargain, but not after that time?

Second, why do the data continue to show no relationship between school inputs and student learning, even after controlling for students’ socio-economic background?  Third, why do metropolitan areas with few opportunities for competition among public schools tend to show more generous inputs—for example, higher per-pupil spending, higher teacher salaries, and lower student-teacher ratios (resulting in more teachers and, thus, more dues-paying union members hired), yet poorer student performance?

Hoxby initially noted the precise timing of legislation facilitating teacher unionization and collective bargaining.  She then analyzed district data from across the U.S.—on student dropout rates in particular—to isolate the impact of union activity on student performance.

As the above quote suggests, Hoxby discovered that teachers unions produce two highly regrettable effects—they cause taxpayers to spend more on education and, at the same time, they decrease school productivity.  In other words, the overall impact of unions on society and education is decisively negative.  Unions use their political power and the process of collective bargaining to literally waste our money.

Somewhat incidentally, in a later study, “Pulled Away or Pushed Out? Explaining the Decline of Teacher Aptitude in the United States,” Hoxby and Andrew Liegh from the National Bureau of Economic Research explored why, since 1960, the share of teachers in the highest aptitude category (top five percent) fell from five percent to one percent of total college grads, and the share of teachers in the lowest aptitude category (bottom 25 percent) rose from 16 to 36 percent (American Economic Review 94, no. 2, May 2004: 236-240).

Initially, they expected to prove the “pull” hypothesis—averring that increasing pay parity with men in nonteaching occupations began to draw women out of teaching.  But the evidence proved otherwise.  Instead, smart people were being “pulled” out of education because of increasing compression of teachers’ pay.  Good, bad, or ugly, all teachers are essentially treated alike.  Why? Because unions not only defend ineffective teachers, they routinely oppose merit pay for exceptional teachers.  Unions and collective bargaining, Hoxby and Leigh discovered, deserve much of the blame for the dumbing-down of educators as well as their students.

But Terry Moe would publish the second and most revealing study on point.  In “Collective Bargaining and the Performance of the Public Schools,” he addressed the issue from a fresh angle (American Journal of Political Science 53, no. 1, January 2009: 156-174).  Using a large, random sample of California school districts—all of which engaged in collective bargaining, Moe carefully probed the actual contents of the resulting labor contracts.

He then coded the many rules contained therein according to their “restrictiveness”—the degree to which the rules shackled the hands of school administrators, the people we elect to ensure quality education.  The most restrictive rules, by Moe’s lights, gave teachers the right to make voluntary transfers (thus denying administrators the opportunities to send good teachers where they were needed most), limited the number of students that teachers were required to instruct, and thwarted the teacher evaluation process.

Finally, Moe applied a second variable—the California Academic Performance Index, which assigns each school a score determined by the performance of its students.  He then framed the issue concisely, as such: “whether, in using their power to secure rules that advance the occupational interests of their members, the teachers unions are (unintentionally) limiting the public schools’ capacity to educate children.”

After controlling for an extended list of variables pertaining to student backgrounds and the traits of particular schools and districts, Moe concluded that “collective bargaining does indeed have negative consequences for student achievement, and that the effects are concentrated on precisely those districts and schools—large districts, high-minority schools—that, over the years have been the worst performers and most difficult to improve.”  So, although almost everyone suffers because of teachers unions and collective bargaining, minority kids confined to big cities suffer the most.

“It follows,” Moe adds hopefully, “that efforts to boost achievement in these contexts, as well as to reduce the achievement gap between whites and minorities, need to recognize that collective bargaining may be part of the problem—and that it deserves to be taken seriously as a target of reform.”  Short of actually abolishing teacher collective bargaining rights, he advises, “reducing the restrictiveness of labor contracts could have significant payoffs for public education.”

Standing Up for Students, Parents, and Taxpayers.

“The ultimate goal is to shift the power dynamic of education in this country, which I think for far too long has been dominated by the special interests, whether the teachers’ unions or textbook manufacturers.” Michelle Rhee, former public schools chancellor in Washington, D.C. ( 2007-2010, and founder of the reform advocacy groups, StudentsFirst and the New Teacher Project.

Democrats and union spokespersons in Wisconsin complain that Governor Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights has nothing to do with the budget, and that his real agenda is to weaken the Democratic Party.  First, given what we’ve learned, it would be absurd to argue that collective bargaining has no effect on taxpayers.  Second, in a two-party system especially, no politician can ever be trusted to put policy before party.  Besides, what’s really important here—a political party’s financing concerns, or students and the future of public education?

But before we can initiate vital reforms, ordinary citizens need to do what Democrats and Republicans cannot—separate politics from the public schools.  And to achieve that goal, we may indeed need to impose severe restrictions on public employee collective bargaining rights until we can craft other means of disciplining the teachers unions.

Either way, serious damage has already been done, and Wisconsin’s solution remains a rare exception to an extremely stubborn rule.  Education in America is clearly at a crossroads and we can’t afford to wait for certain adjustments to occur in good political time.  In particular, we must hold teachers accountable for student achievement by revamping teacher compensation systems and installing meaningful teacher performance standards.

“Although the teachers unions will not say it outright,” Moe warns, “they are opposed to true accountability.”  Again, the union’s sole mission is to protect every dues-paying member, regardless of quality.  But thanks to new student advocacy groups and grass roots pressure from parents especially—rather than lose support from an increasingly savvy public—the unions have begun to relent, if ever so grudgingly.  Reports from the popular press show that slow progress is being made.

On June 27, 2011, for example, Sam Dillon reported on Washington D.C.’s new teacher evaluation system for the New York Times.  “Impact” was inspired by President Obama’s Race to the Top grant competition and championed by former chancellor Rhee.  Before Impact, 95 percent of Washington’s teachers were highly rated.  So what was the issue?  Less that half of the city’s students were academically proficient.  Something was rotten in D.C., so Impact was designed to bring teacher and student performance back into alignment.

For many reasons, unions deny that student test scores can be used fairly to evaluate most teachers.  Race to the Top requires their use, but Impact relies on such scores to judge only math and reading teachers.  Others are subject to five annual classroom observations—three by their principals, two by master educators recruited from outside Washington.

The new system is pricey, costing the city $7 million yearly.  But the results are undeniable—at least in terms of returning decision-making powers to district managers.  165 Washington teachers were fired in 2010, and, according to Dillon, hundreds more were expected to receive dismissal notices in July for substandard performance.  Predictably, the Washington Teachers Union has been very critical.

In the June 5 NYT, Michael Winerip described a completely different system adopted eleven years ago in Montgomery County, Maryland.  “PAR,” or Peer Assistance and Review, gained some union support perhaps because it uses hundreds of senior educators to mentor both new teachers and veterans in trouble.  If mentoring proves ineffective, a PAR panel of eight educators and eight principals votes to fire or retain.

There are signs of success here too.  In the ten years prior to PAR, only five teachers were dismissed.  Since then, 200 educators have been fired and 300 have left voluntarily to avoid the process.  Evaluations are based on six general performance standards: commitment to students and learning, subject knowledge, creation of positive learning environments, continuous assessment of student progress, commitment to constant improvement, and professionalism.

The Difficult, Yet Necessary Task of Assessing Teacher Performance.

“Performance standards can include a mix of qualitative and quantitative performance metrics that are weighted and reported in a variety of ways.  But however they are designed, they need to bear some relationship to student performance.” Rachel Curtis, education consultant and co-editor of Teaching Talent: A Visionary Framework for Human Capital in Education (Harvard Education Press 2010).

Teachers haven’t always been paid the way they are today.  Appropriately, methods of compensation have changed to reflect broader economic realities.  When teachers traveled from one settlement to the next, for instance, they received room and board.  As the nation industrialized, education became more complicated and educators were paid according to grade level.

The single salary (or position-automatic) schedule was first implemented in 1921 in Denver, Colorado, and Des Moines, Iowa, as a system of uniform pay steps guaranteeing that teachers with the same years of experience and education level receive identical salaries.  Across the board equity was clearly the goal.  By 1950, 97 percent of all U.S. districts had adopted these schedules and that ratio has remained constant.

But salary schedules create two major problems, according to most experts including economist Michael Podgursky and education policy analyst Matthew Springer.  First, they deprive school managers of the authority to adjust pay, and, second, they ensure that our 3.5 million public school teachers are compensated on the basis of two variables “weakly correlated, at best, with student outcomes” (Teacher Performance Pay: A Review. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 26, no. 4 (2007): 909-949).

In a speech last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted yet another predicament.  Our present system, he warned, “frustrates teachers who feel that their good work goes unrecognized and ignores other teachers who would benefit from additional support.”  We can’t acquire or retain either talented or highly motivated professionals with a compensation system based on extraneous facts.

Two non-exclusive alternatives have emerged in recent years.  Knowledge- and skill-based “competency” models reward teachers for learning and acquiring new skills supposedly related to improved instruction.  In reality, however, they differ very little from salary schedules.  Indeed, say Podgursky and Springer, “evidence to date suggests that the knowledge and skills being rewarded in these ‘input-based’ pay systems may have a negligible impact on student outcomes.”

Merit- or performance-based pay, by contrast, is somewhat more student-centered, adding variable rewards—usually in the form of bonuses—to teachers’ base salaries.  Rewards hinge not on teacher inputs, no matter how well intended, but rather on student outcomes.  An exhilarating theoretical prospect to say the least, merit-based schemes in practice remain highly varied and experimental.  Some programs reward individual teaches, others groups or schools.  Some rely strictly on student test scores, others on classroom observations or some combination of the two.

One of America’s most renowned systems, Denver’s Professional Compensation Systems for Teachers (ProComp) consisted of four components: knowledge and skills, professional evaluation, market incentives, and student growth.  The Governor’s Educator Excellence Award Programs (GEEAP) in Texas included three separate school- and district-level grants intended to encourage improvement or excellence in disadvantaged areas.  Florida’s model, Special Teachers Are Rewarded (STAR), required that student performance be measured by standardized tests and awarded bonuses to at least 25 percent of teachers at a rate of five percent or more of their base salaries.

In other words, the possibilities appear endless.  And although the literature on merit pay is not yet robust enough to prescribe the details of system design, it is sufficiently positive to endorse further experimentation—especially at the local level.  Everything else being equal, Podgursky and Springer remind us, “payment for output always trumps payment for input in terms of raising overall productivity.”

Even so, well-intended criticisms from various perspectives will have to be addressed.  Many emphasize the knotty problems of identifying good and bad teachers and of measuring any individual educator’s value-added contribution.  They also anticipate a host of unintended consequences involving unprofessional teacher behavior—“gaming the system” and cheating (as recently revealed in Atlanta), for example.

But systems are being designed in several ways to contend with these issues.  The significance of the first criticisms “may be waning,” say Podgursky and Springer, given that “[s]tates and districts are rapidly developing massive longitudinal student-level databases that permit more precise estimation of value-added contributions”—even at the individual teacher’s level.  So too have we confronted “teaching to the test” and other gaming or fraud issues with strategies to diversify evaluation measures.

Attracting and Paying for High-quality Teachers.

“A consensus is building across the political spectrum that rewarding teachers with bonuses or raises for improving student achievement … can energize veteran teachers and attract bright rookies to the profession.” Sam Dillon for the NYT on June 18, 2007.

Two highly-acclaimed studies have been published on the subject by economist Victor Lavy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Each evaluated a tournament-style merit pay program based on test scores.  The first dealt with group, the second with individual incentives.  Both revealed positive results.

The most recent analysis, “Performance Pay and Teachers’ Effort, Productivity, and Grading Ethics,” examined an experimental program in Israel where high-school teachers were awarded bonuses individually based on their students’ superior or improved performance on English and mathematics matriculation exams (American Economic Review 99, no. 5 (2009): 1979-2011).

To remain within budget, performance measures were made relative, not absolute.  All teachers were eligible for various bonuses, but less than half received them.  Matriculation results were based on two tests—one national and one at the school level, and, to prevent gaming or cheating, sanctions were promised should large gaps appear between the two scores.  Results were also controlled for student socio-economic status.

The outcomes, according to Lavy, “suggest that teachers’ incentives increase student achievements by increasing the test taking rate as well as the conditional pass rate and test scores in math and English exams.”  Improvements appeared to result, he continued, “from changes in teaching methods, after-school teaching, and increased responsiveness to students’ needs, and not from … unintended effects, such as ‘teaching to the test’ or cheating and manipulation of test scores.”  Additionally, the experiment supported the claim that “teaching quality is not highly correlated with … education, teaching certification, and years of teaching experience.”

Emphasizing the Israeli program’s similarity to many U.S. models—including those used in Denver, Florida, and Dallas—Lavy insisted that his results should be of broad interest to American school officials interested in raising student performance levels.  Points were awarded for student improvement, for example, and extra points were given for highly valued and less likely outcomes.  The one-time bonuses were generous and not added to yearly salaries.  Perhaps unique to the Israeli experiment, however, were compared internal and external test scores and teacher flexibility in deciding how to raise student performance.

In an illuminating review of various merit pay systems employed in the U.S. and abroad, Lavy confirms the effectiveness of such programs and offers several helpful guidelines for their design (“Using Performance-Based Pay To Improve the Quality of Teachers.” The Future of Children 17, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 87-109).  First, the performance measures themselves should cover as many outcomes of interest as possible, as closely as possible—attending to both quality and quantity.  Average scores and pass rates are two obvious examples.

Second, measures should be easy to monitor on a regular basis and difficult to game.  To avoid constriction of teacher effort, stress two or more diverse results—test scores and teacher attendance, for example.  If both absolute performance levels and relative gains in performance are considered, both high-achieving and low-achieving students should benefit.  Mix short-term goals with medium-term objectives (drop-out rates) if possible.  Most importantly, utilize both objective (tests) and subjective (principal or peer review) methods.

Third, provide generous rewards and impose penalties for unwanted behavior.  Consider individual, group, and school incentives to foster a cooperative environment.  Both bonuses and salary or benefit enhancements may suffice, and never underestimate the efficacy of recognition and prestige.  All teachers should be eligible, of course, but only some should ultimately be rewarded.

Finally, goals should be transparent and attainable, and teachers should be given ample creative flexibility in determining their means of success or failure.  The process of crafting any merit pay system should not be judged a one-shot, do-or-die venture.  Participants will learn as they go until they can produce a program customized to their environment.

Lavy’s guidelines are generally reaffirmed in America by those of the non-profit, non-partisan reform group, The New Teacher Project ( In conclusion, the author tenders a familiar warning, followed by a more hopeful note: “Teacher unions worldwide strongly oppose performance-based pay,” he notes, yet “it is not clear that the objections to such systems come from the teachers themselves.”

Union demagogues and their political devotees have abused their own members in recent months as well.  By accusing the perceived opposition of wholesale “union busting” or of mean-spirited attempts to “balance the budget on the backs of working Americans,” they only drive painful and unnecessary wedges between educators and the stout friends of education who recognize the urgent need for reform.

Casual discussions over public employee and, especially, teachers unions frequently degrade into envious, even spiteful pay and benefit comparisons.  This article is surely not that.  That said, public employment—like its private counterpart—should never guarantee any particular salary or benefit, much less future employment, and it should never resemble a public works project.

Teachers might not be directly competitive themselves, but they above all others must help Americans compete.  In return, we should reward effective educators who serve their societies by finding ways to raise their students’ games.  Mediocrity, on the other hand, should meet at first with diminished returns and then swiftly with a pink slip.


2 thoughts on “Public Sector Collective Bargaining, Teachers Unions, and the Future of Education in America.

  1. Donna

    We need more rational discourse like this. Teachers unions will obviously advocate for their clients. But, given the stakes, they should be held to some standard and only the facts can determine whether they’ve done so.



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