The Effect of Teachers Unions on Student Performance.

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.

The Perilous Combination of Collective Bargaining and Public Education.

“People who do well under the status quo, whether it’s the unions, whether it’s the politicians … 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 part to Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary, Waiting for Superman, many Americans are aware of the demoralizing struggles students often face in public schools—especially in disadvantaged districts.  This poignant film featured several desperate families that wanted nothing more than to save their children’s lives by helping them to escape their local schools.

Although Guggenheim is a liberal (private-sector) union member himself, his new hit movie highlights the ominous role of (public-sector) teachers unions in protecting bad educators and their perverse rules.  Also emphasized is their stubborn opposition to charter schools and, worst of all, their tendency to make constructive change 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 class.  They didn’t teach, of course, but they arrived at and departed from the Rubber Rooms every day at the regular time, as if they were still earning their living.  They were paid full salaries with 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 their city’s already impoverished school budget—a lot of money that could have been spent on children.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein tried 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—made such a 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 Terry Moe, professor of political science at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution (Moe 2011).  Instead, thanks to union-influenced legislation 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 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 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 awarded $2.6 million to Democrats compared to $8000 to Republicans.

They send armies of well-trained activists to every political district in the country.  At any time, they can finance highly effective media campaigns on any topic or for any candidate they like.  “No other group in the politics of education” Moe laments, “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 policies that actually benefit education?  Unions do cause increased spending, but money per se has little if any effect on student achievement.  While student test scores since 1970 haven’t budged, we’ve spent more than twice as many inflation-adjusted dollars on every child.

Unions fight hard for across-the-board teacher pay raises, but who loses when bad teachers are paid more and good teachers less than their actual worth?  Politically powerless children, of course.  And unions love smaller class sizes too.  But, contrary to popular belief, normal class size reductions have almost no impact on student learning.

“The unions pursue their own interests,” Moe confirms, “and policies good for the unions are often bad for kids” (Moe 2006).  Let’s glance at just a few of the diktats that typically show up in collective bargaining contracts:

Arguably, the most maddening rules require that teachers be paid on a salary schedule, based on years of experience and education—never on performance.  Others make it nearly impossible to dismiss teachers for poor performance and mandate complex, time-consuming grievance procedures.  Some require principals to give advance warning to teachers before visiting their classrooms, and allow teachers, not principles, to make decisions about transfers and class assignments.

The rules also limit the number and duration of faculty meetings and parent conferences that teachers can be required to attend, and the number of minutes teachers can be required to be on campus.  They guarantee teachers a certain amount of “prep time”—away from their students, and restrict teachers’ non-teaching duties, including lunch duty and hall duty.  They also give teachers time off for union purposes.

Unions may claim what’s good for teachers is good for students, but most people, Moe guesses, “would be absolutely shocked” to know what’s really lurking in the collective bargaining contracts that govern their kids’ education and determine their futures.

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

The first was a national study published by Caroline Hoxby, who set out to explain three related “empirical puzzles” (Hoxby 1996).  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-to-teacher ratios, yet, at the same time, 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 waste our money.

Somewhat incidentally, in a later study, 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 (Hoxby and Liegh 2004).

Initially, they expected to prove the “pull” hypothesis, proposing 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 hapless students.

But Terry Moe would publish the second and most revealing study on point.  Therein, he addressed the issue from an entirely new angle (Moe 2009).  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 they shackled the hands of school administrators—precisely 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 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 rights, 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.”

The social stakes are astronomically high in public education.  Parents and students should guard themselves against teachers unions’ many excesses, and America can no longer tolerate educational mediocrity.  Yes, we should reward effective educators who raise their students’ games.  But teachers must accept effective performance standards and the real-world pressures that attend them.


Hoxby, C.M. 1996. How Teachers’ Unions Affect Education Production. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 111(3): 671-718.

Hoxby, C.M. and Liegh, A. 2004. Pulled Away or Pushed Out? Explaining the Decline of Teacher Aptitude in the United States. American Economic Review 94, no. 2: 236-240.

Moe, Terry. 2009. Collective Bargaining and the Performance of the Public Schools. American Journal of Political Science 53, no. 1: 156-174.

Moe, Terry. Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Brookings, 2011).

Moe, Terry. Union Power and Education of Children, in Jane Hannaway and Andrew Rotherham, eds., Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today’s Schools. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2006).


One thought on “The Effect of Teachers Unions on Student Performance.

  1. Jennifer D.

    If you’re pro-education and pro-child, you have to be anti-teachers union. How can we accept public employee unions, when they allow public employees to negotiate with other public employees against the people who are forced to pay for their salaries through taxes? Private unionization is a different matter.



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