Do Strong Teachers Unions Correlate With Weak Academics?

Researchers at the University of Chicago Law School discovered an interesting correlation between the strength of the local teachers unions and student performance. The stronger the protection afforded to teachers based on their latest employment contract, the worse the performance of their students on standardized tests.

According to analysis published in the latest issue of the Economics of Education Review, recent small-scale studies have shown that students tend to get lower assessment scores in larger school districts and districts where unions won better terms for their teachers in the latest round of contract negotiations. Jonathan Lott and Lawrence W. Kenny also introduce two metrics for measuring the level of influence of local unions – dues dollars per district teacher and union expenditures per district student.

When looked at in these terms, the conclusions are stark. John Dwyer, the Director of Education Reform for Illinois Policy Institute, writes that a hike in union dues by as little as $200 a year translates to a 4% drop in student performance on standardized exams. A similar decline in scores also accompanied a 13% increase in per-student union spending.

Teachers unions gain their power through collecting union dues from teachers, regardless of whether or not they want to pay them. Union bosses then spend large amounts of that money on political campaigns in hopes that the legislators they support will vote for laws that benefit the union.

The study’s authors compared union dues per teacher and union spending per student to student test scores nationwide to analyze the effect that the growth in teachers’ union power has on student performance.

This happens because powerful teachers union bosses are able to pass laws that protect their interests and make it more difficult to implement education reforms that boost student achievement.

Dwyer also points to previous research that showed how successful powerful teachers unions can be in blocking certain provisions of the common education reform agenda.

For the 17 states where union dues per teacher are on the low-end of the scale, between $24 and $172 annually, and teachers unions are weak:

Only 35 percent require school administrators to negotiate with the teachers’ union

Only 6 percent allow teacher strikes

47 percent require teachers to be evaluated based on student performance

For the 16 states where union dues per teacher are on the high-end, between $338 and $883, and teachers unions are strong:

100 percent require school administrators to negotiate with the teachers’ union

50 percent allow teacher strikes

Only 12.5 percent require teachers to be evaluated based on student performance

Dwyer, whose organization opposes teachers unions, concedes that researchers only used data collected on the national level to draw their conclusions, and don’t have anything to say about the impact of the concessions won by the Chicago Teachers Union in last year’s strike. However, should the student performance decline next year, Dwyer knows the likely cause.