Economist Shows How Teachers Unions Improve Quality of Teachers

Eunice Han, a Harvard trained economist, has published a paper examining “how teachers unions affect teacher turnover and ultimately influence teacher quality.”  It is an extremely technical analysis, but the conclusions are quite clear: the presence of a strong teachers union in a school district is likely to ensure better teachers and even lower the dropout rate among the students.

Han introduces her subject: “Critics claim that teachers unions overprotect the job security of ineffective teachers and that this practice is detrimental to educational outcomes. At first, this claim appears legitimate because teachers unions may seek to protect the job security of teachers, as any other workers associations will. However, the job security of public school teachers is addressed through the tenure system in most states, and tenured teachers are not easily dismissed, regardless of their union status. The economic intuition that is overlooked in teacher dismissal is that school districts have a strong motivation to dismiss low-quality teachers if they must pay the higher salaries that unions demand. Particularly, during the probationary period, districts will carefully evaluate new teachers’ performances, as they must pay even higher wages once these teachers receive tenure.”

Here are Han’s conclusions:

  1. “I find that higher teacher pay gives school districts a strong incentive to be more selective in granting tenure to teachers.  Districts paying high teacher salaries utilize the tenure system more efficiently as they dismiss more low-quality teachers, raising average teacher quality by setting higher standards.”
  2. “(W)ith current compensation schemes and the unpopularity of the teaching profession, it is difficult to attract high-quality applicants into the teaching sector. Even if high-quality individuals start a teaching career, they are likely to leave for non-teaching occupations… My study shows that teachers unions reduce teacher attrition by, among other mechanisms of unionism, raising the base salary of teachers.”
  3. “(T)he evidence in this study rejects the claim that teachers unions hurt educational quality by overprotecting the job security of low-quality teachers. In contrast, the data show that districts covered by CB (collective bargaining) or with high union density dismiss more non-tenured teachers with unsatisfactory performance, and those districts have more qualified teachers than districts with no agreement with unions.”

Han’s paper includes another startling finding: districts with strong unions seem to have lower rates of high school dropouts.  Here, described most clearly in an interview with journalist Jennifer Berkshire, and republished by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Han explains why: “My study found that unions reduce the dropout rates of districts… It’s not just collective bargaining that matters; it’s the union density of teachers in a district that’s important. Union density measures the strength of the union, because even when teachers can’t engage in collective bargaining, they can use their collective ‘voice’ to influence the educational system. What I found was that union density significantly decreased the high-school dropout rate, even in districts without collective bargaining agreements.”

In other words, strong teachers unions bring the collective voice of the teachers to improve overall education in a school district. Consider Eunice Han’s paper next time you read the ideology spouted by former CNN anchor (and education non-expert) Campbell Brown and the group she founded and calls the Partnership for Educational Justice. Campbell Brown has made it her mission to destroy teachers unions and teachers’ due process job protection.

3 thoughts on “Economist Shows How Teachers Unions Improve Quality of Teachers

  1. This study challenges conclusions I’ve reached during my career in education. I’ll postpone challenging the conclusions of the study or abandoning my own observations until I’ve done a bit more research into some of the report’s more troubling (to me) conclusions.

    I do, however, see a parallel between the forces that shape our school system and the forces that have shaped the teacher union movement.

    The ways in which students today experience our schools have strayed very little from The recommendations made by the Committee of 10 in the 1890s. While the conditions and requirements for learning have changed dramatically since that time, the organization and structure of schooling has yet to reflect this new reality. Similarly, while the conditions which spawned the teacher union movement and its necessary focus on improving the terms and conditions of employment have evolved, the public perception of union activity is largely focused on status quo preservation.

    Both new role of teachers, described by Phil Schlechty as designers of engaging learning experiences for children, and need for union voice that stretches well beyond, salary, benefits, and job security demand far more attention and support than has occurred to date.

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  3. Pingback: Challenges Facing US Public Education Today by Julie Taylor Monetta -

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