Since the publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk, a watershed report that warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in America’s schools, public officials have been under intense pressure to improve academic performance. They have responded with billions of additional dollars and with a commitment to reform that has persisted for a quarter century. The focus has been on academic achievement, but there has been great concern as well for closing the “achievement gap” between white and minority children and for improving the large urban districts that many minority students attend.
Both have been pursued through new accountability systems that, in imposing more rigorous standards, testing regimes, and consequences for low performance, represent the most aggressive effort yet by public authorities to improve academic outcomes. These reforms spread rapidly across the states during the 1990s. In 2001 the federal government enacted the No Child Left Behind Act, which imposed accountability rules for the country as a whole: rules designed to spur academic improvement but also to spotlight the achievement gap and insist on efforts to close it.
Accountability reforms are means by which state and national officials are attempting to improve the schools. But behavior in the schools is shaped by other structures as well, among them the rules imposed by collective bargaining. What should we expect of these contract rules? Do they contribute to the authorities’ efforts to improve academic achievement? Or do they tend to get in the way?
There is good reason to think they get in the way, at least on balance. Collective bargaining would not exist except for the power of the teachers’ unions, and the core interests they pursue in negotiations are rooted in their own survival and well-being as organizations—not in student achievement. As unions, they are centrally concerned with their membership base and financial resources and thus with protecting teachers’ jobs, attracting members, and keeping dues money coming in. They also have Italicsinduced concerns (contributing to the more basic objectives) for representing the occupational interests of their members: in better pay and benefits, more autonomy, less threatening methods of evaluation, smaller classes, prohibitions on nonclassroom duties, fewer course preparations, and other rights and protections. The unions secure these objectives through formal contract rules that require or prohibit certain behaviors on the part of management and, most generally, place restrictions on top-down control.
The power to get the rules they want is heavily bound up with politics. The state collective bargaining frameworks that facilitate union organization are themselves political products, of course: achieved in the 1960s and 1970s through the political power of private-sector unions and their allies and then stabilized and expanded by the growing political power of public-sector unions. But even within this structure, politics remains an ongoing determinant of union success in collective bargaining. Most important, local school districts are governed by elected school boards. The teachers’ unions—by taking action in school board elections—can play central roles in choosing the very “management” they will be negotiating with: a remarkable advantage that private-sector unions can only dream about. This being so, teachers’ unions organize themselves around politics as well as collective bargaining. And the evidence suggests that, although their power surely varies across contexts, they are by far the most organized and active groups in school board elections and are often successful at getting their favored candidates elected.
The unions use their power—their basic work-denial power, enhanced by their political power—to get restrictive rules written into collective bargaining contracts. And these restrictions ensure that the public schools are literally not organized to promote academic achievement. When contract rules make it difficult or impossible to weed out mediocre teachers, for example, they undermine the most important determinant of student learning: teacher quality. And when contract rules guarantee teachers seniority-based transfer rights, they ensure that teachers cannot be allocated to their most productive uses. Much the same can be said about a long list of standard contract provisions. This is to be expected; except at the margins, contract rules are simply not intended to make the schools effective.
Still, there are shades of gray here. When teachers’ unions pursue their own interests, their interests may overlap with those of students. Their pursuit of smaller classes is one example. More generally, because unions tend to secure better wages and working conditions, and because they expand worker autonomy, they may help attract higher-quality workers, promote professionalism, and lessen worker absenteeism and turnover, thus enhancing productivity.
It is plausible to suggest, then, that some of what unions do may be good for academic achievement. And it is even possible that, on balance, these good effects may outweigh the negatives—in which case our statistical analysis should ultimately show that restrictive labor contracts actually have positive impacts on student learning. Yet for reasons we have already discussed, this seems unlikely. The grounds are persuasive for expecting the positives to be small relative to the negatives and outweighed by them.
Any positive effects tend to be accidental by-products of what the teachers’ unions do in their own interests. They pressure for smaller classes, for instance, because teachers like them and they require more hiring (and more union members), not because they are good for student achievement. Were there an optimal class size for student achievement (given district budget constraints and other, more productive ways of spending money), this would not stop the unions from pursuing class sizes that are still smaller. The same is true for seniority rights. Unions press for them because they take job assignments away from administrators, not because they increase experience or reduce turnover; if a lack of managerial control over the allocation of teachers has negative effects on achievement that outweigh any effects on experience and turnover, the unions would support the seniority system anyway. The same logic applies to issues of professionalism. The bottom line is that the interests of teachers (and unions) are not aligned with the interests of children, and the organizational arrangements pursued by unions will ultimately diverge from those that are best for students.
We also need to recognize that any contract provisions that happen to be good for student achievement could be adopted—as policies—by school districts on their own. Especially in this era of accountability, they would have incentives (absent union power) to move in that direction. They would not, on the other hand, have incentives to adopt provisions that have negative effects on student achievement but would adopt them only under the pressures of collective bargaining.
The restrictiveness of the collective bargaining contract—its overall limitation on managerial control in the interests of teachers (and unions)—is likely to have negative consequences, on balance, for the performance of the public schools. The more restrictive the contract, the more difficult it will be for schools to organize effectively for student achievement and the more difficult it will be for students to learn.