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‘Do what the unions want, we are told, and students will benefit too. But is this true?’

Gabriel H Sahlgren, research director at the Centre for Market Reform of Education, writes:

On Wednesday, the National Union of Teachers staged a walkout to voice its opposition to the government’s approach to pay, conditions and pensions. And nobody was surprised. Since 2011, teacher industrial action has become a regular feature of the English educational landscape. But it wasn't always like this. Before 2011, there was one strike in 2008, which was the first in more than 20 years.

Since almost all teachers in state-funded schools around the world are unionised, unions are key players in the formation and implementation of education policy. Any government seeking to reform education in ways of which unions don't approve will have to deal with the wrath of their leaders.

But the main purpose of state-funded education is to ensure the best schooling possible for children, not to cater to union interests. Of course, unions nearly always argue that there is no discrepancy between their goals and the public’s, and that they go hand-in-hand with improved education quality. Do what the unions want, we are told, and students will benefit too.

But is this true? Disregarding ideology, the theoretical impact of unions on quality and efficiency isn't clear. It is true that unions tend to campaign for salary increases, which in turn could attract more high-qualified individuals into the profession. They may also raise teacher morale and job satisfaction, which could have positive spillover effects on children’s attainment. Another possibility is that the policies unions tend to advocate, such as smaller classes, benefit students.

But because of their impact on wages across the board, union support for strong employment protection and centralised pay regulation makes it difficult to fire poorly performing teachers and may effectively protect incumbent teachers from outside competition. Furthermore, strikes are disruptive for instruction and may therefore be harmful for student performance.

The theoretical ambiguity is one reason the debate often degenerates into outright mud-slinging. At the end of the day, theory gets us nowhere, apart from setting the stage for empirical evaluation; analysis of the empirical research is key to understanding the effects of teaching unions on education performance.

Focusing on the newer and more rigorous studies, the picture is relatively clear. And, to put it mildly, it’s not pleasant reading for union officials.

Given the pending industrial action, it is important to note that strikes in schools appear to harm students in general. For example, a recent paper by economist Michael Baker reveals that a series of strikes in the 1990s in Ontario, Canada, had strong negative effects on student achievement. In a different study, Michèle Belot and Dinand Webbink found that a six-month strike in Belgium in 1990 increased class repetition while also reducing the number of years of schooling and university enrolment rates among affected students. Industrial action therefore appears to hurt children’s performance quite markedly.

Of course, strikes are just the unions’ method of last resort. But they also appear to have other negative consequences. This has been found in various studies, most recently by researchers Johnathan Lott and Lawrence Kenny, who show that strong unions have a substantial negative impact on the growth of proficiency rates among students in the US. Meanwhile, economists Caroline Hoxby and Michael Lovenheim have found that US unions per se either increase or have no impact on total educational expenditures and dropout rates. Unions, at least strong ones, have a negative impact on educational productivity.

From the literature, we also know that teacher qualifications and licensure requirements often have little or no effect on teacher quality and student performance. But by restricting access to the profession, unions push up average salaries among insiders and keep outsiders out. As a study by economists Eric Brunner and Tim Squires shows, larger and more-powerful unions increase the wage premium of experience at the expense of base salaries. Since most research finds that experience has little effect apart from in the first three or so years of teaching, this is not a good recipe for improving the overall teacher pool. The insider-outsider antagonism also explains why unions oppose alternative teacher training, such as Teach First and the US equivalent, Teach for America, which improve student achievement according to research.

Interestingly, a key trigger for the pending UK strike is the government’s insistence on devolving decisions over pay raises to schools, with unions fiercely resisting what they call a dilution of national pay scales. Of course, although centralised bargaining may produce higher wages on average, it also acts as a de facto pay ceiling if regional wages in other professions are higher than the centralised wage, which discourages entry to the profession in those areas. It is therefore important to note Carol Propper and Jack Britton’s research, which shows that English national pay scales decrease GCSE achievement on average. If unions truly want high-quality teachers, they had better abandon their rigid support for centralised bargaining.

So what is the solution? Well, it’s a balancing act. Kowtowing to unions’ attempts to derail worthwhile reforms is not an option. But resistance to union pressures should be carried out in the least confrontational manner possible. It is important to remember that unions, not teachers, are the problem. Overly strong confrontation may alienate the vast majority of union members who are interested only in the day-to-day services provided and want little to do with the political baggage of union membership.

The trick is to dilute the unions’ power over children’s futures in the long term and break their monopoly. Students would profit. And teachers would, too.

Related stories 

'On strike because we care': NUT members out in force for national day of action

In pictures: The NUT national strike

NUT could strike again as relations with the NASUWT appear strained



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