The Impact of NEA & AFT on Wages & Achievement

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

July 22, 2016

By Michael Dannenberg


DFER and the advocacy group associated with it, Education Reform Now (ERN), share many positions with the NEA & AFT teachers unions – on increased funding for K-12 education, on targeting of education aid, on college affordability, on cracking down on abusive for-profit firms in higher education, on etc, etc. Frankly, education reformers could do a better job of finding, emphasizing, and working on common ground.

That’s not to say we don’t have differences with the NEA & AFT on specific issues though, and that’s ok.  DFER supports progressive change in education politics for kids, particularly students of color and kids from low-income families, just like my former bosses Sen. Pell and Sen. Kennedy did.  On K-12 education policy, ERN frequently partners with civil rights groups, including the Education Trust, National Council of La Raza, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and civil rights leaders like the National Urban League’s Marc Morial.



Yes, sometimes the unions are on the other side of an issue like assuring within-district school finance equity via the Obama administration’s proposed “supplement, not supplant” rule. (We’re for it as are our civil rights group partners.)  But sometimes we agree with the teachers unions (like on the nature and intent behind Gov. Scott Walker’s breaking of collective bargaining rights – we think Walker was dead wrong and had nothing but ill-intent.)  Collective bargaining and organized labor are good things. Frankly, the country would be better off if more folks were in unions.  I’ll always think not passing Card Check was the Democrats’ biggest political mistake in 2009.

Most of all though, those of us in ERN’s think tank believe in shining a light on truth when it comes to education and the interests of children, particularly students of color and low-income children, because we think that’s a key part of the path to improvement.  Now that commitment can lead to tension.  People differ in their opinions of what’s true.  But there are certain facts that are unassailable.

A review of a recent National Bureau of Economic Research published paper on teachers unions and collective bargaining that’s getting some attention exemplifies the tightrope we at ERN walk.  According to the abstract of Professor Eunice Han’s study:

“[T]eachers unions, by negotiating higher wages for teachers, lower the quit probability of high ability teachers but raise the dismissal rate of underperforming teachers, as higher wages provide districts greater incentive to select better teachers. . . [C]ompared to districts with weak unionism, districts with strong unionism dismiss more low-quality teachers and retain more high-quality teachers. . . .[E]mpirical analysis shows that this dynamic of teacher turnover in highly unionized districts raises average teacher quality and improves student achievement.”

That may be true, but Han’s study doesn’t prove it.  And those of us who support collective bargaining for higher wages for teachers shouldn’t use that study for its purported purpose. Han equates a “high ability teacher” or the term she uses more frequently, “a high quality teacher” with No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) definition of “a highly qualified teacher” (emphasis added). This is a neither valid nor reliable proxy for the purpose of Han’s study.

Here’s the language from Han’s paper –

“For teacher quality within each district, I use the variable indicating whether a teacher is recognized as a Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT).” fn15 


“15. The HQT requirement is a provision under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Generally, to be a Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT), a teacher must meet the states’ requirements: 1) have a bachelors’ degree; 2) hold full state certification or licensure, including alternative certification; and 3) demonstrate competency in the subject area they teach, such as passing a subject area test administered by the state.”  

NCLB’s definition of a “highly qualified teacher” should by now be well known to not be reflective of a “high quality teacher.”  The most glaring problem is that the highly qualified definition used in NCLB includes zero consideration of associated K-12 student achievement.  By the end of the 2009-2010 school year, the U.S. Department of Education reported that states had deemed 98% of all elementary school core classes taught by “highly qualified teachers.”  If that was the same thing as true high quality teachers, well, we would be seeing 4thgrade student proficiency rates on NAEP a lot closer to 98% than where they have sat for some time at around 30-35%.

NCLB’s highly qualified teacher definition epitomizes what TNTP called the Widget Effect where virtually every teacher gets the highest rating possible, and, as a result, truly exceptional teachers are not rewarded, good teachers in need of improvement don’t get the personalized help they need to get better, and those who should not be in the profession at all are not counseled to leave.

Worse though is the proxy’s lack of reliability.  NCLB’s definition of a highly qualified teacher requires that the relevant teacher demonstrate competency in each subject area they teach.  But NCLB left identification and certification of competency to the discretion of each state.  In other words, highly qualified teacher identification means something different, probably very different, in Massachusetts and Connecticut as compared to Mississippi and California. And yet Han’s paper does a cross state study, assuming highly qualified teacher (again never mind high quality teacher) means the same thing in different places.

Like I said, we support unions and collective bargaining in principle.  In fact, a good contribution that Han’s paper makes is identifying just how much more in salary teachers make in strong collective bargaining states as compared to those that are weak.  Han puts the collective bargaining union premium at between 10% and 18%, which is a lot per week for your average teacher.  Good.  I’m pretty sure DFER and ERN think teachers should make more on average.

To be critical of Han’s paper is not to be against teachers unions, just as opposition to the ESSA amendment offered by Senators Chris Murphy, Cory Booker, and and Elizabeth Warren’s to strengthen K-12 accountability – an amendment supported by the NAACP, NCLR, MALDEF, The Urban League, and many others – doesn’t mean that the National Education Association is anti-civil rights.  In actuality, they’re far from it.  Calling out a study as flawed or being on opposing sides of some issues is not, in any way, the same thing as being opposed to the other side.

Donald Trump has dumbed-down and taken over the Republican Party, but we can do better.  We should be for the kids, not for ourselves.  Hillary Clinton is right.  We’re stronger, together.