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Home » Education Reform » The unions make public schools bad, right? Actually, that’s not what the data shows.

The unions make public schools bad, right? Actually, that’s not what the data shows.

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Michael Marder is physics prof at the University of Texas at Austin, and Co-Director of UTeach (“We prepare teachers.  They change the world.”).  He’s a scientist who has found communicative ways to visualize his research data.  Sometimes he applies that skill to education issues to see what’s really going on.  Here is his look at the role unions play in student achievement (taken from page 8, here).

The view that unions are an obstacle to educational progress is the almost universally shared premise among education reform proponents in the U.S., whether the proposed reform is punitive teacher evaluations, the charterization of public education or state-funded private school vouchers.  Prof. Marder lets Steve Jobs (2007) serve as the voice of conventional wisdom on this issue:

I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way….This unionization
and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.

But then he displays simple data that tells a different story.  Each disk is a state.  The red disks are “right to work” states, which he characterizes as “weaker union” states.  The blue disks are “stronger union” states.

Marder union graphs 1

Here’s what Prof. Marder observes in his dispassionate way:

States with and without strong unions are intermingled. Well-off students in wealthy states with strong unions have the highest outcomes. For low-income students the states with highest outcomes have weak unions. Differences in state performance that might be attributed to unions are small compared with effects of poverty.

As an additional note, here is an interesting study by the conservative Fordham Institute that ranks the states by the strength of their teachers’ unions.


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