Friday, April 16, 2010


Posted by caroline to the solidaridad blog |

Caroline Grannan was an editor at the San Jose Mercury News for 12 years. Currently she contributes to a number of Internet sites dealing with education and schools. She is a San Francisco public school parent, advocate, and volunteer and has followed education politics locally and nationwide.

Friday, April 16, 2010 20:41 -- Education historian/commentator Diane Ravitch points out that the states with non-union teachers (who thus have little or no job security) tend to have lower academic achievement than the states with strong teachers' unions.

That should put to rest the myth that bad teachers with ironclad job security are the cause of the challenges facing public education.

As Ravitch adds, the state reported to have the consistently highest academic achievement is Massachusetts — a strong union state. (It’s also widely called "Taxachusetts" by the right — could there be a connection?)

Ravitch emphasizes that she's not necessarily saying that unionization and job

security lead to higher academic achievement, but the facts show that unionization and job security clearly don't work against higher academic achievement. They are correlated.

I thought it was worth looking for some data. But not officially being a statistician, I wasn’t really sure of the best measure of state-by-state academic achievement.

So I decided to look at one measure that interests me. That's the list of "cut scores" for National Merit semifinalists. National Merit recognition is based on

the PSAT scores of 11th-graders. The cut score for recognition varies from state to state. That's explained this way on Wikipedia:

The minimum Selection Index for recognition as a Semifinalist is set by the NMSC [National Merit Scholarship Corporation] in each state at whatever score yields about the 99th percentile.

The organization FairTest has posted a list of the cut scores for the high school graduating class of 2010, which range from 201 (Wyoming) to 221 (Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey). California's is 218.

The National Right to Work Legal Foundation posts a list of Right-to-Work states (which don't allow workplaces to require union membership, meaning unions are toothless) and what the Foundation calls Force Unionism states. I took those lists, added each state’s Class of 2010 National Merit cut scores and averaged.

The results:

Right-to-Work states: average cut score 208.4545

Forced Unionism states: average cut score 213.6897

That result seems to show that unionized teachers correlate with higher academic achievement, and non-union teachers correlate with lower academic achievement.

If I’m missing confounding factors, I can’t see what they would be. It's true that not all 11th-graders take the PSAT, and the culture probably varies state by state as to whether taking the PSAT is more widely encouraged or less. But that wouldn’t seem to confound the basic finding.

By the way, the lowest-cut-score state — Wyoming at 201 — is a Right-to-Work state, and the three that are tied for highest — Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey — are strong labor states.

It seems conclusive: Teachers' job security — and, if you will, "forced unionism" — correlate with higher academic achievement.



JAB in Georgia said...

Causation without correlation. Using your 'theory', doesn't explain why Georgia outscores Michigan.

The PSAT averages for states is mainly affected by rigor. Higher Population areas/urban usually have more resources and income affluence than low population and rural areas. There is generally a higher porportion of teachers with advanced degrees and more school resources in these areas.

The District of Columbia is always at the top of the charts simply because the sheer number of private schools catering to diplomats, lobbyists, and government employees which greaty skews the numbers.

A 6-12 grade High School in Ripley Mississippi with a graduating class of 80 students just can't be compared to large northeastern high schools with thousands of students.

More rural schools have teachers with lessor degrees, less course options, and most have no access to Advanced Placement or Dual enrollment classes.

Georgia PSAT average cutoff is normally 214 or 215, not bad, but if you remove the affluent school systems in Gwinnett, Cobb, Dekalb, Athens, Savannah, and Augusta you get a totally different picture of things.

This doesn't mean that students are smarter or dumber in certain states, nor does it infer that it has anything to do with labor unions or right-to-work states.

caroline said...

Hi JAB in Georgia. I didn't actually advance a "theory" -- I simply gave uncontestable figures that show conclusively that achievement is lower OVERALL ON AVERAGE in states where teachers can be fired at will than it is in states where they have some measure of union protection. And, in fact, achievement is highest (based on this particular gauge) in states with strong union protection. My only conclusion is that the ability to fire at will correlates with lower achievement -- contrary to and resoundingly disproving the "education reform" propaganda. I specifically stated that I can't claim "causation," but correlation undeniably exists.

The other obvious response to your comments, of course, is what the charter/privatization/ed reform folks routinely tell public schools: NO EXCUSES!