A Philosopher's Blog

Teachers’ Unions II: Protecting Bad Teachers

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2017

One stock conservative talking point is teachers’ unions are a primary cause of educational woes.  If only unions could be eliminated or significantly changed, then education would improve significantly. Those defending unions argue that education would be worse without unions and some contend the effort to eliminate teachers’ unions is part of a plan to transform public education into a for profit-system to benefit a few well-connected elites.

Since the debate is so politically charged, it is difficult to objectively address the issue of whether teachers’ unions harm education or not. However, I will endeavor to address the matter as objectively as possible and acknowledge that as an educator and union member I am biased. As such, my arguments should be reviewed with due caution. Now, to the matter at hand.

One standard criticism of teachers’ unions is that they harm students by protecting bad teachers from being fired. If unions could be changed or eliminated, then bad teachers could be replaced with good teachers and the students would benefit. One variation of this criticism is focused on the practice of last-in first-out: those hired last are the first fired, should firings occurs. The concern is that teachers are retained based on seniority rather than ability, which can result in bad teachers remaining employed and good teachers being fired. Retaining bad teachers and getting rid of good teachers would clearly be bad for the students.

On the face of it, this criticism does match a plausible narrative about unions: since they exist to protect dues paying members, the leadership is not overly concerned about the quality of these members. As such, they do their best to see to it that no one is fired and thus bad teachers remain in the system. These bad teachers, obviously enough, do a bad job at teaching students and this harm can impact them throughout their entire life. Being able to fire these bad teachers would open positions for good teachers. The good teachers would do a good job, thus benefiting the students. From this it follows that eliminating unions would be good for students.

In the case of the policy of firing the last hired, the claim is that eliminating unions would result in merit based hiring and firing, so that when there was a need to fire teachers, the bad teachers would be eliminated regardless of seniority. As such, being rid of unions would improve things for students.

One easy and obvious reply to these criticisms is that they are not criticisms of unions as such. Rather, they are criticisms of specific practices: retaining bad teachers and retaining based on seniority rather than quality. There is nothing essential to a teacher’s union that requires that it mandate the retention of bad teachers nor that it mandate a seniority based retention system. To use an obvious analogy, there are countless examples of bad policies followed by corporations that do not arise simply because a corporation is a corporation. Roughly put, the bad policies are bad not because they are policies of corporations but because they are bad policies. As such, they do not provide grounds for the elimination of corporations. Rather, the badness of a corporation’s policy provides grounds for changing that policy. The same applies to teachers’ unions: the badness of a union policy serves as grounds for changing that policy, not elimination unions.

It could, of course, be argued that by their very nature unions must protect bad teachers and that it is impossible for them to do otherwise. Likewise, it could be argued that corporations by their very nature must have various terrible policies that harm the public. If so, then solving these problems would require eliminating unions and corporations. However, this view seems implausible; although people’s ideologies do often compel them to see things this way.

A second reply to these criticisms involves considering the facts of the matter. If unions protect bad teachers, then highly unionized districts should retain more bad teachers than districts that are less unionized. But, if unions do not protect bad teachers, then districts should have comparable percentages of bad teachers (adjusting for other factors, of course).

As should not be surprising, the debate over this factual matter tends to involves anecdotes about bad teachers and intuitions about unions. While anecdotes can provide some illustrative examples, they do not provide a foundation for general conclusions. There is, after all, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence which involves doing just that. Intuitions can provide some guidance, but by their very nature they are feelings and thoughts one has prior to considering the evidence. As such, anecdotes and intuitions do not suffice to show whether unions are good or bad in regards to the retention of bad teachers.

Fortunately, Professor Eunice Han has conducted a study of the claim that unions overprotect bad teachers. While it runs contrary to the anecdotes about bad teachers that cannot be fired and intuitions about overprotective unions, the evidence shows that “highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.” Somewhat ironically, districts with weak or no unions retain more lower quality teachers than highly unionized districts.

As Han notes, stronger unions reduced the attrition rate of teachers and increase teacher wages. Because of the higher salaries, there is greater incentive to remove bad teachers and good teachers have a greater incentive to remain. This nicely fits the conservative mantra that top talent can only be kept by paying top salaries, although this mantra is usually just applied to people like CEOs and not workers.

In contrast, weak unions (and the absence of unions) increase the attrition rate of teachers and decrease teacher wages. As such, good teachers will tend to leave for areas with strong unions while bad teachers will often end up in areas with weaker unions or those that lack unions. The statistics show that unions have a positive impact on teacher quality and that the myths of the overprotective union and the irremovable bad teacher are just that, myths unsupported by facts. This also nicely matches the conservative mantra about compensation: lesser talent will settle for lower salaries.

It must be noted that since this issue is so ideologically charged, those who oppose unions will tend to regard the study as biased and might offer “alternative facts” of their own on the grounds that what they believe must be true. Likewise, those who favor unions can be accused of accepting “facts” that match their views. This is, of course, a much larger problem than the debate over unions: if there is not a shared set of facts and methods, then no rational discussion is possible. Only the howling of ideological stances driven by desire for profit and power.


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  1. DH said, on January 24, 2017 at 11:08 am

    When you begin by reducing a counter-argument to a “stock talking point”, as though these pre-packaged points are handed down to unthinking drones for repetition, it’s a little insulting.

    Like you, I am naturally biased on this topic; in an earlier post I have recounted personal anecdotes about having been mistreated and ultimately blackballed by a teacher’s union for my political beliefs, about how my sister, a former teacher and board of ed member, was abused by her local teacher’s union and made a pariah in her own home town by way of a whisper and rumor campaign, and how I have encountered roadblocks to my own children’s education specifically attributable to unions.

    I will try to leave the anecdotal evidence aside, and address the concerns you bring forward in as unbiased a manner as possible.

    I’ve read Han’s study, and while I admit that I don’t understand the mathematical formulas she puts forth, I will gladly stipulate as to their accuracy and accept her conclusions – that by negotiating better contracts quality teachers are more attracted to the profession, and that because of these expensive contracts, a district has a greater incentive to weed out low-performing teachers before they achieve tenure. It’s a very good point, and her data is very well researched.

    However, I think that Han (and others) are asking the wrong questions when it comes to what makes a quality teacher. I’m struggling with this in my own research. From a political point of view, when evaluating the effectiveness of school systems, the focus is on D,F, and W rates (or, in the case of high-schools, “Dropout” rates instead of “Course Withdrawal”). Han makes a point of this on page 14 of her study, indicating that the metric for measuring student achievement is based on publicly available data on high school dropout rates by school district.

    While this is a meaningful statistic, it represents only part of the entire story. To define “achievement” solely in terms of D, F, W or Dropout rates is vastly incomplete. “Achievement” is about performance, excellence, and success, metrics which go far beyond the majority of students staying in school or getting a passing grade on a test.

    The fact is that the performance of high-school students after graduation is appalling. When considering all first-time undergraduates, stud¬ies have found anywhere from 28 percent to 40 percent of students enroll in at least one re¬medial course. When looking at only community college students, several studies have found remediation rates surpassing 50 percent. Further, a disconnect exists between K-12 and postsecondary expectations. Students often are unaware that they are not ready for college-level courses until they fail college placement tests and are assigned to remedial courses.

    I have not seen a study that asks the questions about quality teachers and performance metrics beyond student retention and passing test grades. If this is because I’m looking in the wrong place then I would invite you to provide some help in this area; if it’s because the studies simply don’t exist, I would reserve judgement on this issue until they do. Anecdotally, if teachers unions continue to proliferate in this country, and we can prove by mathematical models that teachers unions promote excellence, then we are simply looking at the wrong results. Despite a historically high graduation rate, our school systems are producing far too many underperforming graduates who rank well below the top 20, according to the Program for International Student Assessment US students rank below average in math among the world’s most developed countries, and only close to average in science and reading.


    You can take a highly motivated teacher, one with creative ideas and innovative approaches to the classroom, and subjugate all of that innovation to the union-defined metric for success, resulting in a highly paid waste of talent, who enjoys their benefits and looks forward to retirement in 20 years.

    Another issue, which to my knowledge is unresearched, revolves around the indirect negative effect that union-achieved, attractive teacher contracts have on the rest of education. I believe that teachers should be well paid and receive good benefits – but these benefits have to be in line with what can be reasonably expected in the workforce. When a teachers union argues, for example, for non-contributory health-care coverage, with no payment on the part of the teacher, no deductible and no co-pay, this is an extremely expensive benefit that is not offered to anyone else in the country. Same with defined-benefit pensions; they are wonderful to have but completely unsustainable. This is harmful to students in two ways – the first is the willingness of the teachers unions to call a strike in order to gain the benefits, and the second is that it sucks huge amounts of money from district budgets – money that can go to classrooms, computers, facilities, field trips, outside speakers, hands-on science kits, debate competitions, science fairs, and so forth.

    Again – this is anecdotal, but it is exactly the platform that my sister, as a board of ed member, was trying to resolve with a limited budget and an aggressive union. This ended badly for everyone, especially for the students.

    In sum, you can apply all the metrics you want to try to define “HQT”, as Han has done – but the real metric is student performance after graduation – where is the excellence? How do the products of the US school system stack up internationally against their peers?

    The rate of HQT as a result of union presence is a false statistic, because the real metric for success shows otherwise.

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