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Last modified: Wednesday, November 12, 2008

CEEP: No collective consensus on collective bargaining’s effect

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Nov. 11, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Despite strong assertions from opponents and proponents, the effects of collective bargaining for teacher contracts isn't clear according to the existing research, says the latest Education Policy Brief from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) at Indiana University's School of Education. More study and more consideration for opposing points of view would be helpful, according to the study's author.

Nathan Burroughs

Nathan Burroughs

Print-Quality Photo

"If you look at the public discussion about it, both sides seem to be behaving such that there's no question about a positive or negative effect of collective bargaining on student achievement," said Nathan Burroughs, a visiting research associate at CEEP. "That's simply not the case. There isn't any consensus in the research."

The intensity of the debate over collective bargaining has grown in recent years. The report notes a recent exchange between U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. The union president aggressively defended collective bargaining after the education secretary said teachers' unions were blocking reform. Teachers' unions have often claimed that the higher salaries resulting from collective bargaining have brought increased student achievement and improved teacher quality.

"I'd be very cautious about any sweeping statements that teachers' unions are good or teachers' unions are bad, if for no other reason than that all that does is intensify the partisanship," Burroughs said. "And I don't mean by political parties, but the intensity of the debate. We might be generating more heat than light when we do that."

In general, the brief concludes that most of the research on the impact of collective bargaining for teacher salaries has focused on just one or two of the varying factors that may impact learning. Burroughs said there hasn't been a lot of data available to delve so deeply into those factors in the past. Furthermore, he said that the focus tends to be on variables that don't have the most impact.

"The effects of parental education or socioeconomic status tend to have a much greater influence than any of these other things that we're looking at," he said. "So when you hear debates about collective bargaining that are positive or negative, you need to be very careful to understand that you're talking about a very small piece of the pie."

The brief concluded that researchers need to build a more complete model to recognize effects on student achievement while also considering the influence of state, district, school and teacher influences. Among the brief's recommendations:

  • Instead of focusing on finding an unlikely strong direct effect on student achievement, future researchers should focus on collective bargaining's indirect effects, such as impact on class size, teacher quality and resources.
  • Studies on collective bargaining impact should be more comprehensive in analyzing the influence of different levels of government on student achievement.
  • Researchers can use new data available because of "No Child Left Behind" requirements. That may allow for new measures of teacher quality that isolate the effects of education and experience.
  • More comparisons should be made with other countries regarding the effects of teachers' unions, particularly in Canada and Western Europe, where union membership is higher, and by some measures student achievement is better than in the U.S.
  • Research should focus on the effects of more centralization of state education policy and finances while the collective bargaining has remained a district level responsibility.
  • Each side of the collective bargaining debate should recognize valid perspectives on the other side.
  • Policymakers should move cautiously, using incremental reforms because the research about the impact of collective bargaining is so inconclusive.

The full report is available at http://www.indiana.edu/~ceep/projects/PDF/PB_V6N8_Fall_2008_EPB.pdf.

CEEP promotes and supports rigorous program evaluation and policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for education, human services and non-profit organizations. Its research uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. To learn more about CEEP, go to http://ceep.indiana.edu.

Media Outlets: the following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Web site at http://www.education.indiana.edu. Look for this news release under "News" on the home page. The sound bites below will have a clickable link to hear and to save the files.

Burroughs says much of the debate on collective bargaining considers factors that aren't as crucial as some others:

"The effects of parental education or socioeconomic status, those tend to have a much greater influence than any of these other things that we're looking at. So when you hear debates about collective bargaining positively or negatively, you need be very careful to understand that you're talking about a very small piece of the pie; you're not talking about the whole pie."

What research is available on collective bargaining's impact on student learning indicates more impact on average students:

"There's been some evidence that collective bargaining so far is better for students who are sort of average students, who are in the middle of the achievement level, and it doesn't tend to have as positive an effect on very high performing students and very low performing students."

Burroughs says the discussion of collective bargaining has tended not to examine enough particulars of personnel issues:

"Frequently, collective bargaining has been addressed as the number of teachers that are covered by collective bargaining rules, rather than specific contract provisions. So if the argument about collective bargaining agreements is that they tie the hands of administrators to keep them from having personnel policies that would be helpful, look at the effect of the personnel policy rather than at the teachers union per se. Now, obviously, the collective bargaining agreement controls it, but I think that we need to go down to a level and break up this discussion. Rather than just talking about collective bargaining in the general sense, let's get specific."

Generally, Burroughs says there needs to be more research before a declaration on collective bargaining can be made:

"I'd just be very cautious about any sweeping statements that teachers unions are good or teachers unions are bad, if for no other reason than all that does is intensify the partisanship -- and I don't mean by parties, but just the intensity of the debate. And we might be generating more heat than light when we do that."