Teacher Contracts: The Phantom Menace

In a previous post, I presented a simple tabulation of NAEP scores by whether or not states had binding teacher contracts.  The averages indicate that states without such contracts (which are therefore free of many of the “ill effects” of teachers’ unions) are among the lowest performers in the nation on all four NAEP exams. 

The post was largely a response to the constant comparisons of U.S. test scores with those of other nations (usually in the form of rankings), which make absolutely no reference to critical cross-national differences, most notably in terms of poverty/inequality (nor to the methodological issues surrounding test score comparisons). Using the same standard by which these comparisons show poor U.S. performance versus other nations, I “proved” that teacher contracts have a positive effect on states’ NAEP scores.

As I indicated at the end of that post, however, the picture is of course far more complicated. Dozens of factors – many of them unmeasurable – influence test scores, and simple averages mask them all. Still, given the fact that NAEP is arguably the best exam in the U.S. – and is the only one administered to a representative sample of all students across all states (without the selection bias of the SAT/ACT/AP) – it is worth revisiting this issue briefly, using tools that are a bit more sophisticated. If teachers’ contracts are to blame for low performance in the U.S., then when we control for core student characteristics, we should find that the contracts’ presence is associated with lower performance.  Let’s take a quick look.

Performance-Enhancing Teacher Contracts?

** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

Please check out our two other posts (here and here), which present summaries and discussions of the actual evidence on the relationship between unions and test scores.

For years, some people have been determined to blame teachers’ unions for all that ails public education in America. This issue has been around a long time (see here and here), but, given the tenor of the current debate, it seems to bear rehashing.  According to this view, teachers unions negatively affect student achievement primarily through the mechanism of the collective bargaining agreement, or contract. These contracts are thought to include “harmful” provisions, such as seniority-based layoffs and unified salary schedules that give raises based on experience and education rather than performance.

But a fairly large proportion of public school teachers are not covered under legally-binding contracts.  In fact, there are ten states in which there are no legally binding K-12 teacher contracts at all (AL, AZ, AR, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TX, and VA). Districts in a few of these states have entered into what are called “meet and confer” agreements about salary, benefits, and other working conditions, but administrators have the right to break these agreements at will. For all intents and purposes, these states are free of many of the alleged “negative union effects."

Here’s a simple proposition: If teacher union contracts are the problem, then we should expect to see higher achievement outcomes in the ten states where there are no binding teacher contracts.

So, let’s take a quick look at how states with no contracts compare with the states that have them.