Schedule Conflicts

As most people know, the majority of public school teachers are paid based on salary schedules. Most (but not all) contain a number of “steps” (years of experience) and “lanes” (education levels). Teachers are placed in one lane (based on their degree) and proceed up the steps as they accrue years on the job. Within most districts, these two factors determine the raises that teachers receive.

Salary schedules receive a great deal of attention in our education debates. One argument that has been making the rounds for some time is that we should attract and retain "talent" in the teaching profession by increasing starting salaries and/or the size of raises teachers receive during their first few years (when test-based productivity gains are largest). One common proposal (see here and here) for doing so is reallocating salary from the “top” of salary schedules (the salaries paid to more experienced teachers) down to the “bottom” (novice teachers’ salaries). As a highly simplified example, instead of paying starting teachers $40,000 and teachers with 15 years of experience $80,000, we could pay first-year teachers $50,000 and their experienced counterparts $70,000. This general idea is sometimes called “frontloading," as it concentrates salary expenditures at the “front” of schedules.

Now, there is a case for changes to salary schedules in many places – bargained and approved by teachers – including, perhaps, some degree of gradual frontloading (though the research in this area is underdeveloped at best). But there is a vocal group of advocates who assume an all-too-casual attitude about these changes. They seem to be operating on the mistaken assumption that salary schedules can be easily overhauled – just like that. We can drastically restructure them or just “move the money around” without problem or risk, if only unions and "bureaucrats" would get out of the way.**

Revisiting The Effect Of Teachers' Unions On Student Test Scores

The Wisconsin protests have predictably spurred a great deal of information-seeking, with union supporters and opponents alike searching for evidence that supports their cases. One of the most prevalent topics over the past week or so is the effect of teacher collective bargaining on student test scores. As a result, a couple of our previous posts have been shared widely. The first (also republished here) compares NAEP scores in states that allow binding teacher contracts with those in states that do not (or have only one or two); the second, follow-up post offers some additional, multivariate analysis.

Although it is true that the first post (which was at least partially satirical - see the last few sentences) shows that states without binding contracts are among the lowest-performing in the nation, I want to clear something up: As I noted in both posts, neither the data nor my argument offer any conclusive proof that teacher contracts act to increase student test scores. The intention of those posts was to address the age-old counter claim – that teacher contracts are somehow injurious to student achievement – and to provide very tentative evidence that the contracts appear to have little discernible impact either way (which is what the follow-up post, using state-level models that controlled for basic student characteristics, indicated, along with the requisite caveats).

This speaks directly to those who seek to blame unions for poor achievement in the U.S. - if union contracts were in fact a major contributing cause of low test performance, it might be reasonable to expect to find at least some clear differences between states that did and did not allow them. Although my analysis was extremely limited, I found no such evidence.

But this also applies to those who have been claiming recently – many in the Wisconsin context – that teacher bargaining clearly improves these outcomes.