Collectively Bargaining Away Education

, Rachel Chaney, Leave a comment

SACRAMENTO, CA – It was not evident from the response, which focused mainly on spending, but Getting Down to Facts does deal with the key question of teacher quality. The massive report, released by Stanford researchers on March 14-15, the most thorough to date on California education, addresses two significant factors that contribute to the difficulty in developing a highly qualified workforce in California’s schools.

The first problem education leaders face in trying to guarantee that all classrooms have good teachers is the union-backed job security provided by collective bargaining. The report, coordinated through Stanford University, highlights “the excessive difficulty in dismissing weak teachers,” and cites surveys of principals and superintendents who ranked the ability to dismiss ineffective teachers “as the most important change that could help them improve student outcomes.”

Though the privately-financed report takes an important step in pointing out this problem, it does not address the root cause of the problem — the power of teachers unions and collective bargaining. Principals and superintendents will be able to dismiss low-performing or ineffective teachers only when the power of union collective bargaining is substantially limited. According to Union Power and the Education of Children, a 2005 study by Hoover Institution senior education fellow and Stanford professor Terry Moe, “the teachers unions probably have more influence on the public schools than any other group in American society — and this is a major reason that our schools are so difficult to improve.”

In his study, Moe cites some of the typical rules included in collective bargaining agreements. Most agreements include rules that require payment according to seniority rather than performance, for example, or rules that make it practically impossible to dismiss teachers for poor performance. Until these rules are removed from collective bargaining agreements, no amount of school reform will allow principals and superintendents the necessary freedom to reward excellence and remove mediocrity.

Getting Down to Facts also addresses the problem of teacher training, another important element in attracting and educating effective teachers. Pointing out the weak evidence linking a credential with teaching effectiveness, the report recommends pursuing, “efforts to support the recruitment and development of effective teachers through new approaches to pre-service education, in-service professional development” and encourages, “experimentation with alternative ways to improve the training, induction, development, and evaluation of effective educational leaders.”

Alternative routes to certification, and “new approaches” to teacher training could attract more talented people into the teaching profession. A streamlined certification process, with opportunities for on-the-job training rather than years of coursework, could go especially far in generating more interest in teaching as a career among highly talented and potentially great teachers.

A 2004 report by the Teaching Commission found that only 13 percent of principals and seven percent of superintendents across the country think the states’ certification process guarantees a teacher will be successful in the classroom. This further underscores the need for a streamlined and reformed certification process.

Few question the importance of high-quality teachers in improving education but there is considerable debate about how to attract and retain such teachers in California’s failing schools. Policy makers and education leaders alike should look carefully at Getting Down to Facts and should use the findings as impetus for important reforms. Such reforms would require change, but not necessarily more spending.

Powerful teacher unions, which do want more spending, need more scrutiny and less power, and the same holds true for credentialing agencies. If the governor and legislators fail to show leadership in these key areas, finance reform or additional funding will amount only to an ineffective patch job on a deeply flawed and expensive system that fails to deliver the goods for California students.

Rachel Chaney is a public policy fellow in Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. She can be reached via email at