Do students in unionized states do better than students in states without unions?
Many studies have attempted to address the impact of unionization or collective bargaining on student achievement. The question needs careful parsing.
It is true that students now tend to do better in heavily unionized states, like Massachusetts, rather than in those without required bargaining, like Alabama and Mississippi. But this simple correlation provides no information about whether unionization causes these achievement patterns. As the general public isn’t likely to be aware of the difference between correlation and causation, it behooves reporters to explain the difference when reporting on this topic.
Some research has been conducted on the causation question, and, as one 2008 paper summarizing the relevant literature found, results appear to be mixed. The studies tended to use different models and methodologies, choices that impacted their findings, the paper found. For instance, “point in time” studies tended to find positive impacts of unionization on academic achievement, while those looking at student growth over time tended to show negative impacts. See Burroughs 2008 for a longer discussion and bibliography.
The most recent study purports to use a “natural experiment” to compare performance on SAT exams from the period between 1993 and 1999, during which New Mexico had mandatory bargaining, to the period between 1999 and 2003, when bargaining was permissible but no longer mandatory. It compared performance during those time periods to achievement patterns in other states, controlling for factors such as state racial composition, poverty rates, and crime rates. In addition, the author attempted to account for the fact that the change in bargaining laws probably would not have had immediate effects.
The study found that mandatory collective bargaining was
correlated with an increase in SAT scores, but a lowering of graduation rates.
It can be said:
Students tend to do well in some heavily unionized states, but it isn’t possible to conclude that it is the presence or absence of unions that cause that achievement.
About the Author: Stephen Sawchuk is an assistant editor at Education Week, an independent national news organization based in Bethesda, Md. He reports on teacher quality and the teaching profession.
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