A closer look at union strength

One of the many reasons I’m a fan of TBFI is that it conducts two types of policy research that are in short supply. The first, which I will talk about today, is in-the-weeds analyses of subjects that others have glossed over. (The second, studies on subjects we didn’t even realize were important, will be discussed in a future post.)

TBFI's latest in-the-weeds analysis is on teacher-union strength; it goes deeper and reveals far more than the conventional wisdom.

Lots of people talk about the value of tough standards; heck, the “transformative nature” of Common Core has become something between a ubiquitous talking point and Gospel for the reform community. But many of those proselytizing, unfortunately, can’t tell you a whit about what’s actually in these supposedly sacred texts. 

Well, TBFI gets into the weeds of standards; they’ve been doing this for ages, even before Common Core was conceived and birthed (yes, it’s true, academic-content standards existed before CC!). In recent months, they’ve analyzed the rigormeaning, and cost of CC, shedding much light on an important but under-investigated matter.

They’ve done similar digging in on the use of school funds and tech advancements—issues that, like CC, have been given a cursory and laudatory treatment by many. See here for my take on the ed-tech research.

The institute’s latest installment in this area is the very good report on state-level unions. The study goes deeper and reveals far more than the conventional wisdom, which holds—simplistically—that unions are omnipotent and dominate just about everywhere (except in a few southern states). The real story is, of course, more complicated, nuanced, and interesting.

With Education Reform Now, TBFI looked at thirty-seven variables in five categories to assess the strength of each state’s major union. Obviously, this provides a bevy of new data points—far more than your average education observer carries around in her hip pocket. Though local and regional newspapers and state-based advocacy groups will focus on the top-line results about the power of the nearest union, there are fascinating findings below the surface.

Did you know that teacher strikes are illegal in thirty-seven states but collective bargaining is required by thirty-two? That the ten strongest unions are in states that require collective bargaining? That in many cases, there’s a huge delta between a union’s actual strength and its perceived strength?

For those of you suffering campaign-withdrawal, you might want to compare the report’s map of union strength to the results of the 2012 presidential election. The results are striking.

This report should be of interest to most in the reform community, particularly those working at the state level and/or involved in advocacy. I think you’ll learn a great deal.

While I believe strongly that the positions taken by teachers unions generally stand in the way of valuable reforms, I’ve never been one to lay all of the blame for the struggles of urban school systems at the feet of unions. As a matter of fact, in my recently released book about The Urban School System of the Future, you’ll see virtually no mention of unions until passing references in the final section.

I think Fordham’s new report paints an accurate picture of the ways in which and the places where unions are strong and weak. You’ll end up with a deeper and more nuanced view of these organizations. That will help both when you’re arguing against their positions in front of school boards or state legislatures and when you’re trying to find common ground with them.

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