March 10, 2007

Applying Laws of Gravity to Deep Space

Justin Katz

In response to my post on RI's education problems, Klaus makes the following request and commentary:

... could you please explain to me again how eliminating the teachers' unions would improve education? I mean, I'm just a stupid socialist (according to a lot of commenters here), so could you big, bright conservatives please enlighten me?

Because, if I understand Free Market Theory, if you drive down the wage paid, you drive down the number and quality of applicants.

And do not attempt an explanation unless you address that question. It is the very heart of the proposed solution.

On the one hand, eliminating the union eases the tax burden, which is a positive.

But if you end up with teachers who really aren't competent enough to do anything else, the end result is to cut our own throats by reducing the quality of teachers even more.

The simple answer to the opening question is that free market dynamics do not apply in situations that do not count as free markets. To take the point to an extreme, it would be ludicrous of a dictator to declare that he is raising the salaries of his staff (consisting of family and partners in crime) in order to attract the best candidates. The roles are filled at his pleasure. He does not compete with other employers. And his staff cannot negotiate under the presumption that they are free to leave. Moreover, to the degree that candidates compete for positions within the dictator's government, the competition is centrally over their ability to please the dictator, not to perform the functions of a particular job, and if they are able to do the former, they need not fear repercussions for failing at the latter.

In a heavily unionized system, in which it is difficult to dismiss low-quality teachers, or even to allow them to fall behind in pay scale, the free market relationship between salary and quality is nearly reversed. The more comfortable the job and the better the compensation, the less likely that teachers who are not particularly adept at their jobs and/or not particularly interested in teaching, of itself, will make way for better qualified and more passionate candidates. Indeed, the more attractive their seats, the more vehemently they will guard them.

One need only look at the pitiful pay of private schools to see that competent teachers are driven to their vocation for its own sake. Disproportionate compensation packages that are freed from market forces and that are studiously disconnected from proven ability are certain to draw those whose competency is mainly in manipulating the system.

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We need longer school days, but contracts mandate the number of minutes a teacher must work each day, and unions resists longer days in negotiations.

Teachers need to meet more often, to collaborate. Special education teachers need to be in classrooms to ensure modifications for children in need. Art teachers should help with students talented in the arts and are more visual learners. Reading teachers, OT and speech specialists all can offer expertise, but no time in the school day is scheduled for such collaboration. Contractual days end when students leave, meaning teachers are not required to collaborate before or after school. Poor teachers simply choose not to.

We need to pay teachers based on their abilities and results, but contracts mandate pay strictly by years served, and refuse any contract changes.

Teachers should be assigned to jobs they do best - some really good fourth grade teachers make terrible first grade teachers, but contracts mandate job selection by seniority only, not ability, and unions refuse any change that would allow administrators some say in who teaches in their schools.

School day schedules need to be more flexible to meet the needs of all students. Contracts split days into 45 minute chunks so teachers can have preparation periods covered by specialists like art, music, etc., preventing any flexiblility. Furthermore, lunch and recess schedules are determined by the number of minutes teachers have for lunch, as required by contract.

Curricula needs to be reconsidered and rewritten on a regular basis. Despite being salaried employees, contracts stipulate an hourly rate for teachers who work beyond the end of the school day. In my district, it's more than $40 per hour.

Should I go on?

Unions have done a terrific job of creating an ideal workplace for teachers in many ways. But schools are meant to be places of learning for children. Children should be at the center of our decision making.

Perhaps students and their parents should unionize and earn a seat at the contract negotiation table. Can you imagine parents and students going on strike, and districts refusing to pay teachers until the teachers' union settles with them?

Posted by: crowd surfer at March 10, 2007 2:12 PM

The economic argument against teachers' unions might have merit, if the price of everything else in the real world dropped along with salaries.
Then again, in a perfect world we wouldn't need unions of any kind, either.

Posted by: Rhody at March 10, 2007 2:24 PM

Teacher unions hurt education in a variety of ways. Teacher unions are so harmful to education that (according to education experts) there is absolutely no correlation between teacher pay and student performance. Think about that for a moment. This is damning evidence that by itself should be enough to demonstrate that the influence of teacher unions is of questionable value.

Teacher unions hurt education by rewarding seniority over performance, by being extremely rigid, and by being greedy.

The union model insures that mediocrity will be rewarded. The end result is that the worst teachers, those that either shouldn't be teaching or should improve their skills, are rewarded just as well as the best teachers. These individuals know they're poorly qualified, would probably have great difficulty succeeding anywhere else as well, and stay on as career public school teachers, thus bringing down the quality of public education for their whole careers. There is no need to improve their skills. They will have a job and receive their raises regardless.

There is some evidence that the some of the best teachers leave teaching because they realize their skills will not be rewarded. These are the professionals who may command higher pay in the private sector, so why stay. Let's imagine that you are a highly skilled, energetic, enthusiastic young teacher whose classroom is one door down from one of the most poorly skilled, lazy, malcontents in the entire school district, but who has five years seniority on you. For the entire time the two of you work in the district this sloth will be paid more than you! And if there is another class you would like to try teaching in the district don't tell this coworker because he/she will get it and not you, if they want it - seniority wins again! The real question, to me at least, is how you get tenured teachers (at two years) to really try to excell when they know they would be paid just the same if they didn't try as hard. And since the union will vehemently fight any attempt to put a tool to use to shine a light on who the best teachers are(because it would expose the poor teachers, seniority may be jeopardized, and it may create infighting amongst the brothers and sisters) the highly skilled teachers never even get the definitive recognition of being the best, never mind the monetary incentive. This is not exactly a model for encouraging excellence.

Teacher unions with their massive politicolegal clout have created a public education system that is not responding to the times. Their contracts, which are literally forced down communities throats, are full of so many regulations that that administrators and techers are limited to the status quo, unable to maneuver in ways that may prove to be helpful to students. Teacher unions, especially in RI, have fought hard to limit the expansion of charter schools. They don't want their mediocre system challenged, they don't want to miss out on any union dues, and in the end the students are deprived of innovative methods and new styles of teaching that may benefit them.

Teacher unions are so greedy that even when they realized that each town had "finite resources" (finite in the sense that towns are not bottomless pits of money and Rhode Islanders already feel that they are taxed out), they paid no attention. They continued asking for and receiving raises that outpaced inflationary rates along with lavish benefits because they could. Because the collective bargaining in this state gives any teacher union leverage over any town - the union cannot be refused and they know it. The result? School districts throughtout the state are cannabalized. After compensating the teachers there is nothing left. Catital expenditures are put off as long as possible, roofs don't get fixed, books don't get purchased, student programs get eliminated, programs that teachers and parents want can't be implemented, teaching positions are cut, teachers aides are let go, schools are closed, sports and extracurricular programs are cancelled.

The teacher union's primary concern is not the students, they are looking out for their constituents and doing a damn good job of it. Unfortunately their policies are hurting the students, harming public education, and overtaxing communities. I cannot imagine how public education could not be better off if the teacher unions were eliminated from the picture.

Posted by: frank at March 10, 2007 5:15 PM

In a free market, wages reflect worker productivity. If a union forces a company to have wages that are higher than can be supported by productivity, either profits must be lower or prices higher. The former makes the company uncompetitive in the capital markets and the latter uncompetitive in the product markets. Choose your poison.

My view is that teachers unions cause teacher productivity to be much lower than it otherwise would be. It also causes teachers wages to be higher -- just look at private and parochial schools, where you find higher teacher productivity and lower wages. Therefore, due to teachers unions, taxes are higher than they should be, and the value received for those taxes is lower.

Posted by: John at March 10, 2007 5:57 PM

Once again, a whole post devoted to me. I'm flattered.

I'm sorry--perhaps my point wasn't clear? The constant theme I get here about ed is that abolishing the teachers' unions would solve all problems. Am I mistaken about that?

My point is that, if you abolish the union, no doubt pay will drop because that's what happens without collective bargaining. That is, after all, one of the primary functions of collective bargaining.

Given that pay will drop, Free Market Theory says that lower pay will attract candidates that are less qualified, and less able, than the people currently filling the jobs. So, you've cut the price, but at the price of the quality of the applicant.

Given that, since the people in the jobs aren't up to snuff now, how are you going to improve the quality of ed by lowering the quality of the applicant?

That is the question you have to address, and none of you are doing so, nor have you done so.

As for lack of correlation between pay and performance, what about the various CEOs who screw up and are "punished" by being given millions--even hundreds of millions--of dollars on the way out the door?

As an example, Robert Nardelli, late CEO of Home Depot until 1/3/07. The price of HD stock dropped 30% on his watch. He was fired, but given $200 Million on the way out. How does that correlate with performance?

And, despite whatever Jack Welch says to the contrary, performance reviews aren't a magic bullet. As I've stated, I work in the corporate world, and the performance reviews there often reward those who do the best job of kissing up.

And how do you determine which teachers are doing the best job? There are no objective standards. Standard test scores? Then what you get (as in that bastion of excellent ed, Texas) teachers who just teach to the test. Memorize a bunch of stuff, score well. But "is our children learning?" (PS, quote from GW Bush...)

And you want longer days? Negotiate them. Who's signing the contracts? The teachers don't write the contract. The unions make their demands, but someone has to agree to the demand.

So, my question remains: if you decrease the price, Free Market Theory says you will attract less proficient candidates. How is that going to improve quality? You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Or is Free Market Theory wrong?

And let's be honest: the complaint is about the pay, and the taxes necessary to support that pay. So cut the pay and see what you get.

Look, I agree that something needs to change: the Supply-Side theory that has kept median wages stagnant for 30 years. Teachers' pay is out of line because it's grown while that of the taxpayers hasn't. That is the real core and crux of the problem. Everything else is just dancing around the real issue.

Posted by: klaus at March 10, 2007 7:14 PM


Sorry to drone on so, but I have to share some more about Supply Side.

A month or so ago had an interview with former Republican Mayor of Cranston Mike Traficante. He made a very interesting point.

As mayor, he had 19 sources of revenue to help pay the bills. Of these, 8 have disappeared, 7 have been reduced, and 4 remain intact. These 15 sources represented state & fed revenue sharing.

They are gone. Why? Two words: tax cuts.
Because of St Reagan and the subsequent tax-cut theology, cities now pay almost all of the cost of ed. So, those 'tax cuts' you got? HA! Fooled you. Taxes weren't cut; taxes were just shifed from fed/state directly onto your laps.

Another thing: one cannot compare parochial/private or charter schools to public schools for one big reason: private schools can simply expel a non-performing or disruptive student. The public school can't. A lot of things that work well on a limited basis lose their effectiveness as the scale increases.

Philly had great results with limited, for-profit charter schools. So they turned over the entire system. Guess what? On the macro scale, once they had to deal with ALL the problems of the public school, the performance of the charter schools were pretty much identical to the results achieved by the public school system prior. So there's no "formula for success" there.

Finally, one other thing has changed: 20 or 30 years ago, education didn't matter quite the way it does now. An HS ed could get you a decent-paying job with decent benefits. Now, it doesn't.

A BA/S is a bare minimum, and even the wages of college grads have been dropping the last 5 years.

That being the case, perhaps school performance wasn't so much better back when; perhaps it just wasn't noticed because the long-term economic consequences of no education weren't as dire as they are now. Not everyone can be a brain surgeon or a CEO; it's a question of what happens to the rest of us?

What happened to those jobs? We started outsourcing, and offshoring them during the Reagan Admin. And we've kept downsizing, and right-sizing and offshoring ever since. Once again, St Ronnie's Voodoo economics have helped to erode the quality of life for many, many Americans.

So, guys, the answer is not simple. I think that's why the whole anti-union thing bothers me as much as it does. It's a transparent attempt to scapegoat someone else when the problem is that too many people bought the whole Supply-Side/Free Market Will Solve Everything song and dance. They won't.

May seem a bit off-topic, but you've got to see this in context.

Posted by: klaus at March 10, 2007 8:11 PM


Why does it always feel as if, no matter how many people respond to you, you're always having a conversation with yourself?

It isn't discussion if you doggedly declare that nobody has responded to you. We have.

To put it plainly so that I can insist that you respond to the point: Unions negate Free Market Theory. The high pay of Rhode Island teachers is not successfully attracting and retaining the best candidates, in large part because unionization logjams the flow of applicants, candidates, and teachers. Throwing in irrelevant rhetoric about CEOs and every anti-Reagan factoid leftists mumble amonst themselves does not change that fact.

One quick question: Are you saying that private school teachers are the bottom of the barrel and only look good because the schools expel poorly performing students?

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 10, 2007 10:48 PM

Justin, my thoughts exactly. klaus insists that, unless you say exactly what he wants to hear, you are saying nothing.

klaus, you asked: "could you please explain to me again how eliminating the teachers' unions would improve education?" I provided a number of examples; here's one more. Teachers begin their careers at the lowest pay, like anyone else. But their salaries increase in small increments over 10-12 years, regardless of performance. Now imagine that the best teachers could rise to top salary in 2 or 3 years, based on merit, while the less able or less motivated teachers would remain at the bottom of the pay scale.

That would be the free market at work.

Posted by: crowd surfer at March 10, 2007 11:46 PM

mike traficante....most of his long time supporters see where his true interests were all along. ......and they see where fis interesta re now and just wish he would go away...he is a paid union hack. he was also convicted of a crime regarding campaign funds. he also was mayor of cranston when there were no black fireman or policeman.

he also plugged the city deficit by selling the sewer authority that was all paid for and leasing it back to the city . he plugged $20 million of deficits with d now we py for it for the next 20 years.

he also underfunded the city pension and had crossing guards getting paid $100 per hour.

oleary took the fall for traf and i say that as a republican.


Posted by: johnpaycheck at March 11, 2007 11:16 AM

a friend of mone has been neogotiating contracts with teachers for years.NOT ONCE HAAS THE UN ION EVER WANTED TO DISCUSS ANYTHING TO DO WITH EDCUATION.


most teacher unions dont want improvement, they want things to stay the same

Posted by: johnpaycheck at March 11, 2007 11:19 AM

I have to say, Crowdsurfer, or Mike, or Rightri, your responses here are really helpful and informative. You have good ideas for how to reform education and make it more child-centered. You should seriously consider going into school administration with an eye for union management. Perhaps you would not consider it because of your dedication to your chosen profession, but you should at least find ways to pass your ideas on. I guess the blogs do that in a way.

I think one larger point of klaus's posts here are that we need to look at this issue through a wider lens. This is why, when I met with Mike Traficante, I made sure that we discussed merit pay programs for teachers and the possibility of privatizing public schools such as they are considering in New York City.

Great work, all!

Posted by: Kiersten at March 11, 2007 1:05 PM

I've been reluctant to go down the "supply-side" tangent, Klaus, but find that I can't resist.

Your theory doesn't work for a variety of reasons, but to start with just one: the problem with RI teachers' salaries is that they are disproportionate. If everybody else's salaries had climbed at the same rate, then even ignoring universal inflation, the unions would have had to negotiate for a proportional premium for their members, otherwise they wouldn't have survived. (And it wouldn't have been that hard, because there would have been proportionally more money for the government to soak up in taxes.)

OK, one more reason: How do you explain that this disproportion is particularly acute in Rhode Island, and yet, our state is far from a bastion of free-market, supply-side economic policy?

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 11, 2007 4:44 PM

you are right... salaries are very dispropotionate. the older teachers get too much pay and the younger ones get very little and have much less security.


your union is not representing you. its representing the old teachers. the ones that dont wnat change.

and guess what, when the system goes broke, you will never get a pension like those that are handed out today.
you will pay the price. (kust like the state employee pension wa schanged a few years ago)

young teachers need their own union bc they are not represented by the existing union.

wake up.

Posted by: johnpaycheck at March 11, 2007 5:51 PM

[My point is that, if you abolish the union, no doubt pay will drop because that's what happens without collective bargaining. That is, after all, one of the primary functions of collective bargaining.
Given that pay will drop, Free Market Theory says that lower pay will attract candidates that are less qualified, and less able, than the people currently filling the jobs. So, you've cut the price, but at the price of the quality of the applicant.
Given that, since the people in the jobs aren't up to snuff now, how are you going to improve the quality of ed by lowering the quality of the applicant?
That is the question you have to address, and none of you are doing so, nor have you done so.]

Klaus your question is flawed. You have assumed that teachers are currently being compensated at an amount that is already consistent with the free market. This is incorrect, since there were no free market forces at work for 40 years, only monopolistic collective bargaining. In a free market, teacher compensation would have never reached it’s present level. You would have to agree with this since you yourself suggested that without the protective cloak of collective bargaining teacher salary would decrease (to where it should be in response to market forces) and there are the much lower private school salaries which are more driven by free market forces (though it could be argued that even private school salaries are inflated somewhat due to the effect of public teacher compensation).

Since teacher compensation is artificially high, allowing a correction to what the market would allow, to where it would have been in the absence of collective bargaining, shouldn’t result in any drop off whatsoever in the pool of qualified applicants.

One of the problems is the teacher union’s single salary system. All teachers are paid the same regardless of which subject or grade they teach. The union has used this to their advantage to elevate the pay of all teachers to that of the most skilled teachers. That is why gym teachers make the same as calculus and hard science teachers. The single salary system makes no sense except as a method to raise all salaries to that of the hardest to recruit for.

As far as improving the quality of teachers, give the teachers and administrators an incentive and remove unnecessary impediments, and education will improve. We have exactly the opposite now and it shows.

Can you give any examples of where the union methods of rewarding seniority over merit, having a single salary system, and ignoring free market forces when bargaining for compensation have taken any profession and created a union workforce that was superior to a nonunion workforce? And how about any examples of a unionized college educated profession that became un-unionized and suffered the effects of lower quality? This is what your saying, after all, isn’t it? You know this isn’t only about money and taxes, it is our kids education that is at stake here.

Posted by: frank at March 12, 2007 11:37 AM
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