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Union Presence and Student Achievement

Over at Flypaper there's a bit of a debate going on about the presence of teachers' unions and student achievement.

I've been to enough education policy discussions to recognize two common tropes on this topic. One argument runs along these lines: Student achievement tends to be lowest in the South, which has many right-to-work states that don't allow collective bargaining for public employees. The other argument, which is at the center of the Flypaper debate, notes that the nation's highest-performing state on national tests, Massachusetts, has laws and policies that are generally favorable to unions.

Although such observations make for good talking points, the actual research on these questions is slim and inconclusive at best. That shouldn't really come as a surprise, given that so many social factors play into student achievement that are hard to separate out from the presence of the union.

Personally, I find that tropes typically shut down substantive conversations about how specific policies—both those that are supported and those that are opposed by teachers unions (and districts, and parents, and principals, and community groups)—operate and how they affect student achievement and other factors related to teaching and learning. And that's a shame, because if we are ever to move education policy beyond ideology to evidence, then the nitty-gritty really matters.

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