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Capitol protest Forward statue
A sign on the "Forward" statue on the Capitol Square Monday backs teachers, many of whom are protesting a proposal by Gov. Scott Walker that would eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees.

In the heated debate surrounding Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate nearly all parts of collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees, there hasn't been much discussion about what impact these changes could have on students.

It seems an odd oversight, given that delivering high quality education to students is the whole point of a school system. It's also one of the fundamental underpinnings of a successful democracy.

Here's a question I've not heard addressed during the talk about getting rid of collective bargaining in Wisconsin: What impact does a teachers union have on student performance? 

One of the most persistent critics of public education in Wisconsin is Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) who spoke on the air to radio host John "Sly" Sylvester last week. Here's what he had to say: "You have to remember, the quality of education in this state has dropped since Lee Dreyfus and Tommy Thompson were governor. I was looking at the most recent NAEP test scores, nationally, when I was a child, they used to say Wisconsin had good schools. After the strong unionization over the last 30-40 years, our 4th grade reading test scores are below the national average."

Obviously, Grothman weighs in on the "unions are bad for kids" side of the debate, which will not come as a surprise to anyone who has spoken to him for more than three minutes.

In sharp contrast, there were many tweets from the Wisconsin Democratic Party over the weekend claiming that Wisconsin's SAT/ACT scores were second in the U.S. and that five states with no teacher union bargaining rights — South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Georgia — had bottom-of-the-barrel scores. 

So where's the truth of the matter? Do children who attend public schools with unionized teachers suffer or benefit from the experience? Is there anything beyond anecdotal evidence? Can you find the answer in standardized test scores? Graduation rates? Or in scenes from popular film documentaries like "Waiting for Superman" with its indictment of teachers unions?

What I know for sure is that liars can figure, figures can lie and my own number crunching powers are woefully limited. So I tried to find a source for data that seemed knowledgeable and fair-minded.

In a blog post on Sunday, Angus Johnston, an American history professor at the City University of New York, describes the Dems' pro-union tweets as flawed by outdated statistics and improper statistical analysis. Then he asks what would "good" data could tell us about the question of whether teachers unions provide any benefit to students.

After taking a harder look at the kind of data the Dems were touting as well as other student performance data, Johnston confirmed in a blog post Monday that Wisconsin does, indeed, rank near the top of the country on SAT/ACT scores. By contrast, Virginia is near the middle of the national rankings pack and the rest of the no-union states are near the bottom. The same relative rankings are true on another standard of student success: high school graduation.

Furthermore, Johnston had different takes on the data Grothman believes is evidence of the floundering Wisconsin public schools.

In fact, after looking at the very same data Grothman was citing, plus the SAT/ACT scores and student graduation rates, here's what Johnston concluded:

"Yes, Wisconsin has great schools, with great outcomes. Yes, states without teachers' unions lag behind. Yes, that lag persists even when you control for demographic variables...And yes, Virginia, (and Texas, Georgia, and North and South Carolina) unions do work." Do read all of Johnston's posts for an interesting take on the whole subject.

Now, what Grothman says is that Wisconsin used to have top notch readers in the fourth grade, and now they're only average (actually, by scores, a little above average). But there were also many more non-native English speakers in Wisconsin in 2009 than 1969, for example, and average income in Wisconsin was in better shape then, too. Despite those demographic changes, however, there are some other test scores that are actually very encouraging, which Grothman does not note (but that Johnston includes in his examination).

For example, what's known as the "nation's report card," the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) showed that Wisconsin students in 2009 were above the national average in three of four measures: fourth grade math and eighth grade math and reading. (Fourth grade reading scores, as noted above, were slightly above average.) According to Johnston's analysis, "Of the ten states in the US without teachers' unions, only one — Virginia — had NAEP results above the national average, and four — Arizona, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi — were in the bottom quintile."

There's plenty of other intriguing information in Johnston's Monday blog, including his reference to a statistical analysis of state SAT/ACT scores written by three professors about a decade ago and published in the Harvard Educational Review. Controlling for factors like race, median income, and parental education, they found that going to school in a union state correlates with higher test scores, averaging, for example, about a 50 point increase on the SAT.

So, when it comes to collective bargaining and teachers, do we want Wisconsin's children in a Race to the Top, or a Race to the Bottom, right alongside those southern states with pretty dismal academic performance? Maybe we need to ask our legislators.

 

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