How much do teacher strikes hurt kids?

Washington Post blogger named Dylan Matthews posted an attempted heart-tugging piece yesterday arguing that teacher strikes do serious academic damage to young students. This is, of course, part of the elite strategy of discrediting the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike against that city’s public schools: it’s a war declared by callous union bosses against schoolkids and their parents to protect their (thoroughly unearned and undeserved) job security and fat paychecks.

Their paychecks are anything but fat, and the CTU is anything but a selfish, insular union. For proof of the latter, check out their excellent paper, “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” which is full of serious criticisms of standardized tests, profound racial and class segregation, and systematic underfunding of the city’s public schools. It does not mince words, and it is an inspiration. If Matthews really cared about Chicago’s public school students, he’d be investigating this instead of smearing teachers.

But, that aside, his claims about strikes doing damage to students are wildly overstated and robbed of context. He cites what he has elsewhere described as “voluminous” research proving his case, but the evidence is a long way from voluminous and far more inconclusive than he claims.

Take an NBER working paper by Michael Baker of the University of Toronto, “Industrial Actions in Schools: Strikes and Student Achievement,” which he spends a couple of paragraphs on. The paper is a study of strikes in Ontario in the 1990s, comparing test scores in districts in which there were strikes with those in which there were none. Baker finds a significant impact on 5th and 6th graders in strike zones.

But neither Baker nor Matthews offer any larger context for these strikes. Fortunately, the OECD wrote up the Ontario experience in its 2011 volume, Lessons from PISA for the United States (‎PDF)(PISA is a set of standardized tests administered via the OECD in a number of mostly rich countries around the world. I’ve written up some of the PISA material here.) I’ve appended some excerpts from the OECD’s chapter below, but I’ll summarize some major points first.

The turmoil of the 1990s was provoked by Mike Harris’ aggressively right-wing government. (A measure of the esteem that Harris held schooling in was that his first Minister of Education, John Snobelen, was a high-school dropout.) Harris imposed an “accountability” agenda on the province’s schools that had a lot in common with approaches in the U.S.: standardized tests, budget cutting, privatization, school closures, demonization of teachers. The agenda provoked enormous fights with teachers’ unions, and, not surprisingly, numerous strikes. Morale hit the basement and parents abandoned the public school system. The schools crisis became a huge political issue, and had a lot to do with the 2002 election defeat of the right wing and the ascension of a Liberal government to power. As the Baker paper notes, though Matthews doesn’t, after the Liberal government took over, strikes came to an end. A paper of this sort, based on a set of depoliticized statistical tests, can make no allowance for these complexities.

The Liberals’ education agenda was in many ways the exact opposite of the U.S. approach—and consciously so. It was supportive, not punitive; worked with teachers, instead of demonizing them; aided troubled schools rather than closing them; emphasized public schools rather than privatization; used sociological models rather than economic ones. You could argue that the unions’ militance laid the groundwork for these very constructive reforms, and whatever minor damage might have been done to a few students has been more than offset by Ontario becoming a model jurisdiction for school reform—and something that the OECD, not the most progressive of organizations, thinks that the U.S. could learn from.

Another paper that Matthews cites comes from the Howe Institute, which is Canada’s Heritage Foundation. Sorry to say, but I just don’t trust the source.

Yet another is a study by Michèle Belot and Dinand Webbink of a six-month strike in Belgium in 1990. Six months! If a six month interruption has no effect then you’d have to wonder what good schools do at all. But despite the duration, Belot and Webbink’s conclusions are far more modest than Matthews lets on: “We find some evidence that the strikes decreased the educational attainment of students, although the estimated effect is somewhat imprecise.” Some evidence, and imprecise at that.

Contrary to Matthews’ assertion that the evidence of negative effects is voluminous, Belot and Webbink say this:

To our knowledge, there are no studies evaluating the long-term effect of teacher strikes on educational achievements of students. The challenges in assessing their effect are similar to those mentioned above. Strikes do not occur randomly and are likely to be correlated with other factors affecting educational outcomes, thereby compromising the identification of a causal effect. A before–after comparison might be biased by other unobserved factors that changed after the strikes.

Matthews breathes not a word of these other factors that might compromise the cause–effect relation. One hopes that he read beyond the abstract.

The CTU’s strike, led by a vigorous reform leadership, is quite explicitly about lots more than the wages and working conditions of teachers. It’s about fighting the privatization and union-busting agenda of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—which he shares with other big-city mayors like Michael Bloomberg, as well as his comrade Barack Obama. By circulating bogus stories about the damage the union is doing to the children of Chicago, Matthews is offering cover to this odious agenda.


excerpts from the OECD chapter on Ontario

Ontario benefits from a set of background conditions that helped to facilitate much of its success. Politically, the McGuinty Liberal premiership benefitted from following a conservative government that was extremely unpopular with teachers and others working in the sector. The conservative government is generally credited with having created a province-wide curriculum and instituted an accompanying assessment and accountability framework, but it alienated the education community in the process by cutting funding, reducing professional development time by half, running television ads demonising teachers, and increasing support for private schools. During this period 55 000 students left the public system, and polls suggested that more than 15% of public school parents were actively considering private school options. there were several teacher strikes, including a two-week work stoppage protesting government legislation in 1997. morale was extremely low and the relationship between the government and teachers was highly acrimonious. Union leader Rhonda Kimberly Young, former President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, had this to say when interviewed for this report about the years before McGuinty government took over:

Then we got the conservatives and they came in on what they called a “common sense revolution” which implied that there was going to be a miracle. They could lower everybody’s taxes. they could cut waste. they could do more with less – better quality services at lower cost. unfortunately, they were able to sell this idea to the voters. When they took office mike harris was the premier and the first education minister that he appointed was a high school dropout. We saw that as fairly indicative of their approach to education. [That they were not] going to be looking at pedagogy, research and those sorts of things but rather were coming in with a hammer…and they did. in 1998 we had a province wide walkout – it was a political protest. (interview conducted for this report)

In this highly polarised environment the Liberal Party made an early decision to make education the central issue in the next provincial election. As opposition leader, McGuinty made a major policy speech in 2001 committing the party to a quite specific set of reforms, including class size reductions, should they be elected. This speech was followed up by the development of a very detailed education platform with 65 policy proposals. By the time the liberals took office in 2003 they believed they had a strong reform mandate.

To achieve sustained change, then, would require:

• Strategies directly focused on improving the act of teaching.

• careful and detailed attention to implementation, along with opportunities for teachers to practice new ideas and learn from their colleagues.

• a single integrated strategy and one set of expectations for both teachers and students.

• Support from teachers for the reforms.

Both province and district policies would need to be crafted with all of these goals in mind.

Of all of these points, the last one (gaining teacher support) was perhaps most important to the new strategy. to improve skills across 5 000 schools would require a continuous and sustained effort by hundreds of thousands of teachers to try to improve their practice. this, they thought, could only happen if teachers were “onside” (to use their word).

To this end, the ministry drew a sharp contrast between its capacity-building approach to reform and the more punitive versions of accountability used in the United States, and, to a lesser extent, in Britain. They chose to downplay the public reporting of results, and they emphasised that struggling schools would receive additional support and outside expertise rather than be punished or closed.

The Ontario strategy differs from a number of other reform efforts, particularly in the United States, in its lack of punitive accountability, performance pay, and competition among schools. Very broadly speaking, the architects of the reforms seem to take more of a “homo sociologicus” than a “homo economicus” view of reform. the architects of the reforms drew upon organisational theorists like Peter Drucker and Edwards Deming rather than economists. from this viewpoint, the problem was more to do with lack of knowledge than lack of will, and the key to motivation was not individual economic calculations but rather the chance to be part of successful and improving schools and organisations. this meant that the key ideas were less about “hard” concepts like accountability and incentives and more about “softer” ideas like culture, leadership and shared purpose. the key challenge was to create layers of organisations directed towards systemic improvement. there is also little emphasis in the ontario strategy on “getting better people”; instead the idea is to work with what you have and upgrade their skills. in all of these respects, the ontario model challenges more market-based theories of reform.

The Ontario strategy is perhaps the world’s leading example of professionally-driven system change. Through consistent application of centrally-driven pressure for higher results, combined with extensive capacity building, in a climate of relative trust and mutual respect, the Ontario System was able to achieve progress on key indicators, while maintaining labour peace and morale throughout the system.

However, its response to weak performance has consistently been intervention and support, not blame and punishment. one of its major successes in the early years was to reduce dramatically the number of low-performing schools, not by threatening to close them (as often happens in the US), but by flooding the schools with technical assistance and support. the underlying assumption of ontario’s leaders seems to be that teachers are professionals who are trying to do the right thing, and that performance problems are much more likely to be a product of lack of knowledge than lack of motivation. consequently, teachers seem to take more responsibility for performance than is often the case in countries with a more punitive approach to external accountability.

18 Comments on “How much do teacher strikes hurt kids?

  1. every thing you write is true .YOU KNOW WHAT i don’t like the problem with the teachers and the school’s too is in general everywhere the same AND they trying to show or demostrate just before the school staring (this is bad way) ALL the problems have to be in the end of the year of the school .. teachers student ..have to be together for one decision ..NOT we finish the year of the school and after vacance we remmember WOW WE HAVE PROBLEM this is not good way to have what they deserve.
    thank you

  2. You are talking about the Liberal Party in the past. Now the Liberal party is doing exactly the sort of thing done in the U.S. and the unions have declared war on the Liberal minority government in Ontario. Legislation takes away the right to strike and freezes wages among other things.

    The minority Liberals argue the legislation, which passed with the support of the Progressive Conservatives, is needed to help them eliminate the province’s $15-billion deficit.
    But union leaders said it’s not about a wage freeze or labour peace — since there was no threat of a strike — but stripping workers of their rights, similar to what’s happened in some U.S. states.

    Read more:

  3. Ok, obviously strikes hurt student achievement. Factory strikes hurt production of goods. Nursing strikes hurt health care. Garbagemen striking makes the city dirty and disease ridden. That’s the point. That’s why it’s an effective tactic. That doesn’t mean teachers should never do it. It’s a labor union, as with all labor unions, the strike is the last resort. If we’re so worried about the “damage” a 3 day strike does children, well, give in to their demands then. Or replace the teachers. That’s what labor demands are about.

  4. “A Washington Post blogger named Dylan Matthews posted an attempted heart-tugging piece yesterday arguing that teacher strikes do serious academic damage to young students. This is, of course, part of the elite strategy of discrediting the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike against that city’s public schools”

    This comes as no surprise when Kaplan Inc is the Washington Post Company’s fastest growing division and its largest revenue producer.

    — MrJM

  5. I wonder if this “journalist” cares about the complexities of these things, or if he just has a political point of view that dictates what he says, careful analysis be damned. I was suspicious of this blog post when I read it, and you confirm my suspicions. The notion that a strike hurts kids over th elong haul seeemd unlikely to me. And using test scores as the dependent variable seemed ridiculous.

  6. And then the other question is “Do strikes hurt children more than teacher’s working in miserable conditions? More than large classes? More than the elimination of all non-testable subjects from the curriculum?

  7. Harris’s Minister of Education John Snobelen actually went on record saying the government wanted to “create a crisis” in the province’s education system.

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