Battle against the union blob

It is not surprising that teaching unions are objecting to the proposed 2% pay rise for England’s top teachers. Unions have long protested against performance-based pay for teachers and now they pose another barrier to the School Teachers Review Body. In the STRB’s latest submission (pdfto the government, highlighted is the need for a wages increase to encourage the desired competition in the teaching profession.

Arguments against pay incentives are that they encourage ‘teaching to the test’ and orchestrated cheating by teachers and schools. Performance gains are accepted to exist but said to be short-lived. While the long-term benefits, they say, are non-existent and there may even be damage done in the long-run.

But the latest research examining their impact on pupils demonstrates the opposite as being true. Pay for performance schemes are becoming increasingly implemented and contemplated in many developed and developing countries and have re-emerged at the top of the policy agenda in the U.S. They are not just a brilliant way of distinguishing the strivers from the shirkers in schooling systems. Such schemes are reaping good long-term labour market outcomes, too.

Research (pdf) published last month by Victor Lavy looks at a study conducted a decade and a half ago in Israel to determine if there are improvements to future education enrolment, earnings and probability of claiming unemployment benefits. 

The study is the first of its kind to follow students from high-school to adulthood to examine the impact of a teachers’ pay for performance scheme on long-run life outcomes. It found:

A decade after the end of the intervention, treated students are 4.3 percentage points more likely to enrol in a university and to complete an additional 0.17 years of university schooling, a 60 percent increase relative to the control group mean. The road to higher university enrolment and completed years of schooling was paved by the overall improvement in high school matriculation outcomes due to the teachers’ intervention.

So merit-based pay actually improves students’ lifetime well-being, judging by school attainment, annual earnings and welfare-dependency, as well as recognising the hardworking, high-flying teachers and making it a more attractive profession.

If we could achieve a similar flexibility in what the best teachers can be paid in the UK, like proposed in the STRB’s report, it would mitigate the pressures being faced by schools experiencing increasingly competitive graduate labour markets, tightening budgets and demographics driving up pupil numbers.

A difficulty in recruiting NQTs and experienced classroom teachers in this country has been identified by head teacher unions. A key cause being that salary progression is faster for able graduates in other professions, with the opportunity to reach higher levels of earning as their careers progress, than for the teaching profession.

Ideologically-driven unions are the main enemy of change as they still make it difficult to get rid of timeserving teachers and are hostile to the ambitious reformers in schools and policy-making. It is time to start thinking about the market value of teachers’ talents and penetrate the dogmatic ‘blob’ that the old hat education establishment represents.

Teachers unions are bad for kids

Though everyone typically sees unions as being mainly for the benefit of their members, teachers’ unions use a lot of pro-student rhetoric and often come across fairly angelic. They probably do have only the kids’ interests at mind, but a new paper suggests that their existence doesn’t necessarily benefit those kids.

Data comparing students’ outcomes to teacher unionisation has until recently been fairly lacking. But according to the new study published last month, duty-to-bargain laws (which  mean employers need to work with unions) lead to significantly worse labour market outcomes for students in schools subject to them.

Previous research has shown us that teacher collective bargaining laws increase teacher union membership and increase the likelihood that a school district unionises for the purpose of collective bargaining—i.e. they achieve their direct goals. But looking into the effect on the kids has been hampered by a lack of information liking people’s outcomes and the time that duty-to-bargain laws were passed.

This new study, conducted in the US by Michael F. Lovenheim and Alexander Willen, takes the timing of the passing of the duty-to-bargain laws between 1969 and 1987 and links them with long run educational and labour market outcomes among 35-49 year olds in 2005-2012, i.e. those subject to them..

What they found was that men subject to increased unionisation work less hours as adults and earn less. There is also evidence of a small decline in educational attainment for men and a long-run negative effect on labour supply for women that is equal in magnitude to that of men.

Of course, some of the kids tin this paper were subject to a vastly different educational environment than exists today, so we can’t necessarily extrapolate to the UK. Nonetheless the general finding is quite plausible, and should contribute to policy debates around increasing or reducing the role of collective bargaining in the education sector.

If future research in this field continues to make the negative relationship apparent, we may be ever closer to exposing how teaching unions lower educational standards by supporting the timeservers over the strivers in the teaching profession.

More evidence that all schools should be free schools

Free schools raise standards – not just in the schools themselves, but in the traditional state schools in their neighbourhood.

That is according to a new report from the think tank Policy Exchange. And it should come as no surprise. That is exactly what happened in Sweden, after it reformed its education system in 1991 and allowed charities, faiths, voluntary groups and private companies to open schools rather like the UK’s free schools.

Schools that are independently run but still supported by taxpayers – and paid by results, basically in proportion to the number of pupils they attract – are better motivated to think more deeply about the education they provide and how they provide it. Despite the fact that free schools are still highly regulated – much more so than their counterparts in Sweden – that is exactly what they do. So they stimulate other, unreformed, schools in two ways. First, they provide a model for what is achievable. Second, local state schools realise that they have to improve if they are to continue to attract pupils and justify their own existence. Simple really.

People make two arguments against free schools. First, they say that they are more selective than other schools and so it is not surprising that they get better results because they get more able pupils from generally better-off, better-educated parents. But look at another country, the United States, with its so-called charter schools. Often, these have been set up in the least promising areas, inner-city areas rife with drugs and violence, where all or nearly all pupils are from generally poor, minority families. The uplift in performance, though, is startling. Many of these schools are set up by parents, or parents and teachers, precisely because the existing government-run schools are do depressingly and young-life-ruiningly dismal. but those concerned local people make their schools secure places to learn, ban drugs and tolerate ‘no excuses’. And you know what? The children shine.

The other objection is that free schools in the UK are wasteful because they are often set up in places where there are already spare places in traditional state schools. Indeed: rather like the case in those American cities I have just mentioned. Setting up a new, different, better-motivated school in an area where there are only ‘sink’ schools is no waste: it is one of the most cost-effective things you could do. Preventing better schools from setting up is rather like preventing better restaurants from opening up when there are still spare tables in the local greasy-spoon.

The government says it will create another 500 free schools. Frankly, we should turn every school in the country into a free school.

Peer effects: they exist but they’re not very big

One reason parents try and get their kids into ‘good’ schools is that they have better teachers, facilities and so on. Another is that the other students are also high achievers and this is believed to feed into their own children’s achievement—via less disruptiveness, an environment more conducive to scholarly activity, and so on.

A paper newly published in the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics tests the size of these effects on achievement by looking at the random component of sorting that occurs when most British children transition from primary to secondary school at age 11.

“Peer Effects: Evidence from Secondary School Transition in England” (up-to-date gated version, full working paper pdf), by Stephen Gibbons and Shqiponja Telhaj, finds that although having brighter peers raises someone’s grades a bit, the effect size is very small.

Our general finding is that school-level peer effects exist, but they are small in magnitude: a one standard deviation increase in the mean ks2 primary school scores of secondary schoolmates is associated with a 0.03 standard deviation increase in student achievement in secondary school ks3 achievement.

These peer effects originate in characteristics of secondary school peers that were already evident in their achievements at age 7, and family background issues such as low income and English being second language, rather than academic progression during the later years of primary schooling preceding secondary school entry.

This finding suggests a rather limited role for peer effects in amplifying the effects of educational interventions (e.g. social multiplier effects as in Glaeser Sacerdote and Scheinkman 2003), unless these interventions occur very early on in life. Our results show only limited heterogeneity across student demographic types.

But the paper does go on to say that because school has very little impact on student outcomes, we should probably see this as a relatively large effect in that context. And that peer groups might matter for lots of other things besides achievement (“physical safety, emotional security, familiarity, life-time friendship networks, or simply exclusivity”) so parents aren’t necessarily crazy to aim for ‘better’ peers for their kids.

CMRE’s Friedman Lecture on school choice

The Centre for Market Reform of Education’s Inaugural Friedman lecture kicked off with success last week amid a plethora of events marking international school choice week. Sir Julian Le Grand delivered the lecture ‘School choice matures: lessons for policy makers’ as educationalists of all spheres, from teachers to campaigners, posed questions and examined how best to reform education systems and advocate educational freedom.

Increasing the diversification of producers and external pressure on public services, the Social Policy and Economics Professor described, would improve the quality of education. School choice is the crucial cause of both of these. Chaining people to their local schools by means of catchment-allocation alongside the state’s one-size-fits-all approach is failing. People would prefer the pressure of markets – with parents and children choosing the institutions and preferred teaching methods – as opposed to perpetual pressure from politicians imposing targets. 

Public perceptions of profit-making and the belief that school choice is a ‘middle class thing’ were distinguished as impediments to the truth that proponents of the freedom to choose have on their side: creating an environment conducive to competition, and thus advancement in schooling provision, requires that options within the reach of the wealthy and middle classes are available to the poorest sectors of society also. Precisely why, Professor Julian Le Grand said, the poor benefit most from school choice.

You can listen to an audio recording of last week’s lecture and find CMRE’s detailed publications on school choice, incentivising quality and educational inequality here.