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How Much Do Teacher Strikes Hurt Kids?

Publication Date: 2012-09-13

This is from How much do teacher strikes hurt kids? by Doug Henwood, Sept. 11, 2012. Henwood edits LBO (Left Business Observer), a newsletter he founded in 1986. We could wish so-called journalists who cover education saw things so clearly: 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.

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: 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 Chicagoâs public school students, heâd 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 (âPDF). (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 OECDâs 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 youâd 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.

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