Unions and the Divorcing of Reward from Merit

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Two headlines, running within a couple of days of each other, caught my attention because they are interrelated.  The first was from the Milwaukee Journal and it made clear that, for the first time in history, the average compensation garnered by the Milwaukee school teacher exceeded $100,000.  The second was found in a variety of places, a statistic coming from no less a source than the Department of Education, which declared that “Two-Thirds of Wisconsin 8th Graders Can’t Read Proficiently.”  The reason for both the exceedingly high pay and the exceedingly low scholarship is due, of course, to the unions.

Oh, there are other causes as well – but they, too, are a reflection of the union because the problem with unions is the same problem with our culture in general – the near-complete divorcing of reward from merit.

If students can’t read, then how did they make it to the eighth grade in the first place?  The answer is that their grades were inflated and thus they were rewarded with grades they did not merit.  They are in the eight grade because they received “social promotions,” rewards given to children obviously not based on their scholastic aptitude but on the Modern Liberal premise that not rewarding them might hurt their self-esteem.  In fact, the entire “self-esteem” movement which began with the Leftist take-over of our culture is predicated on reward (feeling good about yourself) without merit (doing something good.)

The unmerited promotion of the incapable student was delivered to him by those whose union membership ensures that they continue to be employed whether their work merits continued employment or, more likely than not given their failure to educate those eighth graders, it doesn’t.  These same teachers vehemently reject pay based on merit, with raises automatically given on a schedule that has nothing to do with whether or not they have bothered to educate the children.

The very concept of collective bargaining is designed not only to undermine the merit-reward relationship but to invert it.  In a merit-based system, the best and hardest working employee can demand the highest compensation while the laziest and most incompetent is paid the least.  In the collective, however, the best worker must forfeit the most in order to see the least able receive a far higher salary than his work merits.

Of course, only the most superhumanly altruistic worker is going to continue to go above and beyond while being underpaid and compensated at exactly the level he would be paid no matter how lazy and incompetent he or she is, while it is just as unlikely that the lazy and incompetent person who might raise his skills and efforts in order to receive higher compensation is going to do so knowing there’s no more money to be made by doing good work than in continuing to do bad work.

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  • Steeloak

    Unions function as the modern day equivalent of a Guild. Guilds were trade organizations that existed in the middle ages and were formed by skilled tradesmen or merchants. The purpose of a guild was to restrict the entry of competetors into a market by using their political influence to create laws that ensured that only guild members could do a profession in their town. Of course, guild membership required connections & a long apprenticeship before being allowed to ply a trade.

  • Steeloak

    The result was that guilds could maintain prices above what markets would otherwise allow if competitors could freely enter a market.
    Unions are labor guilds. They operate in the same way. They use their political influence to get labor laws passed that give them the right to create restricted labor markets (to the employers) to ensure that their members get pay and benefits above what a free labor market would pay.
    Just as with the guilds, unions create these above market salaries by forcing everyone else to pay higher prices (or taxes) than they would pay if there were no guild or union.

  • Jim_C

    I don't mind articles critical of teacher's unions. When it comes to poor teachers, I think unions are a major problem. But firing on teachers unions is not going to fix the system. So I have two big problems with this article:

    1. If your kid can't read, you've failed as a parent. PERIOD. Why do they get to eigth grade if they are sub-literate? Because of immense pressure to get the kids through the system. Indeed, grade inflation et al. is completely out of hand–but if you think this is unions playing CYA, you're willfully ignoring the biggest problem: parents.

    (cont'd)

    • Jim_C

      2. In a perfect world, merit based on performance is great. It works best in a marketplace, where job performance can be seen in dollars and cents and has a tangible effect on productivity and sales. However, seeing a school as a place that offers a "product" when you are actually talking about the development of individual human beings from all walks of life–"performance" gets tricky. Why? Studies show merit pay for teachers does not affect student performance. You can have all the teaching talent, but if your students are duds, where is that going to go? (see my first point) And also, bad teachers often know how to game the system. They can ingratiate themselves with whomever it is that helps get them that raise: adminstrators, or parents, or students. Merit, in these environments, can be corrupted quickly and easily.

      Why do some other countries outperform the United States academically? It ain't teaching talent. Those societies don't take education for granted; those parents have high expectations.

      I'm not against merit in theory but I have yet to hear a good case for it that doesn't betray a findamental lack of understanding.

      • Alz

        I would argue that the problem that Evan points out has infected the parents too. Our entire culture has been moved (by the Modern Liberals) from rewarding success to frowning on it as part of thf Left's quest to force everything to be "equal".

        The schools and unions are just one symptom of a much larger problem.

      • aharris

        There is some merit to what you say. We shouldn't run down the idea of going to school like we do so often in popular culture. We shouldn't continue with the idea that those who excel academically are "nerds" and worthy of denigration.

        However, teachers need to do their jobs, too. You could send your kid to school in the middle of the best, possible cultural climate, and if his teacher is bad, he's not going to learn.

    • damon beckett

      So Jim let me get this straight. Teacher's are paid quite well in most states and districts. However if the student can't read the it's the parents fault. Waste of money if you ask me. If your kid can read this, thank a teacher. If your kid can't read this, blame a parent,. Makes no sense Jim.

    • Debbie K.

      I agree, I don't think the average person understands the fine line that educators face daily, and I do agree that there are teachers who should not be it this field, having said that, there are a great deal of teachers who do care, I have seen first hand as a parent who works at the school my son goes to, I sub at times in resource and do see kids who cannot read not due to any fault of the teachers but from a true learning disability. I also see kids who choose not to read write or do any school work and when they fail the parents threaten to sue the district, if a teacher feels a child should be held back they get pressured from the parents to pass the child and if they hold their ground the parents go to the district threatening to sue and then the teacher has a meeting and is made to feel it is their fault that the child will not do his or her work, never mind that mom and dad do not or will not help the student at home, and the child gets passed to the next level or grade. I for one would never want to be a teacher because of the pressure put on them from the District level, and the parents of these kids who will not take any accountability for the their child, they feel it is only the school who should be educating them. You may not believe me on this but I have heard many times from parents who say they just can't be bothered with it. It is very sad indeed.

  • Lady_dr

    What everyone who has posted so far has overlooked is this: The CONSTITUTION says nothing about education, hence the federal government must get out of the education business. In addition to this the states should also consider their involvement with education. While not totally opposing public education there needs to be a systematic re-evaluation of the whole concept. Perhaps familes, religious institutions, for-profit schools, non-profit schools, and other groups might take up the cause of education. While home schooling is the solution for others. One thing is sure, the government messes up everything they touch.

    • jay

      you don't expect us to be bothered reading that thing, do you?

    • aharris

      If there must be government money, attach it to child, not the school. Put the onus on parents to choose which schools their kids will attend.

  • minnieiam

    The problem with our educational system began with the total integration of our schools. The purpose of integration was to bring black children up to the white children's level.The result is that now all our children are getting the same type education that black children received in the old preintegrated all black schools. The black attitude that excelling is equivalent of "acting white" and anyone guilty of "acting white" is subject to ridicule and bullying by peers has created a situation here teachers must now dumb down lessons to the lowest common denominator. Instead of blacks adapting to white culture, white children have adopted the black culture. As a result, nobody sees any reason to study, do homework, or even pay attention when everyone knows if you can pass without exerting any effort, why bother. Unions are only part of the problem. Government social engineering Is the number one reason are high school graduates can't read.

    • Dennis X

      What about low performing white students in all white schools, must be the Blacks fault.

    • Phillygirl

      If your high school graduates cant read then maybe you as the parent need to look in the mirror and figure out why your child is doing poorly in school. Intergrating the school system is not to blame. if a child is allowing their fellow classmates to dictate how and what they learn then you as the parent need to teach your child not to be so weak willed and rise above it all and use their own mind.

    • aharris

      Actually, blacks performed better academically before integration. Education was a thing to be proud of in the black community.

      However, if there were any merit to any of what you say (and I think there is some with the "acting white" thing), attaching the money to the child and putting the choice of school in the parents' hands would help.

    • RecklessProcess

      Racist, much? There are plenty of black kids who perform well in the right environment. Clearly the government cannot create that environment so they should get out of the business.

  • Kender

    This is a sound argument against teachers unions, and I take exception to Jim C's argument. In a merit based pay system, teachers would flunk lil johnny for not reading, thereby proving they are actually attempting to educate and not just baby sitting. Perhaps being held back a grade (or two) would kick start some of the parents who refuse to uphold their end of the deal. In those cases where you truly have dud students, there is always special ed.

  • http://evansayet.com Evan Sayet

    I LOVE IT (of course I wrote it.)

  • vladimirval

    Imagine for one moment a police department where in every pay grade each cop gets a prescribed salary. His/her pay grade is dependent on their length of employment. Half the force diligently does their job while the other half spends their shift at the local donut shop or coffee café. After being on the force for 2 years they get tenure where it is just about impossible to be fired. If there is evidence of egregious conduct, that person gets to spend the shift in a room with no duty but gets paid with raises ever time his length of service gets him/her a pay raise anyway. One would say that money is being flushed down the toilet. On top of this, this person will receive a pension almost equal to the last year of employment with benefits that the people who are paying for this can’t hardly pay for their own health care.

  • vladimirval

    PART 2:
    We would end up paying for three people’s wages and getting the service of only one. This is what is going on in our schools and other government employees. In other words we are providing welfare to half of our employees. Not only is this not fair, it is stupid and unsustainable. No private business would put up with this.

    Next time you hear about the plight of teachers or other government employees think about the cop marking time waiting for retirement.

    I’m not saying that any cop does this. I’m just using them to make a point. As important that it is to have functioning PD, so it is with our education system.

  • vladimirval

    Evan’s article explains the issue with government employee unions in a way that few people can. His arguments should be used on ballot measures asking to give the people more say on how things are done.

  • http://jneilschulman.rationalreview.com jneilschulman

    Discussing public-sector unions is, to begin with, an entirely different topic than private-sector unions. In the case of a government versus a union you have one monopoly bargaining with another monopoly; in the private sector it's workers who want to work without joining a union who are being organized against. In the case of Wisconsin teachers unions the difference between a conservative and a libertarian approach is the conservative treating government as if it has the rights of a private business, while the libertarian recognizes that the best outcome would be shutting down the public schools and allowing education consumers to spend their education dollars in the private sector where they have freedom of choice.

    The public-school movement in the United States started out as a way to force Catholics into public schools where they could be inculcated with Protestant values. John Dewey imported Prussian models for how these schools to be run. Milton Friedman saw attaching tax-funded tuition to the student rather than schools as a way of reinstituting free choice in education; the teachers' unions opposed the "voucher" movement because they never understood economics well enough to understand that in a private education market the only way you'd be able to hire the best teachers was with stock options and a company car. But maybe the teachers' unions knew what they were doing, given that featherbedding job sites with unneeded workers has always been a perk of union membership.

    Let's not get trapped into stupid arguments about who is right in Wisconsin — the governor or the unions. They're both enemies of quality education and free choice. If the teachers unions want to strike, let them. With God's help they'll never come back.

  • Kenny

    The "unintended consequences" of unionism notwithstanding (always unintended of course!), the premier concern revolves about the rationale for compulsion. Legislation has become to the modern Liberal a convenient substitute for discriminating cognition. How oft their refrain, "why it's the law", upon being confronted with genuine argument, howsoever as reasonable as antithetical, respecting an authentic definition of "freedom of association" . How one can advance nebulous notions of social justice, equality, or fairness all the while claiming to champion non-discrimination is paradoxical. Any adversarial disposition toward the free market results in no net economic or social gain save that of political capital to the union and its beneficiaries. I am fully persuaded having twenty plus years experience observing the comprehensive effects of unionism in the workplace that economics as normative principle is in particular an affront to the Liberal mindset. It would be conservative to estimate that no more than one in a hundred staunch union advocates have even a rudimentary understanding of macroeconomics. Incidentally, this thesis attends to concerns over both labor and education.
    .