Raising student achievement won’t be possible without school district labor and management teams working together, Sec. Duncan said.

Despite frequent reports of labor-management strife in the nation’s schools, there are many school systems in which teachers and district leaders are working together to improve public education—and some of the best examples of this type of collaboration were on display during a first-of-its-kind national conference in Denver Feb. 15-16.

Organized by the federal Education Department (ED), the event—called “Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration”—brought together teams of superintendents, school board presidents, and union presidents from 150 school systems around the country to explore how all sides can successfully navigate what are often quite contentious, politically charged issues surrounding school reform … and ultimately act in the best interest of students.

In opening remarks, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said raising student achievement won’t be possible without school district labor and management teams working together.

“I know it takes courage and conviction to publicly commit to working together with groups that are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, rather than as allies,” Duncan said.

He added: “School boards, administrators, and teacher leaders face different challenges—from setting policy and approving budgets to hiring staff, negotiating agreements, and ensuring due process. Yet all stand or fall together on the quality of student learning.”

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The conference was held at a particularly apt time, as a growing wave of anti-labor sentiment has fueled tension between teachers’ unions and other education stakeholders.

State legislatures in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Tennessee are among those considering new bills that would eliminate or severely curtail teachers’ collective bargaining rights in negotiating contracts. Wyoming lawmakers are entertaining a measure to end teacher tenure, which would allow the immediate suspension or firing of teachers for any reason not expressly prohibited by law. And New Jersey is one of many cash-strapped states looking to cut public employees’ pensions to help balance their budgets.

Despite the potential for new conflicts these developments have created, “President Obama and I are convinced that labor and management can collaborate to solve many of our nation’s enduring educational challenges,” Duncan said. “And we believe that progress more often follows tough-minded collaboration than tough-minded confrontation.”