8. A new spirit of labor-management collaboration helps drive important school reform.

With anti-union sentiment at an all-time high, and states such as Wisconsin and Ohio taking steps to curtail teachers’ collective bargaining rights, the federal Education Department in February convened a first-of-its-kind summit on “Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration.”

The summit 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. “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.”

Laura Rico, union president for the ABC Unified School District in southern California and national vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said fostering a good working relationship between labor and management is “hard work”—but “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she added.

Rico meets with her superintendent, Gary Smuts (a winner of the 2010 Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards from eSchool News), once a week for about two hours each session. During these meetings, they discuss any problems and issues that might have arisen, with an eye toward how they can solve those problems together. The goal should be to “quit trying to win arguments, and instead seek solutions,” Rico said.

ABC Unified has articulated a set of guiding principles for successful labor-management relations. These include the ideas that the district will not accept any excuses, and labor and management will work together to promote student achievement; labor and management will work hard to understand each other’s jobs, respect each other, and be honest with each other; and—perhaps most importantly—“we won’t let each other fail,” Smuts says.

Despite serving a population in which 92 percent of its 20,000 students are minorities and 22 percent are English-language learners, the district has had remarkable success since labor and management began working together more closely. ABC’s score on California’s Academic Performance Index has increased every year since the partnership began more than a decade ago, and the district’s average scores in reading and math far exceed the state average.

ABC Unified was one of 12 presenting districts whose members shared their secrets to successful labor-management collaboration during the conference. Besides establishing a set of guiding principles and meeting frequently to solve problems, other strategies discussed at the conference included establishing trust by making communication more transparent, and sharing in the decision-making process together—something that Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast (a 2008 eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winner) called “distributed leadership.”

Conference participants seemed genuinely excited to apply what they’d learned about improving labor-management relations in their own districts. But organizers of the event identified a key challenge: How to take the momentum this conference generated and translate it into a national movement instead of a one-time affair.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Duncan said. “This is an extraordinary first step—but it’s only the first step.”

See also:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

ED highlights best practices in school labor-management collaboration

Why Illinois might be a model for education reform