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


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.”

For more on school labor-management relations:

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

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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.”

Teachers and school district leaders share two common perspectives that make such collaboration possible, conference presenters noted: (1) They both got into the education field because, at their core, they want what is best for students; and (2) Both sides are under heavy pressure from the public to produce better results.

“Everyone in this room was drawn to education for similar reasons. You wanted to make a difference in the lives of children,” Duncan said. “It makes sense that if we began with these shared goals and aspirations, a shared agenda for achieving them would naturally follow.”

Still, this kind of collaboration between labor and management isn’t easy, participants acknowledged—especially if each side blames the other for the problems facing U.S. education.

For more on school labor-management relations:

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Wisconsin protests grow as teachers balk at proposed legislation

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Laura Rico, union president for the ABC Unified School District in southern California and national vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 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.

(For more information about ABC Unified’s unique labor-management partnership, see “How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration.”)

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 for success 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 Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winner) called “distributed leadership.”

For more on school labor-management relations:

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Wisconsin protests grow as teachers balk at proposed legislation

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

In building a more collaborative labor-management relationship in his own district, “we found out we didn’t even speak a common language,” Weast said. Union and district leaders had to establish this common language before they could move forward.

Both Weast and Rico recommended that union and district leaders attend joint training on labor-management collaboration. “During training, you develop this common language” and get to know where each side is coming from, Rico said. She added: “Successful partnerships take time, and they evolve over time.”

AFT offers this training for its member districts, and districts also can request help from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an agency within the U.S. government that handles arbitration and mediation of labor disputes and contract negotiations.

“I’m one of the few government employees who can say truthfully, ‘We’re here from the government, and we’re here to help you,’” quipped George Cohen, the agency’s director. He added that his agency’s services are provided to school systems free of charge.

Potentially divisive school reform issues, such as how to measure teacher quality and respond to ineffective teachers, can challenge even the best labor-management partnerships—and a key to overcoming these challenges is giving teachers a voice in these difficult decisions, participants said.

At ABC Unified, teachers and district leaders worked together for three years to come up with what both sides agreed was a fair system for evaluating teachers. Although student assessment data are used to help guide instruction, these results are not part of the district’s teacher evaluation system.

“You want teachers looking at data, re-teaching, reassessing, and doing intervention,” Smuts said, explaining that teachers might not be as receptive to collecting and using student data to improve their teaching if they thought the results might be used against them. He added: “Teachers are the toughest people on teachers that I know.”

Responding to the common complaint that unions do too much to protect poor teachers, Rico said: “I don’t know of any teacher who wants an ineffective teacher in front of students.”

For more on school labor-management relations:

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Wisconsin protests grow as teachers balk at proposed legislation

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

ABC Unified’s teacher evaluation system has a strong support structure in place for helping teachers who are struggling to succeed. Called PASS (for Peer Assistance, Support, and Service), the system pairs new or struggling teachers with a veteran teaching mentor to give them assistance.

If a teacher is still ineffective after a year of support in the PASS program, “I’ll make sure you have due process,” Rico said, “but if you’re not cutting it, then we’re going to counsel you out of the profession.”

She added: “We’re not going to let you fail—but we’re not going to let our students fail, either.”

Montgomery County does use student achievement data—including student and parent surveys—as one of several indicators of teacher quality, thanks to an agreement signed last April by district and union leaders.

Like ABC Unified, Montgomery County has a mentoring and support system in place for teachers who are struggling, and it offers a similar service for administrators and support staff. But the differences in how the two districts define and measure teacher quality demonstrate that every situation is unique, and districts will have to find their own solutions that both labor and management can agree on.

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.

Toward that end, several national education groups—including the American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association, Council of the Great City Schools, National Education Association, and AFT—pledged to support the idea of better labor-management collaboration in the nation’s schools.

ED officials, meanwhile, said they would create a website that would build online communities of practice around this effort, to give districts that couldn’t participate some models and ideas to follow.

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

For more on school labor-management relations:

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Wisconsin protests grow as teachers balk at proposed legislation

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

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