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Here's an idea: Teachers and school officials unite on education reform

Some 150 schools districts sent officials, school board members, and teachers union reps to Denver this week to hear how collaboration can improve student achievement and boost education reform. Can history of acrimony be overcome?

By Staff writer / February 16, 2011

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called on administrators to take on tough issues such as teacher benefits, layoff policies, and the need for more evaluations of administrators and school boards, not just teachers.

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Can school teachers and administrators be friends? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hopes more of them will be, and this week he has helped to trumpet a handful of success stories of labor-management collaboration in a bid to lessen the acrimony that can stifle education reform efforts.

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School administrators, school board leaders, and union representatives from 150 districts came together in Denver Tuesday and Wednesday for a conference convened by the US Department of Education. All of them pledged to work together to boost academic outcomes.

Secretary Duncan called on them to take on tough issues such as teacher benefits, layoff policies, and the need for more evaluations of administrators and school boards, not just teachers. “The truth is that educators and management cannot negotiate their way to higher [student] performance. The [labor] contract is just a framework. Working together is the path to success,” he said in opening remarks Tuesday.

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Participants heard presentations from teams who developed creative teacher-evaluation and pay systems in Douglas County, Colo., teacher mentoring programs in New Haven, Conn., and professional development linked to student learning in Baltimore, for example.

“We are under enormous pressure in public education to improve ... and without [this teacher-management] collaboration, that progress cannot be realized,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents many large urban school districts, about 25 of which participated in the Denver event. In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, he called the meeting, the first of its kind, “an historic opportunity.”

The Denver conference comes even as school districts face severe financial strains and governors and legislators in several states are proposing ways to reduce unions’ influence. In Wisconsin, Idaho, Indiana, and Tennessee, for instance, debates are under way about limiting or eliminating teachers’ collective bargaining rights. Unions are often viewed as barriers to reform.

“What’s happening in Denver is the other side of the coin, that tries to build a constructive relationship between employers and employees,” says Charles Kerchner, an education professor at Claremont Graduate University in California. The past 20 years have seen some good examples of teacher-union reforms and collaboration with districts, he says. But with the rise of Republicans and their tendency to want to reduce benefits for public-sector workers, he says, “public policy is absolutely moving in the opposite direction.”

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