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?

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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.

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.

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.”

The leaders of both major teachers unions noted that contrast in the call with reporters.

“Collective bargaining can be the engine of change, but there are lots of places around the country that want to silence it,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT and its affiliates in a number of places have surprised some education reform advocates in recent years by their willingness to embrace policy changes, such as a Colorado law that links teacher evaluations to student performance.

But collaboration is no easy task. It takes time to build trusting relationships, noted many presenters at the conference. And willingness to collaborate can be tenuous. Tensions between labor and management flared up so much recently in New York City that their representatives who had been planning to attend the Denver conference withdrew.

The hard work of labor-management collaboration can have a strong payoff. In New Haven, for instance, a contract that set up teacher mentoring and training programs prompted Yale University to offer to help pay college tuition for all New Haven district students who are succeeding academically, Duncan said.

In Denver, the Math and Science Leadership Academy is entirely led by teachers, an innovation that required some policy waivers from the district and state. The school is a “testament to what can be accomplished when all stakeholders work together in service to students,” said co-lead teacher Lori Nazareno in a press release from the National Education Association. The school, where teachers are members of an NEA affiliate, has seen its largely low-income Hispanic population make great academic strides.

As a followup to this week's conference, the Department of Education plans to build a database to track progress in the 150 participating school districts. The American Association of School Administrators intends to offer superintendents more training in collaborative negotiations. And the National School Boards Association (NSBA) plans to promote some models for evaluation of school boards.

“It’s all about being willing to make mistakes and confront each other in a very respectful way,” said NSBA executive director Anne Bryant.

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