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Study on Collective Bargaining Shows 'Moderate, Manageable'

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Collective-bargaining agreements have changed the way school districts are run, but the effects are neither as extreme nor as uniform as some critics of collective bargaining in the schools contend, says a researcher at Harvard University's Institute for Educational Policy.

"Overall," according to Susan Moore Johnson in a recently completed study entitled Teacher Unions and the Schools, "the organizational effects of collective bargaining appear to be both moderate and manageable."

Observations and Interviews

To conduct the study, Ms. Johnson examined six school districts around the country. She observed classroom situations and management meetings, interviewed 294 school and union officials and teachers, and analyzed teacher contracts in each district. The districts were chosen for their diversity in size, location, demographic make-up, enrollment trends, and other factors.

Currently, her report notes, about 75 percent of American public-school teachers be-long to unions, and more than 1,400 of the nation's 16,000 local districts bargain collectively.

Among the main conclusions of the study:

There was great diversity in labor-relations practices in the schools, in terms of negotiations, contract language, administrative policies, and the way contract requirements were put into effect. The diversity extended to the working relationships between administrators and teachers and the ways unions bargained for their members' contracts.

Collective-bargaining agreements neither destroyed administrators' authority to run schools effectively nor caused teachers to restrict their work to that required by the contract.

Although collective-bargaining agreements better defined the obligations of teachers, "those obligations were often extensive, and most staff [members] did more than the required minimum."

The advent of collective bargaining has given teachers more job security and has provided grievance procedures for both teachers and administrators to follow. But administrators in the districts surveyed could and did discipline teachers, and sometimes terminated the employment of those whose performance was not satisfactory.

In general, the data showed, "the negative effects are not as far-reaching as critics of collective bargaining might suggest. ... In these sample districts, schooling had been altered but not transformed by collective bargaining."

These findings, Ms. Johnson notes, "cannot be regarded as statistically representative of school districts in America, but they can be viewed as a range of those districts that bargain collectively."

The research focused on three main assumptions in collective bargaining, all of which recurred in previous studies on the subject, and all of which were in some way "proble3matic," according to Ms. Johnson.

"The first was that contract provisions, once negotiated, were, in fact, implemented in the schools," she writes. Her previous experience, both as a teacher and as a researcher, however, had suggested that this might not always be the case.

In addition, she writes, "the collective-bargaining literature often treats principals as neutral functionaries who routinely carry out the orders of district officials and abide by the restrictions and requirements of the teachers' contract." Experience again suggested that this might be misleading, and in conducting the study, Ms. Johnson hypothesized that differences in attitude and administrative practices among principals would produce differences in labor relations.

The third assumption Ms. Johnson examined was that labor-management situations in schools were similar to those in other sectors of society. On this point, however, her experience suggested that,"while hierarchical on paper, the relationship between teachers and administrators is in many ways reciprocal and their work interdependent." Furthermore, she writes, she assumed that "because schools are designed to educate children rather than to manufacture widgets, teachers hold different views about the character and social value of their work."

None of the three assumptions proved entirely accurate, according to the researcher's analysis of the information she gathered.

Moreover, she found, there is considerable diversity in the administration of negotiated contracts, not only from dis-trict to district but also among different schools in the same district.

For example, "similar contract provisions, such as those defining grievance procedures, lead to a variety of local practices," according to the study.

The analysis also showed that "few contract provisions are implemented fully throughout the schools of any district, most being subject to interpretation, amendment, or informal renegotiation at the school site."

And contrary to the contentions of some critics, the study found, collective-bargaining agreements did not impede principals' ability to run their schools effectively. Instead, the analysis suggested, the contracts brought about a shift in responsibility. "While principals' formal authority had been restricted and teachers' formal authority had been increased, school-site administrators could manage their schools well," Ms. Johnson notes.

And while the principals sur-veyed reported that they could no longer rely primarily on the formal powers of their positions, their "informal authority" was not constrained, according to the report.

The findings also indicated that the traditional adversarial qualities of labor-management relations may not be present in schools. "Teachers' and principals' interests and concerns overlap, their work is interdependent, and each needs the cooperation and support of the other for success," Ms. Johnson writes. "Therefore, they promote reciprocal commitments and avoid formal, adversarial confrontations unless the circumstances are extreme."

Complex Reasons

The reasons for these findings, according to the study, are various and complex. The diversity in local labor practices "results from a complex interaction of setting and people," as well as from the special characteristics of the school environment.

School personnel on both sides of the bargaining table tend to prefer collegial relationships, and teachers "are well aware that their contract can regulate only part of what matters to them in their work."

The union, Ms. Johnson explains, "cannot assure effective discipline, a well-coordinated school schedule, and balanced student assignments, but without such assurances, teachers can scarcely do their jobs." And because those responsibilities remain with administrators, the study notes, informal agreements and cooperation are just as important to teachers' effectiveness as what appears in the contract.

The personalities of the various parties involved also had an important influence on the effect of collective-bargaining agreements, the study suggests. Where both sides favored cooperation, labor relations reflected that. If a "combative" person played an important role in labor relations, this, too, was reflected.

Certain background factors also made a difference in explaining the the wide variations in labor practices, the study found. The size of the district influenced the levels of cooperation and informality; small districts displayed more trust, mutual understanding, and informal agreements.

The "labor tradition" of the community also made a difference; districts with strong traditions of organized labor tended to produce stronger teachers' contracts, while traditionally anti-union districts were likely to have less militant teacher unions, according to the study.

Expansion and Decline

The study also found that "the expansion or decline of school enrollments and the local economy seemed to influence the progress of negotiations and the prominence of the contract." Flourishing districts experienced less strain in negotiations, and contract provisions were enforced more flexibly.

In contrast, districts where funds were tight and enrollments were declining often experienced strained negotiations, which resulted in more stringently enforced job-security provisions, the study found.

"Collective bargaining," Ms. Johnson concludes, "is not simply a standardized set of practices, applied wholesale to the schools, but one of many educational policies that must be implemented by teachers and school administrators and that ultimately affect their roles as practitioners."

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