Published Online:

Hopes for a 'Team of Fellow Professionals'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

In Cincinnati, as in so many communities, the relationship between officials of the public schools and their teachers historically has been adversarial.

In 1977, the city's teachers staged a 19-day strike over salary. Two years later, they called a one-day walkout and disrupted downtown traffic during rush hour to call attention to their demands. And in 1985, a contract settlement was reached only hours before the union's strike deadline.

"I can't imagine worse relations than what we had here,'' said Lynn E. Goodwin, the school system's deputy superintendent for business, finance, and management.

But in the last few years, teachers and administrators in Cincinnati have worked to turn that situation around and to forge a new spirit of cooperation.

"We have become a team of fellow professionals,'' claimed a joint statement released by the union and the school district at a press conference called in February to announce the terms of a new, three-year contract that was reached without strife.

Such signs of change, many education reformers argue, point to what may be a promising strategy for transforming teaching into a profession and, ultimately, improving the quality of American schools.

The industrial model of tough, divisive contract bargaining that accompanied the rise of teachers' unions over the last two decades must give way to negotiations of a more flexible kind, even some teacher representatives say, if teachers are to play significant roles in shaping educational policy.

"The problems of public education are urgent and deep, and we can't really afford to have the traditional adversarial relationship if we can possibly help it,'' said Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, in a recent interview. "The public is going to lose patience with all of us unless we can work together to solve problems.''

Few are advocating the elimination of collective bargaining. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers--and their respective state and local affiliates--have frequently made clear that they would fight any efforts to undermine collective bargaining.

But a number of observers now contend that the inherently rigid, confrontational nature of traditional bargaining often forecloses the possibility of cooperative policymaking activity.

"A successful policy will not be the product of successive demands and concessions, but rather will gradually emerge from a careful, collaborative exploration of needs, purposes, and alternatives,'' wrote Susan Moore Johnson in the winter issue of Teachers College Record. "Such talks will undoubtedly include negotiation, but it is negotiation of a different sort than that practiced in standard bargaining.''

Away From 'Table Pounding'

In a small but growing number of districts, such as Cincinnati, experimentation in search of that "negotiation of a different sort'' is now under way.

In some places, teacher leaders and district administrators are moving away from the "table pounding'' mode of bargaining--where each side advances and fights for proposals that are primarily self-interested--and are instead taking a more cooperative, problem-solving approach to their differences.

In these districts, union and school officials are more likely to meet on a regular informal basis away from the bargaining table and to go on retreats together. In some instances, they are even hiring outside consultants and facilitators to help them work through their differences and train them in nonconfrontational techniques.

Joint committees--comprising equal, or nearly equal, numbers of union-appointed or -elected teachers and district-appointed administrators--are also becoming more common.

Such committees may deal with issues ranging from curriculum development and textbook selection to student discipline and teacher evaluation. In some cases, they have even been assigned decisionmaking authority at the school level.

"Increasingly, we read of local districts that have adapted conventional bargaining to fit the relationships of more cooperative parties, to address more complex problems, to design new procedures,'' wrote Ms. Moore Johnson.

In doing so, she noted, "many districts have deliberately moved beyond the constraints of formal bargaining, meeting away from the table, working in subcommittees, and recording their understandings in informal agreements.''

Informal union-management relationships have been in place in some school districts for many years, but the call for restructuring schools and professionalizing teaching has dramatized their importance, say union observers.

"It is one thing for a union president and superintendent to have an informal relationship to smooth things out and solve problems,'' said Charles T. Kerchner, professor of education and public policy at the Claremont Graduate School. "But it is another thing to have that relationship set the tone for major changes in the way the school district operates.''

'Intangible Beginnings'

It is in the school-reform context that "profound talk about changing labor-management relations has come to the fore,'' concurred Arthur E. Wise, director for the study of the teaching profession at the RAND Corporation.

"This is the very minute that all of this is taking off,'' he said. "What we are finding in a lot of places are intangible beginnings.''

He and other education observers agree that the complexity of labor-managment relations in schools makes it difficult to generalize about what is happening.

In each of the nation's roughly 15,000 school districts, teachers and managers have their own distinct relationship based on a wide range of variables, including state laws, district size and fiscal status, local governance structures, tradition, and leadership style. In eight states, there is no statutory provision that allows teachers to bargain collectively.

"Every district bargains individually,'' said Ms. Moore Johnson in a recent interview. "Each local union can write its own contract without having it cleared. How these things come out is really dependent on how people in each local district deal with them.''

"There are instances where there is a remarkable and unprecedented degree of collaboration,'' she added. "But there are also many instances of increasing hostility.''

Lorraine M. McDonnell, senior political scientist for the òáîä Corporation, described the current climate this way:
"There are certainly experiments going on. Nationally, they are setting a tone, and laying out a set of options that are different. But it is not clear yet whether that is going to spark any kind of consistent trend.''

Ending Just-Say-No Era

In Cincinnati, the district's Mr. Goodwin and the union's Mr. Mooney agree, the seeds for a more cooperative relationship between teachers and the administration were sown in the 1985 settlement.

Among other things, that contract established two joint committees: one to develop guidelines for a new system of peer evaluation, and one to handle teacher assignments and monitor teaching loads and class size.

For the first time, the union, which is an affiliate of the A.F.T., gained the right to appoint the teachers who sat on those committees.

The committees' work "showed us that we could in fact do some things together,'' Mr. Mooney said.

Then in the fall of 1986, the school board hired a new superintendent, Lee Etta Powell; one of her first moves was to name Mr. Goodwin chief negotiator for the district.

It was an inspired gesture, according to Mr. Mooney.

In the past, the union had negotiated with a labor lawyer hired by the school board. The lawyer, according to Mr. Mooney, was "primarily a practitioner of the just-say-no school of bargaining.''

Mr. Goodwin, on the other hand, "was the person we had the best relationship with in the entire administration,'' Mr. Mooney said.

As the 1987 negotiations approached, both sides were anxious to capitalize on the budding spirit of cooperation, and together they decided to seek some outside assistance.

The negotiating teams hired Conflict Management Inc. to train them in a joint problem-solving approach to negotiations developed by the Harvard Negotiations Project.

Its trainers urge participants to focus on interests, rather than positions, and to create options for mutual gain, according to Ms. Moore Johnson.

The negotiators first spent a long weekend together--locked away in a motel--to get to know each other better.

They then embarked on three months of what they now call "win-win'' negotiations, which produced the new contract.

Sets 'Trust Agreement'

The settlement will increase salaries over the next three years by 4 percent, 5 percent, and 7 percent respectively, reduce the teaching load for high-school teachers, trim nonteaching duties for all teachers, and expand the innovative peer-review system the district has been piloting since the 1985 contract settlement.

In addition, the pact provides a number of new avenues for teachers to participate in policy and program development.

For example, it establishes a new joint committee to develop a "career in teaching program.'' That effort, both parties say, will ultimately change the organization of schools and give teachers the opportunity to take on more leadership responsibilities and earn higher salaries.

Union and district leaders also have agreed to meet monthly to resolve problems that arise and discuss educational policy and programs.

The union and the district have crafted a "trust agreement'' outside of the contract in which both parties pledge to work together on a number of "creative ideas'' that were generated through the bargaining process but not included in the formal pact.

"There is a lot of motivation for us not to treat teachers like Teamsters,'' said Mr. Goodwin. "We are not going to get teachers here in this urban area with salaries. We acknowledge that. If we are going to compete in the marketplace, then we have to be a place that respects the profession and has a good working environment.''

"What we are doing is trying to find a way for teachers and their union to have a stronger voice in the decisionmaking process,'' he continued. "Change is slow. You are not going to come here and find utopia. But we've come a long way.''

Among other examples of district experimentation with labor-management relations are these:

Pittsburgh

In 1985, the Pittsburgh teachers' union and school officials reached a settlement on basic "bread and butter'' issues almost a year before the existing contract was scheduled to expire.

As a result, both parties agreed to spend the following year working together to make teaching more professional and improve educational quality.

A "memorandum of understanding'' established committees on a number of issues related to teachers' work life and careers that would enable discussions to occur "in a non-bargaining context.''

Since that time, 17 separate subcommittees have been established and roughly 200 teachers and more than 50 administrators have taken part in the process, according to Albert Fondy, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFT.

Many of the new programs and agreements crafted in those committees have been inserted into the teachers' new four-year contract, the terms of which were announced earlier this year. They include the establishment of school-level "cabinets,'' a mentoring program for beginning teachers, and the creation of a cadre of "instructional teacher leaders.''

The new contract settlement, which was reached roughly eight months before the current contract was due to expire, also raises beginning teachers' salaries from $20,000 to $28,000 in the last year of the contract, and raises salaries for teachers at the top of the scale from $40,000 to $51,000.

In an unusual give and take, the union also has agreed that teachers will pay a larger share of their medical-insurance premium. In exchange, the district has agreed to extend coverage for retirees.

"We think the process of having administrators, superintendents, and teachers talking about common problems and issues, and struggling to forge agreement is important,'' said Jake Milliones, president of the city's school board. "Some of the resulting ideas are good, and some are not so good, but sitting down and talking is vital.''

According to Mr. Fondy, several factors have made the district-union collaboration possible: a strong contract, a membership that trusts the union and its leadership, continuity on the school board, and a good relationship between the district and union leadership.

Rochester, N.Y.

In Rochester, N.Y., a close informal relationship between a risk-taking union president and a young, idealistic superintendent resulted in a contract settlement last fall that many believe will radically alter the school system. The pact will make teachers in the system among the highest paid and most involved in school decisionmaking in the nation.

In exchange, the teachers have agreed to become more integrally involved in their students' lives and to give up some seniority rights considered sacrosanct by most teachers' unions. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1987.)

Mounds View, Minn.

In Mounds View, Minn., a bitter 1983 labor dispute that left teachers working for nearly a year without a contract convinced both union leaders and district officials that there must be a better way to do business.

As negotiations approached in 1985, representatives from both sides went on weekend retreats together and hired an outside consultant to help them set some common goals and become better at nonconfrontational bargaining.

That year, they met their settlement deadline, and with something new in hand. In hopes of building on their hard-won collaborative spirit, the two sides had forged a "professional council,'' made up of four teachers appointed by the union and four district administrators, to work on professional and educational concerns.

In the contract, both sides agreed that both the union and the administration would be able to veto any actions or resolutions reached by the council.

Over the past two years, the council has worked on such issues as student discipline, teachers' work load, and teacher evaluation.

It is currently discussing a shared-decisionmaking model at the school level, according to Burton M. Nygren, the district's superintendent. The plan, he said, is to use the council model at the building level.

Last year, the parties negotiated their second contract using the non-confrontational approach, and once again things went smoothly.

"We no longer try to shock each other into submission,'' said Mr. Nygren. "The change has been so dramatic that it was like I died and went to heaven and woke up in Mounds View.''

N. John Borgen, executive director of the Mounds View Education Association, an affiliate of the N.E.A. agreed. "On a small scale, it is like the softening of the relationship between the United States and Russia,'' he said.

"We are working for a settlement that is going to be the best settlement,'' he added. "And part of the best settlement includes a good working relationship.''

California

In California, the state affiliate of the AFT and the California School Boards Association are collaborating on a project designed to give school managers and teacher leaders the opportunity to work on innovative school programs outside of the collective-bargaining arena.

Union affiliates and school officials in six communities--Newport-Mesa, Petaluma, Poway, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Lompoc--have drawn up "educational trust agreements'' in which they have pledged to work cooperatively on a number of jointly selected issues.

Five of the six districts are currently designing peer-review programs, according to Julia E. Koppich, a policy analyst with Policy Analysis for California Education, which is administering the project. The Stuart Foundations of San Francisco has provided an $87,000 grant to cover costs of the one-year experiment.

"What has become apparent is that collective bargaining does not go far enough to make it possible to really professionalize teaching--either because the scope of bargaining is too narrow or because the sides have become polarized through traditional bargaining,'' said Ms. Koppich. "There is a need for an additional forum that would complement, not replace bargaining.''

Teachers Skeptical

Whether significant numbers of union members elsewhere would agree with that analysis and its implications remains unclear.

"My feeling is that it is too early to tell,'' said Ms. McDonnell of RAND.

"It could be the beginning of a national trend,'' she said, but quickly added that she was "not sanguine about it.''

Research she has conducted with a colleague, Anthony H. Pascal, has indicated that there is "a lot of skepticism'' among rank-and-file teachers when their leaders get involved in joint experiments with management, she said.

"Many of the teachers who are teaching now went through the initial stages of collective bargaining and teacher militancy,'' Ms. McDonnell stated. "And now they are hearing that there is a new way of doing things.''

But most teachers, she noted, "haven't really seen the benefits'' of these changes.

"Where the leaders are trying something new and different in a collaborative relationship with the district, we found that it was not uniformly approved of by teachers,'' she said. "We heard lots of teachers say that their union leadership is getting too close to the administration, and that they are afraid their leaders are going to give in on a number of bargaining issues.''

About-Face in Michigan

Such fears recently surfaced in Midland, Mich., where the school district and the local union have taken an unusually collaborative, problem-solving approach to contract negotiations for approximately 10 years.

Instead of formal contract negotiations, an eight-member joint committee meets informally once a month to discuss a wide range of issues. When the committee reaches an agreement on a certain point, contract language is written and it becomes an addendum to the existing contract in the form of a memorandum of understanding.

The contract has been amended this way more than 100 times.

"We have developed a high level of trust,'' said Gerald L. Hollowell, the executive director of the Midland City Education Association, an affiliate of the N.E.A.

But last spring, when the committee asked union members to approve a two-year contract extension, the teachers, for the first time, said no. And last month, they rejected the committee's second attempt.

A growing dissatisfaction with the bargaining process appeared to be a factor in the members' action, Mr. Hollowell said.

"The changes come so easily and so piecemeal that there is a feeling that nothing ever really happens, that what we have, we have always had,'' he said.

"Some people seem to think that we are taking whatever we are being offered,'' he added. "They are of the mind that if you pound the table hard enough, and beat them over the head, you can get more out of them.''

As a result, the era of cooperative negotiations may be over in Midland. "The members may no longer feel that it works to their advantage,'' Mr. Hollowell said.

Similar about-faces have occurred in other districts. Two years ago in Aurora, Colo., for example, the local union leadership, which had adopted a nonconfrontational, problem-solving approach to doing business with the district, was voted out of office.

The new group had argued in its campaign that the leadership had not been adequately representing its members and had become too close to management, according to Frank J. O'Hara, executive director of the Aurora-Littleton N.E.A. UniServ unit.

Relations with the district, he noted, have since become decidedly more adversarial.

"There often ends up being a fine line between taking a constructive, problem-solving approach and becoming too close to management, where you stop being an advocate for the members and start being a committee of the whole,'' he said.

"Some argue,'' he added, "that you become too bought into the district's problems, rather than the members' problems.''

There are lessons to be learned from these kinds of experiences with cooperation, union officials say.

Local union leaders, they argue, must establish broad support for collaborative ventures among their members and keep in close touch with them about how such experiments are progressing.

In addition, they say, the local union leadership should try to create forums to involve many teachers in joint endeavors.

Local leaders who place too high a value on maintaining or forging a harmonious relationship with management and fail to press aggressively for the needs of the members are asking for trouble, the union officials note.

Many union leaders are hesitant to accept district overtures without some guarantee that teachers will be compensated for their time and effort, and that their views will matter.

"Cooperation will grow out of the extent to which the administration will include us and look to the teachers' union not just as a necessary evil but as a way to make decisions on a sounder basis,'' said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County (Md.) Education Association, an affiliate of the N.E.A..

The local union has agreed to participate in a number of committees established by the county superintendent to recommend changes in the role of teachers and the delivery of educational services.

"We are exploring this very tentatively at this point,'' Mr. Simon said. "Our decisionmaking role has to be real. We are not interested in fake cooperation, in having a love-feast feeling, without some real decisionmaking authority.''

"If the teachers' union can be trusted to deal with issues of quality control, and other issues that have hitherto unilaterally been determined by the administration, then the result will be an era of cooperation,'' he concluded.

'Progress Will Be Uneven'

Said Mr. Wise of RAND, "In the beginning, management made all the decisions and labor had to fight to get around the decisionmaking table. Labor's gains were seen as management's losses. So there was a tussle.''

Now, he said, "there is a growing sense that all the participants in the educational process should take part in analyzing problems and creating solutions.''

"Progress will be uneven,'' he noted. "In some places we can expect to see some resistance when parties don't take the long view, when change is seen as a zero-sum game in which one party's gain is another party's loss.''

"Clearly, a new level of trust between school management and unions is necessary,'' according to Mr. Wise. "That kind of trust has to be generated in nonconfrontational conversation and discussion over a period of time. You don't create trust simply by calling for it.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented