Joint Decisionmaking Test Called a Success

By Richard Colvin — September 28, 1989 4 min read
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San Francisco--An experiment in six California school districts aimed at finding common ground between teachers’ unions and administrators achieved moderate success last year and will be expanded to at least five more districts, project participants reported last week.

Under the “Trust Agreement Project,” teacher-administrator committees were established in the districts to address school-improvement issues ranging from peer review to curriculum and staff development.

The developers of the project, which is sponsored by the California School Boards Association and the California Federation of Teachers, said it was designed to provide an alternative to the adversarial relationship inherent in collective bargaining.The project is being administered by Policy Analysis for California Education, a university-based research center.

Similar cooperative decisionmaking efforts are under way in Toledo, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. And both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed the concept.

At a Sept. 17 conference here to review the project’s first-year results, participants said they were generally impressed with the level of cooperation achieved through the trust-agreement process. But, they added, financial constraints and other problems in some districts detracted from the reform efforts.

Many conference speakers also cautioned that although cooperative decisionmaking can be a powerful means for improving schools, it should not be considered an end in and of itself.

Albert Shanker, president of the aft, whose union represented teachers in all of the districts involved, said the trust agreements were “a giant step” toward professionalizing teaching, but only a “tiny, tiny step” in the drive to improve the nation’s schools.

“For the first time, we are involving practitioners in a process in which they can contribute and make changes,” Mr. Shanker said.

“But the point of the process is not to make teachers feel good,” he continued, noting that American schools are effectively educating only about 20 percent of their students.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the nea, also spoke to the 250 conference participants. She said that a “culture of cooperation” in schools was necessary to counter the negative effects of “top-down decisionmaking.”

Formalizing the Informal

Charles Kerchner, a researcher at Claremont College who developed the trust-agreement concept with Douglas Mitchell of the the University of California-Riverside, said the experiment was designed to formalize agreements made informally between union officials and administrators who enjoyed productive relationships.

The term “trust agreement,” he said, stems from the notion that both sides put time, energy, or money “in trust” to benefit the institution.

Mr. Kerchner and Julie E. Koppich, co-directors of the project, wrote in their report on the first-year results that the trust-agreement committees moved discussions “from a dialogue over positions to a conversation about mutual interests.”

“It’s very clear that we’re seeing people doing things today that they did not believe they were capable of six months ago,” Mr. Kerchner said, referring to a project in one district in which veteran teachers critique the performance of novices.

Mr. Kerchner and Ms. Koppich said their study showed that such agreements can speed the pace of reform. They also found, they said, that strong union and district leadership are necessary for success, that determining the policy area to reform is less difficult than the process of reforming it, and that trust agreements are strictly local in character and are different in every district.

The teachers, administrators, and school-board members participating in the first-year evaluation said their districts’ trust agreements were fragile and had required risk-taking.

“This is an industry that hasn’t taken a lot of risks, and the teacher unions have been as guilty of that as anyone,” said Don Maxwell, president of the Santa Cruz teachers’ union, whose members agreed to participate in a peer-review project.

Saying that “the time has come” to reverse that trend, Mr. Maxwell noted that “with risks comes occasional failure.”

“But I know one thing,” he said. “Trust feels good.”

In addition to Santa Cruz, the six districts participating in the project have included Poway, Lompoc, Petaluma, Newport-Mesa, and San Francisco.

Districts to be added this year include Berkeley and Morgan Hill, where teachers are affiliated with the California Federation of Teachers, and San Juan, San Diego, and Cambrian, where teachers are represented by the California Teachers Association, the state nea affiliate.

The Stuart Foundation of San Francisco supported the first year of the project with a grant of $87,000. Last week, officials of the foundation agreed to provide $189,000 for the second year.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as Joint Decisionmaking Test Called a Success


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