Education Opinion

Teacher Negotiation Reform: Beating Swords Into Ploughshares

By Patrick Ledesma — July 04, 2012 3 min read

Teacher leadership can take many forms. Some teachers lead within their schools and districts. Others lead within their unions and professional organizations. With the National Education Association Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly occurring this week, Steve Owens, an occasional guest blogger here, writes about his efforts to improve student learning through his union work.

Steve is a National Board Certified Teacher and union leader from Vermont. His opinions are his alone, and do not represent the views of any organization with which he is affiliated. He writes about progressive unionism and education policy on his blog, Education Worker

The second United States Department of Education Labor Management Collaboration Conference (LMC) convened in Cincinnati last month, with a theme of harnessing the power of collaboration to advance student achievement. I attended the last conference in Denver as a researcher, part of a team of Teaching Ambassador Fellows, and had the opportunity to network with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), which promotes sound and stable labor-management relations.

Back in Vermont, in 2011 I was entering my fourth cycle as a negotiator and second as local president. Our negotiations had always been protracted and contentious, requiring thousands of hours of teacher and school board member time. The traditional process goes through a predictable sequence: bargaining, impasse, mediation, fact finding, crisis buildup, and, in rare instances, imposition and strike. Mediation and fact finding employ private consultants costing thousands of dollars. Boards often call on private attorneys to negotiate, the costs of which often exceed the amount needed to settle the economic issues.

This scenario is repeated dozens of times all over Vermont. Each negotiation is for a small number of teachers by national standards, resulting in minor changes to “mature contracts.” It is a time consuming and costly way to preserve the status quo.

Our previous negotiation had required at least 200 hours of each of the ten teachers on our team. The board commitment was similar. Rancor adds no value. Unions, boards and administration should be partners in the cause of student learning, but are instead trapped in a ritualistic process.

I returned from Denver determined that our pending negotiation would be collaborative, and facilitated by FMCS. It took months of persuasion - one board member could not believe that FMCS services were free. Finally, a pair of skilled FMCS mediators trained both teams together in the techniques of Interest Based Bargaining.

We invested in success. The results?

  • Zero dollars spent on a board attorney, mediators or fact finders
  • Settlement will be achieved in 6 months rather than 18
  • Team members expending 60 hours rather than 200+
  • No rancorous crisis buildup
  • A labor-management committee to deal with issues as they emerge.
  • Respect between board and teachers, a result of “tough minded collaboration.”

Is this process reform sustainable? Can it become a template for our state?

An innovation of this year’s LMC is critically important in answering these questions: the presence of state leadership teams, both as presenters and participants. Three states, Delaware, Kentucky and Massachusetts, presented. Their teams highlighted work they have done to support local collaboration.

Vermont sent a team of statewide leaders. We need structures and supports at the state level to sustain and expand the collaborative work already happening at the local level. I am confident that our state leaders found inspiration and practical ideas at the conference.

Process reform is not enough. Sustainability depends on connecting to a greater goal: excellent student learning. In Vermont, dealing proactively with contemporary policy challenges requires this focus. Collective bargaining agreements must shift away from emphasis on salary and working conditions, management prerogative and taxation, and become education improvement plans in which the traditional concerns become tools.

The tremendous civic engagement which goes into our teacher negotiations in Vermont is a gold mine of effort and commitment which could be harnessed to the cause of great student learning.

Our children deserve no less.

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

7796 - Director of EAL (K-12) - August '21
Dubai, UAE
GEMS Education
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read