Forging a New Labor-Management Partnership in Education

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In the face of persistent accountability pressure, it is no longer accurate to assume that the interests of teachers and administrators are in opposition.

In cities and towns all across my home state of Massachusetts, school administrators and teachers’ unions are engaged, usually well out of public view, in the periodic and exhausting ritual of collective bargaining. This approach to determining the terms and conditions under which professionals will work in our schools is based on an outdated, industrial model of adversarial bargaining. The underlying assumption is that the interests of teachers and those of administrators are fundamentally opposed, especially when resources are scarce. Notwithstanding many positive developments, such as “interest based” bargaining and some remarkable breakthrough practices, the adversarial logic of collective bargaining persists. It’s time for a new look.

Collectively bargained contracts—agreed upon by administrators, unions, and school boards—often codify and structure educators’ professional work and relationships. Over time, this results in a kind of rigidity that impedes efforts to reform schools and better meet students’ learning needs.


Education reform introduced a radical new idea into the education sector in the 1990s: accountability. The logic of accountability rests on three givens: Performance counts; learning matters; and the education industry should be judged by a measurable product—growth in student knowledge and skill. Educational accountability has been widely accepted in and outside of schools, and at all levels of government. In this accountability era, schools are increasingly focused directly on student learning, and it is imperative that professionals in schools find new and more flexible, effective, and responsive ways of collaborating to achieve this measurable goal. In the face of persistent accountability pressure, it is no longer accurate to assume that the interests of teachers and administrators are in opposition. They are, in fact, closely aligned.

It is obviously in students’ interest to improve learning, but it also matters deeply to teachers, administrators, and school systems. There is increasing competition in American public education, and innovations such as charter schools, voucher systems, and educational technologies pose a growing challenge to municipally operated systems of education. Threatened by these external reform strategies, the public education franchise is at stake. Put simply, traditional providers of public education services are likely to continue to lose market share unless they can exploit their advantages of scale, and also find new, more-effective ways of working together to produce superior student learning.

At the same time, school administrators and union leaders are finding that new teachers desire better, more-gratifying, more-professionally supportive and rewarding jobs than their school systems now provide. The soaring cost of attrition among new teachers is painful to both school systems and unions. There is a compelling need to build a new teaching profession that is more fulfilling and sustaining for all educators.

It is neither likely nor desirable that collective bargaining will be abolished, despite its inherent problems. For the foreseeable future, teachers’ unions and school administrators will need to have a formal process through which to address such matters as compensation and due-process rights. Money is scarce, and teachers do have a right to fair compensation. But contract changes entailing flexibility on both sides will be needed if we are to achieve the ambitious school reform goal that all students will learn at high levels.

In most cases, collective bargaining agreements address teachers and teaching with a one-size-fits-all approach. This grows from the desire to assure fairness and treat all teachers uniformly. So in the education industry, a single pay scale determines compensation, irrespective of the laws of supply and demand. This contrasts sharply with virtually every other sector in our economy, and makes it difficult to attract qualified professionals to instruct in fields like math and science, where talent is scarce. Many collective bargaining agreements have little room for the kinds of differentiated roles and schedules that might be designed in response to varying student learning needs. Career ladders and recognition for outstanding performance are also relatively rare. In this way, collective bargaining, conceived as an antidote to oppression, has itself become oppressive.

Many contracts make it difficult for school systems to initiate the significant structural changes widely considered to be effective strategies for improving student learning and creating more-satisfying teaching jobs. This is often the case, for example, when districts attempt to establish smaller high schools and make the transition from traditional, comprehensive schools.

These types of rigidities impede progress in education. And progress is essential if we are to prepare U.S. students to meet intensified competition in an increasingly “flat” world where workers universally will require skills and advanced learning to succeed.

The good news is that the challenges posed by collective bargaining contracts are not insurmountable. The Rennie Center’s recently published handbook, Win-Win Labor-Management Collaboration in Education, by Linda Kaboolian with Paul Sutherland, documents dozens of instances in which unions and local school officials have broken through traditional barriers to assure that innovative and effective practices that benefit students and professionals alike can proceed. These examples must be just the beginning of a wholesale reassessment of the bargaining process. They must signal a renewed commitment to treating teachers fairly and appreciatively, while creating the flexibility, the nimbleness, and the room for professional discretion that will be necessary if we are to engage in the extraordinary new work that will guarantee academic proficiency for every child.

Vol. 25, Issue 24, Page 46

Published in Print: February 22, 2006, as Forging a New Labor-Management Partnership in Education
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