Special Report
School & District Management

New Attitudes Shaping Labor-District Relations

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 15, 2011 11 min read
From left, New Haven schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo, Mayor John DeStefano Jr., and New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarella stand inside City Hall. Working together, they have been able to make changes to the Connecticut school district that are expected to improve student achievement and teacher performance.
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Back in the mid-2000s, in public and in the news media, Joseph P. Burke, then the superintendent of the Springfield public schools, and Timothy T. Collins, the president of the local teachers’ union, often seemed to be at odds with each other.

With the Massachusetts city under the control of an independent finance control board, Mr. Collins’ members faced no raises. Turnover was high. Reporting in part to the board, Mr. Burke faced competing pressures during drawn-out contract negotiations.

Out of the public eye, however, the two men had begun meeting regularly, with help from the Cambridge, Mass.-based Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy. Gradually, they put new initiatives jointly into motion, including efforts to use surveys to improve school climate. When Mr. Burke left the district, the work continued under his successor, Alan J. Ingram, who appointed Mr. Collins to the district’s senior leadership team and budget-advisory committee. Both bodies provide advice to the superintendent.

“Forming a relationship with the union was not a luxury, it was absolutely necessary,” Mr. Ingram said in an email.

The relationship has started to trickle down to schools, particularly those with funding from a National Education Association Foundation grant to further such work.

“In schools where people can feel free to disagree and to challenge their thinking, they’re moving forward at a much more accelerated rate,” Mr. Collins said. “Teachers feel respected and teachers feel listened to—not necessarily agreed with—but they walk away from the conversation feeling like they’ve been heard.”

In fits and starts—and amid budget crises and legislative changes to bargaining—there are signs that more school administrators and teachers’ unions, like those in Springfield, are doing business together in a different way.

Three large urban districts and their American Federation of Teachers-affiliated unions—New Haven, Conn., Baltimore, and Pittsburgh—each recently used the collective bargaining process to ink contracts with new approaches to teacher evaluation or compensation. AFT has also established a $3 million Innovation Fund to help other local districts and unions begin joint projects.

While generally less associated with the move toward collaborative labor-management relationships, the NEA has committed more than $15 million, financed through member dues and its independent foundation, to support collaborative efforts, such as those in Springfield.

A Brief History of Collaboration

Florida’s Hillsborough County district and its teachers jointly craft new curriculum in all core subjects; they begin to establish aligned assessments.

The “Toledo Plan,” a joint labor-management evaluation and professional-support tool also known as peer review, debuts in Toledo, Ohio.

The teachers’ union in ABC school district, in Los Angeles County, goes on strike. In the aftermath, union President Laura Rico works to build better relationships with the superintendent, resulting in a formal partnership in 1999 that has guided district policy ever since.

The Douglas County Federation of Teachers, in Colorado, and its school district jointly craft one of the first performance-pay plans in the nation.

Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Federation of Teachers, in New York, begins the Teachers Union Reform Network, a project of progressive union affiliates. Initially formed with 21 chapters, it now counts 30 member unions and five regional turn networks.

During the National Education Association’s annual meeting, President Bob Chase calls on unions to embrace “new unionism.”

NEA President Bob Chase addresses the news media at the union’s Representative Assembly in 1998.
—Biken Ekberzade/AP-File


Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT, encourages the use of “thin contracts,” an idea informed by a book by consultant Julia E. Koppich and others.

American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman, center, rallies with Detroit union members during a 1999 strike.
—Paul Warner/AP-File


With a voter-approved tax levy and a pilot program under its belt, the Denver district and its teachers’ union begin the ProComp differentiated-pay initiative.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper campaigns for measures on the election ballot that asked voters to give up tax refunds over five years that would go to schools, health care, and infrastructure.
—David Zalubowski/AP-File


The AFT passes a resolution calling on all affiliates to explore peer review.

The New Haven Federation of Teachers approves a contract with its district agreeing to overhaul evaluations and set up a tiered system for intervening in low-performing schools.

The NEA debuts its Priority Schools Campaign, which supports collaboration in several school districts.

The Baltimore and Pittsburgh AFT chapters sign new contracts overhauling pay and promotion systems for teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education sponsors the first national conference on labor-management cooperation.

Dede Schaffner, the chairwoman of the Sanford, Fla., school board, listens to a panel discussion on the positive impact of reform during a labor-management conference in Denver in February.
—Ed Andrieski/AP-File


Outside philanthropy has also prodded in a similar direction. At least on paper, districts receiving funding through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $290 million Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching had to commit to implementing their teacher-quality plans with the support of their unions. (The Gates Foundation provides operating support to the nonprofit that publishes Education Week, and has supported both national unions.)

As a national school improvement strategy, however, the idea of collaboration remains somewhat undefined, and it is only starting to gain a foothold in policy circles.

There are some big hurdles to overcome, including the application of the concept of collaboration in right-to-work states where teachers have no formal bargaining; in states like California and Michigan, where union chapters have traditionally resisted the idea; and in states such as Idaho and Wisconsin, where legislative changes have profoundly altered the union-management dynamic.

There have also been plenty of detractors of the concept. Michelle A. Rhee, a former chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, famously called collaboration “overrated.”

On the other hand, prominent supporters like Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, argue that few, if any, efforts to improve schools and make sustainable changes to the teaching profession are likely to succeed without the participation of teachers and unions. She remains probably the highest-profile figure endorsing the concept of labor-management collaboration, and has made it a priority since assuming the top job at the 1.5 million-member union in 2008.

Particularly in times of tight school budgets, cooperation is needed, Ms. Weingarten said.

“We have to do more with less. It’s the right strategy,” she said. “It’s only the people who don’t understand schools who think these partnerships are a political strategy, not an education strategy.”

Perhaps the biggest vote of confidence has come from the U.S. Department of Education. In February, the agency sponsored the first-ever national conference on labor-management collaboration, with support from both unions and groups representing administrators.

“It was obviously just a starting point, but I thought it was really helpful to catalyze the conversation, creating the space to do it and letting folks know how important we thought it was,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview. “I definitely hope and expect it will continue to grow.”

This special report from Education Week profiles three districts that have begun joint projects to reform teaching and learning. The efforts in those places have evolved to different degrees and with varied aims, contexts, results, and lessons learned so far. And the report probes new wrinkles to the debate—like those surrounding the use of “value added” test-score data.

For all its perceived novelty, the idea of labor-management collaboration itself is not actually new. Scaling up early adaptors of the concept, however, has proved to be a challenge.

When then-NEA President Bob Chase spoke in 1997 of the “new unionism,” in which unions would advance changes to the teaching profession, for instance, the idea made little headway with rank-and-file members. It wasn’t even particularly well received among the union’s staff or board of directors, according to sources.

Districts, too, have historically been unwilling to share or apportion some duties traditionally under their purview, such as teacher evaluation, with unions.

“There’s been this kind of rigidity set in place by management, by these bureaucracies. And the teachers’ unions build these systems of defense in response,” said Jo Anderson Jr., a senior adviser to Secretary Duncan.

A former executive director of the Illinois Education Association, Mr. Anderson credited the Education Department’s federal competitions, such as Race to the Top, with helping to “unstick” such relationships. Indeed, some state unions, in Delaware, Illinois, and Massachusetts, for example, have worked together to revamp evaluation and tenure in response to those competitions.

But the Education Department’s efforts have not come without some mixed messaging, some observers say.

“Lots of good things have come from the Obama administration on education, but also a lot of things that are barely distinguishable from—and some that worsened—the position of the previous administration. And that is very frustrating to teachers,” said Adam Urbanski, the head of the Rochester, N.Y. teachers’ union and a founder of the Teachers Union Reform Network, which seeks to engage locals in plans to improve student achievement.

Unions, for instance, were furious when Mr. Duncan and President Barack Obama spoke in support of the firing of teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, under the administration’s School Improvement Grant program.

Defining Collaboration

Some observers criticize the very nature of the concept of labor-management collaboration. They note that teachers’ unions have legal obligations to represent members’ interests, whether or not they accord with those of students—or for that matter, administrators.

“Democrats tend to have this fanciful belief in collaboration. That way, they can have their cake and eat it, too. You can have education reform and you can have powerful unions,” said Terry M. Moe, a political science professor at Stanford and the author of a new book, Special Interest, that asserts unions have blocked many reforms.

Although he acknowledges that some unions have successfully worked in partnership with administrators, he argues they have done so to avoid more-radical changes to the education system.

“Yes, you can make some progress [through collaboration] if you’re satisfied with incremental gains that will not take you across the goal line,” Mr. Moe said. “I’m not satisfied with that, and I don’t think reformers should be.”

Even for those who believe in the power of the concept, a sticking point has always been how to define and measure the collaborative enterprise.

Marcia Bess instructs her 2nd grade class at Oceano Elementary School in California’s Lucia Mar district. That school system is one of a small but growing number of districts where union and district leaders are trying out ways to improve student—and teacher—learning.

In a 1997 volume, United Mind Workers, Julia E. Koppich, Charles Taylor Kerchner, and Joseph G. Weeres concluded that true collaboration is defined by unions and districts jointly addressing a problem affecting the quality of instruction: a poor evaluation system, high turnover at low-performing schools, or a budget crunch, for instance.

The book went on to propose a shift toward thinner districtwide contracts, with individual compacts created for each school in which details and responsibilities of the parties are defined.

“Collaboration has to be grounded in doing things differently, having different kinds of agreements,” said Ms. Koppich, a consultant. “There has to be a commitment to take on tough issues and flesh them out together. If all unions and districts take on with collaboration is not to yell at each other, they will accomplish nothing.”

For a process that ends with commitment to specific strategies, it often begins with intangibles.

“My personal opinion is that it’s all based on relationships, and trust, and communication,” said Jim Hogeboom, the superintendent of the Lucia Mar school district, in California. The district recently used the collective bargaining process to bring a comprehensive school reform model to a handful of schools.

Winning Converts

Especially in its early phases, finding a new groove in the labor-management relationship can be uncomfortable. For one, the strength of the endeavor depends on being clear-eyed about the role of one’s counterpart, including the pressures put on that counterpart by internal constituencies.

“As a union leader, you have to understand that the superintendent has a school board he has to satisfy, and if he can’t satisfy them, he’s no help to you,” said Joan Devlin, a senior associate of educational issues at the AFT. “And the head of the district has to understand that the union president has to take care of his or her members, that there are some basic expectations for that in the law, and that you’ve got to be able on occasion to pound on the table, because folks expect it.”

It’s clear that context matters, too. Value-added data purporting to isolate teachers’ effectiveness at raising students’ scores became a lot scarier after The Los Angeles Times posted individual teachers’ ratings on its website. School turnaround reform in New Haven, Conn., was challenging, recalled New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarella, because “teachers look around and see Central Falls.”

And recently, the budget crunches that many states and districts face have added a new variable to the equation, as a recent occurrence in Pittsburgh illuminates.

The district and union there are implementing a new contract that overhauls the pay scale and an ambitious teacher-policy reform plan funded by the Gates Foundation. But this past summer, they hit a bump over the details of a new teacher-residency program for preparing teachers. The district’s seniority-based layoff policy meant that most of those new teachers would be let go, and the two parties weren’t able to come to an accord to shelter teachers to be trained in the program from that rule.

“It doesn’t mean that we aren’t talking to each other any more,” said Superintendent Linda Lane, in an interview at the time. “Fiscal issues make collaboration more difficult. They simply do. Sometimes choices have to be made you’re not going to agree on. But we still have a commitment to do what we need to do for children.”

She and the teachers’ union later altered the plan to create an induction program for existing novices.

Observers are waiting to see whether the recent flourishing of collaborative activity will continue to wax, or whether it will begin to wane.

Ms. Koppich believes that it could go either way: Tough times and legislative change could cause the two parties to hunker down—or provide the impetus to begin a new kind of relationship, she says.

Mr. Urbanski, for one, holds out hope. “If you’re in the same boat, it doesn’t matter which end leaks,"he said. “I don’t know of anyone I could respect who would argue that schools and public education can be changed substantially by any single constituency alone. I think it’s hard enough even when we all pull together, and I know we’re dead in the water if we don’t.”

For the union and district in Springfield, the breakthrough has been made.

The two sides, anxious to begin implementing a new state-required teacher-evaluation system, are awaiting guidance from the state education department and NEA chapter on details such as the observation measures to be used. But they’ve already come to some preliminary agreements about how to transition teachers from a 3- to a 4-point evaluation scale.

Were the relationship between the district and union not as firm, Mr. Ingram said, “we would still be at the table at an impasse.”

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Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Attitudes Shaping Labor-District Relations


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