Pitching Collaboration, Not Combat, at the Aspen Institute

By Sean Cavanagh — June 02, 2011 2 min read
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If the sounds of bullhorns and shouted slogans from this year’s protests over collective bargaining are still ringing in your ears, an Aspen Institute forum Thursday offered a kind of hostility-free sanctuary.

The Washington think tank staged a discussion to highlight the possibilites—and difficult realities—of forging union-district collaboration, pointing to the Pittsburgh, Pa., school district’s experiences as a potential model for sound policy.

The participants in the panel discussion were Linda Lane, superintendent of the district; John Tarka, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers; Joanne Weiss, chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Jon Schnur of New Leaders for New Schools; and Ross Wiener of the Aspen Institute, who moderated.

“Collaboration” is being touted by a lot of education advocates these days, including Duncan, as an antidote to the sort of feuding that’s played out over collective bargaining in Wisconsin. (Both Duncan and President Obama have specifically criticized Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s law to strip teachers and most other public workers of significant bargaining powers.)

Pittsburgh has won praise for an union/management agreement inked last year that sets tougher bars for granting tenure, and establishes new performance pay and teacher development policies.

But Pittsburgh’s path “may not be the right path for everybody,” Lane told the audience. “Things aren’t...100 percent generalizable to other situations and contexts.”

Pittsburgh is still working through tangled issues in teacher evaluation and other areas, Lane added. (As are other districts, and states that promised to overhaul evaluation as part of their Race to the Top plans.)

So it would be foolish to think the district is “on [it’s] way to educational nirvana,” Lane said. “We’re not.”

Participants in the Aspen discussion emphasized the need for unions and management to forge agreements that meet their local needs, rather than simply coping blueprints from other districts.

Weiss called for districts and unions to push for “tough-minded collaboration"—committing to changes in evaluation and other areas that have a shot at improving student achievement.

The goal, she said, shouldn’t be collaboration that has unions and districts “working together, and getting along just fine, and accomplishing nothing.”

But neither is the goal to antagonize unions and other stakeholders to the extent that it kills any hope for a produtive agreement.

“You just can’t get there without [different] voices at the table,” Weiss said.

My summary offers only a snapshot of the issues raised at the forum. The Aspen Institute this week released a report offering a detailed, narrative account of the Pittsburgh district’s often-arduous journey in reaching an agreement with the union.

Here’s a question I was left with after attending the forum: If union/management agreements need to be sensitive to the needs of individual districts, how much of a role should states play in dictating the parameters of, say, how teachers and administrators should be paid and evaluated?

After all, states across the country have approved laws that set various guidelines for districts in these areas—which have drawn different degrees of opposition from unions. So where do states’ roles end and those of local districts begin?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.