Peter Cunningham, the executive director of Education Post, suggested in his recent “open letter” to me in the pages of Education Week that my focus on collaboration is actually “organized resistance to reform.” With all due respect, Peter, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Collaboration isn’t a silver bullet. It is an essential tool that builds trust and engenders collective responsibility. And we see sustainable results in districts that embrace collaboration. It’s a vehicle for implementing solutions that help kids succeed, evidenced by what happens when resources are deployed for community schools, early-childhood education, project-based learning, music, art, and multiple pathways for graduation, including career and technical education programs.
Why is ABC Unified in California successful? In the 1990s, district administrators, school board members, and union officials worked together to improve several struggling schools. The result? Today, these same schools are among the highest-performing in the district, and they continue to perform well.
Why is Lawrence, Mass., where schools and the economy are struggling, successful? In collaboration with the community and school administrators, we are working to improve schools. In just one year, the average standardized-student-test score in English/language arts has increased by 5 percentage points, to 52—the highest in the district’s history. Even more important is the excitement and engagement from parents and students—something I saw firsthand when I visited the district this fall. That’s collaboration leading directly to student success.
Countries that embrace collaboration see real results, too. The Teaching and Learning International Survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, shows that high-performing countries seek highly collaborative school cultures. They treat their national teachers’ unions as professional partners. The most successful nations, as we’ve heard at international summits, don’t understand the deep disrespect teachers endure in the United States.
Here’s the common ingredient from ABC to Lawrence to Finland: a willing partner. My hometown of New York City highlights why. Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, teachers didn’t have a willing partner on the other side of the table. After all, it was Schools Chancellor Joel Klein who was doing Mayor Bloomberg’s bidding. The Bloomberg administration rarely negotiated with the union, unless the administration was pushed up against the wall. Collaboration was condemned, not condoned. New Yorkers made it clear in the mayoral election last year that they wanted a new direction for the city’s public schools.
We must respect, not revile, teachers."
Within months of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s election, teachers and the district had negotiated a groundbreaking new contract. The agreement offered a real career ladder, provided the flexibility for schools to innovate, increased opportunities for professional learning and parental involvement, and decreased the amount of mind-numbing paperwork. Already, we’re seeing results. More kids have access to early-childhood education. More than 60 schools have been designated Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence, or prose, empowering them to be flexible with everything from schedules to evaluations. And just last week, the mayor announced his “school renewal plan” to turn around almost 100 struggling schools.
So when some question why collaboration isn’t more widespread, they need only to look at the willingness, or lack thereof, of policymakers and administrators to be real partners.
In Los Angeles, despite what I believe is his heartfelt goal of helping children and improving public education, former Superintendent John Deasy was not the collaborative partner to get the job done. His tension with the school board and teachers was well known, as were his connections to the Broad and Walton foundations (the same funders, incidentally, that support, in part, Mr. Cunningham’s organization, Education Post). Conversely, on his first day on the job, Ramon Cortines, the recently appointed interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified system, talked about the need for “team building” and “people coming together to solve problems.” In short: collaboration.
Make no mistake, collaboration isn’t the absence of conflict. In districts where collaboration is the norm, teachers and administrators alike will tell you that it’s not easy going. How could it be? With the obstacles facing public education—underfunding, inequity, poverty—particularly at high-needs schools, there should be a robust debate among, and hard work by, all partners. What makes collaboration work in these districts is unbending respect, a willingness to assume the best intentions, and a commitment to coming up with solutions that engage and reflect the views of all key stakeholders—parents, educators, students, and the broader community—not just the business elite.
People don’t lose confidence as a result of collaboration or because of teachers (who, by all accounts, are the education players most trusted by parents and voters) or even because of the teachers’ unions. Confidence is lost in our schools when parents see their kids coming home deflated and distressed from the amount of high-stakes testing. It’s lost when schools are funded at lower levels than they were before the recession (which is true in at least 30 states), while corporate profits continue to grow. It’s lost when neighborhood schools are closed or converted to charters, rather than fixed. It’s lost when people only see or hear one side punishing the other, with no real progress.
Unfortunately, the recently formed Education Post, its funders, and its allies have continued to advance an agenda that for the last decade has been oversold, has underperformed, and has perpetuated a lack of public confidence. The naysayers proclaim that the sky is falling in America’s schools. And while none of us will be satisfied until all of our children reach their God-given potential, we know that upticks in graduation rates and National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, scores tell a different story.
The naysayers stir fear in order to silence teachers and sell off our schools. They’re hell-bent on letting an annual high-stakes English and math test determine the fate of our kids, our teachers, and our schools. They’ve been silent on the devastating education funding cuts by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (who lost his re-election bid last week), on lobbyist Rick Berman’s unconscionable and very hostile attacks on teachers, and on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s mass school closings in Chicago. They’ve praised me only when I’ve agreed with them, and questioned my motives when I’ve challenged them.
We can reclaim the promise of public education if we invest in strong neighborhood public schools that are safe, collaborative, and welcoming environments for students, parents, educators, and the community at large.
To accomplish this goal, however, we must fulfill the most basic of needs for our kids: Schools in which teachers and other staff members are well prepared and well supported with manageable class sizes and time to collaborate. Schools with rigorous standards aligned to an engaging curriculum that focuses on teaching, learning, and student instructional needs, rather than testing. Schools that include art, music, civics, and the sciences. Schools with multiple pathways to graduation. Schools with evaluation systems to improve teaching and learning that are not punitive. Schools with wraparound services to address the social, emotional, and health needs of students.
And we must work with our communities. We must respect, not revile, teachers. We must provide the necessary tools and support. And, yes, we must remove teachers fairly and in a timely way and with due process, if they are unable to do their jobs.
Collaboration is the vehicle through which we can get this work done. It’s not “overrated,” as Michelle Rhee once noted; an “elixir of the status quo crowd,” in the words of Joel Klein; or, as Mr. Cunningham called it, a disguise for “organized resistance.” Collaboration is not the only thing we need for schools to be successful, but it’s what we need to sustain working solutions. As my students used to say, it’s about “walking the walk,” not just “talking the talk.” In other words, Peter, actions speak louder than words, and collaboration speaks volumes.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and reclaim the promise of public education for all kids.
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Randi Weingarten: Collaboration Takes Two