Teaching Profession

Unions, School Leaders Vow to Collaborate, But Action Uncertain

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 18, 2011 8 min read
Dede Schaffner, center, the chairwoman of the Seminole County, Fla., board of education, listens to a panel discussion on the positive impact of joint district-union reforms during a conference in Denver last week.
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Wrapping up a two-day conference here designed to improve labor-management relations in school districts, participants pledged to continue the work that had been started.

Officials of the U.S. Department of Education said they would offer the services of Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Director George H. Cohen and his team to districts trying to set up structures for collaboration, or to those hitting roadblocks in their contract negotiations.

By posting participating district teams’ “action plans” on a website it’s planning, the department also intends to create a public database for gauging their progress.

The announcements represented an attempt by the Education Department to answer the top question brewing at the conclusion of the meeting last week, dubbed the Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration conference: Will it foster a new kind of school improvement movement, as its organizers hope, or wither on the vine as other similar efforts have done?

“We are in this for the long haul. This is only the first step,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in concluding remarks. “It’s a kernel.”

Teams made up of a local superintendent, a school board representative, and the teachers’ union leader descended on the Mile High City to take part in what was billed as the first gathering of its kind to be partly sponsored by the federal government.

For the most part, the 150 teams appeared to enjoy one another’s company. They listened attentively to peers from across the nation discuss their breakthroughs. They drank wine in the evening and took photographs with Mr. Duncan. They chuckled at the warts-and-all portrayal, in a series of professionally acted skits, of an overpaid superintendent, a bullish union leader, and a nosy, defensive school board president.

Now that they are home, though, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Building Trust

With financial backing from the Ford Foundation and organizational support from the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and other Washington-based groups, the Feb. 15-16 meeting shined a spotlight on several jointly designed policy changes.

Among them were the work of teams from New Haven, Conn., where the district and the union together have established new educator-evaluation systems and building-level flexibility, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, N.C., where the teachers’ association helped craft a new layoff policy that takes factors other than seniority into account.

The underlying theme of the event: Teachers’ unions can be change-averse, but so can administrators and superintendents, who shoulder equal responsibility for setting policy. The relationships between the parties, delicate at best and dysfunctional at worst, affect the school system structures that support—or hinder—student learning.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivers the opening remarks at the Education Summit in Denver on Feb. 15.

“I’ve been a superintendent 13 years, and I have to admit, sometimes I’m a roadblock as much as anyone,” joked J. Kamala Buckner, the superintendent of the 5,700-student Thornton Township High School District 205, in Illinois. The district is working with its union to implement a federal School Improvement Grant and to meet the provisions of a state law on teacher evaluation.

Much of a functional union-management relationship is built on trust, said Jean E. Clements, the president of the Hillsborough County Association of Teachers, in Florida. Her district has been thrust into the national spotlight thanks to a plan, crafted in concert with Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, to overhaul nearly every aspect of the teacher-development continuum.

“I really want the districts and school board leadership here to recognize the incredible talent in their teaching force and ensure they bring their wisdom, expertise, and creativity into the decisionmaking process,” Ms. Clements said, when asked what she hoped attendees would take away from the conference.

New Climate

If the idea of bringing together leadership teams from districts is new, the goals of the conference are not.

“Interest-based” collective bargaining has existed for decades, with varied results, while the NEA’s “new unionism,” a 1997 idea put forth by then-President Bob Chase encouraging local leaders to engage in upgrades to the teaching profession, never gained much ground.

But the political climate this time around is different. Lawmakers in Idaho, Indiana, and Tennessee have advanced proposals that would curb or eliminate teacher bargaining in those states. Wisconsin leaders are now pushing a bill to end all public-sector bargaining.

On the line for many districts, then, is a process that leaders like Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, say should be supported as a vehicle for reform.

“There are lots of places out there that just want to silence it,” she told reporters.

Some teams here acknowledged that breaking free of the traditional win-and-lose structure of negotiations has been difficult, even when the parties share a generally respectful relationship. That’s the case in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., where the current contract is at an impasse.

“We really do have a good relationship,” Marcia Heffler, the president of Dobbs Ferry United Teachers, said of her school board president, Jeffrey P. O’Donnell, and Superintendent Debra Kaplan. “The door is always open, in all directions.”

Ms. Kaplan attributed the impasse to a bargaining process in which lawyers representing the parties debate two separate proposals in the absence of other agreed-upon principles.

“I think the traditional model of negotiations isn’t conducive to solving problems,” she said.

She and her colleagues here said they are open to considering a new bargaining approach that would put fiscal sustainability and teacher support and responsibilities at the center of the contract, and build from there, as several of the districts that made presentations at the conference have done.

Timing Matters

Districts with histories of collaboration often have built them over time, members of the 12 districts featured at the conference said.

Douglas County, Colo., has built its collaborative relationship since establishing a performance-pay plan in the early 1990s; now, it is working to update the plan to align it better with the teacher-evaluation system.

Hillsborough County’s collaboration dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, when curriculum frameworks and aligned assessments designed by classroom teachers were put in place with district help and support.

“You can’t do [collaboration] overnight,” said Ms. Clements of the Hillsborough County teachers’ union. “You have to have the trust and respect in place to take risks together. That kind of relationship takes time.”

For some of the districts in attendance, working together will, at least initially, probably yield much more modest results than a Hillsborough County-like evaluation system.

“Mostly, we’re learning how to trust and do things together outside of let’s-go-to-the-table, disagree, and go to impasse,” said Romero A. Maratea, the president of the Escondido Elementary Educators Association, in Escondido, Calif.

Escondido school board member Linda Woods agreed. “We’re all realizing it’s a work in progress, and the details aren’t there yet,” she said.

Some districts, like Illinois’ Thornton Township High School District with its federal SIG grant, don’t have that time. Superintendent Buckner said her challenge is to make sure that implementation glitches don’t undermine the relationship she’s developed with her team. One critical task will be the development of the data system.

“We’ve got to make sure we use data in a way that is not punitive, that doesn’t break the trust,” Ms. Buckner said.

Financial realities were among the topics that popped up again and again over the course of the conference. Teacher evaluation and professional development are expensive; dollars are short.

The team from New Paltz, N.Y., which has overhauled its teacher-evaluation system and established a method for identifying and supporting struggling teachers, hopes to maintain progress in what’s likely to be a very tough budget year.

“There are huge challenges in front of us,” said board President Donald Kerr, likening the district’s situation to that of a family with money troubles. “When dad loses his job, there’s fighting in the home because everyone is stressed.”

Concerns Cited

Observers in the teacher-quality realm praised the thrust of the conference, but cautioned that better relationships do not necessarily equal policy changes that put student learning front and center.

“In many cases, there are good reasons to applaud progress, but progress is not the same thing as transformative changes,” said Tim Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a training group that has studied teacher-quality patterns in several districts. “Many of the districts who presented still have forced [teacher] placements. They have a long way to go,” he said.

Nor are union-management relationships immune to breakdowns. Both the District of Columbia and New York City had planned to take part in the conference, but union leaders pulled out, citing disagreements with their respective leadership over teacher-evaluation and -layoff policies.

Still, Secretary Duncan, as well as the heads of several organizations that helped plan the event, pledged to work with their members to make sure that momentum from the conference would continue.

“Well before next year, we’ll be checking in with [the attending districts] to see who’s moving and who’s not,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview.

Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, put forth the idea of setting up a network of the participating districts, members of which could one day provide help to other school systems.

“The network that could be built from this conference is extremely important,” she said. “We’ll help build it.”

By the end of the conference, some teams were already making progress.

In addition to exploring alternative bargaining procedures, the three Dobbs Ferry members pledged to jointly draft, and sign, district communications to teachers, the school board, and principals on any new policy changes.

It’s a small but crucial step to avoid miscommunication, help build trust, and pave the way toward other discussions, they said.

“We’ll all stand together,” Ms. Heffler of the teachers’ union said, “or we’ll all go down together.”

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Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Districts, Unions Seek to Improve Relations


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