Bargaining and Agreements: Essential Tools for Education Reform

By Amy Buffenbarger

DENVER – Educators and school leaders meeting here challenged the conventional wisdom that labor-management relationships are a roadblock to education reform, strengthening their commitment to work together on a shared goal: improving student achievement.

“Collaboration is such a friendly-sounding word,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in opening remarks of the Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration conference. “But in practice, nothing is more demanding at the district level than collaborating on issues that take all of you far beyond your comfort zone.” Duncan committed to shining a brighter spotlight on the districts that are doing good work and gaining results.

Through NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, “NEA will lead the way to show that collaboration is the way to deliver for students in America,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

One hundred fifty school district teams comprised of a local teachers’ union president, superintendent and school board leader from 40 states attended the two-day conference. The focus on collaboration as a means for reform in public education comes at a critical time when teachers unions are facing attacks that threaten to destroy collective bargaining rights in several states. “You can’t help but note disconnect between what’s happening here and what’s happening in state houses across the country,” Van Roekel said.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has proposed eliminating collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s 175,000 state employees, including teachers. Duncan told conference attendees that he will do everything he can to “bring governors to the table,” including a personal phone call to Walker scheduled today.

Van Roekel said the conference provided an important counterpoint to the anti-union activity in some states, showing both the value and the lessons of successful efforts by “all the adults in the system” to find solutions on behalf of students.

“What we see here is first, that the important work of collaboration isn’t an isolated phenomena; it’s happening all across the country,” Van Roekel said. “Second, this is very hard work, there are no easy solutions, it takes hard conversations and a willingness to change what we all do. And third, one size does not fit all. What works in one school or one district may not be the answer for others. It really does take collaboration at the local level.”

Trust, Honest Communication, and Shared Goals

Conference attendees had the opportunity to learn about “what works” from 12 presenting school districts that have demonstrated success in building a collaborative relationship between teacher union leaders, superintendents and school board leaders. Those successful relationships helped craft innovative policies such as teacher and administrator evaluation plans, compensation plans, professional development opportunities, and strategic direction-setting.

A common theme throughout the presentations and the conference was trust and open communication.

“We need to adopt a common language of which we train each other in,” said Dr. Jerry Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland and one of the presenters. “If you don’t have a common language and outcome, it’s hard to do what you want to do. You have to figure out how to talk to each other.”

In Montgomery County, stable leadership with a superintendent who has been in the position for 12 years has helped foster a collaborative culture. The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) worked with MCPS to develop three Professional Growth Systems (PGS) for teachers, administrators and support professionals. In April 2010, MCEA and MCPS signed an agreement to use student performance data in evaluations.

A shared sense of leadership also helps. “You have to distribute the leadership. You can’t just distribute the responsibility,” added Weast. “Authority and responsibility have to go together. You have to defuse the governance.”

In Little Rock, Arkansas, the focus is on students, not adults and their issues. Cathy Koehler, President of the Little Rock Education Association, made an agreement with her superintendent and school board that they shared a responsibility to their students. “The path we chose as an Association is to not do anything that undermines the community’s faith in the school district,” Koehler said.

Interim-superintendent for Little Rock School District Morris Holmes echoed that commitment. They don’t keep secrets from each other and don’t hold knowledge to use against each other. “We communicate with dignity, honesty and intelligence,” Holmes said.

Salt Lake Teachers Association President Susan McFarland has been leading the local for just seven months. She attended the conference hoping to get to know the superintendent of Salt Lake City School District better and engage in the difficult conversations that may not have happened at home without the vowed focus on collaboration. “We cannot be perceived as adversaries any longer,” McFarland said. “We must become productive partners in advocating for educators and promoting student growth.”

The conference was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education in collaboration with the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, the Council of the Great City Schools, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and the National School Boards Association.

“At a time of declining revenues, how do we continue to build momentum and create confidence in public education?” Duncan asked in his opening remarks. “Collective bargaining, I firmly believe, is an underutilized tool to do exactly that — and that trusting and collaborative environments can foster the innovation we need.”

  • Yes, “trust, honest communication and shared goals” are where it’s at to make sure that every classroom has the resources and support for excellence in teaching and learning. And, we need as much input directly from classroom teachers as we can get to reach that goal. We created The VIVA Project http://www.vivateachers.org as another tool in the communication tool kit. It’s an easy way for working classroom teachers to share their ideas and collaborate in those few free moments they may have. It offers everyone else a special eye directly from the classroom to big picture policy. Check us out on Facebook too http://www.facebook.com/VIVAProject