Unions, School Leaders Vow to Collaborate, But Action Uncertain

Unions, School Leaders Vow to Collaborate, But Action Uncertain

By Stephen Sawchuk

Ed Week


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.


“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, ...


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