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Collaborating with the Enemy

August 2009

When Colorado’s Douglas County School District decided to build a digital K–12 academy two years ago, the superintendent’s office didn’t seek out the advice of Google or Microsoft. It turned to the local teachers union.

Working closely with administrators, the teachers began developing a Web-based curriculum that now serves more than 3,500 students. “It wasn’t an initiative that any of us was thrilled to undertake, but families kept telling us that’s what they wanted,” says Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. “So we cooperated to make sure the academy was something we all could be proud of.” 

Cooperation between a school district and its teachers shouldn’t seem noteworthy. In the late 1980s and much of the ’90s, some unions and districts experimented both with less adversarial approaches to collective bargaining and more substantive problem solving on issues such as lagging student achievement.

New Complications
Much of this goodwill seemed to evaporate with the 2002 signing of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, however. Accountability was king. Districts and states reeled at the law’s requirements. Several reform-minded union leaders were defeated. In many places teachers had reason to feel that they had lost their seat at the table.

“Districts felt so under the gun to improve test scores, they could no longer afford to share leadership or trust the people at their school sites,” says Louise Sundin, former president of the Minneapolis Teachers Federation and a ninth-grade English teacher. “Of course teachers began to feel stifled.”

Fractious contract negotiations and programmatic conflicts came to dominate media headlines. Time and again, innovation and reform seem to lose out in protracted conflicts between districts and teachers.

Survival Instincts
Out of the limelight, however, collaboration is (and often was) still happening. In small pockets across the country, from Washington State to Pennsylvania, union executives and district management have quietly been allying together. They’re testing novel teacher evaluation systems, mentoring programs, pilot schools, and even pay-for-performance initiatives. They’re putting together online learning programs.

“We’ve reached a point where it has become clear the old way is not working,” says Tulsa Public Schools superintendent Keith Ballard. “If we’re going to rescue our failing schools, we must do it together.”

“Large unions and large districts are fighting for our very survival,” says Tom Alves, executive director of California’s San Juan Teachers Association. “Unless we can work together to lead reform, we risk becoming totally irrelevant.”

In the San Juan Unified School District near Sacramento, change cleared the way for better relations between administrators and the union. The district got a new superintendent, Pat Jaurequi, in August 2008. “From day one, she made reality-based statements that gave us the confidence to move ahead,” Alves says. 

During 2008–09, Jaurequi and Alves began working together to save two of the district’s schools in jeopardy of closing—one a middle school with failing test scores, the other a high school with declining enrollment. At both, teachers voluntarily resigned, and many joined the design teams of parents, business leaders, teachers, and administrators formed to overhaul the schools.

The high school became a Career Pathways school, offering students job placement and preparation for trades as diverse as culinary arts, TV production, and transportation engineering. The middle school was reopened as a high-tech academy. New principals were recruited, and each teacher had to reapply to return to the school. “We’re only a year into it,” says San Juan labor relations director Jess Serna. “But we have a lot of confidence the schools will be successful.”

San Juan Unified isn’t the only example. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, superintendent Ballard and his deputy meet with the top three union leaders once a month at a local restaurant. “The five of us have our little private room. It’s very informal and relaxed. We all can just be straight about our concerns,” Ballard says. “I sometimes think I learn more from union leaders than anyone else.”

So, when the district applied for new Gates Foundation money in part to bring in Teach for America (TFA) teachers, Ballard wasn’t surprised to receive a call from the union head. “He said, ‘I think we have a serious problem here,’” the superintendent recalls. “So we worked it out. Because things rarely get done if you’re always playing hardball.”

The district and the teachers union worked out a final proposal that included bringing in these new teachers—a district priority—but also provided mentoring and certification for the rookie educators that the union thought was important. In all, Tulsa will use 50 TFA teachers this year, adding another 50 in each of the next two years. By 2011, the district will have 150 TFA teachers out of its 2,700 classroom teachers.

Signs of Hope
In other districts around the country are taking small steps in cooperation. About 50 school districts now have some form of peer-review teacher evaluations in place, according to a June 2009 report from the Center for American Progress.

In Seattle, a set of pilot schools funded in part by the National Education Association and designed to close achievement gaps have seen their reading and math test scores surpass state averages over the past five years.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools three years ago adopted a new district-wide curriculum reviewed and redesigned by both administrators and teachers.

In Albuquerque, the cooperation has gone one step deeper: The union president and the district’s head of human resources jointly oversee its mentoring program for beginning teachers.

“Here’s the person whose job was once to be the natural enemy to the teachers union,” says Ellen Bernstein, Albuquerque Teachers Federation president. “Now, honestly, we rarely see things differently.”  Or if they do, says Albuquerque Public Schools labor relations director Bob Woody, “We’ve set it up so that we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Key to such cooperation is figuring out how to keep momentum going. Certain districts, such as Albuquerque and Douglas County, now mandate regular meetings as part of contract language to ensure ongoing communication.

For other union leaders, the most difficult task is often selling reform to members. After years of fighting, that can be tough, particularly as teachers grow increasingly worried about job retention, health care costs and disappearing retirement benefits.
“Labor’s first responsibility is as advocates to teachers, so union executives might be interested in progressive ideas but that doesn’t mean teachers will sign on,” says Mary McDonald, associate director of the Illinois nonprofit Consortium for Educational Change. “It’s a fine line between moving forward and dealing with bread-and-butter issues.” McDonald adds.

Money worries are a big concern for superintendents and administrators. “When you have to cut budgets, the first inclination is to let go of the extra things, like innovative programs,” says John Foley, superintendent of Toledo Public Schools. “We have to resist that impulse if we want true change.”

Bolstering Support
Symbolically and practically, the Obama administration has been doing its best to help allay these concerns and maintain cooperation and improvement.

The administration has made clear that, even in difficult times, innovation and advancement remain priorities. The so-called “Race to the Top” fund includes $5 billion in new dollars for districts willing to try new things, including teamwork between administrators and unions.

Some of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s top hires have reflected a hybrid of backgrounds and a focus on collaboration. His general counsel, Charles Rose, has represented Chicago Public Schools in countless negotiations. Rose is joined by Jo Anderson, a former Illinois Education Association executive director who has been tapped to manage outreach to teachers and their unions for the department.

“These two are partners in crime,” Sundin says. “A dynamic duo who really understand and have really practiced a collaborative model in many of the districts they’ve worked in together throughout Illinois, including Chicago.”

Duncan has also hired Brad Jupp, to be his top advisor on teacher quality. A teacher and union activist in Denver for nearly 20 years, Jupp piloted the city’s groundbreaking merit pay regime but in 2004 went to work as senior advisor for Denver’s then-superintendent Michael Bennet on several reform issues, including accountability and school choice.

“It’s clear they’re trying to develop a reform agenda that both administrators and teachers can put their stamp of approval on,” says Mark Simon, a former Montgomery County teacher and now national coordinator at the DC–based Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership. “And they’ve definitely shown a willingness to break from reform orthodoxy.”
The private sector is helping out, too. In November, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced it would spend as much as $500 million to improve teacher quality in a handful of districts, possibly including Memphis, Pittsburgh, and Tulsa.

Gates has also partnered with several other donors, including the Ford Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, to finance a groundbreaking union-led fund specifically aimed at bolstering innovation. By September, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the country’s largest teachers union, will give out some $2.8 million in small grants to its state and local affiliates in hopes of encouraging bold new ideas.

“We’re asking teachers to bring their expertise, something they are rarely asked for,” says Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski, who sits on fund’s selection committee. “But what we really are looking for are ways to bring about a full cultural shift throughout schools and districts.”

Onward and Upward
As of the end of last year, the effort to protect innovation and collaboration seems to be working in some places. San Juan’s answer to its $12 million budget shortfall was to convene a financial summit that included administrators as well as teachers who normally would have not had a seat at the table. “We knew we’d have differences,” Serna says. Yet, he adds, “Both sides took the stance, ‘Let’s get through this together without cannibalizing each other.’”

Of course, collaboration between longtime opponents can be always fragile. And still, people like Alves have never felt more hopeful. “It’s the first time ever that I believe the path we’re headed on is a sustainable one.”

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