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Conference touts union-district cooperation

Two Colorado school districts with innovative labor policies – Denver and Douglas County – share a national stage this week as representatives from 150 school districts nationwide meet in Denver for a conference on advancing student achievement through labor-management collaboration.

The by-invitation-only two-day conference, hosted by the U.S. Department of Education, is a first. Districts attending had to agree to send representatives from their school board, their administration and their teachers’ union.

“I would be the first to acknowledge that labor and management are going to have their differences,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told participants gathered at the Colorado Convention Center Tuesday afternoon. “And sometimes those differences will be deep and distinct. But for the first time, this conference is casting a spotlight on a more decisive narrative that rarely gets covered in the press but that is actually more compelling.”

Conference organizers have identified 10 areas that they believe are ripe for innovative thinking and collaboration between teachers and district officials. They include:

  • strategic direction-setting
  • clear and shared responsibility for academic outcomes
  • supporting the growth and improvement of teachers
  • school design, schedules, teacher workload and time
  • evaluations – of teachers, of administrators and of the school board
  • transfers, assignments and reductions in force
  • compensation and benefits
  • decision-making and problem-solving

The conference will highlight a dozen districts identified as pioneering collaboration between the teachers and the district in one or more of these areas.

“Just to be clear, I am not here to celebrate all union-management collaboration,” Duncan said. “I am not commending labor and management collaboration that props up a status quo that fails to serve the interests of children or doesn’t create the sense of urgency our work demands today.”

Duncan chided school districts that have, over the years, built up bureaucracies and policies that stifle innovation. “In too many instances, the K-12 system is not flexible,” he complained. But elsewhere, “innovation and creativity are flowering in breathtaking ways.”

Duncan cited Denver’s Professional Compensation System for Teachers, known as ProComp, that replaces the traditional single salary schedule with a system of incentives, including incentives for school-wide and classroom growth, working in hard-to-serve schools and hard-to-staff assignments and for earning good evaluations. “The ProComp system rewards whole schools and individual teachers for learning gains and for working in hard-to-staff schools,” Duncan said.

He also singled out Douglas County for its long-running performance pay system, introduced in 1993, making it one of the oldest such systems in the nation. “The district, the union and the board have an evaluation system that uses multiple measures of teacher effectiveness and student learning to drive performance pay and professional development,” he said.

Duncan acknowledged that many of the nation’s 15,000 school districts are trapped in an adversarial collective bargaining dynamic that pits teachers against management, while losing sight of the goal of actually doing what is best for students. “We need to find new ways to work together, to problem-solve, and to manage our everyday issues without turning every one of them into a battle,” he said.

“I really want to push you hard on the importance of collaboration. Unions and administrators have been battling each other for decades and we have far too little to show for it. It hasn’t been good for the adults and it certainly hasn’t been good for children,” Duncan said, calling for a new era in labor-management relations.

Jean Clements is president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association of Hillsborough County in Florida. The district, which includes Tampa, is the eighth-largest school system in the country, serving more than 206,000 students in 250 schools. Two years ago, the district received a $100 million Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant in recognition of its long history of collaboration and pay-for-performance programs.

“You’ve got to have trust,” Clements said during a panel discussion following Duncan’s opening remarks. “You’ve got to have a track record of knowing they won’t lie to you and you won’t lie to them.”

She said she and Superintendent MaryEllen Elia frequently send out joint press releases and communications. “It’s not that I have carte blanche, but we listen to each other, and I know what words will be misunderstood. In the last two years, we’ve done more joint communications than ever before. And we’re doing so many innovative things, it’s critical that we not miscommunicate to teachers what we’re doing.”

Andres Alonso is CEO and superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools, an 83,000-student district whose 5,400 teachers in November finally ratified a new contract that changes how they are paid. Teachers turned down an earlier version of the contract, but Alonso said negotiators agreed that neither side would ever utter the word “impasse.”

“The work always has to be about actionable items,” said Andres, who also sat on the panel. “If the conversation strays from the question of what is the responsibility of the person who is talking, then we’re not on solid ground anymore. The gravitational pull is always about pointing the finger.”

Chris Barclay is president of the Montgomery County Board of Education in Montgomery County, Md., a 144,000-student district outside Washington, D.C. Once viewed as an elite area for the wealthy, the district has become increasingly diverse and a surge in failing students has forced the district to devise new ways of serving a different population than it has historically served.

“Folks must understand the rules going in, so we’re not making them up as we go along,” he said, sharing his own take on the hallmarks of productive labor/management relations. “In Montgomery County, it’s crucial that our unions are involved every step of the way, not just when we’re negotiating contracts but when we’re creating the goals of the system. It’s got to be a culture that is inclusive of everyone.”

For more information:

Read the full text of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remarks to the conference.

Learn more about 10 key areas of opportunity for greater collaboration between teachers and school districts.

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