Email Status

Volume 22, Number 5
September/October 2006

Beyond Bargaining

What does it take for school district–union collaboration to succeed?


Last spring, teachers in San Francisco and Oakland threatened their first strike since 1979. In Detroit, 1,500 teachers in more than 50 schools participated in an unofficial “sickout” over salary issues. In a climate of financial constraint and escalating pressure to meet the federal mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), tensions between school district management and teachers unions appear to be rising nationwide.

But at the same time, in districts across the country, these traditional foes have been working together to implement collaborative reforms. From merit pay systems to peer review programs, innovations designed to improve the quality of teaching and learning in classrooms have been introduced into today’s collective bargaining agreements.

As public schools face NCLB-related takeover and turnaround plans on the one hand and choice options like charter schools and vouchers on the other, it’s imperative that districts and unions continue to rethink the idea that “their interests are oppositional by nature,” says Paul Reville, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, which sponsors forums on labor-management relationships for district-level managers and labor leaders. “It’s in all our interests to think together and work collaboratively to improve performance in this sector, or we’re eventually going to lose the franchise,” he adds.

Many educators say that focusing on student achievement is the best way to stimulate productive district-union collaboration. In fact, says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester (NY) Teachers Association and director of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), “it’s not only the best way, it’s the only way. There is no other common denominator that can bind us together.”

Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of teaching and learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has written about unions and teacher quality, cautions that accountability pressures can also create disincentives for collaboration. “I would say that collaborative work is not flourishing,” she says. In districts where budgets are tight or where pressure for improvement results in a “top-down” management style, she says, “it’s very hard to maintain collaborative approaches.”

How can administrators and union leaders work together to lay the groundwork for collaboration? As districts and unions gain experience implementing innovative practices aimed at improving teacher quality and supporting student achievement, they have begun to identify some of the building blocks that lead to successful working relationships.

Innovative Practices

“Working together for the purpose of improving student learning is possible,” emphasizes Linda Kaboolian, author of Win-Win Labor-Management Collaboration in Education, published by the Rennie Center in cooperation with Education Week Press. The book cites examples of district-union collaboration across the country, such as provisions that allow for extended school days and school years, agreements that give schools more control over teacher hiring, assignment, and transfer, or pay-for-performance programs that tie teacher compensation to student achievement and other related factors.

One of the best known and longest-standing examples of district-union collaboration is the peer review and evaluation program known as the Toledo Plan. Established more than 20 years ago in Toledo, Ohio, the plan gave teachers the power to recommend termination of fellow teachers. “Were we actually giving up power?” asks Craig Cotner, Toledo’s former chief academic officer. “In the five years prior to implementing the plan, the district terminated one teacher. Since the Toledo Plan there have been over 400 teachers nonrenewed.”

“The collaboration that is required to make the Toledo Plan operate fosters a sense of trust and mutual respect that carries over to other venues,” Cotner adds.
Other districts with a shared focus on student achievement have also succeeded in implementing reforms using some innovative bargaining practices (see sidebar “Promising Practices in Contract Negotiation"). In Rochester, NY, known for its longstanding career ladder program, the union and district have negotiated contract-override provisions to allow flexibility in teacher assignment. Minneapolis’s contract includes language acknowledging a commitment to student achievement and emphasizing school-based accountability and decision making. The agreement establishes Professional Development Centers linked to student performance and outlines a process for identifying and working with struggling schools.

These kinds of systemic reforms usually occur only after districts and unions have first succeeded with a single negotiated reform, which fosters the trust needed to proceed with further collaboration, as in the cases of Toledo and Rochester. Successful collaboration “does unleash all kinds of new energy into the system,” says Kaboolian. Urbanski puts a different spin on it. “When all hell breaks loose,” he says, “you’re onto something real.”

Promoting Collaboration

Still, collaborative reform isn’t the norm. Both district staffers and union officials face pressures from their respective colleagues and constituents to “look tough” and “not sell out,” Kaboolian says. When district staff find union leaders they can work with, she says, they should seize the opportunity. “Your job is to get as much done with them as possible and still allow them to maintain their political viability.” If you don’t, she adds, “the person who replaces them is most likely going to be a lot more difficult to work with” (see sidebar “Superintendents’ Suggestions”).

“You can’t take collaboration for granted,” she warns.

Many observers suggest that first steps toward collaboration are best taken outside the context of formal collective bargaining negotiations. “If there is a problem in the district that needs work, I would encourage [the district] to form a multi-stakeholder study group and learn about the topic and possible reform efforts together,” says Kaboolian. These kinds of ventures can help build trust among the various parties, generate results that can win support for innovation, and lay the groundwork for next steps.

For unions, emphasizing professionalism, as opposed to traditional bread-and-butter unionism, can galvanize support for collaborative reform among the rank and file, Urbanski suggests. Most reforms in Rochester, for example, have been designed to define and improve professional practice and accountability. The Rochester Teachers Association, he says, continually seeks to “assume responsibility for the quality of their members’ work and for their ongoing professional development.”

The Case of ProComp

Perhaps the most dramatic example of successful union-district collaboration is in Denver, where a six-year process of experimentation and negotiation led to the development of the widely publicized ProComp pay-for-performance (PFP) plan, the most comprehensive such program in the nation. According to Andre Pettigrew, assistant superintendent for administrative services, and Bruce Dickinson, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), the process of collaborative negotiation featured several key characteristics that led to success. The process was:

Fully collaborative. Dickinson recalls that the district actually did try initially to launch the process with a unilateral proposal, “but we viewed that as coercive and said, ‘No, a thousand times no.’” After reaching an impasse with the management and influenced by its participation in TURN, the DCTA saw the issue as a springboard for reform and proposed that the union and the district investigate it jointly. Over time, district officials and union leaders learned to “leave their hats at the door.”

Well-researched, deliberate, and highly structured. The project began with a three-year pilot program to research the link between various measures of teacher performance and student achievement. Based on the results, the district formed a Joint Task Force on Teacher Compensation to develop a specific proposal for Denver.
Distinguished by choice and buy-in options. For Dickinson, it was critical that the pilot process feaure a strong element of buy-in. A school’s participation in the pilot project had to be approved by 80 percent of its faculty. Schools that participated in the pilot could also choose one of three approaches to measuring changes in student achievement. Although new teachers are automatically enrolled in the ProComp program starting this fall, participation remains optional for veteran teachers.

Characterized by broad stakeholder input and support. “Typically, negotiations like these are bilateral,” says Pettigrew. In Denver, however, foundations, business leaders, politicians, and community organizations played a strong role in developing the model, which encouraged community support for the project. In October 2005, Denver voters approved $25 million to fund the ProComp plan.

Learning the Right Lesson

Dickinson emphasizes that the lesson of ProComp for other districts is not “that you try [to replicate] it lock, stock, and barrel.” Instead, he hopes people will learn from the process of collaboration.

That’s an important distinction, according to Andrew Rotherham, codirector of the policy think tank Education Sector and coeditor of Collective Bargaining in Education, published earlier this year by Harvard Education Press, which analyzes the available research in this area. Too many people, he says, want to treat PFP as a kind of “litmus test” that proves whether others are “for or against” reform and innovation. This can limit district and union leaders’ ability to find collaborations that will work best for their districts.

Successful collaboration does not spell the end of skepticism and antagonism in school districts. Dickinson concedes that ProComp remains controversial, despite being approved by a majority of union members. Nonetheless, with both the accountability movement and teachers unions firmly established as central forces in contemporary public education, confrontation seems increasingly impractical: time spent fighting the other side is time not spent on the improvement of teaching and learning. As Urbanski asserts: “No one should be surprised that before the kids can get their act together, the adults in their lives should be able to do so first.”

Mitch Bogen is an education writer based in Somerville, Mass.

For Further Information

For Further Information

Denver Public Schools Professional Compensation System for Teachers (Denver ProComp).

J. Hannaway and A. Rotherham, eds. Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today’s Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2006.

L. Kaboolian, with P. Sutherland. Win-Win Labor-Management Collaboration in Education: Breakthrough Practices to Benefit Students, Teachers, and Administrators. Mt. Morris, IL: The Rennie Center for Educational Research & Policy and Education Week Press, 2005.

Rennie Center for Educational Research & Policy, 131 Mount Auburn St., 1st Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138; tel.: (617) 354-0992.

Teacher Union Reform Network.

The Toledo Plan.