Email Status

Volume 27, Number 3
May/June 2011

Improving Student Learning Through Collective Bargaining


In his last speech to the convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1997, the legendary AFT president and education statesman Albert Shanker urged that collective bargaining be used to preserve and strengthen public education. Nearly 15 years later, more and more union leaders are heeding his call.

Much of the coverage of current efforts to abridge or end collective bargaining for teachers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and other states has focused only on how bargaining benefits teachers’ interests. The implication is that collective bargaining is a zero-sum game: whatever benefits teachers takes away from students and quality education in general. This one-sided portrayal neglects to take into account the role that collective bargaining has played—and can play—in school reform.

Abridging or ending collective bargaining for teachers would represent a huge setback for the ongoing effort to improve our schools. It would deprive teachers of the principal way that they now have to participate in education policy making, and it would deprive teacher unions of the opportunity to bring the collective wisdom of teachers to the bargaining table.

In addition to offering protection from potential administrative abuse and political patronage, collectively bargained agreements promote commitment and ownership, provide continuity, and ensure that the decisions affecting schools and teachers are consensual rather than unilateral. Since the biggest influence on students’ learning within our control is the teacher, the teacher’s conditions of work are central to improving learning. Given the teacher unions’ growing emphasis on instructional issues, the scope of collective bargaining should be expanded, not abridged.

Critics have long alleged that teacher unions hinder student performance and educational progress. No empirical or credible research has ever been offered to substantiate these allegations. The only five states that do not permit collective bargaining for teachers are all near the very bottom in student performance as measured by ACT/SAT scores: South Carolina, 49; Georgia, 48; Texas, 47; North Carolina, 45; and Virginia, 44. Wisconsin, on the other hand, ranks second, and the two states that scored highest on Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) comparisons, Massachusetts and Minnesota, are also the most densely unionized. All this is hardly surprising, since school systems with collective bargaining agreements are more likely to have lower class sizes, more competitive teacher salaries, and better conditions for teaching and learning.

Collective bargaining itself is also evolving, something that is rarely acknowledged. Many school districts and teacher unions have adopted more promising bargaining methods precisely to put student achievement at the forefront of the process. Industrial bargaining has steadily yielded to “reform bargaining” based on three key principles: developing options for changes; using reason and research, not power, to make decisions; and focusing on interests, not on positions. Reshaping collective bargaining in these ways can lead both labor and management to look at issues through the lens of what is educationally best for their students.

Unions and districts have learned that collective bargaining need not be an obstacle to change or effectiveness. Where there is trust, mutual respect, and good communication, such as recently exhibited in Pittsburgh, Pa., New Haven, Conn., and Baltimore, Md., unions proved valuable partners in negotiating provisions for more accountability, improved quality, and greater effectiveness. And the collective bargaining process was the vehicle to deliver these goals.

Especially in tough economic times, there is opportunity to focus collective bargaining on needed changes that could improve education while empowering teachers to help find better, more economical solutions. Here are some potential directions:

School quality. More flexibility and autonomy for each school could lead to greater school effectiveness. School-based teams comprised of teachers, administrators, parents, and, in high schools, also students could be vested with joint authority, through shared decision making, on such issues as school budgets, staffing, or instructional programs—as has been done in Rochester, N.Y., Cincinnati, Ohio, Cambridge, Mass., New Haven, Conn., and other districts.

Teacher development and quality. Many changes proposed by teacher unions and negotiated at the bargaining table are already contributing to improved teacher quality, including peer review, mentor/intern programs, better teacher evaluations, career path opportunities, differentiated pay and differentiated roles, and expedited but fair due process procedures. Such changes, proposed by the teacher unions themselves, have been negotiated in Toledo, Cincinnati, and Columbus, Ohio; Poway, Calif.; Montgomery County, Md.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and, most recently, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pa., and Hillsborough County, Fla.

Instruction, reforms, and innovation. By expanding the scope of collective bargaining to include negotiations of instructional and professional issues, teacher unions and school districts could agree to such promising directions as project-based and experiential learning, more authentic assessments, peer and cross-age tutoring, and other practices that would lead to improved student learning.
Living Contracts
The current debate about the role and effects of collective bargaining represents a unique and timely opportunity to rethink the very structure of conventional bargaining. Here in Rochester, N.Y., we have sought to move beyond even the interest-based model of collective bargaining. We recognized that during past negotiation cycles, the district and the teacher union were locked in prolonged struggles over salaries, benefits, class size, school safety, management rights, and so many other important issues. And on the scenic route to an eventual compromise, the entire Rochester education community would be brought to the edge of a nervous breakdown before somebody figured out how to bring an end to it all. Until the next cycle, that is.

But in 2001, we took a different approach to collective bargaining. Our school district and teacher union developed strategic objectives and engaged in ongoing and year-round joint problem solving. By changing the process, and by expanding the scope of collective bargaining to include professional and instructional issues, we have negotiated a Living Contract that includes commitments to adopt “what’s best for students” as the litmus test for every specific proposal advanced by either the district or the union; conduct ongoing negotiations as timely problem prevention; establish benchmarks that will continue to apply beyond the life of any individual collective bargaining agreement; and use the collective bargaining process to build a more genuine profession for teachers and more effective schools for all our students.

Versions of the Living Contract approach to collective bargaining, originally negotiated two decades ago in Hammond, Ind., have been adopted by other school districts, such as Albuquerque, N.M, and Douglas County, Colo., and even in the recently negotiated collective bargaining agreement between the Baltimore Teachers Union and Baltimore’s KIPP Academy.

Wherever negotiated, the Living Contract mode is proving to be a more effective vehicle for addressing, in timely and cooperative ways, issues that may not have surfaced yet as problems but should not await the expiration of the existing contract before they are given attention. As trust and genuine partnerships in labor-management relations become the norm, so will the Living Contract approach to collective bargaining.

School by School
But challenges remain. It is not easy to change the culture of collective bargaining, nor would it suffice to concentrate only at the central level. We must now extend labor-management collaboration and collective bargaining to where it matters most: at each and every one of our schools. In Rochester, the teachers at each school have been empowered to bargain certain provisions of the contract with their school principal. Through this process, our schools have negotiated their own language on such matters as the work year, teacher assignments, and schoolwide incentive plans.

There is a growing recognition that better school systems can be built only in tandem with the building of better relationships. One without the other is like one hand clapping. Instead of denying teachers the opportunity to contribute toward our shared mission, we should welcome and value their collective wisdom and the role that collective bargaining can play in our goal to increase the prospects for students’ success.

Adam Urbanski is president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, and founding director of the Teachers Union Reform Network (TURN) of AFT and NEA locals.

Also by this Author