Even as Education Secretary Arne Duncan opened what he called an “historic” summit in Denver this week between union leaders and education administrators, relations between those two groups have perhaps never been more strained.
A host of Republican-sponsored bills in several states are trying to limit collective bargaining. And labor-management relations are tense in scores of other districts where tight state budgets are prompting calls for teacher layoffs and curtailed benefits.
It is in that environment that Duncan convened a two-day meeting of teachers, superintendents and school board members representing 150 districts from 40 states. In his opening remarks, he called for a new era in labor-management relations. “I really want to push you hard on the importance of collaboration,” he said. “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.”
In order to participate in the conference, a district’s superintendent and the head of the local teacher’s union had to sign a pledge to work “collaboratively” to find ways to advance the hiring, retention, compensation, development and evaluation of a highly effective workforce.
That requirement kept several large school districts from attending, including Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. New York City teachers withdrew from their initial agreement to attend after Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Cathleen Black began talking about layoffs. Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers said: “If we sign a pledge and before we even get to Denver they’ve broken their pledge, why am I going? It makes no sense.”
Duncan acknowledged the process isn’t easy. “Collaboration is such a friendly-sounding work. But in practice, nothing is more demanding at the district level than collaborating on issues that take all of you far out of your comfort zone,” he said.
Twelve “model” school districts were highlighted at the meeting and representatives spoke about the challenges and successes they’ve had. The model districts included:
Douglas County, Co.,which has redesigned performance pay as part of teacher evaluation
Helena, Mont., which has an innovative teacher mentoring program
- Hillsborogh County, Fla., which is in the midst of a 7-year initiative to have 90 percent of all students ready for college or a career upon graduation
Managers and union members from each district had to participate as a group in these sessions and were encouraged to eat dinner and socialize together in the evening. “We wanted to have as many kumbaya moments as possible between people who don’t often spend time like this together,” said Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton.
As the summit concluded on Wednesday, Duncan said the real measure of success would be how the districts proceeded in the coming months as they faced budget cuts and other hurdles. His agency will establish a database to track the progress of all 150 participating school districts.
NewsHour education correspondent John Merrow has reported on the tensions between teachers’ unions and education managers in his series tracking school reform in Washington, D.C. Here’s a report from August, when then-D.C. schools chancellor Michell Rhee (who has since resigned her post) devised a way to put teachers to the test.
Photo of Arne Duncan courtesy Flickr creative commons.