When a Conundrum Hits a Contradiction: Is that Collaboration?

Okay, everyone hold hands.? Now, repeat after me:

We Will? Love -? Each Other -- And ?Educate ? All ?Kids!? ?

Or, try this: ?

You two shake hands, and don't let me catch you fighting again!?

That's a quick glimpse of schools, now and then ? and school governance, now and then.? Then, it was desks lined up (I?once visited a 19th century?Brooklyn ?school -- still in use -- where you could see the plugged holes from the days when desks were nailed to the floor); now, it's classrooms with pillows and rugs and a jumble of round tables. ??Then, it was ?top down? management, with principals ruling with rulers; now, principals spend much of their day parsing language of Codes of Conduct and labor contracts and writing up referrals and evaluations that can withstand a constititutional challenge.?

These caricatures of American public education governance are fleshed out admirably in Sam Dillon's NYT report this morning on a unique Denver conclave to bring education labor and management leaders together.? It?is being?convened by America's?Principal, Arne Duncan, who continues to work the education reform room with a stick in one hand and carrot in the other.? (I've heard he's teaming up with Doug Lemov on a new book:? Rule like a Champion!? 49 Techniques to Put Educators on the Path to Excellence. Just kidding.)

Let's hope that the two-day confab in the mile-high city is aided by the thin air. It is called ?Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration,? which seems a promising experiment in getting key educators to talk.? In fact, taking a page from many successful schools' playbooks, Duncan's Department of Education made each participant, according to Dillon, ?sign a pledge to collaborate in good faith to raise student achievement.?? Apparently, eleven of the nation's 25 largest school districts signed, as did 140 smaller districts from 40 states.? ?We have to learn to problem-solve together,? Duncan told the group.?

To Dillon's credit, a good portion of his story is devoted to the elephants not in the room. In fact, he points out that New York City wasn't there because Gotham's labor-management school issues are ? well, rocky. ?I wasn't going to walk into Denver with the chancellor and say, `We're the hypocrites, here for the conference,'? United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Michael Mulgrew told Dillon.? (In fact, Mulgrew was one of the hecklers at a recent public hearing in New York, convened by chancellor Cathleen Black (see here.) On the other hand, I'm wondering what Mulgrew was really thinking when he was sitting next to Joel Klein at last summer's Race to the Top presentation (see here). ?Black's office issued a kindly ?we need to work together? statement, while the chancellor was spending her time in Albany, begging the state legislature for more money. See also Sharon Otterman's interesting account (I hope I have this right) of the television ad ?war on teacher layoffs.?)

When the current collaboration dust settles, perhaps we will be further along the road to making teacher unions true professional organizations (eliminating the wasteful contradictions of tenure and seniority rights, and paying good teachers what they're worth, in the process).?

But there are also more existential issues being debated, according to Dillon, which may contribute to the momentum of teacher professionalization. Some states,?writes Dillon,?want to bar unions from schools completely.? That's a proposal in Tennessee.? And in Wisconsin, where new GOP Governor Scott Walker wants to end teacher collective bargaining rights and Republicans ?command large majorities in the Legislature.?? As Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute commented in the Times in January,

Public unions have had no natural adversary; they give politicians political support and get good contracts back?.? It's uniquely dysfunctional.

As?Charles Kerchner of Claremont Graduate University tells Dillon:

This is the harshest time for teachers' unions that I've seen since the advent of legislatively sanctioned collective bargaining half a century ago.

Could that be a good thing for our kids?

?--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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