Nearly three dozen New York school district labor-management teams were both teachers and learners at a first-ever national conference aimed at promoting collaboration — rather than conflict — to do what's best for kids.
At a time when collective bargaining is under attack in statehouses around the country, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's call for teamwork and collective action was even more meaningful.
"Collectively, you have the power to stop our educational decline and help lead the country where we need to go," Duncan told school officials and teachers union leaders from 150 districts across the nation at the invitation-only event in Denver. "We reject the idea that 'collaboration' in education is a code word for cowardice, as if collaborating was somehow akin to collaborating with an enemy at wartime," he said.
"At a time of declining revenues, how do we continue to build momentum and create confidence in public education?" Duncan asked. "Collective bargaining, I firmly believe, is an underutilized tool to do exactly that — and that trusting and collaborative environments can foster the innovation we need."
After Duncan's address, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi spoke with Duncan and expressed his concern about places like Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee, where collective bargaining is under attack.
"Here we are having this conference on collaboration and these vicious challenges are cropping up around the country," Iannuzzi said. "These attacks are casting a cloud over our ability to continue this collaboration and have it grow."
Indeed, on the second day of the conference, Duncan said, "What is happening in Wisconsin is very troubling and I have a call in to Governor Walker to talk about it as it relates to our work here."
The two-day conference, held by the Department of Education with financial support from the Ford Foundation, attracted so many interested school districts that a lottery was necessary. To participate, each district's superintendent, a school board member and teachers union leader had to sign a pledge to collaborate in good faith to raise student achievement. New York state participants came from school districts large and small, urban and rural.
Some districts that had hoped to participate decided not to attend because relations grew too hostile before the conference.
Michael Mulgrew, president of United Federation of Teachers in New York City, pulled out of the conference after schools chancellor Cathleen Black criticized the city's seniority-based teacher layoff system.
"The leader of the largest local in our state, and one of our strongest union leaders in the country, was clearly unable to participate due to mixed messages from the chancellor," Iannuzzi said. "It's disappointing."
On a brighter note, the Plattsburgh School District's labor-management team was one of a dozen districts nationwide serving as a spotlight presenter to share ideas about how to translate a collaborative approach into concrete improvements for schools and students.
It was standing-room-only in Plattsburgh's breakout sessions as local union President Rod Sherman, Superintendent James Short and school board Vice President Tracy Rotz explained their district's 35-year history of trust and partnering on tough issues — from contract stalemates to their current pilot program instituting a new teacher evaluation system that includes peer review, three observations and student growth data.
"We could not be doing this if we didn't have a trusting relationship," Short said. "We're writing the book as we go."
"It's that healthy relationship that gives us the ability to work hard together on really tough things, like the budget," said Sherman, a NYSUT Board member. "And it empowers us to try new things, be bold and take risks, like we're doing on teacher evaluation."
Plattsburgh is one of five labor-management teams in New York that is piloting NYSUT's Innovation Initiative's evaluation model this spring.
"These labor-management teams have been working more than a year with national experts to build a more comprehensive system that provides meaningful evaluation, constructive feedback and ongoing professional support," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira.
NYSUT's field-testing work is especially timely, as the Regents and State Education Department are developing regulations for the upcoming new teacher/principal evaluation system slated to begin this fall.
Other progressive efforts spotlighted at the national summit included a teacher induction and mentoring program in New Haven and a peer assistance program in Los Angeles. The conference also carved out time for teams to talk internally and with colleagues about opportunities and obstacles.
It was co-sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and other education organizations.