Finding Courage in Labor-Management Collaboration

At a recent Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) meeting in Long Beach, Calif., I learned how labor-management collaboration can change the working dynamic in a school district. TURN is a national organization that supports union-driven reform to improve education for students. Jo Anderson, a Senior Advisor to Secretary Duncan, and I represented the Department of Education at TURN’s meeting to both encourage and support collaborative efforts between management and labor.

TURN Roundtable

Jo Anderson (far right) talks with TURN participants

There are five regional TURN organizations in addition to the national group, but all have a similar way of working. All participating school districts send teams composed of representatives from management and labor. Mary McDonald, co-chair of the Great Lakes Teacher Union Reform Network, explained that TURN meetings “are all about the work. It’s about getting down to the important collaboration that we do in labor-management teams.”

But what is the work of Labor-Management collaboration? I learned quickly that creating a more cordial and pleasant working atmosphere is not an end in itself. The point of the collaboration is to work together to foster more effective teaching and increase student learning.

It’s important to share powerful examples, like that of Hillsborough County Public School District in Florida, where the labor-management team has come together to take a daring look at teacher evaluation systems, by including student growth in all subject areas. Peer assistance and review models, like the one used in Toledo, Ohio, demonstrate ways that teachers can take on the role of professional consultants to evaluate and support their peers. Some district teams use innovative approaches to professional learning by creating online “communities of practice” which use 21st century tools in the service of students. All of these examples provide evidence of effective labor-management practices that improve schools.

To learn more about what all this might look like in practice, I sat down with a district team from Sacramento City, California.

“Do these conversations really matter?” I asked a teacher at the table.

“We used to wear black every Wednesday after school and protest,” the veteran teacher answered.  “Now, we’re collaborating to help our students. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. It used to be really different.”

ED’s Anderson attends TURN meetings to help foster such productive collaboration. TURN members refer to Anderson as “their favorite bureaucrat.” They trust him to share information about vital federal programs and initiatives that will help districts improve. Anderson describes the Obama administration’s support for collaboration as unprecedented, and he points to last February’s successful Labor-Management conference where 150 districts were charged to, “Redefine labor-management relations for the new century.”

TURN Participants

ED's Teaching Ambassador Fellows at a TURN conference. From left: Maryann Woods-Murphy, Steve Owens, Robert Baroz, Gamal Sherif and Senior Advisor Jo Anderson

TURN is a place where people can start a dialog in an open exchange of information. Relationships matter and having the space to come together at meetings like these, creates the context where tough conversations can really happen. The U.S. Department of Education is committed to fostering problem-solving relationships that focus on student achievement, knowing, as Secretary Duncan has said that “it takes courage and conviction to publicly commit to working together with groups that are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, rather than as allies.”

Find out more about the Department of Education’s work in the area of Labor-Management Relations.

Maryann Woods-Murphy

Maryann is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Allendale, NJ.