Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration

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Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration

Remarks of Arne Duncan at Labor-Management Collaboration Conference

February 15, 2011

Good afternoon. Let me begin by saluting all of you for your commitment in coming here today. I know expectations are high.

And I know it takes courage and conviction to publicly commit to working together with groups that are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, rather than as allies.

To be honest, we didn't know if we would get 150 districts to come to Denver in the middle of February to do some very hard work. We initially thought we might end up with close to 50 and we were a little shocked and ecstatic that almost 250 applied -- because we set a very high bar.

Board Presidents, Superintendents and Teacher Leaders all had to agree to attend this summit together. And you signed a pledge to explore new compacts around a host of very difficult and complex issues.

As impressive as your commitment is, this conference today is clearly only a beginning, not an end.

I am committing to following up with all of you--and to being transparent about what districts are making progress over time.

The pressure is on all of us -- and the four million students in your districts are counting on labor, management, and state governments to set an example of how America can provide a world-class education.

When this conference is over, I hope you will leave with at least two messages of hope. First and foremost, student success must be the heart of the labor-management relationship.

Other labor and management goals are important, too. But they are all secondary to the goal of improving education and student learning.

It's not a new idea to say that educators must put the interests of children first. But that idea is often dismissed as a truism or empty rhetoric. I disagree. Many district policies that perpetuate the status quo today are grounded in what is good for management or good for labor. Yet not all policies that are fair to adults are good for children. And sometimes what is good for children is not fair to adults.

School boards, administrators and teacher leaders face different challenges -- from setting policy and approving budgets to hiring staff, negotiating agreements and ensuring due process. Yet all stand or fall together on the quality of student learning.

The second message I hope you will take away from this conference is the importance of a new narrative in school reform. Newspapers, television, and documentaries typically portray the struggle for school reform as a tale of ceaseless conflict between labor and management.

They love the yelling, the finger-pointing, the controversy -- and sadly we have been content to spoonfeed them exactly what they want. In district after district I've seen people retreat to their traditional roles and I know exactly how that movie ends.

It is absolutely telling that this is the first conference on labor-management collaboration in the history of the department.

I would be the first to acknowledge that labor and management are going to have their differences. And sometimes those differences will be deep and distinct.

But for the first time, this conference is casting a spotlight on a more decisive narrative that rarely gets covered in the press but that is actually more compelling.

President Obama and I are convinced that labor and management can collaborate to solve many of our nation's enduring educational challenges. And we believe that progress more often follows tough-minded collaboration than tough-minded confrontation.

And ours is not a hope in the unseen but a hope harbored in the reality of the hard work, success and courage demonstrated by our presenting districts.

We reject the idea that "collaboration" in education is a codeword for cowardice, as if collaborating was somehow akin to collaborating with an enemy in wartime.

Just to be clear, I am not here to celebrate all union-management collaboration. I am not commending labor and management collaboration that props up a status quo that fails to serve the interests of children -- or doesn't create the sense of urgency our work demands today.

Collaboration is such a friendly-sounding word. But in practice, nothing is more demanding at the district level than collaborating on issues that take all of you far beyond your comfort zone.

Why can collaboration be uniquely productive? It's worth remembering that we are here today because of a simple bond.

Everyone in this room was drawn to education for similar reasons. You wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. You intuitively knew that educating the next generation was some of society's most important work. Education was personally fulfilling and rewarding.

Much of your work over the years reinforced those feelings. You wouldn't be here if you didn't still believe that education remains society's highest calling -- and that few other fields offer a greater sense of accomplishment.

It makes sense that if we began with these shared goals and aspirations -- a shared agenda for achieving them would naturally follow.

We also know that other parties -- from parents to politicians to business and community leaders –have a role, a right, and an obligation to be involved in education.

Education is everyone's responsibility. Every voice must be heard -- and most importantly those of our students themselves.

And as much as we welcome it, that diversity of voices doesn't make it easier to sing from the same hymnal or forge a common agenda.

At the same time, districts over the years have built up statutory, regulatory, and bureaucratic machinery that controls the churn of day-to-day policies from school codes and board policies to annual budgets and collective bargaining agreements.

In too many instances, the K-12 system is not flexible. But during this conference, you will hear from districts across the country that have found new ways to work together around issues like the hiring and evaluation of teachers, training, support and professional development, as well as agenda setting and budgeting.

Innovation and creativity are flowering in some breathtaking ways.

For example, in nearby Douglas County Colorado, the District, the Union and the Board have an evaluation system that uses multiple measures of teacher effectiveness and student learning to drive performance pay and professional development.

Here in Denver they have the Pro-comp system that rewards whole schools and individual teachers for learning gains and for working in hard-to-staff schools.

In Baltimore, the district and the union have set up management committees to facilitate their new contract, which includes a new program jointly focused on professional development and student learning.

66% of teachers voted for a contract that will reward excellence in unprecedented ways.

In Hillsborough County, Florida, which is a merged AFT-NEA district, the contract pays teachers more to take on greater responsibilities around mentoring and peer evaluation.

In New Haven,Connecticut, the new contract provides for a teacher induction and mentoring programs as well as a range of training programs and opportunities.

The new contract also literally inspired renewed confidence and investment in the district. Shortly after the contract was signed, Yale University offered to help pay the college tuition of all New Haven district students who are succeeding academically.

Yale's President told me the new deal and his investment were "absolutely inseparable."

ABC Unified in Los Angeles has a new Peer Assistance program where struggling teachers can get help from more experienced and successful colleagues.

Also in Los Angeles, the Green Dot Public Schools contract sets aside preparation time and defines the teacher workday by areas of responsibility rather than hours.

While many contracts are dense phone books comprehensible only to trained lawyers, Green Dot has created contracts that are brilliant in their vision, clarity and simplicity.

In Helena, Montana, they created a career ladder with 25 steps and they pair new teachers with mentor teachers.

In Plattsburgh, New York, a collaborative labor-management relationship dates back 35 years -- during which time they have had only one union leader and just four superintendents.

In rural St. Francis, Minnesota, they have developed a groundbreaking teacher evaluation system and compensation plan -- and 90 percent of the teachers have opted in.

And in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the district and the union have used national teaching standards to build an evaluation system using multiple measures, including student achievement, principal observation, and evidence of practice provided by the teachers themselves.

Finally, in Maryland, for years, Montgomery County schools set strategy and performance targets with the union and offers stipends to teachers who earn National Board Certification.

Peer review has led to an intolerance of failure. Montgomery County has also closed achievement gaps with a special sense of purpose that should inspire districts around the country with what is possible.

By cooperating around these tough issues, these districts are strengthening the teaching profession. They are creating the conditions for student success.

You can read about all of our presenting districts in the packets where you will find information about their collaborative work. You will also see student achievement data which shows that in most cases, the labor-management reforms have contributed to classroom gains.

All 12 presenting districts will hold three breakout sessions today and tomorrow and you're free to attend any of them.

The plan for the conference is that we will have a panel discussion with a superintendent, a Board president and a teacher leader -- moderated by our General Counsel Charlie Rose -- who was a highly regarded labor lawyer in Illinois for many years.

Tonight we also will have an informal dinner back at the hotel. That's a chance to meet some of your counterparts from around the country. I look forward to meeting as many of you as I can.

Tomorrow morning is another breakout session and a panel discussion moderated by Brad Jupp, who is on our staff and who some of you may know from Denver. He will bring together parents, students and educators who can talk about how some of these changes are playing out at the school level in Denver.

Lastly, we will have a moderated discussion tomorrow with the national leadership of all of our sponsoring organizations -- moderated by our Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Russlynn Ali. She will focus on how the national organization can support your work, take labor-management collaboration to scale, and turn this into a movement.

I believe this needs to be a movement. The nation has 15,000 school districts. Too many of them are trapped in a dynamic that pits labor and management against each other. That doesn't work for any of the adults involved or for the children we are committed to serve.

Districts and states need a new framework in which student learning drives how districts and other stakeholders train, recruit and support teachers, implement policies, pass budgets, and align the work of reform.

This needs to go well beyond our budgets and bargaining agreements because the real work of improving student learning is too nuanced and complex to be captured in the dry language of a budget document or a labor contract that is negotiated every few years and then set aside until the next battle.

The real work in real time of educating children happens in classrooms -- far removed from the bargaining table or the board chambers -- and certainly far removed from the think tanks and conference rooms in Washington.

The real work happens every day in the way that states and districts set standards, promote a rigorous and well-rounded curriculum, and support student learning.

The truth is that educators and management cannot negotiate their way to higher performance. The contract is just a framework. Working together is the path to success but it is just one critical step in that journey.

All stakeholders—and I include the federal government—have to be willing to adjust and adapt to the infinite variety of circumstances and conditions that exist in our public schools.

We have to shed our Neanderthal pace and our 19th century model of education -- and give our children and our country a chance to compete in a globally competitive, knowledge-based economy.

In a world that will have clear winners and losers based precisely upon educational attainment, we have to know how to win.

We have to learn to problem-solve together -- and we have to learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

That isn't easy. Major corporations spend billions of dollars teaching people how to collaborate and work through their differences.

Our Department cannot afford to do that -- and we're deeply grateful to the Ford Foundation for funding this one-day conference.

One thing is for sure: There is no shortage of issues demanding our attention. I have said that education is entering an era of the New Normal, where education funding will be tight for years to come and where districts will be asked to do more with less.

We have two choices: we can either become paralyzed by the issues we face or we can view crisis as an opportunity.

We can use that budget crunch as an opportunity to rethink the provision and delivery of K-12 education and to re-think the status quo.

We can view this opportunity as a challenge to boost educational productivity, instead of a moment to circle the wagons.

At a time of declining revenues, how do we continue to build momentum and create confidence in public education?

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. This work must also come to define the New Normal.

In our program booklet we have listed ten areas of opportunity for collaboration. Your program booklet highlights some of the work our presenters have done in each area:

  • It starts with strategic direction setting: Teachers and their leaders need to be at the table when districts are making major decisions and pursuing new reforms. As AFT President Randi Weingarten often says, do it "with" us -- not "to" us.

  • The second area is about sharing responsibility for academic outcomes of students: Teachers have often complained that they get all the blame for poor academic outcomes. They have a point. School leadership and district leadership are vital to learning.

    I reject the view that unions are management's stumbling block to building a better educational system.

    I served as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for eight years--and I can tell you that in many districts, management is very much part of the problem. Dysfunctional central offices and school boards are more common than anyone would like to acknowledge.

    We all need to change. We all need to move outside our comfort zones.

    What is important is that accountability must be shared at all levels of the system from parents and students to state and federal education officials -- and everyone in between -- teachers, principals, administrators and school boards. When responsibility is shared, there's less blame going around and a greater commitment to the work at hand.

  • The third area of focus is around the growth and improvement of teachers and leaders. ABC Unified in California does an annual retreat around this issue.

    The School District of St. Francis, Minnesota develops an annual 30-hour professional development plan. In Montgomery County, Maryland, every teacher has a PD plan uniquely tailored to their professional goals and needs.

  • Issue number four is a catchall category that includes school design, schedules, teacher workload and time. In my meetings with teachers, no other issue comes up more than this one. They want time to collaborate with colleagues -- time to focus on individual students -- time to prepare.

    In Winston-Salem they have a flexible block scheduling system established by board policy that can be adjusted at the school level. In New Haven, the staff can modify work rules at the school level.

  • The next three issues involve evaluation -- and we all know that this is among the most challenging issues of all. There is no one-size-fits-all answer but we know the current system of teacher evaluation is broken.

    For teachers, we should look at multiple measures of effectiveness, including student achievement. I encourage you to survey your colleagues and develop a system that works for you.

  • With respect to evaluation of administrators, shared responsibility means shared accountability. Everyone needs feedback -- and everyone can get better.

    And I put myself at the top of that list. At the end of this conference, I want you to tell me what did and didn't work.

    That's the only way my team and I can improve and better support your work.

  • Finally, school boards should be evaluated as well -- and this is frankly not an area where there are a lot of examples. Most school boards have to face voters. On the other hand, many school board elections have a low turnout -- so we need a system where school boards also get the meaningful feedback they need from their partners, not just voters.

  • The eighth issue is equally challenging -- and that involves transfer, assignment and layoffs. With Recovery Act funds drying up, this is a front burner issue across the country. My view is that we need to look hard at the impact of staffing rules and policies on students, especially in low-achieving schools. That means recruiting the best teachers and then making sure that our state laws, labor contracts and personnel practices support these teachers and keep them in their schools. Clearly, the status quo isn't working for children.

  • The ninth issue is also a challenge -- especially in lean budget times like this -- and that is compensation and benefits. I've said over and over that teachers should be paid more -- but I've also supported differential pay for teachers in hard-to-staff schools and hard-to-staff subjects. Clearly that is not a universally-held belief.

    In Chicago, teachers developed a whole-school performance pay program that proved to be very popular. We only did this in schools where the vast majority of staff welcomed it.

    Other districts, like Denver and Hillsborough, have developed their own models.

    Benefits are a whole other story. The pension crisis is not news to any of us and the staggering increases in health care costs are a challenge in almost every occupation. Moving forward, honest, thoughtful dialogue on these topics is desperately needed.

    Again, this won't be solved overnight -- but we cannot kick the can down the road forever. It's time to start the conversation -- and as with so many other issues -- the best solutions will come at the local level.

  • The last issue is -- in some ways -- the most important -- because it is really about how you work together on a day-to-day basis. As I said, the bright lines and dry language of a labor contract or a school budget can never anticipate the circumstances and challenges facing teachers and administrators on a daily basis.

    We need to find new ways to work together, to problem-solve, and to manage our everyday issues -- without turning every one of them into a battle. This really comes down to relationships among the three leaders, which is why we are so pleased to have you all here as leadership teams.

    School boards are elected by the public. Union leaders are elected by members. Superintendents are appointed by boards. But they have to spend a lot of time working with the community, parents, staff and students. You all have constituencies to manage - and it's important to walk in each other's shoes.

    We also share a commitment to transparency -- but sometimes that devolves into a public ping-pong argument rather a face-to-face conversation. I've seen far too many good ideas fall to the wayside because of miscommunication in the media.

    And speaking of the media, I would point out that this event is fully open to the media. Some of the country's top education reporters are here -- as well as a few bloggers. I hope you get to know them over the next 24 hours.

    And as districts leave here to get the real work and the hard work done -- without acrimony or bitterness -- I challenge the media to cover those stories with the same breathtaking interest they display when folks are yelling at each other.

I want to close by talking about what may be the single-most important hour you spend at this conference -- and that is the reflection time tomorrow morning -- when your team meets on your own and talks about what you have heard and learned and how it might apply in your district.

This is an opportunity to build greater trust and shape an agenda for change. I don't expect you to take on all 10 issues that I cited. And in some areas you may already be ahead of the presenting districts. But we do hope that you are ambitious and far-reaching -- because the need is great.

We all know the brutal facts that must compel us to behave differently -- and to get better, faster than we ever have before.

One in four kids today doesn't graduate from high school on time. That's almost one million young people leaving our schools for our streets each year.

Fewer than half of the rest finish college. As a nation, we are slipping compared to the rest of the world. We need to not only do better but much better -- and that only happens at the local level in our classrooms.

I really want to push you hard on the importance of collaboration. 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.

If all of us in this room today can devote ourselves to the fundamental idea that student achievement needs to be at the heart of our relationship, I'm confident that we can launch a new era in labor-management relations and -- more importantly -- a new era of educational progress.

Collectively, you have the power to stop our educational decline and help lead the country where we need to go.

So once again, I thank you for being here today. I applaud your courage and hard work -- and I thank you on behalf of the President and the entire country for everything you are doing every day to give our children the education they need and deserve.

Your passion and your commitment are why I am so hopeful.

Thank you.