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What Matters Most

by AFT President Randi Weingarten

Collaboration Trumps Conflict
NY Times, January 23, 2011

Sometimes it seems as though public education has become a contact sport, with proponents of a take-no-prisoners style of “education reform” duking it out on talk shows and ever-present on the conference circuit.

That might make great headlines, but it doesn’t improve schools or help kids. Under the radar screen, I see a far more productive trend under way.

Last fall, the AFT sponsored the first national collaborative school improvement conference. The response was overwhelming—school administrators and their teachers union counterparts from dozens of school districts from across the country formed teams and participated. The teams worked together to develop plans to make needed changes in their districts. They heard from representatives from districts with long-standing partnerships about successes stemming from their joint efforts.

This past week, the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools sponsored a similar conference for Florida districts, and next month, 150 teams from around the country will attend a federally sponsored conference with a similar focus hosted by the U.S. Department of Education in partnership with a number of education organizations, including the AFT. In order for a team to attend the conference, the district’s school board president, superintendent and teachers union leader must all agree to participate.

This is a welcome and promising shift. It is increasingly clear that combative, autocratic education “leadership” doesn’t work. Before anyone rushes to make collaboration the next silver bullet, it is crucial to note that this approach in and of itself does not create meaningful systemic change. Even with effective collaboration, which requires hard work, there also must be an instructional plan. When those two crucial pieces are in place, there is a growing body of evidence attesting to the power of collaboration to bring about significant educational improvements.

While education programs and policies vary by location, the common thread running through successful districts is their focus on solving problems, not winning arguments, as these examples show:

  • The superintendent and teachers union in Lowell, Mass., together have secured resources that students and teachers need to succeed, such as math and reading coaches, and data to help effectively focus instruction. This partnership has led to consistent improvement in student achievement as well as a substantial narrowing of achievement gaps among students.
  • The ABC Unified School District in Los Angeles County, a longtime leader in collaborative school improvement, has jointly focused on areas ranging from curriculum to professional development. Over the last decade, state student achievement scores in this economically and ethnically diverse district rose an average of 11 percent per year. The district also has made tremendous progress in closing the gap between high-achieving schools and what once were low-achieving schools.
  • In Georgetown, Ohio, in the middle of Appalachia, the union and the district have joined forces to transform rural education and improve student outcomes. In addition, the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (bringing together the education organization Battelle for Kids and the area’s teachers unions and school districts) was a key to Ohio’s success in landing Race to the Top funds.

No one is suggesting that we will eliminate conflict from important public pursuits, or stop fighting for our principles. But unproductive conflict only undermines confidence in public education. Collaboration fosters the conditions for transformative change; it creates trust and allows for risk-taking. And increasingly, the people entrusted with our children’s education are showing that we can act with urgency without abandoning decency.

The recent tragedy in Tucson, Ariz., has led to renewed calls for civility and for people to work together on issues that unite communities—and even on those that divide us. Public education is a public trust, an economic imperative and our nation’s great equalizer; working together should be our standard operating principle. And as an added benefit, collaboration is essential to helping students achieve.