New Report Looks at Historic Pittsburgh Partnership

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The Aspen Institute released a new report June 2 that examines the partnership between the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the Pittsburgh Public Schools, providing another example of the value of labor-management cooperation.

The partnership is a strong demonstration of what's possible when districts and unions honestly confront the issues, and when leaders on both sides are willing to change, the report notes. "Pittsburgh's pursuit of an ambitious reform agenda through cooperative efforts offers a powerful counterpoint to the current focus on union-district discord," says Ross Wiener, executive director of the Aspen Institute Education and Society Program. "While collaboration can't substitute for a substantive improvement agenda, there's every reason to believe we'll make more progress when people are working together. Genuine collaboration will look different in every context, but there are important lessons in Pittsburgh's journey."

Wiener moderated a panel discussion the institute held in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the new report. Participants included PFT president and AFT vice president John Tarka and Pittsburgh superintendent Linda Lane.

The report, "Forging a New Partnership: The Story of Teacher Union and School District Collaboration in Pittsburgh," written by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Sean Hamill, provides an in-depth look at the breakthrough collaboration that has taken place in the city over the past five years. It also highlights important principles that can be applied to other school districts across the country.

The school administration, teachers union, school board, and the surrounding foundation and business community worked together to improve student achievement in the school district while placing the city at the forefront of education reform. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Pittsburgh a $40 million grant for its "Empowering Effective Teachers" proposal, which was submitted collaboratively by the PFT and the district.

"Forging a New Partnership" grew out of a meeting last year in Pittsburgh of the Aspen Institute Education and Society Program's Urban Superintendents Network. Tarka and then-superintendent Mark Roosevelt addressed the district leaders and reflected on the strong relationship they had forged and the resulting progress. A historic new, five-year contract with the district had recently been negotiated and overwhelmingly approved by the union's membership.

"The teachers deserve credit for risk-taking," Tarka said during the panel discussion, pointing to last year's landmark contract . "Without their willingness to contribute," progress would be impossible.

Tarka also credited the national AFT for helping support Pittsburgh's efforts and thanked AFT president Randi Weingarten, who attended the discussion. Weingarten called Pittburgh "a really important example" of a school system that believes union-district collaboration stands for more than just "rhetorical bromides"—a district that harnesses this powerful approach to delve deeply into the "how's" of school improvement, the day-by-day work that "get lost a lot of times, particularly in light of the crazy budget crises" that public education faces.

The institute points out that the leadership shown by Pittsburgh's district and union modeled a new form of partnering. Successive, successful collaborations between Tarka and Roosevelt on issues that grew in complexity were built on trust, capacity and a sense of possibility. Teachers were engaged at every step in the work, which helped build ownership; create expertise; and led to better results for teachers, the system, the union and, most important, for students.

A June 2 Associated Press article includes coverage of the report. [Aspen Institute press release, Mike Rose]

June 2, 2011