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Conference on Collaboration Details 'Reform from Within'

Teamwork that can trigger solid, sustainable gains across entire school systems captured the spotlight in Washington, D.C., as union leaders and school administrators from districts around the country came together Oct. 6-8 for an AFT conference on collaborative school reform.

Collaboration conference   Teams from 35 districts in states from California to Rhode Island participated in the event, joined by local, state and national policymakers, leading academics, and major education foundations. It was a chance to explore some of the most successful approaches in place today—from collaborative strategies that are helping to close the achievement gap in Lowell, Mass., to innovative designs for professional development and evaluation that are bringing together the school community in Hillsborough County, Fla. Equally important, the conference carved out time for teams to talk internally and with colleagues from other districts—time to discuss the opportunities and obstacles that local union leaders and district administrators face daily.

AFT president Randi Weingarten set the tone for conference participants by underscoring the urgency of their work. Driving the most barbed attacks on public schools today, she said, is a message that goes beyond acrimony: Americans, mired in a devastating recession, are openly questioning their ability to survive and prosper in a world that is shifting to a new economic model, one driven by skills and knowledge. And they are begging public schools for help.

School systems are being asked "to build the plane and fly it at the same time, to take what is an industrial model of education and to transform it" into a knowledge-age approach that works for all kids, Weingarten said. "We don't have a blueprint, but we do have a mode of engagement—and that is through collaboration."

The AFT president highlighted districts around the country where teamwork and shared responsibility were leading to progress, but she assured the crowd of veteran frontline school leaders that she wasn't there to sugar-coat challenges or overpromise results: Collaboration remains hard, often frustrating, work, and it depends on a genuine shared commitment to solving problems, rather than winning arguments. But there is power in the approach that no "my-way-or-the-highway" models of reform can match—and the public understands that.

Rep. George Miller at Collaboration Conference   "When the adults are standing together and saying 'we have a means to fix problems,' the community feels more confidence in us—they are rooting for us to do this," Weingarten observed. "I promise you, if we can make this work, then we can fix our school systems and transform them—to give kids an opportunity not just to dream their dreams but to achieve them."

Also addressing the conference was U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who broke off engagements and traveled across the country during a make-or-break election cycle to address a conference he characterized as vital to prospects for a strong new Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the next Congress. (Miller is pictured at left with AFT president Randi Weingarten.)

"This conference reflects the future," said Miller, chair of the key House committee charged with ESEA reauthorization. School improvement depends on "working together to assemble solutions," he told the union leaders and administrators, and a big focus of the next ESEA must be "to provide the support system for what you're doing."

Making the case for collaboration

Conference participants heard general session presentations from union-administration teams representing the ABC Unified School District in Southern California; Plattsburgh, N.Y.; Toledo, Ohio; St. Francis, Minn.; Norfolk, Va.; and Hillsborough County, Fla. They explained how deep, sustained partnerships have resulted in true shared decision-making at the district and school levels, new support networks for innovation and instruction, and data-informed decision-making in schools.

Common threads bind these and other districts that have made a genuine commitment to collaborative change, said Saul Rubinstein of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and co-author of the new report "Collaborating on School Reform," which was presented at the conference. The paper details the histories of the six districts presenting at the conference and highlights many common aspects and sustaining factors, such as long-term leadership for both union and management, community engagement, and the importance of supportive and enabling contract language.

The meeting also invited teams to reflect on the conference from the floor—sharing their experience with collaboration in their home districts, and previewing the ways they might take and tailor the approach when they return home. Their comments made it clear that the big "take-away" from the meeting was enthusiasm and a renewed commitment to teamwork solutions.

"Without collaboration, I don't even know how you begin" reforms like peer review and assistance, Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Teachers Association president Roderick Sherman told the crowd. "You really need that trust."

On the management side, superintendent Tony Dunn described how Georgetown, Ohio, continues to transform from a "top-down, I-tell-you-what-to-do" workplace into a system that brings everyone's talents and experience to the table. "I collaborate as a survival mechanism," Dunn told the audience. "My job as a superintendent is to convince principals that, yes, we can be collaborative. There is a way to do that—in fact it's the only way." [Mike Rose/photos by Michael Campbell/video by Matthew Jones]

October 12, 2010