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Collective Bargaining for Improved Student Achievement

A Missed Opportunity

By Bill Raabe, NEA Collective Bargaining & Member Advocacy

Some might see the title and think it's not possible. Others may view it and believe that the concepts of collective bargaining and improved student achievement are mutually exclusive. Others examine it and look for simplistic "silver bullet" solutions. I see the title and see opportunity. Opportunity for the school employees, administrators, and school boards to sit down as co-equals and reach resolution on issues directly related to student achievement. I see opportunity for a new level of dialogue over issues that often receive too little attention at the bargaining table. I see opportunity to have a direct positive impact on the learning conditions for students.

Are You Willing To Move in This Direction?

Deciding to enter into collective bargaining in this arena requires strong and effective local unions and equally strong and effective school administrators and school boards. Certainly there will be a need to commit to this work over the long run and understand that this effort will not be isolated to the time you’re at the bargaining table. It requires the willingness of the parties to take risks. The Union and District may be required to:

  • Take the risk to bargain in new ways over issues such as: curriculum, instruction, professional development, student assessment,  recruitment and retention of quality personnel, closing the achievement gaps, and teacher evaluation;
  • Take risks to engage in a different level of dialogue and exchange openly; 
  • Take risks to fully explore the others' ideas, not just your own; and
  • Take the risk to temporarily remove the management/labor labels often permanently affixed to one’s forehead.

Will You Take Appropriate Action?

Once it's been decided to take these risks, and to make the joint commitment to improving student achievement through labor-management collective bargaining, what's next? Certainly a lot of "heavy lifting." Training, research, compromise, study, assessment, and recommitment will all become part of your work. You might consider that:

  • The parties need joint training on a process to use to deal with achievement related issues (probably interest-based bargaining);
  • Data on existing achievement gaps must be collected;
  • Data collection is necessary to determine the issues which will have the most impact on improving student achievement in your district;
  • The parties should examine (and question) available research that quantifies the impact of selected improvement strategies;
  • It is important to avoid being swayed by the political winds that blow in the latest "school improvement fads;"
  • You must listen attentively to the parties' stories and interests related to  selected issues;
  • You will have to brainstorm solutions, craft solutions that meet your joint interests and determine the interventions based on those solutions that will have the most positive impact; and
  • You will want to monitor your solutions and interventions, give them time to work, assess them and adjust them as needed - Improved student achievement should not be subject to the duration clause of your contract.

Where Has There Been Success?

The idea of using collective bargaining to positively impact student achievement and the achievement gaps is beginning to take hold, although slowly. This work requires “heavy lifting” and long-term commitment by the parties. Fads, short-sighted solutions, or state or federal one-size-fits-all options never will stand the test of time.

Selections from three district/union contracts have been chosen as representative of the progress being made and to highlight what’s possible. These three, (Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools and the Montgomery County Education Association, and the Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Education Association) are but a few of the districts/unions who see collective bargaining as one effective tool to use in improving student achievement. [see 1 below]

Minneapolis, MN [see 2 below]

The Minneapolis Public Schools Strategic Direction calls for the District to support Shared Leadership for Continuous Improvement. The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of instruction and learning for students. It is expected that each school continuously renews itself and develops strategies to improve the achievement of each student served, and eliminate gaps in learning between groups of students.

The Minneapolis Public Schools has adopted an accountability system that addresses individual, school, and system accountability for improved student performance.

The Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) along with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) agree on the importance of professional development and support of its teachers.  It is a crucial factor in creating and maintaining an excellent school system focused on ensuring that all students learn.

Montgomery County, MD  [see 3 below]

At the district level the Board of Education and executive leadership team are responsible for encouraging, modeling and sustaining a culture necessary to support the shared responsibility for student achievement.
At the school level, administrators and the staff as a whole are accountable for establishing a learning community conducive to the best teach¬ing practices and success for every student.

At the classroom level, teachers are accountable for the instruction they deliver and the classroom environment they create within which every student can succeed.

Seattle, WA  [see 4 below]

The SEA and the Seattle Public Schools continue to strive for a relationship that is focused on providing the best possible learning environment for students. The organizational structures described below will help to advance collaboration as we work toward this goal.

1. Partnership Committee
The SPS and SEA will create a partners committee consisting of 5 appointees of SPS and 5 appointees of the SEA. The purpose of the committee will be to address the issues of the achievement gap. There is not the luxury of time - each day that passes without every effort being made to insure that all students can reach the standards set by the SPS for every student to be able to know and do upon graduation is a breach of our collective responsibility to provide a quality education.

In the Final Analysis

We all believe that a great public school is basic right for every child.  We all agree that schools and teachers need the resources to prepare students for their individual futures. We know we have to prepare students by providing them the three R's and that we need to teach and exhibit responsibility and respect. Finally, we know that the public is demanding results.

Excuses are not acceptable. Our children are worth more than excuses.

It is time that we use every tool at our disposal. Collective bargaining is one of those tools. It is time to employ it as a means to engage the debate. It is time to use it to explore options to close the achievement gaps.  It is time to use it to demand, and expect, the best from each of us. It is time to ignore the rhetoric that often keeps the scope of collective bargaining narrowly defined. It is time to step up to the plate and demand from each other a collective commitment to our children. Let's not miss the opportunity to use collective bargaining as a vital component of our commitment.
[1] The full text of the collective bargaining agreements referenced can be found on the web sites of the respective public school systems or local unions. The language provided here is but a small part of each of the referenced contract articles.

[2] The selections from the Minneapolis contract highlight the commitment of the MPS and MFT to shared responsibility and the use of  professional development as key component for improved student achievement.

[3] MCPS and MCEA focus the responsibility on all levels of the school and outline specific roles of each level of the system for improving student learning.  The actual article contains substantially more detail.

[4] SPS and SEA have developed a comprehensive article on closing the achievement gaps.  The selection here highlights one piece of the structure and the urgency of the issue.