If it Bleeds it Leads – That’s not Denver

All right, so the mayhem in Madison – shut down those public employee unions! — was all over the nightly news and in this morning’s headlines – and no doubt, apparently, will continue to be, at least for today, America’s answer to Tahrir Square.

More importantly, perhaps, they were hand-holding in Denver.  And, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said yesterday, at a press conference concluding the ED’s two-day Advancing Student Achievement through Labor Management Collaboration conference, he foresees “a movement” of cooperation between unions and management that will transform education. Many people called the conclave, which brought together representatives from 150 school districts, including management and labor, historic. (See my report here.)

It was quite a confab, one which highlighted the success of collaborations in places like Helena and New Haven as well as the pioneering union-friendly work of Green Dot, the charter management organization.  The sponsors of the Denver conference included the National School Boards Association, the Council of the Great City Schools, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Ford Foundation and their representatives.  At the concluding press conference several of the leaders of those groups complimented participants for their “courage,” but it was grand diplomacy that was most on display.

The first questioner asked Secretary Duncan to be more specific about “seniority-based layoffs,” one of the hottest topics in education, and here was the Hyde Park mediator at his best:

These are obviously very complicated budget times… We’ve seen lots of layoffs…  If we’re serious… [we’ll put] student achievement at the heart of these agreements…, [but we] have to be very creative… not making things worse through these layoffs… [This is] the definition of a hard issue… There are a couple different ways of going about it that I don’t think get us to where we want to go. One temptation is that you fire your most effective teachers, your great veterans.  While that may work from a cost efficiency standpoint, when you have great veteran teachers, that gives a grave disservice to children. Another way of doing it is to fire all the new teachers — and you have great talent in that pool as well.  That’s a challenge.  I worry, particularly, in historically underserved communities, where you have schools with constant turnover, those students need stability… we must be much more creative in how we do that.  Those are two ways not to do it…

Two ways not to do it?   It could be argued that this is wishy-wash. Or, as it seems, Duncan shows the skills of a veteran diplomat, finding a language of conciliation that propels antagonists forward.  (I like his keen understanding for the fundamental need of students in low income schools: stability and continuity.  “Where you have to make the tough calls,” said Duncan, “particularly for the most disadvantaged children in the most disadvantaged communities, how do you keep the best teachers in those schools so that they have the sense of continuity that they so desperately need.”)

Duncan did let his hair down a bit when asked about the big districts that didn’t show – notably, New York City and Washington, DC. “Obviously we’re disappointed that any district can’t spend 24 hours together to work on these tough issues,” he said. “I think it’s a sad reflection of the reality of the dysfunction – er, the challenges – in those places…. I think it’s a reality check that folks are at different levels in their ability to work together.” He then did what he does best, moved the ball forward.

We have a whole set of districts that are frankly going to lead the country where we need to go. And we have some districts that aren’t quite there yet. That is a reality… do everything we can to move from a handful of superstars, from 15, to 50, to 150 to 1500 – this is going to be a movement.

We hope so.  But there seems a weak link in this collaboration that the sponsors would do well to pay attention to: the parents and taxpayers.  Dennis Van Roekel, president of the NEA, alluded to it, perhaps inadvertently, when he said,

I just  can’t help but note the disconnect between what’s happening here [in Denver] and what is happening in state houses around the country….  That demand [for school improvement] out there is not coming from the education community. Because here we are all talking about collaboration, about trust, about building partnership, all in the best interests of students.

It is a disconnect. And it is up to the nation’s school boards, the only group at the conference that, nominally, represents parents and taxpayers in this school improvement debate, to make – or remake – that connection.  Once it does so, it can then come back to the bargaining table, not just talking about collaboration, but fully aware of who it actually represents.

–Peter Meyer

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