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Duncan and Unions to Highlight Union-Management Collaboration

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the presidents of the national teachers' unions today announced that they will hold a summit to show the world that unions and managers can indeed get along to help kids—really, for real, pay no attention to that "Superman" movie.

The event, to take place early next year, will be called the National Education Reform Conference on Labor Management Collaboration. It will showcase examples of collective bargaining agreements that show that unions and districts can collaborate on education redesign.

Duncan traveled with Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, to Tampa, Fla., to announce the effort.

Why Tampa? Well, the Hillsborough County Public Schools and its union have put together a union-approved deal to revamp teacher and principal evaluation.

In its press release, NEA also highlighted cooperation in Seattle; Denver; Evansville, Ind.; Columbus, Ohio; and Oklahoma City. (AFT's press release hasn't hit my inbox yet, but I'm guessing it might brag about the proposed Baltimore teachers' contract, which is getting lots of praise. The Baltimore teachers' union is an AFT affiliate. [Update: Maybe not. The Baltimore teachers wrapped up voting tonight, and they rejected the contract.] ) Take a look at the programs the NEA is highlighting here and see what you think.

In its release, the U.S. Department of Education cited some of those same districts, plus Baltimore, Detroit, Delaware, Montgomery County in Maryland, New Haven, Conn., and Pittsburgh.

So why is this happening? For obvious reasons, the unions don't like the narrative that they are resistant to change and unwilling to cooperate. Here's what NEA said in its press release:

Over the last month, the public has been inundated with negative portrayals of teachers and their unions. "Waiting for 'Superman'," NBC's Education Nation summit, and other media coverage has vilified teachers and portrayed their unions as the obstacles to school improvement.

That perception may or may not be helpful for the Obama administration. Some parents (and voters) might like the idea that the administration is being "tough on unions" by promoting practices like tying teacher evaluation in part to student test scores.

But it might not be helpful for the administration (not to mention for skittish congressional Democrats) if the public perception is that their plans are being resisted by local teachers. For one thing, that might make policies like new evaluation systems tougher to implement, and it could weaken their staying power.

Duncan seems to be thinking along those lines. In recent interviews, he's been singing the praises of Diane Donohue, the president of the Delaware State Education Association, calling her one of his "personal heroes." Donohue was key to crafting (and selling) her state's winning Race to the Top application.

So is a summit the right PR move for the unions (and maybe the administration)?

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