Dear LA Times: Collaboration Is Not for Wimps
By Ken Futernick
In naming Michelle King as LAUSD's superintendent, the district's Board of Education took an important step to quiet the longstanding education wars that have compromised the education of 650,000 students. One of the longest standing of these battles is that between the district and United Teachers Los Angeles.
King says she's committed to building collaborative relationships between the district's management and its labor unions, and she reiterated her collaborative style in a recent story by L.A. Times reporter Howard Blume.
Steve Zimmer, the board president, and Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the union that represents over 30,000 teachers, have also expressed interest in working as partners rather than adversaries.
But good intentions don't always bring positive change. In LAUSD, formidable obstacles stand in the way of a successful turnaround in labor-management relations. All sides need to see these obstacles clearly and address them effectively, or all the happy talk of collaboration will lead nowhere and mean nothing for students.
Pressure For Speed May Delay Substantive Change
One obstacle is the pressure for speedy change from community leaders and other outside interests who view the efforts to collaborate as an unnecessary distraction that will only delay the educational reforms that we need now.
"What seems to be missing is a sense of urgency," Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said of superintendent King. "And if I were the parent of a student, I think I'd be looking for a leader willing to make dramatic change to make sure my children get the education they deserve. That may be to come, but it hasn't been evident in her tone."
The Los Angeles Times, which supported King's selection, also expressed skepticism about her desire to collaborate. Referring to former superintendent John Deasy's proclivity for top-down mandates, the editors wrote in What new L.A. schools chief Michelle King needs to do now, "...at times she's going to have to step up and do a Deasy: take an unpopular position and stick to it in the face of heated criticism."
Unpopular Ideas, for Good Reason
Such skeptics of collaboration, however, don't recognize that the pressure to make quick fixes may prompt both sides to pursue the corrosive tactics of the past (e.g., unilateral decision-making, confrontational contract negotiating) that undermined trust and drew attention from problems that hurt students. If that happens again, prospects for a productive partnership and sustainable reform will vanish. Unpopular ideas are often unpopular for good reasons, and forcing others to accept them almost never works.
Another obstacle to collaboration is the inevitable resistance of educators within the district. Some teachers will fear that cozy union-management ties will lead to union capitulation, even collusion, diluting teachers' influence and weakening their contracts. Some administrators will resist collaboration because they won't want to cede any decision-making authority to teachers.
But such fears are misplaced. Collaboration doesn't end disagreements or prevent leaders from moving forward even when they don't reach consensus. Leaders in highly collaborative districts still disagree, often vehemently, but they don't blindside or humiliate one another or pursue tactics that can destroy trust. And disagreements on some problems don't prevent them from finding solutions on others.
Nor does collaboration weaken teacher contracts. Bargaining that focuses on common interests rather than opposing positions often gives both sides more of what they want, not less. Collaboration also gives teachers two things that they want as much as fair compensation - supportive teaching conditions and a strong voice in professional matters. Meanwhile, administrators discover that they make better decisions when they're guided by the collective wisdom of teachers, and that teachers are far more motivated to implement the changes that they helped shape.
Real labor-management partnerships have spurred numerous innovations. The partnership in Maryland's Montgomery County of nearly 15 years produced a comprehensive professional growth system that strengthened educator quality and dramatically improved student learning.
The years of collaboration in Cincinnati's public schools helped boost the district's graduation rate from 51 to 82 percent over ten years and eliminate the graduation gap between African-American and white students. School principals who were skeptical at first about sharing key educational decisions with teachers now welcome it. The labor-management partnership also generated nationally recognized community learning centers that offer health and education services to students and families that need them.
To be sure, while collaboration is necessary for educational change, it's no silver bullet. Even successful partnerships don't always generate better outcomes for students. LAUSD will have to do many other things right. But if its leaders remain committed to collaboration, resist calls for quick fixes, and muster the courage and patience to build trusting and productive relationships, all of its students stand a real chance of getting a high-quality education.
LAUSD needs leaders who see their fellow educators as partners, not adversaries, who are committed to maintaining civil and productive relationships, and who think children have a right to expect adults to work together on their behalf--that is, who model the very behaviors that we teach to our children.
Ken Futernick is a professor emeritus at Cal State Sacramento. He is the author of The Courage to Collaborate: The Case for Labor-Management Collaboration in Education (Harvard Education Press, 2016) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.