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CalTURN Highlights Labor-Management Success, Challenges

March 6, 2014

Today and tomorrow I’ll be in Sacramento attending the semi-annual meeting of the California Teacher Union Reform Network – CalTURN. My involvement with CalTURN the past few years has much to do with my optimism about the direction of public education in California. (Disclosure: I’m also on the CalTURN steering committee). This convening brings together union and district leaders from around the state, teams that are committed to labor-management collaboration. In this room, you won’t hear union leaders and administrators complaining about “them” and you won’t hear one side “we” are supporting students and “they” are supporting adult interests.

District and union leadership share the podium at CalTURN, 3/6/14. (photo by the author)

District and union leaders share the podium at CalTURN, 3/6/14. (photo by the author)

You also won’t hear anyone say “we” have it all figured out. As a consumer of information about schools and educational governance, I am quick to tune out, or at least discount, stories that sound a bit miraculous, schools and systems that have the solutions. Those stories often don’t stand up to scrutiny, or the success is short-lived, stratospheric success returning to earth when the people involved change or the conditions evolve.

I find it exciting to hear about the real hard work that people are doing to build and sustain incremental change, to create institutional culture based on shared values and open communication. It’s incremental change, and it doesn’t proceed in a linear way. There are districts that have been making good progress for years in labor-management collaboration, and just this morning, we heard from three of them here in California: Poway Unified, San Juan Unified, and ABC Unified. What’s impressive to me is not that they have perfect school districts where everyone gets along, but rather, that they’ve slowly built up an expectation that labor and management work together at every step. They understand that we need each other, and that our overall interests are the same: improve schools, help students. They understand that in the long run, neither labor nor management “wins” if the other loses. Our institutions, students, and communities, do not benefit from weakened or dysfunctional elements within the system.

Here’s a great example: in one district we heard from in this morning’s panel, the union and district leadership put out joint communiqués to staff. Rather than one side or the other communicating with teachers and administrators about professional development or Common Core implementation, a unified message comes through. And even more impressive to me, they put into those messages where they are currently in disagreement and still working through issues. The benefit of that collaboration at the district level is that the teachers and administrators at a school site both know what “their” leadership is doing, and they know what issues are being addressed; this candid communication allows schools to focus on student learning and set aside the issues that they know are being dealt with on their behalf.

As I compose this blog post, I’m looking around the room, seeing and hearing district teams having relaxed and productive conversations about how to work together to improve working together. Such opportunities are not common enough. Sometimes district teams attend conference together to focus on curriculum or professional development, but I think it’s less frequent that they have the opportunity to focus on themselves. If more labor-management teams could engage in this kind of collaboration, the work of professional development, evaluation, and instructional change would all benefit.

If you are reading this post today or tomorrow (Mar. 6-7), or shortly thereafter, check out #CalTURN for some updates and insights via Twitter.

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