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Washington, D.C. — Providence, Rhode Island, with its long history of antagonistic union-district relations, would probably not lead anyone's list of cities in the forefront of collaborative school reform. But, as documented in Unlikely Allies: Unions and Districts in the Battle for School Reform, a new Education Sector report, this aging eastern mill town is the site for a new collaborative approach to turning around low-performing schools.
Providence, like many American cities, is home to many chronically low-performing schools. But it is also the capital of Rhode Island, the only state in the nation that has allowed its districts, through its school intervention protocol, the option to "restart" its lowest performing schools using a joint labor-management strategy.
This effort is led by two unlikely allies—District Superintendent Tom Brady, a former Army colonel, and Steve Smith, a former state legislator who is president of the Providence Teachers Union. Brady and Smith are taking this opportunity and running with it, according to authors Elena Silva, senior policy analyst, and Susan Headden, senior writer/editor. "In what is believed to be the first such arrangement in the country, it has created a novel union-district alliance in which the two factions will develop the reform plan together and share the responsibility of making it work."
Unlikely Allies highlights the striking differences between the two key players in the Providence reform effort. Brady and Smith are described as an "unlikely pair, the tall former Army colonel with the ramrod bearing and the executive style, and the short fast-talking populist from the wrong side of town. Where Brady is reserved, Smith is animated. Where Brady sticks to his talking points, Smith gives in to candor."
Yet, say Silva and Headden, out of this partnership has come "a groundbreaking plan that called for shared decision-making, shared accountability, and shared leadership." Under the plan, management at four Providence schools will be run by a partnership called United Providence (UP!). The day-to-day responsibilities will be shared by a principal and a union teacher. Schools will operate on the premise of "reciprocal obligations," with both labor and management sharing mutual responsibility and commitment to ensuring student success.
Agreeing to work together on a new plan to reform the schools was a risk for both men, Silva and Headden argue. And yet, they say, "the real test of collaboration is putting the plan into school-level practice, and that means working through the disagreements and discord that surely lie ahead."
With more of the nation's low-performing schools moving into the turnaround process, the possibilities of success are tantalizing. If Brady and Smith can make the Providence partnership a success, it is likely to be replicated in cities across the country.
Education Sector is an independent think tank that challenges conventional thinking in education policy. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to achieving measurable impact in education, both by improving existing reform initiatives and by developing new, innovative solutions to our nation's most pressing education problems.