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At the conference on union-district collaboration here last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took the podium to champion the next big thing in school reform - the idea that two historically adversarial factions can work together to improve student achievement. Among other initiatives, he highlighted the efforts of Providence, R.I., which has rejected other turnaround strategies in favor of a bold new model in which teachers and district officials essentially run schools together.
By sharing authority with teachers, the theory goes, districts ensure that unions will smooth the path to reform rather than seeding it with landmines. This is a good thing, and we encourage it. But what we have also learned, and what other supporters of these alliances are wise to remember, is that collaboration — agreeing to it, doing it, and sticking with it — is a risky, difficult, and decidedly messy business.
For evidence, one need look no further than Providence itself. Last week, in a procedural move designed to fend off a budget crisis, the city announced its plans to terminate every one of its nearly 2,000 teachers. The Providence Teachers Union quickly denounced the move, filing a notice of unfair labor practices and rallying its members in a Wisconsin-style march on the capital. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said the dismissals, which unlike layoffs will require each teacher to reapply, are designed to give the city maximum flexibility in rehiring. Union President Steve Smith called the move "unconscionable" and "beyond insane," at a time when "we were at the table with our best ideas."
That kind of rhetoric is a far cry from the more agreeable tones that had characterized the union's communications with management just weeks earlier. A city with a particularly nasty history of labor-management conflict, Providence had just started to implement a radical "restart" plan for school improvement that puts control of four under-performing schools in the hands of both union and management. Because these factions had been working together from the get-go, United Providence — or UP! — as the compact is called, was hoped to be not just a local success story but a model of reform nationwide.
We hope it still will be. By all accounts, despite the current turmoil, a strong foundation for collaboration has taken root. District Superintendent Tom Brady, a retired U.S. Army colonel with a background in operations management, and Smith, a former teacher and legislator with deep working class roots in the city, have taken unprecedented steps to work together to improve Providence public schools. "We say that ours is an arranged marriage," Smith says. "We know that divorce would be very expensive."
And that is precisely the point. As committed as these two strange bedfellows appear to be, divorce in Providence - and in Douglas County and other Colorado districts embracing this approach -- is a risk. It's a risk because, at the heart of it, union leaders are from Mars and superintendents are from Venus.
True to expected type, Brady and Smith demonstrated that polarity right from the start, consummating their relationship with a fight. In 2009, acting on orders of the state education commissioner, Brady abolished the practice of "bumping," the process by which a teacher with less seniority is displaced by a teacher with more. The union, naturally, sued, with Smith claiming, among other things, that criterion-based hiring "had no criteria." Ironically, this lawsuit was on the verge of being settled when the current dismissals were announced - dismissals that give the district the power to rehire without considering seniority.
Brady, who has a military man's penchant for efficiency, likes to talk about the union's "67-page contract from hell": Teachers didn't have to write lesson plans, professional development wasn't uniformly required, and teachers" days were prescribed to the minute. And yet Smith is passionate about protecting teachers who, in Providence and elsewhere, are increasingly taking the hit for the manifold ills of public education.
In the end Smith and Brady came together because they had to — the state's Race to the Top application could not have succeeded without union buy-in. But even with that outside pressure, these two leaders have taken enormous personal risks — remarkably bold chances that other champions of collaboration would do well to consider before going down similar paths.
By endorsing the Race to the Top bid, which called for tying teacher pay to student performance, Smith put his very presidency on the line, as well as a shot at the presidency of the state union. As for Brady, forging a partnership with the union has placed him well beyond the expected bounds of his position.
For all of its problems, apparent and unknown, union-district collaboration holds great promise as a strategy for turning around struggling schools. Unlike technocratic solutions that have failed to meet expectations, collaboration considers the human factor an essential element of progress. With UP!, Providence not only recognized that element — in Brady and Smith and in the teachers and principals — it elevated it.
Amidst the current tensions, the Providence partnership still stands as a testament to the optimistic notion that most people, however different, are better together than apart. But the words of former Rhode Island education commissioner Peter McWalters now seem more portentous than ever. When asked about the Smith-Brady alliance early on, he asked, "Will they have the courage to keep it up when they want to kill each other? Something will happen that's out of line, something will go wrong. It always does, and that's the test."
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