Unlikely Allies: Unions and Districts in the Battle for School Reform

Reports & Briefs | January 11, 2011
Cover Image for "Unlikely Allies." Credit: iStock.

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 education reform. But this aging eastern mill town is the site for a bold collaborative approach to turning around low-performing schools.

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. Rhode Island is the only state in the nation that has allowed its school districts the option to "restart" their lowest performing schools using a joint labor-management strategy.

Brady and Smith are taking this opportunity and running with it, say Education Sector's Elena Silva and Susan Headden in Unlikely Allies: Unions and Districts in the Battle for School Reform. "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."

Out of this partnership has come "a groundbreaking plan that called for shared decision-making, shared accountability, and shared leadership," say Silva and Headden.

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."

Also Read: Unlikely Allies: The Next Chaper

The Joyce Foundation provided funding for this project. The findings and conclusions are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the foundation.