Union-district collaboration earns national attention

This morning, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will visit Hillsborough County, Florida, to learn more about school reform efforts that are rooted in a different model for transforming education: collaboration.

In August I traveled to Hillsborough to showcase a groundbreaking partnership between the Hillsborough County Public Schools and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association that will overhaul how teachers are trained, evaluated and compensated. The Gates Foundation awarded Hillsborough $100 million for the Empowering Effective Teachers initiative so educators and administrators will be able to see what does or does not affect the bottom line: student learning.

Take the idea of linking teacher pay to student achievement. It’s been around for a while, and it appeals to many people. After all, why shouldn’t teachers earn more when their students learn more? Underlying this idea, however, is an assumption that many teachers could do better work if only they wanted to, and that a little bit more money would motivate them to do so.

In Hillsborough, education stakeholders knew that this assumption wasn’t true. They also knew that simply paying bonuses based on test scores did nothing to improve student achievement, because such a program was already in place in the county. So Hillsborough designed a system that will look at many indicators of student achievement, not just test scores, and consider all of them in the evaluation of teachers. Teachers will learn where they need to improve and receive the coaching, technology or other help necessary to make that happen.

The opinions of teaching colleagues will be weighed, as well as principals. And rather than simply paying bonuses for performance, the county is creating a new career ladder that allows teachers to move to different levels based upon their overall performance. The local teachers union was involved at every step in developing this process—and the district used an inclusive approach that welcomed the union’s meaningful input.

There is universal agreement that we must hire and retain more great teachers, and there is no reason we can’t make real progress toward this goal, providing that we work together. Today I will join Secretary Duncan and other education and union leaders in announcing plans to convene an education reform conference early next year that will put a national spotlight on labor-management collaboration.

Across the country, many of NEA’s local affiliates – including Denver, Seattle, Montgomery County, Md., Columbus, Ohio, and Chattanooga, Tenn. – have agreed to significant changes in the ways that teachers are evaluated and compensated. The key word is “agree”, which can only occur when there is mutual respect and teachers are treated as allies rather than adversaries.

It’s past time to stop pointing fingers about who should be responsible for improving our public schools. It’s time to begin a dialogue about how to share in that responsibility. Like the Secretary of Education, reformers can look to the collaboration and progressive labor agreement in Hillsborough as a model to start the conversation.

Dennis Van Roekel is President of the National Education Association.