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Where Al Shanker Stood: Union-District Partnerships

In this New York Times piece, which was published on March 9, 1986, Al Shanker discusses a study suggesting that union-district partnership, not confrontation, is the best way to enact and implement reforms that will improve schools.

In the last 25 years, teachers' unions have grown in size and influence. In the minds of many they represent an establishment just as much as the local board of education and the superintendent of schools. Many critics of our schools have been eager to portray teacher unions as supporters of educationally undesirable rules and procedures, such as seniority, which were borrowed from the industrial sector. They view teacher unions as fighting for these rules at any cost and using their bargaining powers to shoot down constructive change whenever it threatens to infringe on teachers' vested interests.

But an interesting new study gives us quite a different picture of the impact that teacher unions and collective bargaining have on the reform process. In preparing Teacher Unions, School Staffing and Reform, a Harvard Graduate School of Education research team led by Susan Moore Johnson analyzed 155 contracts chosen at random from a variety of school districts around the country. And, from June of 1984 to February, 1985, they did extensive, in-depth field work in 5 of the districts, where they examined documents, sat in on meetings and interviewed 187 teachers, principals, union leaders and central office administrators.

What emerges is a valuable insight into the dynamics and complexity of the reform process, why some proposals work and why others fall flat. Though new programs tend to be formulated in legislative chambers or in governors' mansions, the key to success, the authors conclude, is what happens on the district level, within the individual collective bargaining unit. And some interesting patterns emerge.

For one thing, the fate of proposed changes largely depends on a district's history of labor-management relations. If a spirit of mutual trust has been established in earlier negotiations between administration and teachers along with a proven mechanism for problem solving, both parties generally make a good faith effort to make new ideas work or at least adapt them to fit the particular needs of their schools.

For example, when "Citrus County" was forced by the state legislature's new reform package to implement a Merit School program, which proposed to award or deny funds to schools "based on small differences that might actually represent statistical error," the teachers' union and the local board of education ultimately managed to work out a way to minimize the fiscal inequities built into the new legislation. According to the authors, the "cooperative labor relationship that had developed over time enabled the district to resolve problems that might otherwise have been intractable…"

By contrast, the study concludes, a long-standing adversarial and paternalistic relationship breeds suspicion, cynicism and resistance among teachers. In "Midland Heights," reform efforts followed the established managerial pattern with proposals for a Staffing for Excellence program initiated unilaterally from the management side, all of which "engendered distrust ... pitted administrators against faculty, and enraged teachers." All signs point to an early demise of the administrative initiative.

Another observation of the authors is that reforms generated from the grass roots level have a better chance of success than those handed down from high places, from the state authorities, for example. This would seem self-evident, but the fact remains that many of the reform packages now on the books or currently in the hopper have been formulated with no participation from those who must implement them - the teachers. Here again the study shows the importance of cooperative labor-management relations, and cites examples ("Citrus County" and the Merit School plan, for instance) of how school administrators and teacher representatives worked out strategies to dilute the ill effects of poorly conceived programs mandated from above. As a union officer said, "What we're doing here is a whole lot of damage control."

Though Teacher Unions, School Staffing, and Reform focuses on one issue of public school policy and related reforms, the authors' analysis of the how and why of what happened in the 5 target districts clearly establishes some broadly applicable guidelines for effective change which are consistent with the most recent findings in the management literature on promoting excellence in the workplace.

The message is that on site teachers and administrators have to be full partners in the reform process. Proposals for change are best initiated at the grass roots level. And new ideas must have what the report calls "substance," that is they have to be seen by the people at the school level as real solutions to real problems and not as mere attempts to make the central administration look good.

Old stereotypes die hard, but, to those who are receptive, this latest report offers more evidence that teacher unionism and the collective bargaining process need not inhibit education reform. The findings of the Harvard research team suggest something different. A strong collective bargaining unit and a cooperative labor management relationship give teachers sufficient self-assurance to be less defensive, and dispose them to be more willing to reassess old positions and more receptive to new ideas. But, where hostility and adversarial relations prevail, teacher unions will use their power to thwart management objectives and proposed reforms.

If anything, the report places the burden on school administrators and, by implication, on politicians, to include teachers "as professionals in the reform process." Partnership, not confrontation, is the key to turning our schools around. Teacher unions and collective bargaining can either help or hinder the bringing about of needed change and, where there is resistance, the blame should go not to unionism or collective bargaining but to the underlying adversarial relations.

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