Beyond the education wars: A case study in collaboration

Here’s an excerpt from a new e-book titled “Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools,” which looks at how struggling schools make improvements by collaboration between labor and management. It was written by Greg Anrig, vice president for policy and programs at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public research organization based in Washington D.C. He wrote a post about the importance of collaboration in building effective schools, which you can read here.

Here’s Anrig’s excerpt, called “Emerging from the Abyss in Springfield, Massachusetts”:

The second largest city in Massachusetts after Boston, Springfield has emerged from a deep crisis, which culminated in its insolvency in 2004, to show signs of rebounding. One sign of progress is modest but significant improvement on the standardized test scores of its public school students.  Those gains have been achieved in the aftermath of a joint labor-management initiative that radically transformed long-acrimonious relations between administrators and teachers into a much more collaborative partnership. While it is uncertain how sustainable the progress will prove to be, the conscious efforts of the parties involved to bridge deep divisions after reaching rock bottom provide useful insights about the challenges and payoffs connected to such an undertaking. In addition, unusually deep detail about the effort is available thanks to a case study developed by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, which was closely involved in Springfield’s turnaround effort, and serves as the primary source for this excerpt.

 

A confluence of forces contributed to the downward spiral culminating in Springfield’s insolvency. Located in western Massachusetts, the city’s industrial base had been in decline for many years. Corruption was a big problem. The share of the school system’s students from low-income, minority families steadily grew, while its state aid relative to other cities dropped.  By 2004, only about half of Springfield’s students graduated from high school in four years, and the share of students proficient in math was below 10 percent for eighth graders and 25 percent for fourth graders.

 

In July of 2004, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts created a five-member Financial Control Board (FCB) to take over all aspects of Springfield’s government, including the public schools, while providing a $52 million interest-free loan to save the city from bankruptcy. From 2004 through 2007, under the direction of the FCB, the problems facing Springfield’s school system appeared to worsen. After a heated and protracted negotiation with the FCB that included a state-imposed mediation process, the Springfield Education Association agreed to a contract in September 2006. But the rank-and-file teachers were deeply unhappy with the deal. Union president Timothy Collins said, “Basically they had us in a corner with a gun to our heads.”  The union issued a vote of no confidence in school Superintendent Joseph Burke, charging him with being “divisive,” “disingenuous,” “dishonest,” and “promoting radical, untested, and dangerous ideas.” Over 80 percent of teachers turned out to vote, and 96 percent indicated they had no confidence in Burke.  Throughout the period, teachers fled the uncertainty, stress, and low pay for nearby school systems. After the first year of FCB control, the district experienced the largest exodus of licensed teachers in a single year. Over the tenure of the FCB, the district had to hire 1,800 new teachers, representing nearly 70 percent of the teaching force.

 

During that contentious period, Superintendent Burke and union president Collins had been quietly meeting behind the scenes to discuss how to build a stronger relationship between the district and union. The Rennie Center, an independent think tank led by Paul Reville (who moved on to become Massachusetts Secretary of Education), played an important role in facilitating those discussions.  The first sign of district-union collaboration came in the fall of 2004, when Burke and Collins formed Springfield’s Joint Labor-Management Initiative. The Joint Labor-Management Initiative was a seven-member team composed of three union members, three district representatives, and a school board member, designed to cre­ate action plans to improve district-union collaboration. As its first task, the team embarked on a project to develop and agree on the characteristics of a successful school, meeting a dozen times over 18 months. As a result of that process, in February 2006, the team created a common definition of success, focused on improving student achievement, and setting objectives for all stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Despite complet­ing its work, the team waited until January 2007 to release the document, due to the acrimony over the labor contract.

 

To the members on the joint labor-management team, the next natural step was to compare their definition of the characteristics of a successful school with the actual conditions in Springfield’s schools. They decided that a survey was the best route to efficiently gathering detailed information on all the schools in the district, selecting a National Education Association-designed survey that uses 42 indicators to measure six keys to school improvement. Administered in March 2007, the forty-five minute survey was completed by over 80 percent of district teachers and administrators. To analyze the district-level data, the labor-management team expanded to a twenty-member steering committee, with equal district and union representation, and began meeting that fall.

 

The first few meetings were divisive; teachers and administrators spent most of the time blaming each other for the problems in the schools highlighted in the survey. Progress was slow, but team members began to see that Burke and Collins were serious about collaborating. After 25 hours of meetings and many difficult conversations, members of the steering committee finally reached consensus. The committee decided to focus on three indicators they be­lieved were critical to student success that showed a need for improvement in Springfield: (1) the school operates under the assumption that all students can learn; (2) the school provides a safe environment for learning; and (3) teachers are involved in decisions about school operations. With facilitation from Reville and a representative from the Massachusetts Teachers Association state office, the committee then worked on creating goals and action steps, and rolling out the findings to schools.

 

In the spring of 2008, the Financial Control Board announced that it was opening up a search for a new superintendent to replace Burke. It settled on Alan Ingram, a former military leader and graduate of Broad Superintendent’s Academy, who started on July 1, 2008. The transition risked derailing the budding union-district collaboration, but the members of the steering committee were determined to persuade Ingram to keep it going. Nancy deProsse, a member of the committee and director of a Massachusetts Teacher Association program, said, “We had built a strong relationship amongst ourselves. We were doing things like resolving grievances and addressing issues in the schools they we weren’t able to do before.”

 

Important business and non-profit leaders also urged Ingram to build on the new collaborative effort. Mary Walacy, executive director of the Springfield-based Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, said, “You cannot have a reform-focused agenda without a good relationship with the teachers’ union. The only way to make long-term profound change is to work within systems.” Bill Ward, president and CEO of the Hampden County Regional Employment Board, added, “Once you step into it, you have to be in it for the long haul. This kind of change is a long-term process that demands a long-term commitment.” Ingram was convinced that the collaboration was worth sustaining. He said, “Superintendents always talk about what to throw away, but just as important was what to keep.”

 

Ingram worked with the committee to gather additional survey data on the effectiveness of school leadership teams and central office departments. One of the more controversial findings that emerged from the data was that Springfield teachers had varying expectations for what all students could learn. Initially, there were heated con­versations on the steering committee about what exactly it meant that Springfield’s schools had scored low on the statement “school operates under the assumption that all students can learn.” As the committee members met with teachers, they found the problem to be less about beliefs and more about preparation—teachers felt they did not have the skills and knowledge needed to meet the diverse learning needs of their students.

 

At the same time, the district was beginning to implement the new comprehensive Springfield Teacher Evaluation and Development System, which was an outgrowth of the contentious bargaining process with the FCB. The new system created a process for evaluating teachers that included new roles for instructional leadership specialists and teacher leaders to help struggling teachers. With the new evaluation system launched, the steering committee recommended that the district and union form a small working group to develop the rubrics, observation forms, and reports needed for the evaluation. This joint working team then created the evaluation tools used for all district teachers, teacher leaders, librarians, and counselors. The district also asked the union to help teachers and administrators understand the new system. That joint implementation of the new evaluation reduced miscommunication and increased buy-in, according to the Rennie Center’s interviews. As one union leader noted, “It ensured that principals and teachers were receiving the same message at the same time from the same people.”

 

Another concern identified by the survey data that the steering committee prioritized was that Springfield teachers felt they had little say in how the district and schools operated. “The basic idea is for teachers to stop being the objects of reform,” said Collins, “and start being the architects of reform.” Incorporating teacher voice into school and district decisions meant including teachers or their representatives on senior leadership teams, a move some superintendents are hesitant to make. Ingram had a different perspective, recognizing that he would have to spend even more time with union leaders if he was committed to collaborating.

 

Ingram invited Collins, deProsse, and other union heads to join him and senior district leaders on the district-wide Instructional Leadership Team (ILT). Rather than meeting with union leaders separately, inviting them to participate in ILT meetings enabled district leaders to spend more time with them and develop better relationships. Ingram said, “Time is the enemy. If you are trying to build a relationship with someone, then you have to spend time with them. You can’t work in isolation to get the kind of results needed.” Several of Ingram’s senior cabinet members disagreed with his decision to appoint Collins and deProsse to the ILT. “My staff thought I had lost my mind,” Ingram remem­bered, “they said to me, ‘you’re going to bring him [Collins] into our meetings, where we decide what goes on in schools. What are you thinking?’”

 

While it had an uneven start, the ILT eventually transformed into an effective decision-making committee, heavily involved in implementing the reforms embedded in Massachusetts’ successful Race to the Top application.

 

In 2009, with their collaborative partnership growing stronger, Ingram and Collins agreed to try something different in the next round of contract negotiations. The teachers’ contract that had been in place since 2006 was set to expire in June 2010. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, the district and union negotiating teams settled on using interest-based bargaining (IBB) to negotiate the next contract. IBB is a negotiating approach that emphasizes actual needs as opposed to positions, with the hope that both sides will define their common interests in ways that enable them to work together to craft mutually beneficial solutions. Because Springfield’s mayor chaired the school committee and believed in the importance of having a strong city presence at the bargaining table, the chief negotiator and other officials from the city of Springfield also participated when the negotiations began in January 2010.

 

The inclusion of a negotiating team from the city created new tensions in the bargaining room. One lingering concern of both the union and the district was the role of city funding: in seven of the previous nine years, Springfield had failed to meet its minimum local contribution to public schools as required by Massachusetts law. In addition, prior to this contract negotiation, the city had not been a part of the collaborative efforts over the last several years. Now, the city had as many people on its negotiating team as the district, bringing the total number of people at the bargaining table to twenty-three.

 

The negotiations went poorly. Despite their attempts to follow IBB practices, the sides kept sliding back into positional bargaining. The union and district teams spent a lot of time bringing the city team up to speed on recent initiatives and collaborative efforts. The large size of the committee made building personal connections and discussing the complexities of teaching and learning difficult. In addition, the experienced and well-regarded facilitator—on assignment from the Massachusetts Labor Relations Board to help the group to learn and use IBB—had to leave unexpectedly in the middle of the negotiation. After five months of bargaining, the three sides settled on a mutual decision about compensation for the next two years, and agreed to a contract that left all other aspects of the prior collective agreement in effect. Collins called the negotiation a “very frustrating experience.” Ingram found the negotiations and their limited results to be deeply disappointing.

 

As Collins, Ingram, and city leaders struggled through contract negotiations, the Springfield collaboration faced another setback. In early March 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released a list of thirty-five of the state’s “most persistently low-performing schools.” These “Level 4” schools were selected based on their four-year performance in math and English language arts on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Under the law, Massachusetts superintendents were given an extremely tight timeline to develop action plans for the Level 4 schools in their districts. Within three months, for each of the Level 4 schools, superintendents had to convene a stakeholder group, solicit recommendations from the group, and submit an improvement plan to their school committees and the state education department. Driven largely by criteria established in U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition, the turnaround plan could include a new curriculum, expanded day, changes to the collective bargaining agreement, teacher dismissal, or a requirement for all teachers and the principal to reapply for their jobs. In addition, if the plan used one of those approaches, the school was eligible for federal aid.

 

Collins and Ingram knew that some Springfield schools would be on the list, but they were surprised in March 2010 when a total of ten of the district’s schools serving more than 6,600 students—nearly a quarter of the district’s student population—were identified as Level 4. With the fast-approaching deadline and pressure from the state education department, the district minimized collaboration with the union over the next several months. All Level 4 schools in Springfield lengthened each school-day by 45 minutes, implemented additional academic intervention programs, and changed the process by which teachers transferred between schools. The schools also created principal-led school teams of teachers and instructional leaders to implement and monitor the improvement plans.

 

Despite having some say in how the turnaround plan was carried out in their schools, teachers felt deeply frustrated by the top-down nature of the response to the Level 4 mandates. As one teacher commented, “Things were initially set up for teachers to have a voice, but then ideas were squashed in the Level 4 process.” In addition, while teachers received a stipend for the additional 45-minutes of work each day, the amount was less than their pro-rated salary. Some teachers felt that they were treated as “less valuable” for the 45 minutes. To address teachers’ concerns about lack of collaboration in decision-making about Level 4 schools, the district established a Level 4 Steering Committee composed of district leaders, community members, representatives from the union, and support staff.

 

Despite the challenges with collective bargaining and the Level 4 schools upheaval, Ingram and Collins remain steadfast in their commitment to collaborate. Conversations were often tense and full of conflict. “It is not all Kumbaya,” said Collins, “but, we remember that we have more in common than not.”      

 

To help enhance the impact of the collaboration between the district and the teachers union, the committee reached out to community groups, non-profits, and others with an interest in helping to enable Springfield’s schools to succeed. With a $1.25 million grant provided by the National Education Association Foundation in February 2010, the Springfield Collaboration for Change (SCC) was created to increase parent and community engagement while deepening collaboration at the school level. Embedded within its goals were four key activities that all mem­bers of the collaboration agreed were the most important factors impacting student learning: (1) aligning the instructional core; (2) monitoring results; (3) strengthening parent partnerships; and (4) building the capacity of all partners. To union leader Collins, the success of the collaboration would mean everyone in the Springfield community was working together on the same goals supporting student learning. He compared the vision of what the SCC could become to the celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone, “Our vision of the SCC is a Harlem Children’s Zone for Springfield. All the people are on the same page, doing their part, to help students.”

 

At the outset, the SCC focused on building collaborative school leadership teams, providing school-based support coaches, and scaling up parent-teacher home visits to reach more families. To implement joint leadership teams in schools, the SCC planned to restructure the existing school-based leadership team, so that half of the members were elected by the staff in the school. The transformed school leadership team was then supported by two instructional coaches—a former teacher and a former principal. The final component of the SCC plan was the expansion and strengthening of a parent-teacher home visit program that had been run by the district in collaboration with the Pioneer Valley Project and Springfield Educational Association since 2006. The overall approach was to integrate all the resources available to parents and families into a tight network of support for each child in Springfield. As Collins explained, “We are trying to get a culture that connects parents to schools. Our framework is about strengthening the ability of kids; it is about the community, parents, teachers, and kids.”

 

By the fall of 2011, the impact of the SCC initiative in the four schools it initially focused on was starting to emerge. Principals were beginning to see that teachers who went on home visits were changing the way they taught, and parents were becom­ing more engaged in the school. One principal explained, “It’s basically a relationship-building experience…Parents are more apt to share with us information about their children. They are more relaxed to ask questions about school. It builds an overall collaboration that really is essential for student achievement.” This was particularly important in Springfield, where students did not necessarily attend schools located in their own neighborhoods. “A lot of our students are bused in and don’t live nearby,” explained one teacher, “so, it’s good for a teacher to go out and see where they live…and for parents to see that their teachers really want to help them and their child.” Similarly, parents felt better informed about what was going on in school and how they could help support learning. One father stated, “Before, I never knew what was going on; I never knew anything. I would just pick her up and leave. Now I come in and say ‘Hi.’ You see people, you know people.”

 

SCC’s impact was also reaching beyond the classroom, throughout the schools and district. The newly formed school leadership teams looked for ways to integrate teachers into the schools’ decision-making process. At the district and community level, the SCC Leadership Team brought a new level of resource coordination to Springfield. With leaders from five major organizations—the school district, the union, the Davis Foundation, the Regional Employment Board and the United Way of Pioneer Valley—funding or leading work with children, the SCC Leadership Team could quickly see overlaps between programs, gaps in services and opportunities to partner. Perhaps most importantly, the SCC helped build widespread support for quality education and services for the children in Springfield. Ingram said, “Community collaboration helps build public trust and confidence.”

 

Obviously, it is much too early to deem Springfield’s ambitious reforms to be either a success or failure from the standpoint of improving student outcomes. With superintendent Ingram moving on to become state deputy education commission, the district faces another leadership transition, adding to the uncertainty. Still, early results have been encouraging. Since 2008, the percentage of Springfield students scoring above the proficiency threshold on the state’s English language arts test rose seven points, while math proficiency levels improved by two points. For tenth graders, the share who achieved English language arts proficiency increased by fourteen points over the same period, with a four point increase in math.

 

Whatever the ultimate outcome, Springfield has clearly emerged from what only eight years ago was a death spiral. The process by which that happened hinged on the leadership of the teachers union and the school district striving to overcome deep conflicts that had served no one well, especially not the students. It was extremely difficult to convert an intensely acrimonious environment into one in which a culture of collaboration has at least begun to take hold. But no one in Springfield today would argue that the path taken was the wrong one. The question is whether the administrators, teachers, and other stakeholders can continue to build on their strengthened relationships without reverting to the fractiousness that contributed to the crisis there nearly a decade ago.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 2, 2013