A better approach to public sector collective bargaining can improve labor relations – and improve schools.
WHEN BOSTON SCHOOL officials and the city’s teachers union announced an agreement last year on extending the K-8 school day by 40 minutes, it was hailed as an important breakthrough that had eluded city leaders for many years. What went largely unnoticed was the fact that the agreement also represented a breakthrough in Massachusetts labor negotiations. The agreement marks the most high-profile result, to date, of a two-year effort to rethink the approach to public sector labor negotiations in the state.
For us, the search for an alternative negotiation approach in Massachusetts began in January 2011, when Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, summarily reversed 50 years of that state’s progressive labor history by eliminating collective bargaining rights for public sector employees, cutting pensions and increasing health care payments, and generally insulting their integrity and work ethic. The governor’s onslaught continues with his recent proposal for a 13 percent cut in the budget of Wisconsin’s premier university system.
As beneficiaries of great public education systems in Wisconsin and Michigan, we decided that Massachusetts had the capacity to develop an alternative to Wisconsin’s divisive approach when it comes to labor negotiations in our public schools. This conviction led to the creation of the Massachusetts Education Partnership (MEP) in 2012. We began by conducting a survey of Massachusetts school district superintendents, school committee chairs, and local teachers’ union leaders. The results showed that many leaders desired drastic improvement in the quality of labor-management relations.
In its first two years, the MEP has directly engaged 115 school districts serving roughly 505,000 students, almost one-third of all school districts and half the students in the state.
One of MEP’s core initiatives, which we call the District Capacity Project (DCP), works intensively in low-income urban districts to facilitate joint teacher and district leader teams in tackling specific education improvement projects. For example, DCP teams have developed a dual language immersion initiative for multilingual students in Brockton and designed and implemented a new teacher evaluation system in Springfield. In Leominster, they created a new program that links mentoring by senior teachers, new teacher professional development, and incentive compensation. DCP teams are now working on other specific high priority issues in 11 districts across the Commonwealth and anticipate further expansion in the coming year.
Another core initiative provides state-of-the-art Interest Based Bargaining (IBB) training and facilitation assistance to school district labor-management collective bargaining teams. IBB seeks to move contract negotiations from a positional, often adversarial, bargaining process, to one that applies problem solving protocols capable of more fully exploring the parties’ shared and competing interests and generating higher quality, mutually beneficial outcomes.
To date, IBB trainers and facilitators have engaged 34 school districts serving approximately 98,000 students and helped improve the quality of the process and results of contract negotiations in districts as diverse as Berkshire Hills, Blackstone-Millville, Essex Agricultural and Technical High School, Franklin, Lenox, Lowell Technical High School, Newburyport, Quabbin Regional, Sutton, and Webster.
When we first created the MEP, education leaders advised us to avoid Boston because of the notoriously adversarial relationship between the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) and the city and school department. Despite strong community and media pressure for an expanded school day, for example, negotiators in the last round of bargaining in 2012 were unable to decide on, among other things, teacher wages for the proposed extended time.
With the approval of newly-elected Mayor Marty Walsh, we went to work in November 2013, focusing on the possibility of a new approach to reaching an agreement on expanding the school day. The key breakthrough in the Extended Learning Time (ELT) negotiations came when we reframed the conversations from a narrow debate over instructional minutes and teacher pay raises to a joint problem-solving discussion of how an agreement on ELT might be combined with a shared interest in improving use of teacher professional development time for collaborative planning. This new approach produced a framework for a possible agreement in early June.
We resumed discussions in fall 2014 with the mayor’s direct involvement. On December 26, the parties announced their historic agreement to phase in the equivalent of a month of additional teaching time and additional professional development opportunities to the school calendar for all of Boston’s elementary schools. Moreover, the parties agreed to continue the collaborative process by training facilitators to support collaborative ELT implementation within each school. The good faith efforts of the BTU, the Boston School Department, and Mayor Walsh demonstrate that when parties who trust each other and work together in a collaborative fashion on tough problems, innovative, perhaps even transformational, agreements can be achieved.
The impact of MEP’s efforts was corroborated by results obtained in a March 2014 statewide survey of district superintendents, school committee leaders, and local union leaders. A more complete report of the survey results can be found at: www.massedpartnership.org.
In brief, the percentage of respondents who see collective bargaining as a means for improving school performance rose from 36 percent in 2011 to 42 percent in 2014, and the changes are even more significant among those districts that received IBB training and facilitation. Fully 73 percent of the parties are now confident that their labor-management relationship is sufficient for improving school performance, compared to only 40 percent in 2011. Moreover, superintendents using IBB were twice as likely to rate collective bargaining as adequate for improving school performance compared to those using traditional methods, and stakeholders whose districts used IBB practices in recent negotiations were more than twice as likely to rate their bargaining processes as very collaborative compared to those who did not use IBB.The first two years of the Massachusetts Education Partnership demonstrated that there is indeed a Massachusetts alternative to the deeply divisive attacks on teachers and their unions underway in Wisconsin. Yet there is still significant work to be done. Achieving the partnership’s long-term objectives requires growing beyond its two core initiatives and establishing a platform of services to support local leaders in improving practice, especially through greater collegial interaction. So this year we are focusing even more directly on using these collaborative tools to advance high priority initiatives such as expanding learning time, improving educator evaluation processes, and implementing elements of the Common Core State Standards. More generally, the tasks for the future include building a sustainable MEP that continues to expand its reach and impact across Massachusetts, and partnering with others to extend these innovations across the nation. By doing so, perhaps the core vision and belief of the MEP—that collaborative labor-management relations are critical drivers for improving student achievement and school performance—will become the national norm and standard practice in public education.
Thomas Kochan is a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Barry Bluestone is a professor and director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. Nancy Peace is an independent arbitrator and mediator, who served as executive director of the Partnership in its first two years. The Massachusetts Education Partnership is administered by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy.