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Two-thirds of school districts across the U.S. report a shortage of teachers, according to a recent survey by Frontline Education. Researchers from the Economic Policy Institute found that multiple factors have driven teachers to leave their profession, such as low relative pay, poor working environments, uneven or few opportunities to grow professionally, and the low prestige of the profession. Simply put, the teacher shortage is intertwined with labor management in schools.
Research suggests that in school districts with formal collaboration processes such as site-based decision-making, leadership teams, and joint learning opportunities, students achieve at higher levels. In their 2016 report, “Union–Management Partnerships, Teacher Collaboration, and Student Performance,” researchers Saul Rubinstein and John E. McCarthy studied data from 27 schools in a southern California school district. They found that “the strength of formal union-management partnerships is a significant predictor of greater growth in student performance over time, and that this relationship is mediated by stronger educator collaboration at the school level, after controlling for poverty.”
Collective bargaining is legal for teachers in 33 states and the District of Columbia, optional in an additional 10 states, and illegal in seven states, according to a National Council on Teacher Quality 2019 report. In many cases, sustained collaboration emerged only after the crises, such as prolonged teachers’ strikes or state takeover. School leaders and educators recognized that conflict perpetuated a downward spiral and working together became the only way to reverse course, according to Rubinstein and McCarthy.
For school boards, fostering a culture of collaboration in the community can help prevent labor management crises and help retain teachers. Beyond that, board members can bring the views and perspectives of parents and communities to the partnership’s work. Board members can participate in districtwide collaborative activities, encourage parents and community groups to participate, and use communication tools to disseminate the collaborative work and its results to all stakeholders.
Setting the tone for collaboration
To improve public education and serve all students with effective teachers, the National Labor Management Partnership (NLMP) was formed in 2011.
In 2018, it published a Call to Action to promote the need to work across organizational and role boundaries to benefit the nation’s students, schools, and communities. NLMP members have been studying research and best practices, seeking solutions that people from different perspectives can work toward student-centered goals and dedicate to student-centered outcomes. NLMP developed a guidebook as a resource for all stakeholders to increase shared decision-making practices and improve collaborative partnership for student success.
The guidebook refers to collaboration as a strategy for joint problem solving, solution building, and increased stakeholder voice in decisions. School boards can set the tone for collaboration in their communities. The guidebook recommends that there be ample listening structures for the school board to hear from constituents about the community’s priorities for their school system and to establish an expectation for collaborative decision-making.
Sustainable collaboration structures
The guidebook profiles several successful cases of sustainable collaboration structures. At the state level, the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) has been working with other state educational organizations, fostering and supporting sustainable structures for collaboration at all levels. The following are some examples:
In 2015, the Metuchen School District started its labor management collaboration. A large group of teachers, administrators, and a board member participated in team-building activities. They developed a mission statement and other documents and established districtwide committees as the first formal collaborative effort. In the subsequent three years, with support from the Rutgers University School of Labor and Management, the collaboration totally revamped the district instructional council, and the district committee co-chairs always invited board members to their meetings.
In 2018, the Montgomery Township’s district administrators and the Montgomery Township Education Association, with support from the Rutgers University School of Labor and Management, formed a district leadership team. The team was created to foster a collaborative working relationship between administrators and staff across the district to positively impact student academic achievement.
Through the process of collaboration, the North Brunswick Township Board of Education and the North Brunswick Township Education Association created a collective bargaining agreement that allowed the district to save nearly $3 million in health care premiums. The district was able to reduce health care contributions for their employees, give raises that exceeded state and county averages, increase staff, add extra preparation time, and increase professional development time.
From setting the tone for collaboration to building sustainable collaboration structures, school leaders and educators need to grow professionally together. It can be a good start for districts to consider more meaningful collaborative partnerships and is available online at https://tinyurl.com/5n6dwhm3.