There are some subjects that lend themselves to free association more than others.? Tenure, for instance, is not one of those subjects, for me.? Collaboration, however, is. And if I let my mind wander too far, I'll end up singing Kumbaya.

And so I cringed when I spotted the headline over Randi Weingarten's ?column? (actually, a regular advertisement) in Sunday's New York Times, ?Collaboration Trumps Conflict.?? (You can read it on the AFT site.)

In my experience in schools, talk of?collaboration, like its step-sibling team player, is usually used as a decoy and when I hear the word I?instinctively ?adopt a 3-card monte defense: watch the cards, don't listen to the rap.? (This is a variation of ?trust, but verify.?)

?Sometimes it seems as though public education has become a contact sport,? writes Weingarten, ?with proponents of a take-no-prisoners style of `education reform' duking it out on talk shows and ever-present on the conference circuit.?

Watch the cards. Watch the cards.

Before anyone rushes to make collaboration the next silver bullet, it is crucial to note that this approach in and of itself does not create meaningful systemic change. Even with effective collaboration, which requires hard work, there also must be an instructional plan. When those two crucial pieces are in place, there is a growing body of evidence attesting to the power of collaboration to bring about significant educational improvements.?

Actually, that sounds nuanced, specific, promising. ?And she lists a couple of places where she says collaboration is working:

  • The ABC Unified School District in Los Angeles County, where student achievement scores ?rose an average of 11 percent per year? and made ?tremendous progress? in closing the achievement gap between schools;
  • Georgetown, Ohio, ?in the middle of Appalachia,? collaboration between the district and the union ?was key to Ohio's success in landing Race to the Top funds.?

And this is also realistic, hopeful:

No one is suggesting that we will eliminate conflict from important public pursuits, or stop fighting for our principles. But unproductive conflict only undermines confidence in public education. Collaboration fosters the conditions for transformative change; it creates trust and allows for risk-taking. And increasingly, the people entrusted with our children's education are showing that we can act with urgency without abandoning decency.

Note:?Weingarten actually says that collaboration ?creates trust?; we're not expected to be trusting until we are trustworthy.? That's a start.

I'm not wagering much on where the right card?is here?? nor am I singing Kumbaya. But if I'm an education reformer, I'm listening.

As to the Weingarten ?New Path Forward? speech that I mentioned yesterday (here), and promised to read? I read it (here) and it is less hopeful.? First, Weingarten opens with the story of ?a West Philly public school hybrid car project as an example of teaching 21st century skills that will put an end to our ?Industrial Age model? of schooling ? forgetting, perhaps that it was the auto industry that defined the industrial age. She doesn't think ?filling in the bubbles on a standardized test? is going to prepare our kids to ?succeed in life.?? More shop class is?

In fairness, Weingarten sets forth a serious agenda:

First a new template for teacher development and evaluation that incorporates standards and best practices for the teaching profession?and, yes, student outcomes.

Second, I'm putting forward a new approach to due process.

Third, I'll share my thoughts on what teachers need to help students succeed?the tools, time and trust to do their jobs well.

Fourth, I'll discuss changing the labor-management relationship, because that's the foundation we need to make each of these other ideas work.

The first, of course, hinges on creating ?a fair, transparent and expedient process to identify and deal with ineffective teachers? and which will ?inform tenure, employment decisions and due process proceedings.? Tall order, but there's nothing wrong with a goal of ?continuously improving and informing teaching so as to better educate all students.?? (I found the Ken Feinberg report about teacher discipline (see here), solicited by the AFT, to be a bit of a yawn, but a start.)

Whether states and districts can spell out ?basic professional teaching standards,? as Weingarten hopes, with enough clarity and specificity so that teachers ?know? what's expected of them and their bosses know ??whether a teacher is performing as she should? will definitely have to await the details.? But Weingarten is at least inching toward a laudable ? and real-sounding ? procedural reform.

And I like this:

At the very least, principals and superintendents charged with implementing this new evaluation system need to take responsibility?and be held responsible?for making it work.

Soon enough, we hope, school leaders, including boards of education, will have to stop blaming mandates and unions for their impotence.

The rest of the speech is a bit of a retread. Weingarten wants teachers, of course, to have ?tools, time and trust.? They need ?an environment? that is ?conducive to teaching and learning? and that means the familiar cast of characters: ?small classes, safe schools, solid curriculum, healthy and adequate facilities (including the most current technology), and opportunities for parental involvement.?? There are nods to ?getting standards right, once and for all,? but we still have the old problem that teachers ? at least, as I read the speech ? should not be expected to be good-to-great as part of their normal duties. For some reason they need more time and more resources and, most probably, though the word is not mentioned in the speech, more money.

But there is an opportunity here.? And we must come back to leadership.? Collaboration, done right, can work.? Professional development, done right, can work.? Making time for teachers to ?come together to resolve student issues, share lesson plans, analyze student work, discuss successes and failures,? as Weingarten proposes, can indeed work ? if a conscientious and capable principal or superintendent make it happen.

Weingarten has proven herself a deft and capable leader and she seems to be reading the reform cards correctly, moving her organization in the right directions, so that it might indeed be a viable participant in the future of American education. Are there still some major issues? Can the AFT become a true 21st century professional organization and shed its industrial age labor union roots, can it drop single salary pay schedules, tenure, and a seniority system that discourages excellence?

Big questions.? But at least the AFT seems to have gotten its heels (and head) out of the sand.? That's a start.

?Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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