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Cooperation, Collaboration, and Consensus-Building Are Not Overated

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Michelle Rhee famously said "cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated." She, Joel Klein, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie are only the most visible of "reformers" who ridicule the pursuit of compromise as "kumbaya" moments. Lisa Graham Keegan, who was an education advisor to John McCain, made the following contribution to the discussion of local collaboration at the National Journal blog. She asserted "First things first: I can't accept the premise that "getting along" in American education leads to progress." Keegan labeled collaboration as a "sinkhole." She wants to replace stakeholders who have traditionally had seats at the table. Only reformers who demand "rapid progress" should have a say in school governance. According to Keegan, only people who seek radical and measurable change deserve to be heard, and only organizations that have "battled their way into existence" have the urgency to deserve respect.

Similarly NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and AFT President Randi Weingarten are not the only union leaders who are bending over backwards to help reform education. The Education Sector just published "Unlikely Allies," an outstanding account of the shared restructuring of schools in Providence Rhode Island, led by local President Steve Smith and Superintendent Tom Brady.

In 2009, Superintendent Brady encountered a "67-page contract from hell," and issued a new policy overriding the collective bargaining agreement. Smith obeyed his fiduciary responsibility and filed a lawsuit. During the legal conflict (which still continues), both were upfront with each other. But the union president signed the Rhode Island Race to the Top application, and the superintendent participated in the AFT Innovation Fund's effort to encourage collaboration. The district's administrative leaders then joined the union in a trip to Toledo to see that district's peer review evaluation process. Even though Toledo's collaborative system has been consistently dismissing ineffective teachers since 1980, only two of the 16 invited superintendents deigned to accept the union's offer to see how it works.

The specter of a fiasco such as the Central Falls turnaround also encouraged the administration and the union to share control of the turnaround process. But principals got what they wanted, the ability to hire their own staffs. All teachers at shared turnarounds must reapply for their jobs, work longer hours, and meet the new evaluation protocol which includes student performance metrics. Teachers got what they wanted - a voice in improving schools.

Providence's turnarounds will be governed by an executive board which is chaired by the superintendent and the union president, and that includes representatives of the administration, teachers, parents, and a (nonvoting) student. Each local school will have a leadership team, chaired by the principal and a Chief Learning Representative, presumably a teacher appointed by the executive board.

The report concluded with the question, "Will [the superintendent and the AFT local president] have the courage to keep it up when they want to kill each other?" Yes, "change gets complicated when it gets real...something will go wrong. It always does, and that's the test." So, we may learn that shared restructuring is the worst of all school reforms - except for all of the rest.

Please, read more of my thoughts at Scholastic