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Conflict Makes Good Stories, Collaboration Makes Good Schools

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Tension and conflict make good stories. That's why Hollywood's latest crop of movies includes tales of good against evil (Season of the Witch), revenge (True Grit), overcoming inner demons (The King's Speech, Country Strong), and triumphing against all odds (The Fighter).

Conflict also makes good newspaper copy and must-watch TV for the 24-hour cable news beast. (The flight attendant who quit his job via the emergency exit gets 15 minutes of fame, while the flight attendant who works diligently to make you safer and more comfortable gets, at best, a pat on the back.) That's why, when it comes to our schools, the quickest way for a governor or superintendent to grab headlines is to yell "my way or the highway" and come out swinging.

I suppose it should be obvious that bare-knuckles brawling is unlikely to lead to progress, but I have to admit it took me a while to see things this way. When I first became a union leader, I was quick to identify the enemy, fire up members and wage war for what I believed to be right. Eventually, I learned that if you set out looking for a fight, you'll find one -- but you probably won't find a solution.

This is a lesson that AFT members and leaders have taken to heart. Today, teacher union leaders still must fight for the tools and conditions that support teaching and learning, and for smart education policies. More and more, however, our leaders are building strong relationships with school administrators, doing the hard work of collaborative school improvement -- and producing better results for children.

  • On the western side of Philadelphia, poverty is commonplace, and, as in other areas, schools struggle to educate students to the level of their more affluent peers. The union and the district could have let poverty be an excuse for setting low expectations for students. Instead, they are working together -- and creating school-based services to help students and their families overcome the effects of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, which keep students from succeeding in school and achieving their dreams.
  • Providence, R.I., faced a problem often seen in urban districts -- certain schools that, year after year, despite various efforts, continued to struggle to provide a high-quality education for students. In an environment ruled by conflict, the district probably would have tried to hand the schools over to out-of-district operators -- a tactic that in other cities has led to waste, fraud and dismal school performance. The union, rightly, would have fought tooth and nail. But that's not what happened. Because the district and the union had built a relationship based on trust, they refused to take the easy way out. They stepped outside their comfort zones, took on the very difficult task of crafting a new form of school governance, and, together, have taken promising steps to turn around these schools.
  • In Georgetown, Ohio, in the middle of Appalachia, the union and the district lacked the resources to create the schools that the town's children need and deserve. They could have accepted this as a fact of life, but they refused to give up on their kids. So, the union and the district came together, combined resources, and are now doing something big and promising in a way that is unprecedented in rural America. Working with other Appalachian Ohio school districts, they have joined forces to create a comprehensive model to transform rural education and improve student outcomes.
  • In New Haven, Conn., for years a hardcore, union-versus-district environment made community members and business leaders reluctant to invest their resources in the city's schools. Who could blame them? But the union and the district changed. They set aside their differences, began to work together, and built something really special. They agreed on a bold, outside-the-box contract that has been written up in the New York Times and elsewhere. And the community responded. Through the New Haven Promise, community partners provide financial help for students who want to go on to college, as well as a host of additional supports to help prepare New Haven's children to succeed in college and achieve their dreams.
These communities, along with Baltimore, the ABC district in Los Angeles County and others, have unique situations and specific challenges that can't be addressed through a cookie-cutter solution. However, the one thing they all have in common is a culture of collaboration -- a universal recognition among business leaders, public officials, community leaders, parents and teachers that they can accomplish great things for students if they work together.

Those who are serious about improving schools recognize that conflict is a destructive force, especially in the lives of children. Indeed, in my many years as a teacher and union leader, I have never seen a district that produces great results for students in an adversarial, us-versus-them environment. And mass firings, school closures and attacks on teachers are not the formula for successful schools.

There is a lot of talk about the "status quo" in education. Typically, it's a term used to criticize educators or schools that somebody just doesn't like. But the AFT is shaking up the most corrosive, most stubborn and perhaps most subtle characteristics that define the status quo, District by district, community by community, our members are tackling the toughest problems in American education: how to provide a high-quality education for disadvantaged children, how to turn around struggling urban schools, how to invest in children during difficult economic times, and how to help all children achieve the American dream.

There may never be a blockbuster movie that doesn't include a dose of conflict and tension, and that's OK. But collaborative school reform is a story worth telling, and it's our best hope for improving America's schools.