Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy Negotiations

Working people have to stop fighting against each other and start fighting for each other.  Peering through the lens of the Occupy movement, it’s obvious that the people I sit with in the negotiations room here in Vermont, both board and teachers, are part of the 99%.  I seriously doubt anyone in the room has an annual income in excess of $516,000.  When we distract ourselves with labor-management fratricide, we work for our oppressors, for truly we have far more in common with each other than with David Koch, Rupert Murdoch, the Walton family, or Bill Gates.  Solidarity means not just circling the union wagons, but identifying with and actively promoting the legitimate aspirations of our communities.
The adversarial culture that persists in our negotiation process here in Vermont thwarts those aspirations and plays into the interests of the 1%.  This culture is self inflicted.  Both boards and teachers have choices about how they do business.  If we make better choices, we can free political energy for the fight for social justice.
Let me emphasize, I do not believe that collective bargaining is itself inherently adversarial.  Too many times, however, the parties choose to be adversarial.  Collective bargaining is a fundamental public good.  It is incumbent on participants to improve the process so that this public good can truly achieve its potential in terms of promoting great educational outcomes and social justice.
As a veteran negotiator, I can attest to the human costs of an exclusively adversarial process.  In my supervisory union, which has gone to the brink of crisis build-up three consecutive times, teams of teachers put in excess of 2000 hours of time into a process which in the final analysis produces minimal new money and a few incremental changes in contract language.  I am sure a similar commitment is made by the board team.

In addition, the board spends tens of thousands of dollars on a labor attorney, and both sides spend thousands more on private mediators and fact finders.  All this time and treasure has the net effect of preserving a degraded status quo.  Teachers experience gradual erosion of pay and working conditions; board and administration gain nothing in terms of the sort of flexibility that would enable them to manage for better student learning.  Taxes rise to pay for this state of affairs.  So do union dues.

But above and beyond the wasteful stalemate produced by the political theater of an adversarial negotiations culture, the true costs of systemic dysfunction occur when the poisonous dispositions of labor-management conflict filter down to schools and classrooms.  Classrooms at their best are deeply collaborative learning environments; they need to be supported by collaborative processes at the building level, at the supervisory union level, ultimately at the state and federal level.

For example, teachers who do not trust their administrators cannot benefit from evaluation, no matter how well designed or intentioned.  Collaboration at all levels is the foundation for improved teaching practice.  And who are the victims of the status quo?  Students.

How can we advance the cause of collaboration?  Part of the answer lies in reform of the negotiation process.

There is a growing body of research and practice on labor-management collaboration.   Contemporary conflict management techniques go back over thirty years.  In addition to the positional or adversarial bargaining that dominates our landscape, it includes at least three other tools:

  • Interest based bargaining, which strives to create solutions by drilling down through the positions that animate traditional adversarial bargaining, to the underlying interests in order to create novel solutions which address the true aspirations of the participants.
  • Expanded scope bargaining, which strives to assimilate the expertise of the practitioner into the public policy process and uses the negotiation process as the gateway.
  • Continuous bargaining, in which parties take up problems as they arise, devise solutions, and roll them into the contract.  This reduces the sheer quantity of items saved up for the formal negotiations process, and simplifies the task of reaching agreement.  Problems do not fester.
This enhanced conflict management tool set provides means of effectively resolving a wider range of problems.  We in Vermont suffer from the “rule of the tool”: when the only tool in your kit is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  But not every problem in teacher negotiations is a distributive problem, a problem of carving up a finite pie.  Many problems of working conditions are not finite, and allow for a broad range of creative solutions.  Using positional bargaining techniques on these problems drains the creativity out of the process, and denies our children the benefits of the best possible teaching.
Negotiations reform, however necessary, is not sufficient to drive progress.  For that we need to look at the literature on ground breaking districts nationally, districts which have achieved deep and sustained collaborative relationships which have driven systemic change and education reform. One such study is Collaborative School Reform: Creating Partnerships To Improve School Systems From Within by Saul Rubinstein, and John McCarthy, which was published by Rutgers University in October, 2010.  This ground breaking study looks at six districts which have achieved a deep and abiding collaborative labor-management relationship, from the giant Hillsborough (FL) school district, a famous Gates deep-dive district with over 200,000 students, to tiny Plattsburgh (NY), with less than 2000.
In May 2011 the United States Department of Education published Local Labor Management Relationships as a Vehicle to Advance Reform: Findings from the U.S. Department of Education’s Labor Management Conference by Jonathan Eckert et al.  I was part of the research team.  This study highlighted the work of twelve districts nationwide which had achieved a high level of labor-management collaboration, including four from the Rutgers study. 
A salient feature of this study is the diversity of the districts that had reformed their labor-management relations.  There were districts like Winston-Salem Forsythe (NC) from a southern right to work state, and the Green Dot Charter chain, as well as districts enjoying the benefits of strong pro-labor laws, like Plattsburgh (NY) and ABC Unified (CA).
What distinguishes these districts is the willingness of leaders to take a risk, and put the end goal of the enterprise first: great student learning.  Students truly represent the aspirations of communities.
Here in Vermont it is time for bold and visionary leaders to sit together in order to remake our relationship.  The way forward is by following the example of best practice nationally.
Specifically, we need to:
  • Be humble enough to step back from deeply ingrained habits of thought and practice, and use contemporary conflict management techniques.
  • Draw on the resources that exist nationally to help us solve our problems.  In particular, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is available at no cost to facilitate our moving forward.
  • Build policy expertise in labor management collaboration through study of the extant literature and through contact with successful models. 
  • People need to start talking WITH each other about the possibilities for change rather than talking AT each other by positional/adversarial habit. 
This is hard work, and will take time and resources.  Those of us genuinely interested in benefitting students and communities should be taking on the tough problems rather than persisting in behavior which only serves the interests of the 1% who would squeeze our communities dry.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Messaging vs. Communication

Media professionals often use the term messaging to indicate a small number of talking points that are repeated incessantly.  I call this propaganda.  To the so-called media professional staying “on message” is a virtue.  Joseph Goebbels said, “The point of a political speech is to persuade people of what we think right.”  Messaging falls squarely within this tradition.  Goebbels was the first master of old media.  Old media is about control, and about one way communication, which, when you think about it, really isn’t communication at all.
Communication is dialogue.  When a union is truly communicating with its constituency, the democratically engaged members are simultaneously the recipients and the shapers of the message.  Democratic engagement is the antithesis of control. 
Web 2.0 technologies break down the control exercised by the petty propagandists of American media.  Social media, blogs and wikis are among the technologies that allow the people to talk back.  These technologies represent a threat to old-media professionals. 
What if a member rode off the rails?  What if he or she went off message?  What would happen to the monolithic talking points that the union hammers at relentlessly?  What if it was revealed that there was diversity of opinion within the organization on a topic?  What if, god forbid, the dissenting point of view became….popular within the organization?
The answer is simple – we would have to do business differently.  And that would mean professional staff would have to do business differently.  So it’s easier to control the message, because doing business differently is a threat to those who are the masters of yesterday’s world (and are well compensated for their trouble....)
In the battle between control and democratic engagement, the ongoing ascendance of the forces of control weakens the union.  The only way forward is through democratic engagement.  Messaging – propaganda – fatally weakens engagement.  Could it destroy our union?
And to think I finance messaging with my dues dollars….

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Meaning of Collaboration II: Professional Conversations

Let’s break down this question of Labor-management collaboration and see what it looks like in the school and classroom.
At the school/classroom level, the biggest impediment to collaboration is a lack of capacity for professional conversations.  Ultimately, at the school level, collaboration “looks like” the ability to fearlessly and accurately evaluate your own work, and to seek the assistance of others to both push out the positives to the wider community AND fix the areas in need of improvement.
Binary systems for evaluation reduce our capacity for professional conversations.  When satisfactory evaluations are the norm, and unsatisfactory evaluations put us on the long torturous path to termination, any remark that is vaguely critical becomes a threat.  The inability to criticize one’s self and to accept criticism from others cripples professional growth.  In a true collaborative environment, criticism is safe, and it is appreciated, because it is the one thing that enables teachers to get better at what they do.
The simple statement that some aspect of your practice could be better is not the end of the world, provided that it is accompanied by resources that enable you to grow.  The importance of this fact is illustrated by what our students do in the classroom.  This underscores what I said in my previous post:  that “there needs to be symmetry of expectations up and down the hierarchical food chain.”
I’m a music teacher.  I recently developed a simple assessment to help my beginning recorder students learn.  It is essentially a checklist of four things that make for great technique:  warm, gentle air, tonguing (whisper “duh” when starting notes), left hand on top, and covering holes completely with fingers.  If the student does all four things, their sound should match the model I provide.  First I had students self assess with fingers on the chest, and peer assess.  I was surprised at the number of “4’s” I saw even when this was not supported by the simplest observation (a 4 would more or less sound like the model.)  This is not rocket science.
The kicker is that this assessment is intended kindly, to give the individual a clear and simple path to improvement.
Self assessment is, of course, notorious for unreliability.  With the peer assessment, I can only conclude that kids were being “nice” so as to not hurt feelings.  But I find the implied thinking strange.  How is it nice to allow another person to be unsuccessful, unless one agrees with the Dodo, “At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’”
These were the compliant children behaving this way.  In a subsequent lesson, I provided the assessment myself, on a slip of paper.  As each child echoed my model, I quickly checked off the things they had successfully performed.  The slips gave feedback essential to improvement.  Fix the missing checkmark and voila!  My compliant children were not a problem.
Billy, my noncompliant student, freaked out.  He got a 2, due to right hand on top and not completely covering holes.  He rolled on the floor, “I suck!” he wailed.  No patient explanation would bring him back.  He was truly the canary in our collaborative mine.  He is not the only child in this school unable to accept constructive feedback.  Nor the only human being.
I was talking to a teacher.  We have a Danielson style evaluation system with a four point rubric, really just a more sophisticated version of my little four point checklist for recorder, one ostensibly designed to point us towards ways of improving our craft.  This teacher said something like this, “The principal evaluated me.  In the past I always got exemplary ratings (4’s) on everything.  He must have it in for me.  I didn’t get top scores on everything this time.  Oh well, I’m just going to ignore it and move on.”
Is this reaction substantially different than Billy’s?  By reacting this way, this person was turning our Danielson style rubric into a de facto binary evaluation system: satisfactory/unsatisfactory.  Under these conditions, it is impossible to move forward into improved practice.
Correlation is not causation, but I cannot help but be struck by symmetry of the adult behaviors in this building and the way the children behave.  The children unwittingly mimic the errors of the adults.  I work in two schools.  At my other school, fifty miles away, where I believe there is a true collaborative environment, I taught the same lesson to the third grade.  Children who had received a 2 or a 3 were happy to have a second chance.  By the end of the period every single child had achieved the model and received a four.  In a profoundly different and meaningful way all were in fact winners and all did receive a prize: evidence of their own competence and mastery.  And a beautiful sound singly and collectively on their musical instrument.
For collaboration to work in the modern labor-management relationship there must be trust, and there must be the ability to give and receive constructive criticism along with meaningful resources to respond to that criticism and grow from it: the professional conversation.  The success of new evaluation models, and of strategic compensation schemes, depends on it.  Trust could be enhanced by separating the issue of evaluation for professional learning from the issue of evaluation for the termination of poorly performing teachers- but that’s for another blog.
There is a way forward on professional conversation.  I am an NBCT.  That was a humbling experience.  Through a process that pushed me to compare myself to an extremely high standard I learned that I am not God’s gift to teaching, that I have shortcomings.  I can deal with those shortcomings, and I can build on my strengths.  In short, I received the capacity to think critically about my practice.  There was a Gestalt shift in my thinking about teaching away from limited dualistic categories towards a more nuanced thinking that encourages professional growth.  It doesn’t mean I’m the best teacher in the world; it simply means I have a greatly enhanced capacity for improvement.
It is incumbent on districts, especially districts like mine which have achieved a critical mass of NBCTs, to take advantage of this Gestalt shift, to move us away from either/or attitudes about effectiveness and into those more nuanced conversations about practice.  This will require trust, and a willingness to provide the resources people need to grow.
It is also incumbent upon teachers to take advantage of opportunities like the National Board process, to build their individual capacity for the critical, professional conversation.  It is only through the two sides moving towards one another that modern reform practices become sustainable and not just an exotic flavor of business as usual.
I believe this is what the great collaborative enterprise looks like at the school and classroom level.  If adults achieve this, I think we will see the change reflected in the behavior and dispositions of our students.  If we believe, in a profound sense, that we can grow, our students will believe the same about themselves.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Meaning of Collaboration: Power, Security and Control

Sixty five years ago collaboration was a dirty word.  Collaborators were traitors, like the Vichy French or Vidkum Quisling, who materially assisted the Nazi repression.  Suddenly in the 21st century collaboration is all the rage in labor-management relations.  How can union leaders avoid becoming little quislings and selling the rank and file down the road? 
In a word, expectations.  A willingness to collaborate with management doesn’t mean we are lowering our standards.  In fact, it means we are raising them.  In the modern collaborative labor management relationship, the end goals of the mutual enterprise must be placed first by all parties.
In education, this means fantastic student learning is the most important outcome.  Any adult interest that does not in some small way promote this outcome is excluded from the conversation.  Student learning becomes a gateway to the discussion.  In a broad sense, the adults trade their power for influence over student learning.
In a more fine grained sense, the equation looks like this: labor gives up security, management gives up control.  In exchange, teachers gain control of their professional lives, and administration gains the flexibility to manage for maximum student benefit. 
To understand why this is important, we need to bring it down to the classroom level.  Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham speaks of the conundrum that while progressive teaching techniques are universally regarded in the profession as the best way to educate, some 90% of the time educators actually use lectures, worksheets, etc – techniques that are the diametric opposite of the things we supposedly value.
Willingham attributes this to the fact that educators, like all human beings, have cognitive limits.  This doesn’t mean we’re stupid, it simply means we can’t know everything.  Cooperative group work, Responsive Classroom, project based learning, service learning, and similar techniques are cognitively demanding – in short, exhausting.
This is an interesting argument, but I believe there is another reason that teachers eschew progressive techniques in the classroom.  These techniques are deeply collaborative in nature; they rely on rich and delicate social relations.  There is this expectation that teachers will create these deeply collaborative classroom environments, because this is considered the best way to teach.
How can such classroom environments thrive in school systems which are hierarchical, in which top-down decision making is the rule, and in which adversarial labor-management relationships are the norm?  These are systems in which administrators micromanage classroom practice from afar, yet lack the information to make grounded decisions.  Teachers become subject to arbitrary and nonsensical administrative fiat, which dis-empowers them, abrogates their professional judgment, and demoralizes them.  How can people working under the thumb of these quasi-military command hierarchies reasonably be expected to educate students in progressive ways?
That teachers manage this feat at all in the face of systems designed to defeat them is a testament to  the collective excellence of the profession.
In order to guarantee the best possible educational experience and outcomes for students, there needs to be symmetry of expectations up and down the hierarchical food chain.  If you want collaboration at the classroom level, it has to be present throughout the system.  This is where a collaborative labor management relationship can turbocharge education.
In a true collaborative relationship, administrators drive down the decision making to level of implementation, where the information actually exists to make decent decisions.  In so doing they build the overall decision making capacity of the organization.  They are facilitators of the professional work and strive to empower the professionals in their care.  This is giving up control.
Peer assistance and review systems (PARS) are often found where collaboration has taken root.  PARS is designed to take the arbitrariness out of personnel decisions by creating a professional consensus in the community.  When the consensus leads to non-renewal  of non-performing individuals, the process is expedited.  This is giving up security.
Contrast this with the current cat and mouse scenario in so many places where adversarial relations rule.  Labor and management play a game of chicken, each side playing legalistic levers to see what it can get away with.  Adversarial relationships add no value to the student experience – in fact they degrade it.
Collaboration in 2011 means something considerably different than it did in 1946.  It means much higher expectations for all: a democratically empowered workforce willing to take a chance on its own professionalism facilitated by an enlightened administration willing to trade desultory power games for influence over student learning.  All of this paid for by political leaders with a genuine interest in excellent policy.
But that’s another blog.
What examples can you imagine, of teachers giving up security and administration giving up control, which would promote excellent student learning?