Teachers, School Leaders Come Together In Denver

A first-of-its-kind summit among teachers and their bosses - school board members and administrators - kicks off Tuesday in what the Obama administration is touting as a watershed moment in collaboration for school improvement.

The Kishwaukee College Center for Business Development and Continuing Education presented “System of Service 2011, a Nonprofit Leadership Summit,” a kick-off event for a new program of training opportunities for nonprofits in the community. Pictured are the over 70 executives and board members from local nonprofits who attended the event on February 1 at the College.

A first-of-its-kind summit among teachers and their bosses - school board members and administrators - kicks off Tuesday in what the Obama administration is touting as a watershed moment in collaboration for school improvement.

More than 150 school districts from 40 states are sending administrators and union leaders to a U.S. Department of Education
summit billed as the nation's first large effort to have school labor and management talk about student achievement, rather than the nuts and bolts of labor contracts.

It's a summit organizers are hailing as a fresh start to kick off education overhaul efforts looming in Washington, including delicate negotiations over how teachers should be evaluated.

But already cracks are showing in the let's work together effort.

The nation's largest school district - New York City - and the Washington D.C. district pulled out of the summit after teachers accused school administrators of going back on their word.

Other large districts, including Chicago and Los Angeles, are also missing from the all-expenses-paid trip funded by the nonprofit Ford Foundation.

In New York, teachers last month withdrew from an agreement to attend after some officials talked about seeking layoffs.

In Washington, the teachers' union withdrew after union officials say
they felt "hypocritical" presenting to other school districts how to work together with management.

"If there are ways for people to work together, I applaud it, but you really need to be in the right frame of mind going into the conference," said Michael Mulgrew, president of New York City's United Federation of Teachers, with represents about 200,000 members.

Other union leaders, though, had high spirits that the summit could break new ground in labor-management relations in schools.

"It's about collaboration, about a belief that if you want to make changes for students, you need to find a way to talk to each other," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, a teachers' union with 3 million members.

Why does it matter to get teachers and administrators talking in a new way? Roekel cited school uniforms as an example.

"You might see a great public school that has uniforms," Roekel said. "People might look at the uniforms and say. 'I know, let's have all our students wear uniforms.' And so they get uniforms, but the schools don't improve. Why? Because the uniforms were just part of the overall plan that came together by teachers and administrators and parents working together. The collaboration caused the improvement, not the school uniforms."

Roekel and other participants insist that the simple act of traveling to Denver together to talk about collaboration will make teachers' unions, administrators and school board members take a new look at how they work together.

"It's a big deal, in part because we have enormous challenges ahead of us, and if we're not all pulling in the same direction on it, we're not likely to get the results the public expects," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the biggest urban public school systems.

Because labor negotiations focus on salary, benefits and job security, student performance can get lost in the debate among teachers, school board and administrators, educators say.

"Sometimes you lose a sense of purpose and center, so it's good to get away from our everyday heated discussions and remember that at the end of the day, we all have the same outcome - student achievement,"' said Michael Goar, deputy superintendent for Boston Public Schools, which is currently renegotiating a labor contract with about 4,500 union-covered staffers.

Even small schools say they need help juggling relationships with teachers and administrators. In the tiny 3,200-student Adrian, Mich., school district, eight different unions cover everyone from teachers to cafeteria workers.

Adrian Superintendent Chris Timmis is headed to the summit with teachers looking for new ideas on keeping children first in routine labor talks.

"We end up talking about salary and benefits, not what we're really all here for, the students," Timmis said. "This summit, I think it's very symbolic."

"We want to bring all these folks together so that we can learn from the successes and challenges of others," said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who will address the conference.

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