At Labor-Management Conference, “C” Is for Collaboration — and More

Participants at the Labor-Management Collaboration Conference in discussions

DENVER—If we had a dollar for every time someone used the word “collaboration” at the Department of Education’s labor-management conference that wrapped Wednesday, the Department might not have needed financial support from the Ford Foundation to underwrite this first-ever gathering.

Collaboration, we learned through the conference’s plenary panels, breakout sessions and sidebar conversations, can take many forms in a community’s P-12 public school system. At its most basic, it relies on mutual respect among parties who occasionally have divergent viewpoints—school boards, superintendents and teachers unions and associations. At a minimum, everyone plays nice even when they disagree.

In its more advanced form, collaboration entails tackling challenges together as soon as they arise, or—as one participant put it in a tweet from the conference—wrestling with issues, not with each other. These districts cooperate to tackle such difficult issues as teacher evaluation, school design and schedules and compensation and benefits.

And in those school districts where a collaborative spirit is the most ingrained, stakeholders who don’t personally sit at the negotiating table are nevertheless engaged in order to tap their experience and know-how; in those situations, it’s not just their representatives coming up with all the solutions or making all of the decisions.

In addition to “collaboration,” there were two other “c” words we heard frequently in Denver:

  1. Commonality. The 150 school districts invited to this conference came from 40 states. About a third were from urban areas, another third from suburban and a third from small towns or rural areas. Some of the districts serve affluent communities, while others work with a very poor population. In total, they serve 4 million students. But regardless of their demographic and geographic differences, they found in discussing their experiences that they had quite a bit in common. “One thing I’ve learned is we’re not alone,” said Michael Denker, the president of the school board in Wagner, S.D. “Other people have the same problems you do—that’s for sure.”

  2. Consistency. In the places where adults collaborate well to serve students, it was not unusual to hear that those adults had grown up in the community—some attended the very same public schools they lead today—or they had otherwise been working alongside each other for years. Where there is low turnover among school superintendents, union leaders and school board members, it’s understandably easier to build trusting, enduring relationships. “This stuff takes time,” said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, a conference co-sponsor. “It takes trust between administrators, school board members and teachers.”

In Secretary Duncan’s closing remarks to the 450 school superintendents, board leaders and teacher representatives who voluntarily came to Denver for the conference on Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration, he employed two more words that start with “c.” He praised the attendees for their courage, and he asked for their commitment to take what they learned back home and get to work on forging a new labor-management relationship that has students at the center.

“I think this is the start of something historic,” Arne said, “and I think you guys collectively are going to help lead the country where we’re going to go.

“My only request to you,” he continued, “is that you go ‘all in’ on this. We can’t hold back… We’ll do everything we can [at the Department of Education] to be a good partner.”

Similar pledges were made in the closing session by the leaders of the conference’s other co-sponsoring organizations—the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of the Great City Schools and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Watch a summary of Wednesday’s proceedings in this short video (below). See photos from the first day of the conference.

Click here for an accessible version of the video.

All of the labor-management conference’s plenary sessions were webcast, and you can view archived video on the Department’s Ustream channel. A variety of blog posts and materials related to the conference are available on