Labor-Management-Community Collaboration in Springfield Public Schools

Few people hail teachers' unions as leaders of education reform. Teachers' unions are routinely characterized as part of the problem, protecting the interests of members at the expense of quality instruction and exercising unchecked political power. School districts fare little better in the public eye; they are often perceived as large, ineffective bureaucracies which perpetuate under-performance among low-income and minority students. Furthermore, community involvement in public education reform, though a widespread phenomenon, is largely unrecognized in the national policy debate about the future of schools. Given this, it is difficult to imagine three less likely partners in education reform than a local teachers' union (labor), district leaders (management), and local organizations and foundations (community). Yet the work of some education and community leaders has shown that collaboration between labor, management, and community has the potential to build capacity and improve student learning.

The purpose of this case study is to highlight the work by union, district, and community leaders in Springfield Public Schools, offering a compelling picture of labor-management-community collaboration in practice. Eight years ago, the Springfield Public Schools and the Massachusetts Teachers Association's local affiliate, Springfield Education Association, joined as original members of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy's Labor-Management Initiative. With facilitative support, Springfield union and district leaders worked together to develop a common definition of a successful school, administer a comprehensive school-based survey across the district, implement an instructional coaching program, and craft a new teacher evaluation system. Today, union leaders sit on the district's senior leadership team and budget committee, and support each other on potentially controversial issues when presenting together to teachers, principals, and the school committee. The district-union collaboration is building community and business partnerships, expanding family engagement programming, and supporting school-based instructional leadership and shared decision-making.

From the Rennie Center's work in labor-management relations and current research in Springfield, five key lessons emerge. The goal is not for communities to simply replicate the systems and structures Springfield uses to collaborate, but to learn and apply the key lessons to their local contexts.

  • LESSON 1: Use data to maintain focus and drive action plans that center on student needs.
  • LESSON 2: Expect unexpected disruptions to collaboration, and do not give up when they occur.
  • LESSON 3: Build collaborative structures and relationships that extend beyond the superintendent's office.
  • LESSON 4: Rely on third-party facilitators to initiate difficult discussions, keep conversations productive, and maintain momentum.
  • LESSON 5: Invite community organizations to lead on-the-ground efforts to improve student learning, and involve community leaders in district leadership teams.

The report was the subject of discussion during a public event in Boston, MA on February 28, 2012.