Prioritizing Collaboration in a Time of Contention

By Chad d’Entremont, Geoff Marietta, and Emily Murphy Kaur

President Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20 provided both a capstone to the most divisive period of electoral politics in recent American history and the promise of continued animosity between political opponents. And, while the factors driving current divisions among the voting public are myriad, a significant source of conflict has been our new president’s confrontational approach to leadership. There seems to be a common understanding among those in charge that change requires swift and decisive action from a strong authority (political or moral) and a willingness to aggressively challenge and combat dissenting points of view. This impulse is felt on both sides of the political aisle, but it is exemplified by President Trump’s statement at the Republican National Convention that “I alone can fix it.”

Strong leadership matters in governance and policy-making, of course. In our own field of public education, a large body of literature has documented the impact of effective leaders on improving school performance. However, how leadership is applied is as important as the vision that is set forth. Improving complex organizations such as schools requires collaboration. This means accurately and honestly assessing local needs, engaging and considering diverse interests, building trusting teams to implement new strategies, and staying committed to agreed-upon goals when plans inevitably go awry. As our national politics have shown, when leaders work in isolation success rarely follows. 

There are three primary reasons why collaboration holds such promise. First, collaborative organizations that empower staff to make leadership decisions are more responsive to those they serve. Individuals working on the frontlines of an organization are often the first to identify potential problems and best informed to enact potential solutions. Second, collaborative organizations tend to be more innovative. Simply put, engaging diverse perspectives in designing improvement strategies leads to a broader set of ideas. Third, and most important, research has shown that highly collaborative organizations improve more rapidly.1

For these reasons, in our new book Improving Education Together: A Guide to Labor-Management-Community Collaboration, we present a step-by-step process for building a culture of collaboration among stakeholders in our public education system. We lay out the benefits of embracing collaboration and building stronger alliances among management, labor, and community leaders. We introduce strategies that have been successfully employed in districts and schools across the country using readily available tools for needs assessment, root-cause analysis, team norms, brainstorming, consensus building, and long-term planning. Each step is illustrated with a case study documenting the resources and approaches used to achieve desired outcomes and the lessons learned from obstacles and setbacks encountered along the way.

The promise of collaboration is evident in the stories we share. For example, Revere Public Schools (RPS) is located just north of Boston, Massachusetts. It is a midsized, urban center where the median income and educational attainment of residents fall below state averages. And yet, the district is widely recognized as one of the top performing urban school districts in the state. Visitors to the Staff Sergeant James J. Hill Elementary School will find classrooms characterized by a dynamic small group design where students transition between peer-led activities and individualized learning on computers, as well as engage teachers in facilitated small-group discussions. The learning environment created at the Hill School is possible, in part, due to the strong sense of collaboration that pervades the district. RPS maintains an educators leadership board comprised of eighty teachers and administrators, including the union president and district superintendent. The board ensures those principally responsible for teaching and learning play a lead role on issues ranging from teacher recruitment and hiring to educator growth to organizational structure to adult professional culture. This commitment to collaborative decision-making has opened the door to more innovative and potentially controversial reforms. At the Hill School, an extended learning time initiative has increased the school’s schedule by more than three hundred hours to better support the classroom practices and external partnerships that define the school’s success.

Perhaps the hardest thing for leaders to do is recognize that they need and benefit from the guidance and support of others within their organizations. When facing pressure to “get things done,” our impulse is often to put our heads down and work toward a solution. Even when we have the best of intentions, engaging multiple stakeholders can feel inefficient and unproductive, courting unnecessary controversy. What successful organizations have consistently shown, however, is that taking the time to build trust and consensus and consider multiple perspectives leads to better results. Building a skill set to carry forward collaborative decision-making is essential to becoming an effective leader.

This post originally appeared on Voices in Education, the blog of the Harvard Education Publishing Group