How can teachers and other school staff members work with administrators and schools boards in implementing the Common Core standards? Does it even make a difference if there is collaboration?

A program, “Implementing the Common Core Standards through Union-Management Collaboration,” held Dec. 20 at Rutgers University, tackled such questions. The New Jersey School Boards Association was represented at the conference by Vince DeLucia, educator-in-resident; and Patrick Duncan, manager of NJSBA’s labor relations unit.

DeLucia reported that cooperation between management and staff contributes to student achievement. “Research indicates that students in some school districts that have effective union-management collaboration are achieving at higher levels than those without formalized collaboration processes,” says DeLucia. “To successfully meet the achievement challenges that school districts across our nation and state are confronting, it is imperative to consider best practices, the experiences of others, and current research.

“Due to the potential of this research, NJSBA, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the New Jersey American Federation of Teachers, the New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and a dozen school districts from across the state have joined the Gates Foundation-funded project, the New Jersey Collaborative School Reform Learning Network.”

The Dec. 20 program was sponsored by the network. That group will explore ways for school staff and management to improve public education.

One of the organizers of the program was Professor Saul Rubinstein, co-director of the Center for Learning & Transformation at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

Rubinstein is enthusiastic about the possibilities of cooperation in education. “As a researcher who has studied union-management collaboration in the public and private sectors for over 25 years, I have seen the benefits to employees and to organizational performance. We have now found a clear link between teacher unions and administration partnerships, teacher collaboration at the school level, and student achievement. And as a former school board member this makes sense to me because teacher collaboration is key to higher quality teaching and student outcomes.”

NJSBA’s Patrick Duncan noted that the idea of collaboration has enormous merit, but also faces high hurdles. He said that these hurdles are illustrated by problems that have been seen in some districts. For example, in Montgomery County, Maryland, the union involvement extended into areas of board authority such as the development of educational policy and budgeting. By agreement, some of the union involvement in the decision-making process goes beyond the areas that the union has a legal right to be involved in. Thus, the district has ceded some of its decision-making authority to this extra contractual decision-making process.

Duncan noted another challenge is the current difficult economic climate. In districts where collaboration has been successful, there was a substantial increase in base compensation at the beginning of the changed relationship. New Jersey’s 2 percent tax levy cap may preclude such a substantial increase in staff compensation (unless the school age population is rapidly shrinking), according to Duncan.

He also noted that cooperation at the bargaining table requires “a commitment by both sides to be transparent about resources and non-negotiability.” Even if this is accomplished, not every district which has implemented cooperative bargaining can demonstrate success in terms of improved student education outcomes, Duncan pointed out.

Yet there is reason for optimism, even beyond the obvious appeal of cooperation. Failures at the negotiation table have sometimes been the catalyst for later successes in collaboration, because problems have led to the recognition that “we need to do things differently.”

Two speakers at the program, Dr. Mary Sieu, superintendent of the ABC Unified School District in Southern California, and Ray Gaer, president of the teacher’s association in that district, discussed the successful collaborative partnership in their school district that goes back almost 20 years. You can read more about their partnership in a report that was published by the Center for American Progress.

Anna Bosted is a graduate student at Rutgers School of Management & Labor Relations.