Aspen Institute Highlights Teacher Union and School District Collaboration

June 2, 2011

Contact: Ariel Jacobs
The Aspen Institute
(202) 736-2297

Chronicling Pittsburgh’s Story in the Context of National Efforts to Improve Teacher Effectiveness

WASHINGTON, DC, June 2, 2011 – Today the Aspen Institute examined the historic partnership in Pittsburgh between the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT) and Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) through release of a research paper and at a panel discussion.

Panel moderator and executive director of the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program Ross Wiener underlined that an adversarial relationship between management and labor is not inevitable if both sides are committed to maximizing student outcomes by providing the best-equipped, most effective teachers.

The partnership between PPS and the PFT is a powerful example of what’s possible when districts and unions honestly confront the issues, and when leaders on both sides are willing to change. “Pittsburgh’s pursuit of an ambitious reform agenda through cooperative efforts offers a powerful counterpoint to the current focus on union-district discord,” said Wiener. “While collaboration can’t substitute for a substantive improvement agenda, there’s every reason to believe we’ll make more progress when people are working together. Genuine collaboration will look different in every context, but there are important lessons in Pittsburgh’s journey.”

Hosted by the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program, the panel discussion was based upon release of its newest report: “Forging a New Partnership: The Story of Teacher Union and School District Collaboration in Pittsburgh.” The report, authored by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Sean Hamill, provides an in-depth look at the breakthrough collaboration that took place in Pittsburgh over the past five years. The report also highlights important principles applicable to other districts across the US.

Over the past five years in Pittsburgh, the school administration, teachers union, school board and the surrounding foundation and business community took a struggling urban school district and started to improve student achievement while placing Pittsburgh at the forefront of education reform. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recognized the opportunity and awarded Pittsburgh a $40 million grant for their Empowering Effective Teachers proposal – submitted collaboratively by the PPS and PFT. This progress was fueled by a deep level of trust built over several years and a sense of urgency to ensure student success, a spirit that continues between Dr. Linda Lane, current Pittsburgh Superintendent, and local union president John Tarka.

Today’s panel participants explored implications from the work in Pittsburgh and the possibilities and challenges of district-union collaboration to advance reform efforts. Participants included Joanne Weiss, chief of staff, US Department of Education; Dr. Linda Lane, superintendent, Pittsburgh Public Schools; John Tarka, president, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers; and Jon Schnur, chairman of the board and co-founder, New Leaders for New Schools.

The leadership shown by Pittsburgh’s district and union modeled a new form of partnering. Successive, successful collaborations between the two on issues that grew in complexity were built on trust, capacity, and a sense of possibility. A commitment to focus on vision and problem-solving created space for creativity, and engaging teachers at every step in the work built ownership, leveraged expertise, and led to better results for teachers, the system, the union, and, most importantly, for students and their learning.

The report articulates a set of principles for collaboration that can be adapted to other state and local contexts:

  • Communicate and collaborate on a wide range of topics to create shared understanding on substantive issues and a track record of constructive collaboration that supports contract negotiations.
  • Demonstrate from both the school system and the union a commitment to genuine dialogue and partnership, creating an example for others to emulate. For example, the PFT and PPS went from sitting across the table and seeing the other as a problem to sitting on the same side working together to solve problems they both identified as critical.
  • Embrace uncertainty and commit to learning through design and implementation to support the pursuit of ambitious goals and to create joint ownership for developing solutions. The 2010 contract in Pittsburgh reflects a nascent trend in contract reform that also has been used in Baltimore and New Haven, which articulates a vision and establishes parameters for teacher evaluation and compensation. The contract empowers teachers and others to determine the details based on their own real-life experience and expertise.
  • Replace traditional negotiations with a problem-solving approach that defines priorities for the work of the district and its teachers first, and then draft contract provisions to reflect the priorities. Limit the role of lawyers and expand the role of practitioners.

A year ago at a meeting of the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program’s Urban Superintendents Network in Pittsburgh, then-Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and PFT president John Tarka addressed the superintendents and reflected on the strong relationship they had forged and the resulting progress. A new, 5-year contract with the district had been negotiated and each spoke to his role in pushing for the historic agreement. The agreement was approved by the PFT membership by a vote of 69 to 31%. The Aspen Institute felt this story was an important one to share.

To read the full report, please click here:

The Aspen Education & Society Program provides an informed and neutral forum for education practitioners, researchers, and policy leaders to engage in focused dialogue regarding their efforts to improve student achievement, and to consider how public policy changes can affect progress. Through our meetings, analysis, commissioned work, and structured networks of policymakers and practitioners, the program, for nearly 30 years, has developed intellectual frame-works on critical education issues that assist federal, state, and local policymakers working to improve American education.


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