Give Peace a Chance

Article excerpt

Byline: Pat Wingert

Some reformers and union leaders are collaborating--and getting results.

At first glance, the web site of Florida's most reform-minded school district looks like any other. Interspersed between brightly colored photos of schoolchildren is a portrait of Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia, followed by one of school-board president Doretha Edgecomb. But just below her is the real surprise--a photo of the local teachers' union president, Jean Clements. The message is as unmistakable as it is rare: in Hillsborough County, home of Tampa and St. Petersburg, the president of the teachers' union is not the avowed enemy of reform. In fact, she's a member of the leadership team.

To an increasing number of education reformers, Clements and others like her have come to symbolize a possible third way, a viable alternative to bashing unions or living with their foot-dragging. Stung by critical documentaries like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, more union leaders are motivated to prove they want to improve schools too. Many reformers and superintendents, battle-weary and frustrated by the slow pace of change, are open to ideas that might speed things up. And politicians, particularly some Democrats, are eager to find new ways to overhaul failing schools without alienating union members and voters, particularly after D.C.'s pro-school-reform Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his reelection bid in part because of union members' generosity to his opponent.

Hillsborough's commitment to school-reform collaboration is becoming harder for others to ignore. Based on its creative experimentation with teacher pay and development, the district won a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Earlier this year, when the U.S. Department of Education announced the winners of its $4.3 billion national school-reform competition, Florida made the cut, in part based on Hillsborough's contributions to the state's application. The district has seen its test scores rise, has been the subject of several academic studies, and is often held up as a model of reform. And just last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Hillsborough to announce plans for a national conference promoting the best district-union collaborations. "We need to learn from these successful collaborative efforts and build upon them across the country," he said.

While battles with the American Federation of Teachers earned D.C.'s former chancellor Michelle Rhee as many headlines as her bold overhaul of the schools, Hillsborough (the nation's eighth-largest district) has made similarly dramatic gains with a lot less drama. In recent years, teamwork between the union and management has resulted in a longer, eight-hour school day; higher pay for the most effective teachers; and a comprehensive coaching program for struggling teachers. They have also worked together to refine a rigorous teacher-evaluation system that considers student-achievement gains along with the observations of principals and outside peer reviewers--a system not unlike the one Rhee established in D. …