Collaborating on School Reform: Creating Union-Management Partnerships to Improve Public School Systems

by Saul Rubinstein and John McCarthy

For most of the past decade the policy debate over improving U.S. public education has centered on teacher quality. It has taken many forms including standards, teacher evaluation, merit pay, tenure, privatization, and charter schools. Teachers and their unions have often been seen as the problem, not part of the solution. What is missing from the discussion is a systems perspective that looks at the way schools are organized and decisions are made.

This article offers this alternate perspective by looking at schools as systems. We studied six school districts, identified by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) as having a track record of innovation and long-term collaborative partnerships between administration and the local teachers’ unions. Scholars from Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and the Sloan School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came together to explore these cases with the AFT. We examined how these efforts were created and sustained over the past two decades, and what they can teach us about the impact of significant involvement of faculty and local union leadership, working closely with district administration, to share in meaningful decision making and restructure school systems.

This article cannot provide the details on all six cases, but reports on the common themes and patterns with excerpts from one of the case studies.  For the complete report, go to:

Figure One: Long-term Collaborative Partnerships: Common Themes and Patterns

I. Motivation for Initiating Collaboration

  • Crisis that motivated the change in the union-management relationship.

II. Strategic Priorities

  • Emphasis on teacher quality.
  • Focus on student performance.
  • Substantive problem-solving, innovation, and willingness to experiment.

III. Supportive System Infrastructure

  • An organizational culture that values and supports collaboration.
  • Shared governance and management of the district and strategic alignment.
  • Collaborative structures at all levels in the district.
  • Dense internal organizing of the union as a network.
  • Joint learning opportunities for union and management. 

IV. Sustaining Factors

  • Long-term leadership and recruitment from within.
  • Community engagement.
  • Support from the Board of Education.
  • Support from the National AFT.
  • Importance of supportive and enabling contract language.

Motivation for Initiating Collaboration

A strike or a vote to strike was the motivation or critical event for most of the districts to seek an alternative direction in their union-management relations. They recognized that the adversarial relationships that led to the strike, or vote to strike, were not productive and not in the best interests of teachers, administrators, or students.

Strategic Priorities

Every district focused on teacher quality as a core goal for collaborative reform and improvement. This included union-led professional development, new systems of teacher evaluation, teaching academies, peer-to-peer assistance and mentoring programs.

All six districts created opportunities for teachers and administrators to work together to analyze student performance in order to focus on priority areas for improvement. Teachers and administrators collaborated on developing data-based improvement plans at the district and school levels. Teachers were also organized into teams at the grade and department level to use student performance data in directing improvement efforts.

All districts engaged in substantive problem solving and innovation around areas critical to student achievement and teaching quality. These range from jointly establishing reading programs in schools with high percentages of students on reduced or free lunch, to peer assistance and review programs, to collaboratively designed systems for teacher evaluation that measure student growth. The collaborative partnerships, therefore, are vehicles for system improvement, not ends in themselves.

Supportive System Infrastructure

Most of these districts have established a culture of collaboration that promotes trust and individual integrity, and values the leadership and organization that the union brings to the district. Collaboration is embedded in the way the district is run.

All six districts have established district-level joint planning and decision making forums that allow the union and administration to work together and develop joint understanding and alignment of the strategic priorities of the district. They have also developed a district-wide infrastructure that gives the union significant input into planning and decision making around curriculum, professional development, textbook selection, school calendar, and schedules.

All districts have created an infrastructure that promotes collaborative decision making through building-level teams, school improvement committees, school steering committees, leadership teams, or school advisory councils that meet on a regular basis. These bodies are vehicles for site-based decision making around school planning, goal setting, budgets, policies, dress codes, discipline, and safety. The teams and committees provide for collaborative leadership at all levels of district decision making.

Most of these districts have data teams, grade-level teams, and department teams that are led by union members who participate in substantive decision making about curriculum, instruction, and articulation on a regular basis. In addition, most districts have developed extensive peer-to-peer mentoring and assistance programs to support professional development that involve significant numbers of teachers as teacher-leaders, master-teachers or mentors, as well as professional development trainers. The number of individuals appointed to these teams is more than twenty percent of the union membership. This results in the union being organized internally as a very dense network, which provides the district with the ability to quickly and effectively implement new programs or ideas.

These districts have invested heavily in creating opportunities for union leaders and administrators to learn together through shared experiences. This allows for both knowledge acquisition (human capital) and the development of stronger relationships (social capital) between leaders. As the educational experience is shared between union and administration, leaders are comfortable that they hear the same message and get the same information at the same time. Further, they experience each other not as adversaries, but as colleagues with overlapping interests who can work together to improve teaching and learning.

Sustaining Factors

All of these districts have enjoyed long-term leadership from their union presidents, and most have also had long-term leadership from their superintendents. This has provided stability for the institutional partnership and establishes the direction and expectation for the rest of the union leadership, membership and district administration.

Most of these districts have engaged the community through involvement of community or parent groups in school-based governance structures, or in district-level planning processes.

In most cases, after a strategic decision to move toward greater collaboration, local unions got directly involved in Board of Education elections by recruiting, supporting and endorsing candidates, or in some cases helping to defeat board candidates who did not support a collaborative approach to school governance and management.

In almost all cases, the local unions and districts received support and resources from the National AFT that helped foster a collaborative approach to school improvement.

Most of these districts have negotiated contract language, or memorandums of understanding, that support their collaborative efforts. Real change is integrated into collective bargaining, and institutionalized in concrete language.  

ABC Unified School District and ABC Federation of Teachers

The following case example is an abbreviated version (for the full report go to:  It is just one of the six school districts studied by the research team.

Located approximately 25 miles south-east of Los Angeles, ABC (Artesia, Bloomfield, and Carmenita) Unified School District (ABCUSD) employs 927 teachers and serves 20,801 ethnically and linguistically diverse students throughout 30 schools, including fourteen Title One schools. Twenty-five percent of students are English Language Learners. Approximately forty-six percent are on free or reduced lunch.

Over the past five years ABCUSD’s performance on the California’s Academic Performance Index (API) has been consistently at least seven percent above the state average, and for the past two years has exceeded the API targets set by the state. The district estimates that approximately eighty-five percent of high school graduates move on to higher education.

Motivation for Initiating Collaboration

The partnership between labor and management in the ABCUSD emerged in the aftermath of a tumultuous eight day strike in 1993 over mounting budget concerns, and the district’s plan to slash teachers’ health benefits and pay, while increasing class size. The strike was taxing for union president Laura Rico and for teachers and administrators. The bitterness that resulted motivated the union to become more involved in school board elections. When union-backed candidates won and finally took a majority on the board, the superintendent changed, as did the climate in ABCUSD starting in 1995. The hiring of Ron Barnes in 1999 as superintendent marked an important step forward in the partnership between the union and administrators. Barnes and Rico recognized that the district’s primary goal of educating students and making teachers successful was compromised when union-management relationships were adversarial, and that a more collaborative relationship was the most effective way of improving teaching quality and student performance.

Strategic Priorities

Superintendent Barnes was able to align the district, including the board of education and administration, around a set of goals and a strategic plan both for the district and each school. He and Rico developed a “Partnership,” both individually in the way they worked together, and institutionally between the district administration and the union. One of the first efforts at collaborative problem solving took place in 1999 at six schools on the southern side of the district, where a much higher percentage of students were on reduced or free lunch. These schools had a majority of students who were English Language Learners and had low proficiency in reading and math. The Partnership collaborated on recruiting, hiring, compensating and retaining high quality teachers; improving curriculum and instructional practices; and expanding research-based professional development. Teaching improved as did student performance

Over time this Partnership approach expanded to other schools, and encompassed other issues related to teaching quality and student achievement: the union and administration collaborated on textbook adoption; interviewing prospective administrators and teachers; curriculum; a new peer assistance, mentoring, support and evaluation program; new teacher orientation; processes for data-based decision making regarding student performance, and more.

In 2005 Gary Smuts replaced Ron Barnes as superintendent, and the Partnership deepened further. To guide their collaborative efforts, the parties developed the following six principles emphasizing the importance of student achievement, teaching excellence, and mutual support

1.      All students can succeed and we will not accept any excuse that prevents that from happening at ABC. We will work together to promote student success.

2.      All needed support will be made available to schools to ensure every student succeeds. We will work together to ensure that happens.

3.      The top five percent of teachers in our profession should teach our students. We will work together to hire, train, and retain these professionals.

4.      All employees contribute to student success.

5.      All negotiations support conditions that sustain successful teaching and student learning.

6.      We won’t let each other fail.

Supportive System Infrastructure

In addition to a collaborative leadership style, the Partnership is supported by both formal and informal structures. For example, the superintendent and the union president meet on a weekly basis to discuss issues and keep the lines of communication open. Other leaders from the union and management also speak frequently to each other about their joint work.

While support at the top has been strong and visible, the lasting Partnership could not be sustained unless it also involved those who were most strongly connected to students -- the teachers and principals. At the school level, principals and union building representatives meet weekly on collaborative leadership teams to discuss school issues, solve problems, and engage in site-based decision making including textbook adoption, school schedules, and the hiring process for each school.

Sustaining Factors

The Partnership at ABCUSD has been sustained and strengthened through strong leadership on both sides. The current superintendent, Gary Smuts, started in the district as a teacher in 1974, and served as a negotiator for the union in the 1980s. He entered the administration in 1986, and was a principal at the time of the 1993 strike. He came to this partnership with established relationships, a long history in the district, and an understanding and appreciation of the value collaboration brings to the school system. Similarly, Laura Rico also has had a long history of leadership within the union. She spent nineteen years as a Child Development Head Teacher, and is now in her ninth term as the full-time President of the ABC Federation of Teachers. The stability of leadership in both the administration and the union, and their history of working together, were critical factors in building trust and institutionalizing the culture of collaboration, and the systems of shared decision-making that operate daily in the district.

The Partnership has also been supported by the community -- parent and volunteers from local businesses and other community members. Since the strike, the union has joined with parents in campaigning for board candidates supportive of increased collaboration by the union with the administration. Union - administration collaboration has further been aided by technical assistance and resources from the National AFT through training programs and also through support from the AFT Innovation Fund.

Lessons from All Six School Districts Studied

  • Systems. Education reform and improvement must be seen as a systems problem. Districts and unions need to work together to examine all aspects of their school systems
  • Quality. Successful union-management collaboration in public school reform must focus on substantive areas affecting the quality of teaching or student achievement. Use collaborative approaches to experiment and innovate
  • Formal Structures. Shared decision-making in school improvement must take place at both the district-level as well in the schools themselves.
  • Networks. Peer-to-peer networks for improving teaching provides teachers with better skills and with a social network that can continue to support them and the ongoing exchange of ideas necessary to increase instructional quality. The union is the backbone of this network, but management must partner with the union so that it has real input into district and school-level governance.
  • Culture. In addition to formal structures at the district and school level, districts must develop strong cultures of collaboration that inform approaches to planning and decision making, as well as hiring decisions by school boards and superintendents
  • Learning Organizations. Shared learning opportunities are critical to building and sustaining long-term collaboration. Districts and unions should provide training and learning experiences for labor-management teams, so that they can acquire knowledge together as well as build their relationships.
  • Stability. The long-term tenure of union leaders, superintendents, or both benefits partnerships. School boards should consider this as they approach the recruitment and hiring of superintendents, and the use of internal labor markets. 
  • Board of Education. Collaborative systems and management styles require the full support of school boards. Union support of board candidates who value collaboration will be of great value in sustaining long-term partnerships.
  • National Union. Districts and local unions can benefit greatly from the technical assistance, support, training and resources available from the AFT at both the national and state levels.  
  • Community. Community support is critical to institutionalizing collaboration. Districts and unions must engage the community in supporting their collaborative processes, either as stakeholders involved directly in district or school-based planning and decision-making bodies, or through their school boards.

We hope these findings will be helpful to other districts and local unions who want to pursue a strategy of collaborative school reform and hope they will encourage policy makers to design incentives for greater collaboration among teachers’ unions, administrations and boards of education. 

 Funding for this research was provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Saul Avery Rubinstein is an associate professor at the School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University, and is the co-director of the Center for Organizational Learning and Transformation. His research focuses on changes in firm governance, management and local unions that have resulted from joint labor-management efforts to transform industrial relations, work systems, and performance in a variety of industries. His work extends to union-management partnerships at the strategic level, and studying the changes in patterns of coordination and communication as organizations adopt team-based work structures. His current research focuses on union-management collaborative efforts to reform public education.

John McCarthy
John McCarthy


John McCarthy is a third year doctoral student at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. John develops software applications that facilitate the collection and analysis of social network data. His research centers on knowledge transfer and combination within and between organizations.