Monday, April 16, 2012

Collaboration: Just a Fancy Word for Working Together

Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales: Variation and Change in State Standards for Reading and Mathematics, 2005–2009
I remember seeing Jesse Jackson on TV many years ago.   He said something about language which has always stuck with me, “Don’t say ‘prevaricate’ when what you mean is ‘lie’.”  What he was getting at is the virtue of simplicity and directness in the choice of words.
The word collaborate has been all the rage in education, whether we are designing “collaboration time” among teachers at a school, or achieving “labor-management collaboration” between boards, unions and administrators.  It’s easy to lose track, when using a fancy term like collaboration, of the human dimension of collaboration, in all its simplicity and directness: people working together towards a common goal.
In education, there is only one goal that matters: great student learning.  All other subsidiary goals must be paths to that single thing.  Without that, you can collaborate all you want, but the result will be vestigial.  Probably not a good use of anybody’s time.
In my experience there are two paths to labor-management collaboration, meaning leaders working together to advance student learning, 
The first is charismatic individuals.  There are extraordinary people out there who “get it” and can draw others into a home cooked approach to working together that works tolerably well.  But there are three disadvantages to relying on charismatic leadership:
1.       There aren’t enough charismatic leaders
2.       Charismatic leaders retire
3.       Charismatic leaders can block the development of other leaders
The second approach is to create collaborative structures and techniques within which normal people can operate.  The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is in the business of promoting this body of knowledge.  Techniques include Interest Based Bargaining (IBB), labor-management committees, contract language which permits flexibility at the site level, and salary benchmarking.
I’ll use IBB for a moment, because it is probably the best known (if most misunderstood) technique.  IBB is not a panacea.  Rather, it provides a civil platform upon which other types of work can occur.  It is virtually impossible to advance the cause of student learning when, as one of our veteran WCEA negotiators put it, “The two sides are shouting at each other through their spokespersons.”
Luckily IBB has a well articulated body of theory and practice, which makes it accessible to those of us who are mere mortals.  People can learn to do this – it’s not a matter of talent.
The danger of this sort of structure is that it will ossify into something ritualistic, that people will value the process itself more than overall end goal of the enterprise.  But, providing this detour can be avoided with a little “big picture” thinking (something that seems to annoy a lot of folks when pulling weeds) having a structure for ongoing conversations about local policy and progressive education reform creates sustainability.
Of course the ideal would be to have both the charismatic leadership and sustainability of structures to support meaningful reform.  But if I had to choose, I’d choose sustainability.  This isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon.  And there is an essential human dimension to the work which is not captured by a term like collaboration.  Let’s remember, as flawed human beings, the advantage of structures that support us in working together.


  1. Steve,
    Thanks for your thoughtful post on what the goal of collaboration is, student learning. I wonder if we were to ask school board members what they see as the goal of collabortion what their answer might be?

    1. Sherry, I can't speak for school board members, but I remember the term Rod Sherman, president of the Plattsburgh NYSUT local used for the board members his local vetted: education friendly candidates. Not union loving, rather, education friendly. From my conversations with the PCSD team in Denver, I would have to say education friendly means people who put student learning first. Isn't it time the 10,000 members of VT-NEA, and all their friends in other unions, began to take a hard look at how education friendly school board members are in their communities?

  2. Adam, Beth, and Cedric, working together, can paint a room in 6 hours less than the time it takes Adam working alone, one hour less than it takes Beth working alone, and one-half the time it takes Cedric working alone. How long would it take Adam and Beth to paint the room if the work together without Cedric?

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