Collaborative School Leadership Initiative

For almost two decades, the debate over public school reform has created friction between teachers unions, administrators, school boards, parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders in public education and has fueled disagreements over how to improve the quality of teaching and learning for children. While many factors make consensus elusive when it comes to school reform, a key obstacle to finding agreement around educational improvements and bringing such improvements to fruition has been division between the key stakeholders, particularly teachers unions and management.

Yet, within some districts and schools across the country, union leaders and school administrators have found an alternate path to reform—one that is based on building strong relationships that facilitate collaboration among educators and is focused on teaching quality and educational improvement for students. Research by faculty at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (Rubinstein and McCarthy 2011, 2012) examined cases of school reform that resulted from collaborative partnerships between teachers unions and administrators working together in innovative ways to improve teaching quality and student performance. Their research identified elements that all school districts with long-term union-management partnerships shared in common.

More recent research at Rutgers University (Rubinstein and McCarthy 2014) demonstrated that formal union-management committees and partnerships improve student achievement even in high poverty schools. These partnerships lead to more extensive collaboration among teachers as well as between teachers and administrators. Specifically they found that:

  • Formal partnerships help improve student performance. The quality of formal partnerships between teachers unions, administrators, and teachers at the school level is a significant predictor of student performance, as well as performance improvement, after poverty and school type are taken into account.
  • Partnerships lead to more extensive communication between teachers. Higher-quality, school-level teacher-administrator partnerships predicted more extensive school-level collaboration and communication around: student- performance data; curriculum development, cross-subject integration, or grade- to-grade integration; sharing, advising, or learning about instructional practices; and giving or receiving formal or informal mentoring.
  • More extensive communication improves student performance. More extensive communications around: student-performance data; curriculum and integration; instructional practice; and mentoring all predicted large and significant gains in student performance or performance improvement.
  • Partnership leads to more frequent and informal communication between union representatives and principals. Finally, the quality of partnerships predicted different communication patterns between union building representatives and principals, with the communication in high-partnership schools becoming more frequent and less formal than the communication in low- partnership schools.
  • Union-management partnerships can enhance learning among schools and the adoption of innovation from one school to another. Tests can reveal deficiencies in student knowledge but can offer little more beyond alerting parents and teachers to a problem. Union-management partnerships, because they are problem focused, can take the critical next steps and help drive thinking about ways to increase student learning. These types of partnerships are designed to use collaboration among educators to find solutions to gaps in student achievement and then effectively implement those solutions because those closest to the problem—with tacit knowledge of it—are key stakeholders in the improvement process.

In order to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in our state, the Center’s faculty initiated the NJ Public School Labor Management Collaborative in 2013. The first step was a meeting with leaders of the key state education associations to discuss the Center’s& research showing the positive impact of collaboration on student achievement. The leaders of these associations – the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA), and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association (NJPSA) – then committed to a collaborative effort and recruited school districts to create labor-management district partnerships.

Over the past decade, the Collaborative has engaged all the stakeholders, across districts and within schools, in shared efforts to improve teaching and learning. As of January 2024, 25 districts have joined the Collaborative, with another 5 scheduled for training in the coming semester. The effort has spread beyond the state: notably, the central unions and government bodies of South Africa have adopted the Rutgers collaborative model, have received training from the Center, and are in the process of initiating pilots in all the country’s nine provinces. Also in January, a book on these experiences was published by the Harvard Education Press: Rubinstein, S., Heckscher, C. and McCarthy, J., 2023. Democracy and Reform in Public Schools: The Case for Collaborative Partnerships.