The Podium

A fresh approach to improving student outcomes

More than 950,000 kids are going back to public schools across the Commonwealth. The majority of them will be in school districts that rank among the best in the nation and they will benefit from another year of quality education from some of the most dedicated teachers anywhere. For others, however, particularly in low income school districts, another year of school will leave them further and further behind their better-off peers. While many of these schools are working hard to close the schooling gap that will otherwise leave Massachusetts with even greater income and wealth inequality in the future, there is a new approach dedicated to making these schools outstanding as well.

With support from the Boston Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, a year ago we helped create the Massachusetts Education Partnership. The Partnership brings together the state’s two teacher unions, the state associations of school committees and school superintendents, and four education and research institutions— UMass-Boston, Northeastern, MIT, and the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. MEP’s mission is to work with teachers, unions, and school officials at the school district level to collaboratively design and implement systemic changes in practice needed to advance student achievement.

In its first year of operation the MEP has begun training and facilitating school district and teacher union leaders in state of the art “interest-based” negotiations and problem solving processes and is working intensively with union-management teams in seven districts. The goal: to improve student outcomes through a new, constructive working relationship among teachers, their union representatives, and local school officials. Last fall, MEP brought together over 300 school officials and local school union leaders to explore ways to work together to improve student outcomes and an even larger gathering will meet this October to learn what their peers are achieving through this new collaboration.


Now it is time to tackle even bigger challenges in the year ahead. We hope to start here in Boston — the largest school district in the state and in some ways the toughest nut to crack. The mayor’s race can add impetus to our efforts. The next mayor faces both an enormous challenge and opportunity in balancing calls for more charter schools and improving the quality of the city’s public schools. It would be a mistake to make this an either/or proposition. Boston, like cities around the country, has learned a great deal from the innovations in education introduced in charter schools. Longer school days, more engagement of business and community groups, empowering teachers on the front lines and rewarding them for improving student achievement are all lessons that can be and in some cases are being applied in public schools.

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The time is right for the next mayor to learn from these innovations by building a culture of teacher empowerment and harnessing the power of labor management partnerships to accelerate school innovation and student achievement. Models for doing so already exist in Boston and other Massachusetts districts and MEP is beginning to document these. Fore example, the Boston Teachers Union, with the support of its national union’s innovation fund and the Boston Public Schools, has launched 21st Century Lessons, a teacher-driven, collaborative approach to curriculum development that will impact not only Boston students, but students worldwide as each lesson is made available on two free websites. Springfield has used collaborative methods to turn what was a broken labor-management relationship into a partnership that empowers teachers and principals to solve problems together and engages community and business leaders in the effort. At least modest improvements in student math and science scores are already being achieved.

These initial efforts need to be replicated. Across the Commonwealth as many as 40 schools may be at risk of falling from what the state categorizes as “Level 3” to “Level 4” schools — the lowest ranking short of full state takeover of the school system as the case in Lawrence. Several bills have been introduced in the state legislature that would follow the highly controversial Wisconsin model of taking away collective bargaining rights in these schools. A coalition of leaders, including some active in MEP, are proposing an alternative approach: Apply the MEP principles and tools to these schools; provide needed resources; and challenge teachers, unions, and district leaders to work together to improve performance in the next two years. From our long experience in studying labor-management relations in many industries, we bet that after two years, this collaborative approach will produce better results than in states where teacher unions have been under withering attack and discord reigns supreme.

Let’s show the nation that Boston and Massachusetts have the combination of talent, vision, and collective energy that can make our state with its great record of student achievement even greater.

Thomas Kochan is professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Barry Bluestone is professor of political economy at Northeastern University.