by Julia Steiny
‘Tis the season to celebrate peace on earth. Since the world is what it is, we celebrate peace as an essential ideal, however much honored in the breach. So how do we consider, very seriously, ways to reduce obstacles in the way of peace? Humans fighting with each other always has fall-out, from irresponsibly angry behavior to full-on world wars. We’ll never eliminate conflict, nor should we try. But we can work hard to create the conditions that allow conflicts, even heated ones, to be resolved with little to no collateral damage.
Currently, the state of Rhode Island is toying with the idea of a statewide teacher contract. Besides the fantasy that it will save money — RI has a horrible record negotiating contracts of most kinds — the hope is to reduce the skirmishes in the districts. Little RI has 36 school districts, which means 36 of most everything, including labor contracts for each of various bargaining units — secretaries, janitors, teacher assistants, teachers. Contract negotiations, their maintenance, breaches, grievances, and other manner of labor/management beefs are a misery for all concerned. At its worst, public education can get so consumed with fighting among adults that the kids hardly matter. Quality, schmality.
So the statewide contract needs to be commended, at least as a sincere effort to reduce fighting. The issues argued between labor and management are often substantial. The tensions could generate a truly healthy, evolving conversation. But alas, they usually don’t. So the idea of one frontline battle instead of 36 is laudable.
Right impulse; wrong solution.
No evidence shows any magic to the oneness of a teachers contract, though. The one state that has a statewide contract, Hawaii, has a middling education system. Ambitious educators are certainly not studying the virtues of its contract. The students’ performance on the NAEP exams is nothing to write home about. And while state law prohibits strikes per se, teachers in that very high-cost state feel forced to the streets anyway. The single contract isn’t helping.
Conversely, RI’s enviably high-performing neighbor, Massachusetts, has roughly 400 school districts and only 6 times RI’s population. Many of that state’s strategies are studied like crazy because of their excellent results on the NAEP and elsewhere. Rarely do you hear much about their labor/management skirmishes. Both city and rural districts have disagreements of course, but that news is usually overwhelmed by news of the state’s success as a whole. The silly number of districts isn’t disturbing their peace, or at least not much.
Getting to a Peaceful, Child-Friendly Contract
One contract versus 400 doesn’t seem to matter. What matters are the results. Do the kids thrive? By any standard? Do they learn what will make them successful, including the social and emotional skills that the workplace depends on? Do they graduate, find work, contribute to their communities? How does a contract identify school goals towards which the adults agree to cooperate, and as such keeps the peace?
To my mind, the problem with contracts is that they often devolve into straight-up head-butting — over money, of course, but also spaces in the parking lot, grievance procedures and endless minutia. Here I’m channeling Common Cause’s Phillip Howard, whose best-titled book is the Death of Common Sense, but whose most recent is the Rule of Nobody. His point is that we’re drowning in laws that make human judgment impossible. Collective ideals might give us a lifeline out. What does it look like when we’ve got it right? Can we agree and sign? Often in the name of settling fights, contract provisions work to nail down endless details, which then provoke wrangling and resentment once the thing is settled. The very specificity assumes a lack of willing cooperation and as such can create the conditions for endless fighting.
A contract should at least begin with a few over-arching principles. School mission statements often proclaim lofty goals about nurturing children’s minds, bodies and curiosity. And charter-schools contracts, for example, try to capture the spirit of the school community’s ideals, and then follow with a simple salary schedule and benefits. By putting as little as possible into a contract, school adults must figure out day-to-day agreements cooperatively. Even the best tended culture of cooperation doesn’t always work, of course; people still disagree, get mad, even raise their voices. But only as a last resort do they turn to lawyers, courts, or passive-aggressive bullying, all of which makes the school climate worse. Instead, disputants must hear one another out, modeling and practicing the very aspects of cooperation that schools teach to kids, or should.
A minimalist contract has a better shot at turning the attention to kids and their outcomes. If a proposed decision doesn’t pass the child-friendly test, don’t do it. I’m betting that the local contract culture contributes to RI having highest teacher absenteeism in the country. I could be wrong, but it’s not a stretch to say that teacher consistency is not a collective ideal. Inconsistency is legal, perhaps, but not ideal.
It’s our job as adults to avoid adding to the strife in these contentious, frightened times. Labor and management’s adoption of child-friendly ideals might contribute measurably to peace on earth.