Cornell University

October 14 2011

Reforming  Education

Collective bargaining helps public schools go forward, says national agency chief

George CohenRelationships, relationships, relationships.

Those are the three most important things "to doing anything," a seasoned labor relations practitioner said Thursday during a lecture in Ives Hall.

George H. Cohen A&S '55, Law '57 is director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, based in Washington, D.C.

The agency, he said, is eager to help teacher unions and school administrators come to an agreement on a central question in education reform – how to evaluate public school teachers.

The nation's 14,000-plus public school districts are struggling to establish professional standards and teacher evaluation frameworks as first steps in improving student performance.

Collective bargaining, despite efforts by some states to dismiss it, remains the most effective way to reach agreement, Cohen said in his lecture, "The FMCS's New Role in Facilitating Public School Reform: Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration."

Case in point: the settlement between Rhode Island's Central Falls School District and Central Falls Teachers Union.

"Egads," Cohen recalled thinking. "What have you folks done and what can we do to repair it?"

Cohen and his agency were invited to help settle a 2010 dispute touched off when the district's 89 teachers were notified by the superintendent they would be dismissed at the end of the school year due to low student achievement.

The union sued the school board.

The national media beamed into Central Falls.

"It was a really bad situation," Cohen said.

After three weeks of negotiations, though, there was agreement.

The teachers kept their jobs, a new teacher evaluation system was established and a system to increase student achievement was implemented.

Labor-management cooperation was the key, Cohen said, and collective bargaining was the mechanism.

"When the dust settled," he said, he realized that the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has something to offer the national education debate.

"If we can help facilitate constructive discussion, that would be fabulous."