Note to Union: Don't Mess With Success at This High-Achieving Charter Middle School

By Jay Mathews
Monday, June 29, 2009

Sometime last year, while negotiating a teacher contract for the KIPP Ujima Village charter middle school in Baltimore, founder Jason Botel pointed out that his students, mostly from low- income families, had earned the city's highest public school test scores three years in a row. If the union insisted on increasing overtime pay, he said, the school could not afford the extra instruction time that was a key to its success, and student achievement would suffer.

Botel says a union official replied: "That's not our problem."

Such stories heat the blood of union critics. It is, they contend, a sign of how unions dumb down public education by focusing on salaries, not learning.

Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English, who was at the meeting, denied Botel's account. But, she added, teacher salaries and working conditions are her priority as a negotiator. I think the union leader is right.

American teachers organized in the last century because of terrible pay and working conditions. They loved kids. They wanted to help them learn. But they could not do that if spouses demanded that they get better-paying jobs, or if principals disciplined them for complaining about rotting blackboards and unheated classrooms.

Teacher salaries are better now. Working conditions are still a problem, but in a different way. We now know, from the success of schools like Ujima Village, that letting strong and imaginative teams decide how to teach and giving them more time to do it can raise student achievement significantly, even in our worst neighborhoods. Neither school boards nor unions, in most cases, have figured out what to do with this information. That is why Ujima Village finds itself forced to cut Saturday classes, trim its school day and make other changes that put its survival at risk.

It's hard for any of us to change how we do our jobs. We are learning this in the newspaper business, like others in the auto and banking businesses. Public education is no different.

English and the Baltimore union's outside counsel, Keith Zimmerman, convinced me they are sincerely committed to making Ujima Village and all other Baltimore schools wonderful places to learn. But they did not once mention an important motivator for union members such as Brad Nornhold, 31, a star math teacher at Ujima Village.

"I appreciate what the union has tried to do for me," Nornhold said, "but we weren't necessarily contacted before they started these negotiations. This is a school of choice for teachers, too. I knew what I was getting into." Ujima Village teachers were already the highest-paid in Baltimore for their experience level, and the union's demands seem to overlook the appeal of what Nornhold called "the freedom to teach the way I want to teach." The union ignores the lure of a school that supports teachers and structures their day so they can raise student achievement to levels rarely seen in their city. "To teach in a school that works, that's nice," Nornhold said.

I asked English what she thought of Botel's argument. By forcing Ujima Village to cut back its nine-hour school days and Saturday classes, is she making her members at that school less effective? "I disagree with that," she said. "Effective teachers can get the same results in a seven-hour-and-five-minute day."

To that I say: Show me. English should do what her national union president, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, has done. Weingarten has started two charter schools in New York City to prove that union-run schools can be as effective as schools like Ujima Village. She also signed a labor agreement with a new charter school in New York managed by the successful Green Dot organization that will have a longer school day and year and will pay teachers an extra 14 percent for their time.

The New York and Baltimore situations are very different. But it seems relevant to note that Green Dot, with union blessing, will be paying less than the additional 18 percent Ujima Village teachers were getting, and which the Baltimore Teachers Union said was not enough.

Weingarten, the nation's most interesting union leader, also appears to be making progress in negotiations with D.C. public schools. D.C. Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson, the school system's chief negotiator, and a Weingarten aide said talks are going very well, a sign that important innovations may be coming.

Baltimore could use some of the Weingarten magic, and fast. If the city's highest-achieving middle school loses its edge or closes because of union demands, that will tarnish not only AFT's reputation but its ability to fend off efforts to change Maryland's pro-union state charter law. Unlike their counterparts in the District and most states, Maryland's charter school teachers are subject to union agreements.

Teachers like Nornhold have learned how effective they are when their creativity is unleashed in a longer school day. It will be hard to keep their trust unless union leaders can prove that they understand teaching as well as their members do. How much students learn has become everyone's problem. Those who overlook that are going to lose the argument.

School's out, but Jay's in. Read Mathews on Mondays in the Metro section, and all week on his blog at The Schools & Learning page will resume in August.

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