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

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.

By Washington Post Editors  | June 29, 2009; 11:54 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  KIPP, Randy Weingarten, teachers union  
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Nice column. However, "if the city's highest-achieving middle school loses its edge or closes because of union demands," do you really think most people will blame the union? Or will the anti-charter folks instead trumpet that failure as yet another example of why charters are just a waste of time and resources? And we all know how much the teachers' unions looooove charters. AFT's approach here sounds a little like "please don't throw me into that there briar patch" to me.

Posted by: laura33 | June 29, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

While I admit that the KIPP School in Baltimore has, without question, profoundly affected the inner city kids enrolled in its program, I remain skeptical of its long term impact on Baltimore young people. To begin with, I have a question about the notion, raised in Mr. Mathews column, that the only way for teachers to be effective with Baltimore youth is to be required to be together in the classroom for fifty to sixty hours a week. What kind of teacher model are we proposing here? What about the personal lives of these teachers? With these mandated classroom hours, how can these teachers successfully create and maintain their own families? It begs the question of teacher turnover rates at KIPP. Is the KIPP model of teaching producing a cadre of experienced, thoughtful women and men who can share their talents for many years to come in Baltimore schools or does the obvious rigor of their classroom hours produce amazing results in the short term but make it impossible for teachers to make it a career?

I've taught in Baltimore City Schools for seventeen years, the last eight in two charter schools. I am a strong advocate for union rights and would refuse to work at any school where teachers weren't covered by a union contract. At Midtown Academy and City Neighbors Charter School, I found the respect and trust that usually eludes teachers for their entire career. That's what we want, that's what I've always wanted. Give teachers these two profound powers and you'll see changes in the way they do their jobs. I work extra hours at City Neighbors not because I'm scheduled to work until 5:00 and on Saturdays, but because I have been given the power to do the job as I see fit. The City Neighbors model has been successful enough for the Baltimore School Board to approve a new City Neighbors Elementary School to open next year and the following year, a City Neighbors High School. "Creativity is unleashed" not just with a longer school day.
Peter French

Posted by: bigbluedf | June 30, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

Excellent points by bigbluedf. So what do you say to the teachers at Ujima Village who liked the system they had, and the freedoms they had to teach they way they thought they were most effective, before the union pushed for more money for overtime?

Posted by: jaymathews | June 30, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews, that's an critical question, but I feel limited in my knowledge of the particulars to give a complete answer. I do believe that union members should drive the direction of any local and if a clear majority of teachers at Ujima Village preferred "the freedoms they had to teach the way they thought were most effective", then the union leadership should have reconsidered their actions.

But was this the case? I spoke to Mr. Zimmerman, the union attorney, before I wrote my first response and he said that after months of negotiations with KIPP, an agreement was reached with the union on overtime. At some point after this agreement, Mr. Botel then had second thoughts. I also asked Mr. Zimmerman if the union had consulted with more than the one person you mentioned in your article. He said the union had met with the teachers and the overtime issue was discussed, which motivated the union's actions.

Again, my direct knowledge is extremely limited. Thank you for challenging me to think through a response to a question that deserves attention.
Peter French

Posted by: bigbluedf | July 1, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

While I agree with KIPP's methods, the union has a good point: teaching is not a labor of love. It is a job. If doing the best job requires long hours in the classroom, then that's going to get expensive. It's best to know what those costs are up front and be honest about them rather than saying, "we can do a lot better at getting kids to learn if we can just convince a lot of teachers to work extra hours for free." It's better, more honest, and more sustainable to admit, "we can do a lot better at getting kids to learn in certain challenging environments if we have a cadre of well-paid, expensive teachers who work long hours," because then you know what you're dealing with.

Posted by: constans | July 1, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

By all means, Jay Matthews, feel free to pick up an economics book.

"In reality high profits tend much more to raise the price of work than high wages. If in the linen manufacture, for example, the wages of the different working people, the flax-dressers, the spinners, the weavers, etc., should, all of them, be advanced twopence a day; it would be necessary to heighten the price of a piece of linen only by a number of twopences equal to the number of people that had been employed about it, multiplied by the number of days during which they had been so employed. That part of the price of the commodity which resolved itself into wages would, through all the different stages of the manufacture, rise only in arithmetical proportion to this rise of wages.

"...Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people." -- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 9.

You are complaining about the teachers of this country fighting for themselves and their students. Ultimately, the higher wages means that the children are going to grow up in a social environment that better rewards labor. It is the most important lesson of all, and you want the teachers to be submissive, obedient little creatures of the state. Here's an idea: get rid of all the wasteful military bases on third world countries. Wait, what's that? You own stock in companies that are exploiting and oppressing those third world nations? You own stock from Bechtel, Halliburton, and others who live off of corporate subsidies? Well, it looks like you don't mind pulling in 40 million dollars for an annual salary, most of it paid by taxpayers. (Houston Chronicle, Robert M. Delvin, of the American General Corporation.)

So, the wealthy class receives millions of dollars from taxpayers, but now you complain about teachers asking for $0.45 more per hour? Sounds like you want to complain about unions, but you're taking more out of the public commonwealth than they are. Their wages pay for them to live; taxes that pay for military dictatorships in third worlds makes you millions.

Adam Smith was right on the mark when talking about the evils of the Capitalist class: "They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits."

After you've read some elementary literature in economics, by all means, I'm interested in a debate on this very much.

Andy Carloff

Posted by: holdoffhunger | July 2, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I know teachers who routinely work overtime, irrespective of pay. Would these teachers not be permitted to do that if they chose to under this system? Certainly teachers shouldn't be expected to work without pay and if the system can't pay them adequately, then it's the system's fault, is it not? Or is that the teachers' fault too? Sounds like their successful system for students is dependent on overworking teachers. Not something to emulate or encourage.

And what about the well established reform notion of rasing teachers' salaries to attract the best teachers? I guess that doesn't apply to this system. But still the union is the bad guy.

Truly, though, I don't know enough about this subject to make my best argument and my past experience reading pieces by Jay Mathews suggests that key details are probably being left out.

Perhaps, Jay - if you provided some links to original supporting material for this article, if would be easier for interested readers like me to comment more intelligently.

Posted by: efavorite | July 6, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

bigbluedf - in Mr. Mathews' defense, he's writing a newspaper article, not reporting on a survey. But I'm glad you checked, because it is certainly misleading to quote only one member of the faculty, which makes it appear to the general reading public that this is a prevailing view. Now, Mathews didn't say most teachers felt that way, but he's too smart not to know that would be the take-away for the average reader buzzing through this article.

Posted by: efavorite | July 6, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

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