Rules of work

August 24, 2007

Less than a week before classes are due to start, contract negotiations between Baltimore's teachers union and the school system are at an impasse over planning time. Union President Marietta English is calling for teachers to "work to rule," meaning that they would not do anything beyond the provisions of the current contract. It's a tactic that's been used at least once recently in Anne Arundel County, when negotiations stalled for about a month in 2005.

The current call for "work to rule" in Baltimore may be just a strategic maneuver for attention, but it's an unfortunate signal of lack of concern for students.

Baltimore's teachers are looking to renew a two-year contract that was due to expire last month but remains in force. Lengthy negotiations have produced tentative agreements on salary increases and other matters. But those gains are now being overshadowed by an apparent line in the sand being drawn by the union regarding the time teachers need to plan lessons.

Under the existing contract, high school and middle school teachers get five planning periods each week; elementary school teachers get three 45-minute sessions a week, usually while their students attend art or music classes. The time is generally used to prepare lesson plans, keep classrooms organized and carry out other tasks that enhance teaching.

But the school system, with the concurrence of new CEO Andres Alonso, is asking all teachers to give up some of their individual planning time to provide more time for principals and teachers in each school to work and plan together for the common goal of improving student performance. The practice has been identified as an important ingredient that makes schools effective. It's also a practice employed by some Baltimore schools that system officials sensibly would like to institutionalize.

Ms. English and the union think that allotted professional development days could accomplish the same goal, but common planning time is a proven way to keep the entire school more focused on the progress of individual students.

Since both sides seem to agree that there is an impasse, the matter may need to be resolved by a mediator appointed by the state Department of Education. Caring teachers who prize professionalism should be less interested in "work to rule" than in resolving an issue to the benefit of students.

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