Don't Fix What Works

Our View: The Baltimore Teachers Union's Demand That A Successful Charter School Pay Its Teachers More Than It Can Afford Loses Sight Of What's Important - The Kids

July 26, 2009

Baltimore's KIPP Ujima Village Academy is an unqualified success. Despite serving a poor, inner-city population, the charter school routinely posts some of the highest standardized test scores, not just in the city but in the state. Its 86.9 percent pass rate was barely edged out in this year's Maryland School Assessments by crosstown rival Roland Park Middle School (87.3 percent), but it beat out scores of top-quality suburban middle schools, including the likes of Carroll County's Westminster East Middle School, Baltimore County's Dumbarton Middle and Harford's Southampton Middle. And that's a school in which 84 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals, twice the rate of Roland Park and four times that of Dumbarton.

The school is part of a national network begun in Houston by two Teach for America alumni that dedicates itself to preparing students, regardless of the difficulty of their backgrounds, for college, which 85 percent of its graduates eventually attend. Like other charter schools - and, increasingly, traditional public schools - it stresses high expectations, commitment, a focus on results and autonomy for principals and teachers. But one of its distinguishing features is that students spend more time in the classroom. A lot more time - kids start as early as 7:30 a.m. and stay as late as 5 p.m. They attend school every other Saturday and three weeks in the summer. The formula has worked across the country, and it works in Baltimore.

But a dispute with the Baltimore Teachers Union threatens to derail that. KIPP teachers have been paid 18 percent more than their peers at other schools because of the extra hours they work. But the union says they're being shortchanged. KIPP teachers work nine hours and 15 minutes a day rather than the standard seven hours and five minutes, and the union insists that they should be paid 33 percent more than other teachers. (That doesn't even count compensation for Saturdays or the three weeks of summer classes.) Union officials had let the matter slide for the first seven years of KIPP's existence, but they say they got some complaints from teachers and are now simply trying to enforce the contract.

What that means for KIPP is this: The school day is being shortened to 8-1/2 hours, and Saturday classes have been eliminated. Art and music teachers have been fired, along with some administrative staff. Summer school is still in the budget, but it might not be next year.

Will that jeopardize the school's high performance? It's hard to know, but KIPP has good reason to believe that the extra time its students spend at school has been crucial to their success. KIPP Baltimore Executive Director Jason Botel says his students typically come to middle school two to three grade levels behind in reading and math, and there's no shortcut to making up that difference. Furthermore, many of the students come from tough neighborhoods, and the more time they spend in school, the less time they're subjected to the pressure of the streets.

"We know we have a lot of catching up to do. If we want them to perform on the level with their peers from wealthier communities, we need more time to do it," Mr. Botel says. "We're going to work very hard to maintain the level of performance we've been able to lead students to in the past, but we're very concerned about it."

It's understandable that the union is worried about anything that could lead to a slippage of the working conditions it has negotiated for its members. But we need to look at the bigger picture. The KIPP model has helped students to achieve extraordinary things, and that is where the focus should lie. Most of the teachers at KIPP believe that the tradeoff they've been asked to accept - more of their time at slightly higher pay in exchange for working in a school where they can make a real difference - is worth it. The school system should help any KIPP teachers who don't feel that way to find jobs elsewhere, but it should not jeopardize a school that actually works.

In the long run, Maryland needs to strengthen its charter school law. No one wants to shortchange teachers, especially those who work in tough schools. But we need to make sure the kind of success KIPP has been able to achieve by having the autonomy to innovate is encouraged and allowed to flourish, not stamped out.

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