Seven Years Later, UFT Charter School Proves a Point

The invaluable Gotham Schools brings us the news of the possible closure of the United Federation of Teachers Charter School in New York, which was opened with much fanfare back in 2005. There is no mystery about the reason:

“But seven years into its existence, the nation’s first union-run school is one of the lowest-performing schools in the city. Fewer than a third of students are reading on grade level, and the math proficiency rate among eighth-graders is less than half the city average.”

I have a few thoughts:

1) The Gotham Schools headline strikes directly to the heart of the matter – “Opened to prove a point, UFT’s charter school could be closed.” Proving a point is not a firm foundation to build a successful school, particularly a point that is only indirectly connected to student learning. In 2005, the UFT committee tasked to evaluate the charter idea expected the school to “demonstrate to other charter schools the value of organizing” and to “serve as part of the fight against privatization and union-busting.” At the time I remarked, “Now there’s a mission statement designed to appeal to parents and students!”

2) While it’s natural to experience some schadenfreude at this development, it should be tempered by the knowledge that every failed school, whatever its pedigree, leaves a trail of undereducated children behind. They don’t get those years back, and corrective measures taken now don’t do them any good.

3) We should cut UFT a little slack, since they merely encountered the myriad pitfalls of opening and running a charter school. Despite the best intentions, not all will be successful. Let’s hope the experience leads UFT and other unions to similarly cut some slack to other charter school operators who are under similar stresses.

4) On the flip side, maybe the “teacher union reform” mavens at the Broad Foundation got a little ahead of themselves by dropping so much money on the UFT experiment, rather than investing that cash in a school without a secondary agenda.

5) We have new reason to question the claim that the establishment of a union is a solution to the problem of teacher turnover.

6) Most important, we learned once again what led to the current “testing mania.” UFT president Michael Mulgrew visited the UFT Charter School last week and said, “I go to that school and I’m very, very happy with what we see. The parents are great, the teachers are doing a good job. We are very happy.” The current use of standardized tests is a flawed effort to deal with the kinds of self-serving self-evaluations employed by Mulgrew. In this case we have an additional measure of the school’s performance. Charter school parents can vote with their feet, and enrollment at the UFT school is down sharply.

Teaching experience is a highly prized asset for those who want to open and operate schools, but teaching school and running a school require two different skill sets. And UFT has proven that running a union and running a school require two different skill sets. Let’s hope this experience leads to a strange new respect for everyone’s specialized roles.