10/16/2012 01:33 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

The UFT, Charter Schools and What Really Matters for Kids

As members of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) often say, charter schools are no silver bullet for fixing education. No greater proof point exists for this statement than the alarming failure of the UFT Charter School in New York City. Founded by representatives from its union namesake, when it opened, union heavyweights like Randi Weingarten expressed surety that the UFT could birth and sustain a good school. Sadly, several years later, the school has repeatedly shown that it is not able to educate students well. On any given day, two out of every three students you walk past in the school's halls cannot read proficiently at grade level standards, and are barely able to function mathematically at grade level standards.

And that's not all. The New York City School Report Card system evaluates schools in four areas -- student achievement, student progress, closing the achievement gap, and school environment -- and the UFT Charter School comes up short in every area, leaving them in the bottom ten percent of schools citywide. This, from an organization that touts a commitment to advancing professionalism, and that publicly criticizes successful charter school entities for being primarily concerned about privatizing public education and dismantling the power of teacher's unions bluntly stating that, "The educational needs of children have been subsumed to the goals..." This is a bold statement for the UFT to make as it insinuates that schools care more about politics than kids. Regrettably, this seems to be more true of the UFT than it is for the entities they malign.

Success Academy Charter Schools, Uncommon Schools and Democracy Prep Schools all fall in the category of New York City schools that the union criticizes, yet these schools are educating children at high levels of mastery of academic content year after year, and the school's parents and teachers approve of their school environments. By contrast, the UFT Charter School posts very low numbers in terms of raw percentages of children passing state tests. Perhaps more significantly, the school has faltered in facilitating individual student progress from one year to the next. Further, the school is not closing the achievement gap, and may in fact be widening it. And, the UFT Charter School is not invoking the confidence of parents and teachers, who recently rated the school's learning environment poorly in terms of their perception of academic expectations, communication, engagement, and safety and respect for students.

How can a union that claims to care about improving academic standards, buttressing the quality of instruction and closing the achievement gap, sponsor a school that is apparently doing none of the above? Part of the answer lies in the fact that many of the rules that the UFT has instituted or has gone to great lengths to defend run counter to what evidence is showing to be pivotal to the academic success of historically underserved children. Is it possible that the UFT doesn't realize that best practices, not politics are what really matter for kids? More time for students to learn, a robust instructional culture that includes review and critique of lesson plans in advance of teaching, frequent teacher observations and feedback -- these factors are all hallmarks of successful learning environments yet they are among the very ideas that the UFT has been loathe to embrace.

The UFT Charter School's failure can also be attributed to their lack of a sense of urgency in making sure that historically underserved children excel. Even though the school's children lag behind their district peers' achievement, the UFT principal points to higher retention rates, not higher test scores, as evidence of the school's improvement. And, union president Michael Mulgrew offers this similarly misguided take on the school's abysmal status not by expressing grave concern about students learning but by saying, "I go to that school and I'm very, very happy with what we see."

Several years ago, I wrote a housekeeping manual to define what I considered to be the standards of cleanliness for every room in my house and to hold my children accountable for meeting those standards. Prior to authoring the manual, my children would tell me, beaming with pride and confidence, that a household chore was complete, yet when I would enter that room I would be appalled by glaring evidence to the contrary -- dishes that remained undone, garbage cans that had not been emptied, or dirty laundry peeking out from underneath a bed. Although my children initially opposed my exacting standards, they eventually met them because the standards were clear. The UFT Charter School was given a document by the Department of Education that should have served as its own housekeeping manual in the form of a series of standards that must be met to have an "A" school, but it appears as though this document is in jeopardy of collecting dust rather than facilitating success.

Certainly it is a public embarrassment that an organization that is supposed to represent the profession of teaching cannot seem to run a successful school, nor even recognize when it is failing at doing so. Embarrassment however, is of little consequence when compared to the value of the lives of undereducated children. The quality of a child's education is far more important than union leaders, principals, teachers or other adults saving face. Closing a failing school of any sort shows a commitment to meeting the needs of our most academically neglected children. Unfortunately, the youth attending the UFT Charter School are near the top of that list.