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Rochester Teachers Reject 'Accountability' Contract

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Teachers in Rochester, N.Y., last week dealt a crippling blow to an attempt by their union and the school district to remake the teaching profession by voting against a groundbreaking contract that would have based teachers' pay on their job performance.

The contract was defeated by 75 votes--849 to 774. Nearly 1,000 union members did not cast ballots.

Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, scheduled a meeting of the union's policymaking Representative Assembly for Oct. 2 to discuss the union's next move. He said he would announce then whether he would re4sign.

"We missed the opportunity to take a giant step for professional autonomy," Mr. Urbanski said.

"The question for [Mr. Urbanski] right now is, 'Am I running too far ahead of the rank-and-file, and what do I do to recoup that?"' said Adam Kaufman, the district's general counsel. "It would be a mistake for him to step down."

The union president blamed Superintendent Peter McWalters for the contract's defeat, saying that comments Mr. McWalters made about the relatively small number of teachers who could be expected to meet the contract's highest standards had "poisoned the atmosphere of trust" under which it was negotiated. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

"How could teachers be expected to agree to a pay-for-performance plan when their employer is saying to them, 'By the way, we don't think many of you will achieve a very high standard?"' Mr. Urbanski asked.

Fear of Unknown Cited

Mr. McWalters could not be reached for comment.

But observers noted that pressure from the Rochester community for information on how much the contract would cost led to a good deal of speculation and rumor in all quarters about how many teachers would receive the highest ratings.

Several Rochester teachers, school-board members, and district officials said they did not believe Mr. McWalter's comments alone explained the vote. Instead, they suggested, uncertainty over the new evaluation process, mistrust of the district's middle management, and fear of change played a role in teachers' decisions.

"I think there are many in our community who will say that teachers voted against pay for performance, teachers want special treatment, teachers don't want to be held accountable," said Catherine Spoto, president of the school board. "I personally don't draw that conclusion. I think it represents more of a fear of the unknown."

Analyzing the reason for the vote, which stunned and disappointed many people in Rochester, also was complicated because so many teachers did not cast ballots. The union's executive committee unanimously endorsed the contract, and ony 3 of the 150 members of the Representative Assembly voted against it, according to Mr. Urbanski.

Some district officials also expressed disappointment that the union apparently did not marshal its forces to explain the contract to its members and ensure that they voted.

"The district did not carry along the public, and Adam [Urbanski] did not carry along his rank-and-file," said Archie Curry, a school-board member who voted against the contract, approved on a 4-to-3 vote by the board. "If you're going to have a revolution, you've got to have the soldiers. This revolution got stopped."

Mr. Urbanski, who will recommend that the union renegotiate the contract, called the prospect of reaching another pay-for-performance agreement "highly unlikely."

"I think that issue is virtually dead," he said, adding that it was "one way to represent accountability, but not the only way. Accountability isn't going away, nor should it."

System Seen as Punitive

The contract called for the creation of a new evaluation system, largely controlled by teachers, that would classify all teachers into one of three categories.

The teachers meeting or exceeding high standards--determined in part by a professional code modeled on the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards--would have received 4.2 percent raises and payments of $3,183. Those found in need of improvement would have been given 4.2 percent raises, while teachers judged unsatisfactory would have gotten no increases.

Barry Robbins, a high-school Greek, Latin, and philosophy teacher, said he thought the contract would have punished teachers who did not meet high standards, rather than rewarding those who did. He noted that the highest-rated teachers would have gotten raises of approximately 11 percent--the same amount they received in the last two years of the district's previous contract.

"It's remarkable the contract was voted down," Mr. Robbins added, ''because Adam [Urbanski] has such support. It's clear that money wasn't the overriding consideration."

Walter Jahnke, a lead teacher who worked for a time on a committee that examined performance appraisal for teachers, said he voted against the contract because he disagrees with the entire concept of such evaluations.

"It's so subjective," said Mr. Jahnke, a high-school mathematics teacher. "The concept of what is a good teacher--that's like asking what is a good mother."

Rochester teachers also apparently were not convinced that they would have enough control over the evaluation system to make it fair. Although "review committees" of two teachers and one administrator were to have judged each teacher's work, based on a portfolio assembled by the teacher, some teachers were convinced that administrators would not fairly evaluate them, said Rachael Hedding, a school-board member.

"The worst part is, our very best teachers are not trustful," Ms. Hedding said. "They are not ready to go with this. Good teachers who aren't willing to take that step mixed with ones who are afraid of it--that's what made the vote go down."

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