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Proposal To Retool Rochester Reforms Is Snubbed

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The Rochester, N.Y., school board and teachers' union are reacting coolly to a plan advanced by local politicians for improving the city's schools.

An eight-member panel convened last summer by the Mayor and the Monroe County executive concluded last month that Rochester's highly touted reforms have failed to boost student achievement.

"Rochester has suffered from a surplus of educational rhetoric and a scarcity of implementation of educational change," argues the report, called "For All Our Children--No More Excuses!"

The report calls for the entire Rochester community--businesses, higher education, community and social-service groups, elected officials, and school district leaders--to endorse a broad framework for change. The panel was made up of representatives of higher education, business, and civil-rights groups.

But the school board and the Rochester Teachers Association have declined to sign off on the proposed changes. They complained they were not included in drawing up the proposals.

In addition to a communitywide commitment, the framework calls for restructuring the school system to focus on student performance, encouraging innovation and experimentation, improving health and social-service support for students and families, and creating a "roundtable for performance and accountability" to track progress.

The document includes several controversial recommendations, including linking employees' pay to increases in student achievement, changing the tenure system, and giving disadvantaged children vouchers to attend private schools.

Critics have charged that the proposed roundtable would be a shadow school board undercutting elected leaders.

A History of Reform

The driving force behind the plan is Mayor William A. Johnson Jr., a former president of the Urban League of Rochester who has long been involved in education. A 1985 report by the Urban League is credited with launching the city's school-reform efforts.

In 1987, the school district and the teachers' union announced a landmark contract that closely followed recommendations made by a prestigious national commission for improving teaching. The teaching ranks were stratified, with teachers at the highest level assuming new duties, and all teachers received substantial salary increases. They also gained a new voice in school decisionmaking and were expected to shoulder more responsibility for their students' general welfare.

"There has been no discernible progress in the decade since we began here," said Richard P. Miller Jr., the vice president for external affairs at the University of Rochester and the spokesman for the group that wrote the report.

"There has been no improvement in dropout rates, graduation rates, or test scores. Those are the measures," Mr. Miller said. "But the report is also clear that there are issues that go beyond the schools--major social issues that require all of the community to accept responsibility."

The panel is now forming working groups to flesh out its ideas. The leaders of the Rochester Teachers Association, however, voted late last month not to support the report.

The union would participate, its leaders decided, in a "more inclusive and fair process" that involved teachers as equal partners.

'Ivory Tower' Plan?

"This is a simple-minded plan put together by folks who have never been spotted near a school," Adam Urbanski, the president of the union, contended. "These are university, ivory-tower, think-tank, and political types who thought that the way to balance a reform package is to put some extremely good and extremely bad ideas together."

Mr. Urbanski praised the report's suggestion to require performance agreements for each student, devised with teachers and family members. But he said the union was opposed to private school vouchers and to merit pay for teachers.

Archie Curry, the president of the school board, said the report contained few suggestions that had not been tried or proposed in Rochester. He also disputed the assertion that the district's reform efforts have failed. Rather, he argued, the school board has failed to publicize promising projects.

"It would have been to the benefit of everyone if we would have been at the table," Mr. Curry said.

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