Adam Urbanski was sitting through a contentious meeting with leaders of the Rochester Teachers Association recently when one of them turned to him in anger. “Urbanski,’' the official said, “if you have your way, the union as we know it will be dead.’' As Urbanski remembers proudly, “I was supposed to act like a whipped puppy, but I leaned forward and said, ‘That’s my whole purpose.’''
If Urbanski had his way, teachers’ unions as they exist today would be a thing of the past. That would include the 3,500-member RTA, which he has led since 1981. In its place, Urbanski and some of his like-minded colleagues are trying to bring about what he calls “a comfortable marriage between unionism and professionalism.’' Their new union would be concerned not only with the welfare of its members but also with the welfare of public education--the union’s “industry,’' as Urbanski calls it--and of children, its “clients.’'
For the past five years, Urbanski, 45, has been a key architect of an innovative effort to rebuild Rochester’s troubled schools. His willingness to reconsider time-honored labor practices has brought him national recognition as the leader of a new breed of “nontraditional’’ union presidents who are viewed as partners, not adversaries, in the crusade to improve schools.
“Not only has Adam been willing to rethink what it means to be a professional teacher in the context of a union,’' says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University who has worked closely with him, “but he has also been incredibly thoughtful and inventive about educational practices in ways that are way ahead of the average local community’s thoughts about how schools ought to look and ought to be run.’'
In Rochester, however, good ideas only go so far. While Urbanski has a national reputation as a bold innovator, critics in his own back yard charge that he has driven up teachers’ salaries without delivering the dramatic improvements in student achievement they had expected.
Complains Marvin Jackson, president of the District Parent Council, an umbrella parent and community group: “Reform here in Rochester has been about adults, not kids. It has been about teachers’ salaries and the profession of teaching.’' William Johnson, president of the Urban League of Rochester and a watchful critic of the reform efforts, calls Urbanski “parochial’’ and says his reputation as a nontraditional leader is overblown. “When the crunch time comes, he is able to forget all of that and to return to the role which he’s really elected for,’' Johnson says, “and that is to protect the interest of his teachers to the exclusion of any other community interests.’'
The tensions and suspicions inherent in an attempt to radically alter roles and expectations have been heightened by the recession. In the boom-time 1980s, when the district was enjoying double-digit increases in state aid, Rochester teachers’ high salaries were generally a source of pride. Now, they have become a lightning rod for criticism and frustration with what some say is the slow pace of improvement in the city’s schools.
The complaints have not put Urbanski on the defensive. He says he’d be the first to admit that the reforms launched with such fanfare in 1987 have largely failed to produce the sweeping changes they seemed to promise. “The most likely criticism, the most legitimate criticism, would be that reform is needed--just not these specific reforms,’' he says. “Not only would I not resent such conclusions, I may be leading those who are making those allegations...that reform is as necessary as it has always been, but given what we are learning, these may not be the specific reforms’’ needed to bring about the desired improvements.
This winter, the issue of money came to a head. The board of education and Rochester’s brand-new superintendent found themselves facing a multimillion-dollar, midyear budget deficit. District officials broached the idea of salary concessions with the teachers’ union. In response, Urbanski launched an all-out assault on Rochester’s bureaucracy.
For years, he had complained in his characteristically colorful language about bureaucrats’ emphasis on “administrivia’’ and their “snoopervision’’ of teachers. But this time, it was different. Urbanski gained the approval of the union’s policymaking Representative Assembly to buy a fullpage advertisement in the local newspaper listing the job titles and salaries of the district’s administrative employees.
Superimposed over the type in bold letters were the words, “No wonder they have a budget problem.’'
With that tactic, the union leader whose name had become synonymous with cooperative labor-management relations staked out an unambiguously adversarial position. “I see myself and teachers locked in a death match with the bureaucracy,’' Urbanski explains. “I take this stuff more seriously than they even think. Bureaucracy, by nature and by definition, is hostile to democratic dynamics, to reform, and to good pedagogy.’'
The union’s position has antagonized Urbanski’s critics, who believe he has overstepped his bounds. “Adam wants to run the city school district,’' complains Jackson of the District Parent Council. “You won’t go anywhere if you get public opinion against you, and he’s standing precariously close to opinion starting to turn against him.’'
But Urbanski insists that cutting the bureaucracy is the district’s only hope for both long-term fiscal health and preservation of its school reform initiatives. “I assume that if they have no choice, they will retrench themselves,’' he says, “so we must rob them of any other choices.’'
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In 1987, Urbanski and then-superintendent Peter McWalters announced they had reached agreement on a new contract that would give teachers handsome raises in exchange for assuming new roles.
Many of the reform plans in the contract were contained in a series of “agreements to agree,’' with the details to be fleshed out later. There would be planning teams at each school, made up of a majority of teachers, to set goals for the schools and have a voice in deciding who would teach there and who would serve as the principal.
Teachers in the city’s middle and high schools would be responsible for groups of about 20 students. The idea of this “home-base’’ guidance program was to establish a sense of continuity for the city’s highly mobile students, giving them a familiar adult to turn to for advice and counseling. Teachers also were expected to make contact with their students’ homes, either through personal visits or telephone calls.
And the city’s 2,600 teachers would be arrayed along a four-step “career ladder’’ that gave teachers at the top of the ladder the opportunity to earn substantial bonuses for taking on additional responsibilities. The contract also incorporated the district’s existing peer assistance and review program, through which teachers “mentored’’ new hires and counseled veteran teachers who were having trouble.
But what captured the headlines were the raises granted to teachers: Over the life of the three-year contract, they would see their salaries increase by 40 percent, while lead teachers earning bonuses would be able to make almost $70,000 a year.
Finally, it seemed, a school district was willing to pay teachers professional wages for assuming professional duties. Lead teachers, for example, were to waive their seniority rights and take on the most challenging teaching assignments. All city teachers were to teach more days and work more hours. And seniority would no longer govern all transfers. Instead, they would be contingent upon the approval of a school’s planning team.
Urbanski and McWalters quickly became a sought-after duo on the speaking circuit and an example of the cooperative spirit that many experts argued was an essential prerequisite for transforming schools. Both men were quite candid about the failures of the 33,000-student school district. Although comparatively small, Rochester was plagued with the high failure and dropout rates, teen pregnancies, and discipline problems associated with much larger school districts. The challenge was daunting: Nearly 70 percent of the district’s students were poor and members of minority groups.
No one proved better at deploring the “business as usual’’ that had produced Rochester’s woes than Urbanski. In the Polish accent that still colors his speech, Urbanski lectured teachers, business leaders, community groups--anyone who would listen. Frequently, he turned to the local newspapers and television stations to get his message across. “The problem with schools is not that they are no longer as good as they once were,’' he loved to say, “the problem is that they are precisely as they always were, but the needs of society and the needs of our students have changed significantly.’'
For those resistant to change, he argued that “if we always do what we’ve always done, we will always get what we always got.’' Therefore, his reasoning went, it was imperative to make fundamental changes in the classroom. He talked endlessly about making learning more real-to-life, changing the way students are grouped and sorted, and redefining teaching to include knowledge of individual students and their needs, not just of a subject matter. Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the union president also criticized teachers. “I see teachers who actually have signs on their doors that say, ‘Knowledge dispensed; bring your own container,’'' Urbanski once told a Rochester journalist. “This is in spite of the fact that we know that you cannot ‘learn’ someone. They have to do the learning. We have failed to change. The educational system, including the teachers, has failed to change.’'
His admirers say Urbanski relished the task of educating the Rochester community about the need for restructuring. “He is a very, very good teacher,’' says Mary Barnum, a retired high school English teacher who has known Urbanski for years. “And he’s very, very bright.’'
His message was particularly appealing to talented teachers who felt constrained by traditional notions of schooling. Inspired by Urbanski’s leadership, Ester Gliwinski, a highly regarded 1st grade bilingual teacher, left a private-sector management job to return to Rochester’s classrooms. “He has taken the time to think through a philosophy of education,’' she says of Urbanski. “He knows the direction he wants us to go, and he has a real clear sense of what the school district could be and the classroom could be.’'
While Urbanski continues to hold fast to his dreams, he is no longer as confident of how to reach them. What the Rochester district created, he says, was “process-fixated, adultoriented stuff’’ rather than levers to force change where it matters most--in the city’s classrooms. “On bulk,’' he admits, “it isn’t working more than it’s working, but I wouldn’t have traded it.’' At least no one can accuse him, he adds, “of living above the clouds or speculating in an ivory tower, because I have to eat what I cook. Sometimes, it doesn’t taste very good.’'
Urbanski is a classic American success story--a Polish immigrant who came to the United States in 1960 at the age of 14 and worked as a shoe-shine boy to make money. “I have always identified with poor kids,’' he says. “I didn’t have to speculate what it’s like for a poor child--I was one. I came to this country without enough money to buy things for myself, and schools made a difference for me.’'
Urbanski was born in Mosciska, Poland, in 1946. When he was 11, his mother and father, a tailor, decided to leave the Soviet satellite to find the freedom to practice their Catholic faith and the opportunity to make a better life for themselves free of communist control. Posing as Jews, the Urbanskis and their seven sons were permitted to leave Poland. Their departure was the start of a long odyssey through Eastern Europe that finally led the family to Israel, where the Urbanskis lived in a refugee settlement and sold doughnuts to earn money to pay for their passage to the United States.
During those years, young Adam learned to speak French, Italian, and Hebrew, in addition to his Polish and Russian. His family had been unable to find a sponsor in the United States until Adam, an altar boy, met an American missionary priest who helped the Urbanskis find a sponsor in Rochester.
When they finally arrived on American soil, Urbanski has often recalled, he snuck away from his family and kissed the ground for joy. Eventually becoming accustomed to the strange ways of his new land, Urbanski graduated from high school and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Rochester in 1969. That year, he began teaching social studies at Rochester’s Franklin High School; in 1975, he received a doctorate in American social history from the same university.
Barnum recalls that Urbanski had never served on a citywide union committee when he decided to run for president, although he was the shop steward at his school. His friends convinced him to take the plunge after gathering signatures for him on a petition. What galvanized Urbanski, she says, was a bitter strike in 1980 that resulted in only marginal salary increases and actually cost teachers because they were penalized under state law for every day they stayed out of their classrooms. “He simply could not believe we had such a small increase after a strike,’' she remembers. “He really is hard-nosed on money items. I’ve had people tell me he will keep negotiators for days fighting over five bucks. And that’s exactly what people expect of him. That’s very much a part of him.’'
Urbanski’s belief in unionism runs deep, driven by the conviction that collective bargaining offers workers the opportunity to achieve “self-determination.’' When he assumed the leadership of the RTA in 1981, Urbanski immediately strengthened the union’s negotiating position by bringing in financial analysts to comb through the district’s budgets. The union’s success in delivering good contracts solidified teachers’ support for Urbanski and laid the groundwork for expanding negotiations into areas that are not usually contained in teaching contracts.
When people complained that the 1987 teachers’ contract would drive up all district employees’ salaries, Urbanski remembers, he felt proud. “I called a press conference to plead guilty to a conspiracy to raise the aspirations of workers,’' he says. “I believe that there can be no parity among unequals. If you don’t want me to be a full partner, I will be no partner at all.’'
Notions of just what constitutes a partnership differ, however. The RTA’s recent attack on the district’s bureaucracy struck some people who were already wary of the union as a bald power play at a time when the superintendent was new and the school board divided. Among other things, the union proposed negotiating a reduction in the number of administrators to the national teacher-administrator average by this July and to the city’s teacher-student ratio by the following summer.
People who are offended by his bureaucrat bashing are not arguing with what he is saying, contends Urbanski, but with the fact that he is saying it. “Let them tell me why the logic of the national average in the administrator-teacher ratio is so bad to propose, so harmful to students,’' he says. “I am making trouble, but I am not making trouble unwittingly. I believe that there is no real change unless all hell breaks loose. When everything goes smoothly and we’re all very polite and cordial with each other, there is really nothing happening.’'
Despite his fiery rhetoric, in person Urbanski is somewhat formal and reserved. He says he doesn’t socialize much, preferring to spend what little free time he has with his wife, Sunday, and their two children. Union members who have worked closely with Urbanski say he is famous for being stubborn but welcomes their suggestions. He has a selfdeprecating sense of humor--he has been known to crack a Polish joke or two about himself--and is considered to be a caring friend. That some quarters of the Rochester community harbor suspicions about his motives is not news to Urbanski. He has heard charges that he wants to use his office as a stepping stone to a higher position in the American Federation of Teachers, the RTA’s national parent organization, or that he is an egotistical media chaser who cannot resist an opportunity to appear on television or be quoted in the newspapers. Both, he says, are false. “Am I in the media because I like to see myself on television?’' he asks. “I never watch myself on television. I use it in order to get our point across and to educate the public.’'
Those who believe he is angling for bigger fish to fry simply misjudge his motives, Urbanski says, adding that he has all the access he could want to national policymakers as a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and several national advisory boards. His numerous roles take Urbanski away from Rochester so much that Adam Kaufman, the district’s lawyer and chief negotiator, fondly refers to him as “our peripatetic Polish president.’'
“At first, everybody accused me, even teachers, of saying the right things to the right audience, because you’re not going to be around very long and you’re going to go off and God knows what they had in mind for me,’' Urbanski says. “They’ve been saying that for years. Not only am I still in Rochester, but I don’t think my worst critics would say that I act like I’m trapped in Rochester.’'
In the day-to-day Rochester fray, however, Urbanski generally does not answer his detractors. “I don’t explain me a lot because I don’t think this is about me,’' he says. “This is not to see how much Urbanski can accomplish. This is to see if, for the first time in the history of the country or maybe the world, we can make schools successful for all children.’'
In 1990, Urbanski and the union’s negotiating team reached an agreement with the school district on a successor to the 1987 contract that they believed would be another bold step toward that goal. That summer, a joint task force had worked with the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Rochester-based think-tank, to hammer out a system for holding teachers, students, parents, administrators, and the larger Rochester community accountable for creating a system that would ensure every child’s academic success.
The issue of “accountability’’ had been festering in Rochester for years. In a sense, it was created by Urbanski and McWalters, who talked a great deal about holding teachers accountable for student performance. At the time, they viewed the longer hours, school-based planning teams, career ladder, and heightened expectations for “ownership’’ of students as ways to achieve it. The trouble was that many Rochester taxpayers, footing the bill for the salary increases, either were not convinced that the reforms really would hold teachers’ feet to the fire or were disappointed when they did not immediately see a payoff for their investment.
There is a sense now that the first teaching contract was oversold, says Richard Raymond, a recently retired high school mathematics teacher who was active in the union. “I think the community was sold a bill of goods way back,’' Raymond says. “People were led to believe with this new contract, everything was going to be OK. I think both sides did that, to a degree.’'
But Sonia Hernandez, a former analyst at the national center and now the director of education policy for Texas Gov. Ann Richards, says there was always a “tinge of cynicism’’ about school reform in the city. “There was always an underlying cynicism, just below the surface, within every constituency,’' she says, “the local government, the central office administrators, the ranks of the teachers, and the parents.’'
Both negotiating teams heard the continuing drumbeat for teacher accountability as they worked on the new contract. What they devised was an evaluation system that would largely be controlled by teachers and would determine how much of a raise, if any, each teacher would receive. It was another groundbreaking agreement, this time much more specific than the series of “agreements to agree’’ that had drawn complaints from some teachers.
From the start, however, there were warning signs that this contract would be a much harder sell than the last one. School board members openly discussed the pressure they felt from constituents to hold down salaries as New York State’s revenues drained away. Despite their hesitation, board members approved the agreement. For his part, Urbanski promoted the contract as a way to provide “incentives for success and disincentives for failure that are sorely lacking in our system.’'
Rochester’s teachers turned it down by 75 votes, with nearly 1,000 members sitting out the election all together. The rejection of the contract was a stunning blow to Urbanski, who was widely regarded as one of the union’s most popular presidents and had never been in serious jeopardy of losing his post. He considered resigning. He also declared the issue of pay for performance to be “dead,’' noting that it was “one way to represent accountability, but not the only way.’'
“I was standing right behind him when the ballots were counted, right in front of the TV cameras, and I thought his body was going to sink right into the floor,’' says Barnum, the retired teacher. “It was a terrible shock to him. I don’t think he ever dreamed the damn thing would go down. I have never seen a human being who looked so alone.’'
Rochester residents who were dead set on seeing teachers’ pay tied to their job performance insist that the message sent that day by his troops has changed Urbanski, forcing him back into a more traditional role to mollify his members. “From that point forward,’' says Michael Fernandez, an Eastman Kodak employee and the school board’s most vocal proponent of a pay-for-performance system, “the debate and the focus began to change and a lot of the discussion from Adam and his leadership seemed to develop in more traditional ways.’'
That view is shared even by some of Urbanski’s admirers, including Gliwinski. “I just know there’s been a real difference that I feel very badly about,’' she says. “Adam is a paradox in so many ways. He’s absolutely a man you would write a Greek tragedy about. I’ve seen him when he’s had tremendous success and I’ve seen him in meetings when he’s being unfairly and viciously attacked by people in teaching for what I think are the wrong reasons. I’ve seen him laughed off the stage, and he doesn’t leave.’'
Accusations that he has backed away from bold leadership to retain the support of the city’s teachers are “simply not true,’' Urbanski says. “They elected me to lead, and I lead. I try to in a way that is sensitive to their realities and a good match with either what they would support or what they are capable of, even if they’re not ready for it right now.’'
The fact that few states or school districts in the nation have been able to devise successful programs to tie teachers’ pay to their job performance does not seem to hold much sway with proponents of such a scheme for Rochester. Urbanski says he was willing to venture down that path because “there is absolutely no question in my mind that there should be some relationship between the work that teachers do and the remuneration of teachers. I just don’t know yet what it is.... I showed an honest willingness to explore the issues thoughtfully and sincerely and honestly and straightforwardly.’'
The September 1990 vote began a long and sometimes bitter year of wrangling that finally yielded a contract acceptable to both sides in April. During that year, to force progress on the contract talks, some teachers stopped participating in their school planning teams. Urbanski himself refused to attend meetings of a districtwide committee on school-based planning. In fact, he refused to set foot in the central office until teachers got a settlement.
These traditional job actions upset some parents and underscored doubts in the minds of residents who had questioned rank-and-file teachers’ commitment to reforms. “Adam is a strategist,’' observes former superintendent McWalters, who is now the Rhode Island commissioner of education. “He will do what he needs to do to win the battle.’'
“What we were trying to do, we’ve always known, puts labor and management in a very precarious position,’' he adds, “because you’re trying to work cooperatively in an institutional structure that expects you to be adversaries.’' Whenever he found himself in a public battle with Urbanski, McWalters says, he wrote off the incidents as examples of times when it was necessary for each side to play a role. Administrators who watched Urbanski dominate the news, the former superintendent remembers, criticized him for letting the union leader get the upper hand. But McWalters says he always trusted the “substance’’ that was driving Urbanski, knowing they sought the same ends through different means. “He’s still the best,’' McWalters says. “I would rather go down fighting with him than anyone else.’'
Others who have jousted with Urbanski are less charitable. Hans DeBruyn, a Xerox employee and parent who sits on the district’s negotiating team, and Urbanski had a falling out when DeBruyn tried to send a parent survey home with children during negotiations. Urbanski asked teachers not to let their students act as couriers, arguing that it was inappropriate. DeBruyn charges that this winter, during hearings on budget cuts, teachers urged their students to bring their parents to the meetings to argue against cutting teaching jobs. He says Urbanski did nothing to stop the practice; Urbanski says if teachers behaved that way it was on their own and that the union has a standing policy against using students in such a manner.
In a time when there is general agreement that school reform cannot succeed without the involvement of parents and the community at large, Urbanski seems unconcerned about alienating the district’s organized parent representatives. He says he is aware that he is viewed as not wanting parents to be involved in schools. “You see,’' he explains, “I don’t pander to them. I try not to pander to anybody. The fact that I don’t treat them with the same patronizing tones that some bureaucrats do, they don’t like it. But I’m not out to please them. I’m out to educate their kids better.’'
The bottom line for the union president is the mantra he coined in the mid-1980s. At that time, the district’s administrators filed a lawsuit against some aspects of the new peer review program. Urbanski decided then that bringing about fundamental changes in schools was more important than reaching unanimity on each point. Reforms, he says, must proceed “with them if we can, and without them if we must.’'
Resisting the pressure to create a merit-pay system, he says, takes more courage than giving the public what it wants. “Just like it takes more courage not to give them higher test scores than to give it, because we could give them higher scoring dummies. We could stop teaching and start drilling for the tests. Stooping to satisfy the worst impulses of people or the conventional wisdom, if you want an oxymoron, is not necessarily responsible behavior.’'
What is responsible behavior now, given the lessons that have been learned by teachers in Rochester? Urbanski and some of his members say they fear the district has created a new kind of bureaucracy with its school planning teams and various teaching positions removed from the classroom. “I feel like I have entered into a partnership with a system that by nature is incapable of paving the way for real reform and real change,’' Urbanski says. “I may have to propose to teachers that we engage in a full-scale campaign of reform without permission, of pedagogical mass insubordination.’'
School-based planning, for example, has “democratized’’ the schools but has also “tied teachers up in knots,’' he says. “Even teachers in schools where it’s working are saying, ‘Look at the price we have to pay for it. Endless meetings, time away from teaching--Adam, I’m not sure if the cure is not worse than the disease.’'' The time might be worthwhile if the process had penetrated the classroom, Urbanski says, but too often it has not. “In some instances it managed to improve the level of comfort among adults, but you’d be hard-pressed to notice any difference with kids,’' he notes.
Part of the problem was with the name, he says, which implied that schools would be run by committees. Urbanski says he’d now like to call the groups “instructional design teams’’ and leave the day-to-day “administrivia’’ of school life to the principal. What if, he continues, the instructional design team or the faculty had the right to evaluate the principal annually and decide whether to retain or oust him or her? That lever would permit teachers to assume that their work would be supported, he says.
As for the perennial issue of teacher evaluations and compensation, he adds, why not create a local board for professional teaching standards, modeled after the national group, to determine what teachers should know and be able to do and to certify them? “And maybe, just maybe, only those who get such board certification should get any raises whatsoever,’' he suggests.
“I think about these things increasingly hard,’' Urbanski says. “This is not something I am getting tired of explaining. I feel like I am just on the verge of understanding what the dynamics are and what the processes are. I’m learning.’'
His only regret, he says, is the time he has spent away from his family. His son, Mark, is now 21, while his daughter Lisa is 19. “Eleven years ago, I should have been smart enough not to run for this job,’' he says. “With kids, there is no such thing as quality time, there is just time. There’s no way I could have done this job and not paid the price.’'
But he has loved every minute of it. “Especially when we didn’t know what we would do a half-hour later,’' he remembers. “Especially when we were going for all the marbles-- when we could lose it all or gain it all. And especially when we shocked the hell out of everybody, because nobody had ever done this before.’'
This is second in a series of profiles of teacher leaders underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as All About Adam