Historic Contract Puts City Under Nation’s Microscope

By Ann Bradley — October 18, 1989 3 min read

Rochester, N.Y.--Rochester’s schools superintendent says he was not prepared for the intense national scrutiny his district received after the district and the local teachers’ union signed their ground-breaking agreement in 1987.

“I thought everyone was having this discussion,” the superintendent, Peter McWalters, said, referring to the district’s efforts to professionalize teaching.

But educators here quickly learned that they had reached an unprecedented agreement at a time when the nation was hungry for examples of school improvement.

In the past two years, dozens of journalists have visited the city to write about the “Rochester Experiment” and about the remarkably cordial relationship between Mr. McWalters and Adam Urbanski, president of the teachers’ union.

U.S. News & World Report is tracking the progress of the district’s initiatives in an ongoing series. Publications as diverse as The Sacramento Bee, the London Daily Telegraph, and Working Mother magazine have described the district’s commitment to educating all its children.

Even President Bush visited Rochester in May to applaud the district’s efforts.

On a practical level, the stream of visitors has taken up countless hours of district employees’ time.

Thomas Gillett, who runs the district’s Career in Teaching program, has become an expert at knowing which teachers make “good interviews.’' Since August 1987, he has arranged “a couple dozen” meetings between reporters and teachers.

Focus on Salaries

Although increased teachers’ salaries were just one component of the city’s school-improvement drive, the raises quickly became the contract’s best-known element.

Some district officials say the result has been that the media have overblown the salary increases.

The contract gave all teachers a $4,500 increase in the first year and 11 percent raises in each of the next two years.

It is possible for teachers to earn up to $68,900. A teacher earning that amount would be at the top of the salary scale and would receive the maximum 20 percent bonus paid to lead teachers, who assume extra duties.

But “the truth is,” Mr. McWalters said, “that [top-earning] group is the group we’d never have picked” for lead-teaching positions.

Today, lead teachers in Rochester are paid an average of $47,000 a year, Mr. McWalters estimated, adding that, with bonuses, they receive about $55,000. Currently, the average Rochester teacher earns $45,774, compared with $32,651 when the contract was signed.

Solidified Support

Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the attention, district officials say the scrutiny has been an advantage because it has solidified support for the initiatives.

Mr. McWalters, who decided early on to be as accessible as possible to the media, said the steady stream of reporters is “contributing to the pressure” to produce improvements.

“We have a history of being upfront and honest,” said Catherine Spoto, vice president of the board of education.

“I think we are very willing, as a district, to share our struggles in dealing with this kind of massive reform,” she added.

Rochester’s high profile also has attracted powerful allies to help the district refine its goals for school improvement.

The National Center on Education and the Economy--an independent, nonprofit organization interested in furthering school restructuring--located here in August of 1988 to provide “intellectual assistance” to the district and to the University of Rochester.

Marc S. Tucker, president of the center, recalls that “the publicity that came was an utter shock” to Mr. McWalters and Mr. Urbanski.

“They began to realize they had committed themselves to fundamental change,” Mr. Tucker said.

Perception vs. Reality

In addition to spending time with visitors, Rochester educators receive numerous requests to discuss their initiatives with school officials across the country.

Mr. McWalters and Mr. Urbanski have become a familiar team on the educational circuit.

Joanne Scully, the district’s director of school improvement, recently spent two days in Prince William County, Va., discussing school-based planning with educators eager to know about Rochester’s experiences.

When she returned, four messages were on her desk from other educators with questions.

But for teachers, principals, and parents struggling to apply the contract’s principles, there is a gap between public perception and everyday reality.

“The attention has been demoralizing for many people in the buildings,” Ms. Scully said, “because they are so aware of the disparity between what people think is happening here and where they are.”

“They think there’s some massive deception going on,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as Historic Contract Puts City Under Nation’s Microscope