Rochester Contract Woes Ignite Debate Over ‘Accountability’

By Ann Bradley — February 06, 1991 12 min read

Rochester, NY--The seven-month search for a way to incorporate the concept of “accountability” into Rochester’s teaching contract has ignited a contentious debate here about what the word means and how to achieve it.

With two failed tentative agreements behind them, the Rochester Teachers Association and city school district are now awaiting the assistance of state mediators in reaching another agreement.

The fact that the union and the school district were twice able to reach tentative agreements containing accountability provisions is evidence, experts said last week, of unprecedented progress toward addressing one of the most difficult concepts in school reform today.

But in Rochester--where school reform has been a topic of discussion since the mid-1980’s--grave concerns about New York State’s economy and a political climate that has fixed attention almost exclusively on teachers’ salaries have overshadowed those achievements.

The uproar that has followed the defeat of the two contracts--in September by the teachers’ union and Jan. 23 by the Rochester school board--also has brought into sharp relief the deep divide that still exists between the education system and the larger community.

Although teachers say they are deeply disappointed and angry at the board’s vote, they share some board members’ dismay that the community has not grasped the district’s accomplishments over the past three years.

Working as a mentor teacher, Carl O’Connell said, “I personally talked two people into resigning. I didn’t do it for me or the school board or the community; I did it for the students. That’s fundamental change. How many community people know about that? How much more accountable can I be?”

School officials say Rochester’s reform efforts have been driven by a recognition that the school system needs to “take ownership” of its students and take steps to ensure that each is given every opportunity to learn to his fullest potential.

In 1987, when the city’s first ground-breaking teachers’ contract was announced, educators here used the term “accountability” to refer to the fact that teachers would be expected to meet their students’ needs and to put in the extra time such work would require.

But in the intervening years, the term has taken on a different meaning, prompting confusion among some Rochester residents and questions about whether the promised accountability has actually been delivered.

“Some say, ‘Where are the results in student performance?’ Other say, ‘Bad teachers are still in the system.’ Others want ‘pay for performance,”’ said Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy here.

To Catherine Spoto, president of the school board, the public outcry over how much teachers’ salaries should be increased “is a very powerful sign that, at the end of three years, there is very little community understanding of what we’re trying to do.”

“We never overcame the attitude, ‘We paid teachers big bucks in ‘87, and we’re not getting our money’s worth, so why should we pay them again?”’ she added.

The first contract agreement, announced in September, contained a pay-for-performance plan that would have based teachers’ raises on their ratings under a new evaluation system. Teachers who received superior ratings in each year of the three-year contract could have earned total raises of up to 33.6 percent over the life of the contract.

The agreement’s announcement was met with immediate concern over whether the contract would be affordable, as well as with a good deal of confusion over how the evaluation system would work. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

In voting against the first contract agreement, many teachers interviewed recently said they were not trying to avoid individual accountability. The problem, they said, was that they did not have enough details about what they were getting into to ratify it.

“I think teachers want to be held accountable for things we can control,” said Nancy Herrera, a basic-skills teacher at Elementary School No. 8. “We felt we were being asked to be accountable for things beyond our control.”

Ms. Herrera said she was concerned, like many teachers who echoed her views, about the new portfolios that the contract would have required teachers to assemble. Under the agreement, the portfolios were to include samples of student work, comments from parents, evidence of professional-development activities, lesson plans, and other materials to demonstrate teaching skill.

Nationally, the concept of using portfolios to assess teachers’ work is still in its infancy. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is developing a voluntary certification system to recognize outstanding teachers, has just begun the research-and-development effort that is expected to produce reliable performance-based assessment techniques.

Lee S. Shulman, the Stanford education professor who has conducted ground-breaking research exploring the use of portfolios, said he was impressed with the willingness of contract negotiators in Rochester to tackle new assessment techniques.

But, Mr. Shulman, who served as a consultant during contract talks here, said, such techniques need to be tested before they are applied across the board to determine a teacher’s salary.

“People have every reason to be suspicious” of portfolios, he said, “because they’ve never been tried out in the field.”

“What you don’t want to do,” he cautioned, “is take a brand-new approach and throw it into the highest-stakes environment.”

Whatever the concerns over the pay-for-performance scheme, some Rochester taxpayers interpreted the teachers’ vote against the first contract as a sign that they were ducking accountability after several years of being paid relatively high wages.

“Whether or not it was true, part of the community came out and said, ‘Now you don’t want to be held accountable,”’ said Wanda Strother, who serves on the board of a local advocacy and community-action group.

At the same time, however, the language of the first contract firmly planted the concept of “pay for performance” in the minds of other influential leaders in the community as well as some school-board members.

“I think having opened that window, now it is going to be very difficult to shut it,” said William A. Johnson, the president of the Urban League and a critic of the salary increases offered to teachers in the two agreements. “It’s too late for the union to turn around and say, ‘We can’t have pay linked to performance.”’

Such was the atmosphere here when the second tentative agreement, which was ratified last month by 97 percent of the city’s teachers, was announced.

Instead of linking teachers’ pay to whether they met various levels of performance, the contract distinguished between giving raises to teachers who were considered to be doing their jobs, and referring those who were not to intervention. At that time, a joint union-school district panel would have decided whether to withhold all or part of a teacher’s salary.

Adam Urbanski, president of the R.T.A., said the first contract “was not workable or a good match with the dynamics that teachers embrace.”

However, making the attempt was “necessary pain and development so we could rule some things out,” the union leader said, “as well as build on others.”

The school district estimated that teachers would have received an average 27 percent pay increase over the three years--an amount school-board members decided was not affordable, given the uncertainty over the state, county, and city budgets that finance Rochester schools.

“It rings a little bit hollow to say, ‘We haven’t quite made it yet, but give us 27 percent,”’ said Robert L. King, a Republican state assemblyman who urged board members not to ratify the contract.

Mr. Urbanski and the members of his union who urged board members to vote for the contract believe board members caved in to such political pressure when they voted against the agreement.

The district’s negotiators also continue to insist that the new contract was demonstrably affordable in its first year, and that it provided for new negotiations in the second and third years, if necessary.

“Unless you know the dynamics, you could read more into this than there is to it,” Mr. Urbanski said of the board’s no vote.

Mr. Johnson of the Urban League and several parents here also said they were offended by the tone of teachers who spoke at a public hearing to urge board members to vote for the second contract.

“Too many teachers who spoke out at the public hearing made the connection between their pay and continued commitment to reform,” Mr. Johnson said.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, consulted with the negotiating teams over how to refine the failed September contract.

The first proposal, she said, was built on the same merit-pay model that had proved unsuccessful during the 1980’s in several states and districts. In contrast, the second proposal built on the existing career ladder and offered a foundation for continuing to develop teacher professionalism.

It also did not threaten to divide teachers into competitors, she added, the way the first contract, with its emphasis on individual accountability, could have.

By allowing teachers on school-based planning committees to refer their colleagues for intervention, the second contract directly addressed the issue of professional accountability, Ms. Darling-Hammond said.

“In any other profession, that would be the first cornerstone of accountability,” she said. “The first thing you are accountable for is the quality and competence of the staff.”

The contract also contained several other teacher-accountability provisions, according to district officials and the teachers’ union:

The traditional dismissal time for teachers would have been eliminated. Instead, they would have been required to work “a professional day’’ to meet the needs of students for after-school help and to participate in committees to improve their schools.

The home-base guidance program, in which teachers are assigned to groups of students, would have been made mandatory in every school.

Teachers would have been expected to adhere to a new code of professional standards that would have formed the basis for the development of a new evaluation system, to be phased in over the life of the contract.

The number of “lead teachers"--the highest rung on the district’s career ladder--would have been increased from the current 71 to 250.

The contract also included a section on school accountability that would have required each school to formally negotiate a multi-year improvement plan with the district. Each year, schools’ progress toward meeting their goals would have been assessed.

Superintendent of Schools Peter McWalters and Mr. Urbanski said in interviews last week that they were deeply frustrated that the educational strides represented in the second contract were lost in the continuing uproar over teacher salaries.

Mr. McWalters and the district’s chief negotiator, Adam Kaufman, pointed out that two large suburban Monroe County districts recently reached contract settlements with larger raises than Rochester teachers would have received. Yet, they said, the county politicians who have been critical of the city contracts did not make an issue out of the suburban settlements.

Despite the pressures that such a focus brings to negotiations, district and union officials here say they are intent on continuing to use the contract as a vehicle for reform.

But Mr. McWalters noted an irony in the situation: “There was tremendous anger in 1987 at the attention the contract focused on teachers in the classroom, professional practice, and accountability. The national attention broke up a [local] coalition with a sense of partnership and responsibility for the schools.”

Now, he said, “the contract is becoming all things to all people.”

Mr. Kaufman said he believes that the school system’s demographics explain part of the suspicion and discontent that have become evident here in the past few months: Only 25 percent of the city’s taxpayers have children in the schools; of those, 75 percent send their children to the public schools. Seventy percent of the 35,000 students in Rochester are members of racial and ethnic minority groups; the same number live in poverty.

The bulk of city taxpayers, meanwhile, are either elderly and living on fixed incomes or do not make as much as the average Rochester teacher, who is paid about $43,000. Members of minority groups make up 30 percent of the overall city population.

“When they look into the schools,” Mr. Kaufman says of most taxpayers, “they don’t see children like them. And the parents of 70 percent of the children look at the school system and see the teachers of their children are different racially.”

To break down the barriers inherent in such a situation, Mr. Kaufman said, city residents must become aware of “the need to educate all children.”

But district officials say they have a long way to go to persuade Rochester residents and political leaders in Monroe County that what goes on in the schools is of concern to them, regardless of whether their children attend the public schools.

An even harder task, according to teachers, is to involve overworked and underpaid parents in their children’s schooling.

“I’ve had parents who were outraged that you would even bother them about their son or daughter,” said Allan Osborne, who teaches global studies and economics at Joseph C. Wilson Magnet High School. “The reason the community doesn’t understand is that so few people come into the schools.”

Mr. Osborne said he was not troubled by the concept of being held accountable for his work, adding that he believes it is “important that, as teachers, we clean up and police our own profession.”

But the realities of day-to-day school life are daunting, he and his colleagues said.

The other day at Wilson, a pregnant student went into labor in the classroom, Mr. Osborne said. Teachers arranged for an ambulance to take the girl to the hospital and cleaned up the room.

Another student at the school, Mr. Osborne continued, is forced to pay his mother for food. “His mother hates him--but he comes to school, and he works hard,” he said.

Parental involvement is no better at Monroe Middle School, according to Robert Pedzich, the principal.

Since school began, 15,000 calls have been made to Monroe’s 24-hour voice mailbox system, which allows parents to hear recordings in English and Spanish about homework and school activities.

But a recent meeting of the school parent-teacher-student group drew only nine parents. The school has 1,300 students from about 1,100 families, the principal noted.

“Many students come from single families,” he said. “There are more parents involved in the education of their children, [but] it’s just that they don’t have the time to come to school.”

There are signs of increasing parental involvement, however--some of it sparked by the problems with the teachers’ contract.

A new group called the Union of Parents has begun meeting, and the district is completing a new parental-involvement plan.

This evidence of growing parental interest gives Robin J. Dettman, a parent who serves on two school-based planning teams, confidence that reform here will continue.

“When teachers spoke at the public hearing, they told the board, ‘If you vote against this contract, reform is dead,”’ Mr. Dettman said. “But now that parents are at the table, we’re not going to let that happen.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Rochester Contract Woes Ignite Debate Over ‘Accountability’