Rochester Mulls Parent Voice in Rating Teachers

By Jeff Archer — August 06, 1997 3 min read

If district officials have their way, parents in Rochester, N.Y., will be asked this fall to put their two cents in when it comes time to evaluate their children’s teachers.

Under an unusual proposal by local education officials, schools would solicit comments from parents through a new form that could be used in judging teachers’ job performance.

Although leaders of the local teachers’ union say they support such formal mechanisms for seeking parents’ views, they’ve sparred with the district over specific elements of the plan. Parents can offer useful insights on how well a teacher communicates with students’ families, union leaders argue, but they shouldn’t be evaluating a teacher’s use of pedagogy or knowledge of subject matter.

The dispute is the last stumbling block holding up contract negotiations in Rochester, where teachers have been without a new contract for more than a year. After weeks at an impasse, however, both sides may have reached an agreement allowing discussions on the proposal to move forward. Negotiators hope to settle the matter by the end of this month.

If that happens, Rochester will find itself on the leading edge of efforts to give parents a greater voice in their children’s education. The 37, 000-student district has already gained national attention for earlier reforms that both increased teacher salaries and held them more accountable for their students’ success. (See Education Week, Oct. 18, 1989.)

“We’ve been listening to the public for a long time,” said Darryl Porter, the school board president. “We know that when there’s that strong bond between teachers, the parents, and students, we can move a student forward.”

Inviting Abuse?

Both district and union officials say they support greater parent input. But they’ve disagreed sharply over exactly how that input will be used and solicited.

Representing some 2,800 local educators, leaders of the Rochester Teachers Association rejected a district proposal they worried would open the door to allowing parents to evaluate educators’ teaching abilities in a wide range of areas. The proposal emphasized “home involvement and community relationships,” but it also said the new form would “focus on the district’s professional expectations and standards for teachers.”

Union leaders complained this would be akin to asking patients to evaluate their physicians’ knowledge of medicine.

“I am not opposed to parent input,” said Adam Urbanski, the president of the union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “I was opposed to parents being asked things they had no way of knowing, like does the teacher know physics.”

Mr. Urbanski further objected to other elements of the proposal dealing with such issues as whom the forms are first returned to and whether teachers will know which parents made what comments.

“If teachers get the idea that their pay increase depends on a parent’s evaluation, they may focus on pleasing the parents more than educating the kid,” Mr. Urbanski said.

District officials maintain that they never intended to give parents a wholesale opportunity to evaluate teaching skills. Rather, they say, they wanted to hold teachers more accountable for keeping in touch with their students’ families. “We wanted people to understand that we were very serious about parent involvement,” Mr. Porter said.

Higher Expectations

The stalemate appeared to have been broken late last month as both sides, with the help of a state mediator, signed an agreement guiding further talks.

Although specifying few details, the agreement says that a new parent survey will be designed jointly by union and district officials, along with school-level input, and that the questions will be limited to a teacher’s communication with students’ homes and aspects of student progress.

Parents would identify themselves on the form, which they would return to the teacher, the agreement says. Parents would be told they can return a copy to administrators, if they wish.

Returned forms could be used as part of a portfolio of exhibits during the teacher’s evaluation. While leaving the form’s design to a series of meetings in the next few weeks, Mr. Urbanski said the agreement addressed many of his concerns.

With the agreement, he added, “the objectionable components of the district’s proposal have been eliminated.”

As local leaders try to iron out remaining differences, the concept has drawn national attention to the New York district.

“It elevates the expectation,” said Kelly Butler, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools Inc., a Jackson, Miss.-based group that promotes parent involvement. “It says we’re not leaving it to casual happenstance to get in touch with you.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week