‘This Is Damned Hard’

By Ann Bradley — December 01, 1989 7 min read

They say that the shared sense of urgency that two years ago spawned the nation’ most dramatic teacher contract ha not waned. But along the way, the ride has been bumpy as the school system has retooled itself.

As the third year of the contract begins, “I get a sense that people are getting a little more realistic,’' says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. “The first year was the year of euphoria. The second year, we said things are worse than they were before the contract. Now, there’s the recognition that this is damned hard, but attitudes have changed. People believe this is for the long haul.’'

The union contract, which expires in June, gave teachers a hefty raise and a far greater say in school decisions-- in exchange for greater accountability. The aim, according to Urbanski and Peter McWalters, the superintendent of schools, was to increase student achievement by changing a system that was failing too many children.

No one in Rochester claims to have turned around the troubled school system. But union officials, teachers, school board members, and some administrators believe they have begun to shape a new culture that offers great promise of future progress. Along with pain and frustration, they say, have come new attitudes.

“In a sense, the frustration is a positive indicator, as long as that frustration is used to move people along,’' says Benjamin Douglas, president of the city board of education. “I would be more concerned if I heard nothing, because that would say there is no change, and that people are not trying to move out of their old modes.’'

The new outlooks in Rochester are evident in some teachers’ renewed sense of involvement in the school system. Other teachers, however, say there is a gap between what the school improvements promised and what they have delivered. And some detractors of the experiment argue that too much is happening at once. The programs spawned by the teachers’ contract--such as a career ladder for teachers, systemwide schoolbased planning, and peer review and mentoring--are just one aspect of a sweeping program for school improvement.

Last year, the city’s secondary schools were restructured to create middle schools, and the central office was reorganized to remove a layer of bureaucracy between principals and the superintendent. Magnet programs have been established at many schools, and students in grades 9 through 12 can choose to attend any high school in the city-- provided the schools remain racially balanced.

“It’s hard to hold anyone accountable, because we have to put out too many brush fires,’' complains Archie Curry, a member of the board of education who voted against the teachers’ contract. “We’re a long time from being even 50 percent successful.’'

Some administrators who were nervous and skeptical about the contract when it was signed remain critical. Richard Stear, president of the Administrators and Supervisors Association of Rochester, believes that many of the initiatives are “more form than substance’’ and says that he has noticed no change in attitudes or schools’ culture. “The same people who were involved then are involved now,’' he asserts. “The people who weren’t performing then aren’t performing now.’'

After organizing last year, planning teams are in place in each of the district’s 49 schools. The teams, the majority of whose members are teachers, are chaired by the principal and include parents and students in the high schools. Each is now drafting an “improvement plan’’ that spells out specific performance goals for the school. At the end of the year, the schools will report on how well they met their annual goals.

McWalters says he thinks the school plans are the best way to hold schools accountable. “Over time,’' he notes, “the same team that is setting the goal can be held accountable for the quality of the people in the building, including the principal.’'

School teams have participated in hiring six principals. Mary Ferrara Toole, a 5th grade teacher with 20 years’ experience in Rochester schools, says that interviewing candidates was “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done as a professional.’' But, she adds, “it was also the most enjoyable. I truly felt like a professional.’'

Toole, who was vice president of the teachers’ union during a strike in 1980, says she had felt “doubtful and skeptical’’ about the contract when it was signed. But returning to school this fall to work with a principal she had helped hire made her feel “renewed and enthusiastic,’' she says. “If we’re enthusiastic, it has to rub off on the kids.’'

For the majority of school-based planning teams, however, such concrete results remain a hope for the future. School district officials acknowledge that the creation of the middle schools disrupted many teams, and they admit that some have gotten bogged down in determining the technical details of their duties. And although school-based decisionmaking has been widely touted as a way to encourage good ideas to flow upward from the bottom of a school district, district officials have found some of the schoolbased planning teams to be wary of adopting new ways of doing things.

Last fall, for example, the planning team at Frederick Douglass Middle School rejected an innovative program proposed by two teachers. For Nancy Sundberg, one of those teachers, the experience was “disappointing and frustrating.’' She attributes the planning team’s uncertainty about her project to unease with its own power. “We were in a position where it was unclear how much the central office was relinquishing its reins,’' she says.

At the heart of the 1987 teachers’ contract is the Career in Teaching Program, which created a four-step career ladder. It enables teachers to remain in teaching and receive a salary and responsibilities typically associated with administrative positions. Of Rochester’s 2,500 teachers, 46 have been designated as lead teachers, the top position on the career ladder; 20 more spots will be funded this year.

At the school year’s first meeting of the union’s Representative Assembly, a vigorous debate over the role of lead teachers clearly indicated that there is still a good deal of confusion about these new teaching positions.

In particular, the union representatives were concerned about whether the lead teachers have been given the toughest teaching assignments. Urbanski--who has been quoted as saying that lead teachers would be the “Clint Eastwoods’’ of teaching, taking on the toughest assignments--told the assembly that the district is having trouble identifying which teaching jobs should be considered the most difficult.

Among other duties, lead teachers are currently working as mentors to both beginning teachers and experienced teachers who have received unfavorable evaluations. Some are helping the district design a new method of assessing teacher performance. All must spend at least half their time teaching.

Under the 1987 contract, it is possible for lead 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 bonus for which lead teachers are eligible. But Superintendent McWalters notes that top-earning teachers have not necessarily been the ones picked for lead-teaching positions. Today, lead teachers are paid an average of $47,000 a year, he estimates, adding that, with bonus, they receive about $55,000.

Currently, the average Rochester teacher earns $47,774, compared with $32,651 when the contract was signed.

Another sore spot for many teachers is the school district’s new home-base guidance program. Under the program, middle and high school teachers are assigned to small groups of students. The teachers serve as role models and counselors for the students during their years in the school and are expected to maintain a direct line of communication with the home.

Skeptics contend that the idea ignores the reality of a highly mobile student population. Others suggest that the role is inappropriate for teachers, especially at the high school level. “Students, after they reach a certain age, don’t need that kind of support,’' says Barry Robbins, a Latin and philosophy teacher. “It’s little more than a study hall.’'

At some schools, teachers made no secret of the fact that they were afraid to visit some of their students’ homes. In response, a group of concerned Rochester residents formed the Neighborhood Diplomatic Corps to escort teachers on home visits or to accompany a parent on a visit to a school. The group’s existence indicates that Rochester may have started to bridge the gap between the schools and parents.

The district faced a tough budget fight in the state capital last year to secure enough funding for the third year of the contract. Strong support for Rochester’s initiatives from the New York State United Teachers and the local legislative delegation enabled the district to lobby the state for enough money.

But local education leaders say they are aware of the pressure for results; they remain confident student achievement will improve with time. “It is not premature to ask if there is enough evidence to continue the experiment,’' Urbanski says. “But asking, ‘Have you fixed the problem?’ is premature.’'

Notes Catherine Spoto, vice president of the board of education: “What we need to be able to demonstrate, if we’re going to be able to keep all these people supportive, is that we in fact are making incremental progress. I think we will.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as ‘This Is Damned Hard’