In Rochester, Skepticism, Confusion Greet News of 'Revolutionary' Pact

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By Ann Bradley

When Rochester, N.Y., school-district officials and the president of the city's teachers' union announced last week that they had agreed on a new three-year contract that will base teachers' pay strictly on performance, their euphoria at what they termed a "revolutionary" contract was short-lived.

Confusion immediately swept through the Rochester community over exactly how much the agreement would cost and whether the new system for granting teachers' raises would truly be an improvement.

From the Urban League of Rochester to the editorial boards of the city's two daily newspapers to the office of Mayor Thomas P. Ryan, skepticism greeted the announcement of the new contract.

Despite the community's misgivings, the board of education approved the contract by a 4-to-3 vote Thursday night. The full membership of the Rochester Teachers Association was scheduled to vote on the contract Sept. 24.

"This is a contract that both sides enter into with a great deal of apprehension," said Michael A. Fernandez, a school-board member who voted in favor of the contract.

"Both sides know that this is the right thing to do, in terms of linking pay to performance," he added. "But we have to make certain that it doesn't appear that administrators are running roughshod over teachers and that teachers haven't slipped one by the community."

This year, all teachers will receive 4.2 percent cost-of-living raises, in addition to longevity payments of a flat $3,183. Their raises for the next two years will be determined by a new evaluation system that heavily involves teachers in judging their colleagues' performance as well as their own.

Some of the reaction to the agreement stemmed from the fact that it is theoretically possible for a teacher to be paid as much as $86,816 in the last year of the new contract.

School-district officials were reluctant to predict what the contract would cost beyond the first year's $11 million, because the totals will depend on the results of the new evaluation system.

However, if all teachers receive the highest possible increases--which is considered highly unlikely--the contract is expected to cost an additional $11.5 million in the second year and $12 million in the third year, according to the district.

Under Rochester's career-in-teaching program, an experienced teacher who is receiving a bonus payment to hold a "lead teaching" position eventually could make as much as $86,816. To reach that salary level, the teacher would have to be rated at the highest level of proficiency for three years in a row.

The likelihood of any teacher earning such a salary is remote, district officials said, noting that no Rochester teacher currently is being paid the $70,000 top salary available to experienced "lead" teachers under the expired contract.

'A Catastrophe'?

The true test of the new evaluation system, district and teachers' union officials agreed, will come when the results are presented to the community. If the judgments made about the district's teachers mesh with Rochester residents' own judgments about the quality of the schools, they argue, the system will have achieved the accountability it has sought for the past several years.

But Peter McWalters, the superintendent of schools, and Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, differed widely last week in their estimates of how many teachers would qualify for the highest rating.

Mr. Urbanski said he was confident that the majority of Rochester teachers would receive "double-digit raises" under the new contract.

That assertion alarmed community leaders, who noted that the city and New York State are facing tight budgets, if not deficits, and that Rochester employers typically are giving workers raises of about 5 percent.

"This is a catastrophe of the highest order," said William A. Johnson, president of the Urban League, which initiated much of the ongoing school-reform debate in Rochester. "This is comparable to the savings-and-loan scandal. This is a ripoff of public money."

Public officials said they were not particularly soothed by the new contract's emphasis on accountability.

"We were told three years ago that one of the conditions of the contract was the fact that there was going to be accountability," Mayor Ryan said. "Based on the dropout rate and test scores, I don't think anyone here would argue that things have improved."

Mr. Fernandez agreed that, "in the rhetoric that came out around the term accountability, the last contract did not have a lot of teeth in it."

'Code of Practice' Outlined

Under the current system--a traditional check-list evaluation conducted by an administrator--only 15 of the city's 2,500 teachers were rated unsatisfactory during the past school year. There are also no explicit expectations for what accomplished teachers are supposed to do, Mr. McWalters noted.

The new performance-appraisal system creates three new categories for teachers: "meets or exceeds high professional standards"; "must improve to meet high professional standards"; and "unsatisfactory."

In the second year of the contract, teachers who are judged to meet the district's highest standards will receive raises of 4.2 percent and a payment of $3,183. Teachers whose performance needs improvement will be paid only the 4.2 cost-of-living raise, and teachers whose work is found unsatisfactory will get no raise at all.

The standards used to judge teachers will be based in part on an explicit "code of professional practice for teachers" spelled out in the detailed contract.

"When you put together school-based management, and now a professional code," Mr. McWalters said, "I don't know what else I could want.''

Mr. Urbanski said he expects that "an overwhelming majority of teachers in Rochester will meet or exceed high professional standards."

But Mr. McWalters said he does not believe that "large, large numbers" of teachers will be able to meet the district's tough new standards for teaching proficiency right away.

"The real question in terms of the cost of the contract is going to be, once we make it explicit what the professional code of practice is and you apply a performance measure against that, how many of us are going to still be in the mode of needing to improve a year from now?" the superintendent said. "I personally think it is going to be a substantial number of people."

Evaluation Panels Planned

Unlike some merit-pay systems for teachers, Rochester's new performance-appraisal plan places no cap on the number of teachers who can be judged superior. Mr. McWalters said he has resisted estimating the number of teachers who might fall into each category.

"I refuse to get trapped or to trap Adam like that," he said.

"Professional-practice review committees," made up of two teachers and an administrator, will evaluate teachers' performances.

In making their determinations, the many committees will consider a portfolio assembled by the teacher that documents such things as students' work, the teacher's contact with students' parents, the teacher's professional activities, an evaluation by an administrator, and the comments of another teacher who has observed the teacher's work.

This evidence, judged against the district's professional-practice code, will enable the panel to make a judgment about the teacher that will determine what salary increases the teacher is to be paid. Teachers who disagree with their ratings can appeal to the district's career-in-teaching panel.

The new system dispenses with the traditional practice of giving teachers automatic raises and replaces it with a system that provides "incentives for success and disincentives for failure that are sorely lacking in our system," according to Mr. Urbanski.

"At worst, it will be chaos," the union leader said. "At best, there will be an explosion of collegiality."

Rochester officials said the system permits taking the unprecedented step of withholding a teachers' salary increase without going through due-process proceedings. Teachers who are judged unsatisfactory will be recommended for an intervention program for two semesters; if they refuse to participate, the district will begin dismissal proceedings against them.

The reviews are scheduled to begin next spring, after the district and teachers' union have chosen the review committees, and will be done each year afterward.

School-Day Changes Outlined

The teaching contract also commits the district to seek similar changes in the way Rochester's administrators are evaluated--including involving teachers in the process--during contract negotiations next year.

Both Mr. McWalters and Mr. Urbanski said they believed teachers would fashion a much more rigorous and credible evaluation system for their peers than has currently been used in Rochester.

It will be up to individual teachers to design their own portfolios from the suggested components, Mr. Urbanski said. Although teachers will be evaluating other teachers throughout the system, "the very diversification of the process guards against corruptibility," he added.

In addition to giving teachers professional leeway in putting together their portfolios, the contract makes less sweeping, but equally significant, changes in teachers' schedules.

For example, the school day will be shortened by two hours on Wednesdays and lengthened by 30 minutes on the remaining weekdays to provide teachers with time to conduct professional duties, such as attending school-site council meetings.

The contract also does away with an "ending time" for a teacher's workday. Instead, teachers are required to work a "professional day," which Adam Kaufman, the district's chief negotiator, said is "essentially saying that teachers recognize that their duties extend beyond the student day."

Similarly, teachers will no longer be required to present a doctor's note if they are absent for three consecutive days, and will no longer be restricted from using their personal days only at certain times during the school year.

In a letter of agreement that accompanied the new contract, Mr. McWalters pledged to seek other changes in school-district policy that were recommended in a report issued by a joint task force on accountability. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

Vol. 10, Issue 4, Page 1, 13

Published in Print: September 26, 1990, as In Rochester, Skepticism, Confusion Greet News of 'Revolutionary' Pact
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