The search for a way to incorporate the idea of "accountability" into Rochester’s teaching contract has sparked a controversial debate about the meaning of the word and how to achieve it. After two unsuccessful tentative agreements, the Rochester Teachers Association and the city school district are now waiting for state mediators to help them reach another agreement. Experts have pointed out that the fact that the union and the school district were able to reach tentative agreements that included accountability provisions shows unprecedented progress in addressing this challenging concept in school reform.
However, in Rochester, where school reform has been a topic of discussion since the 1980s, concerns about New York State’s economy and a political climate that focuses mainly on teachers’ salaries have overshadowed these achievements. The backlash following the rejection of the two contracts has also highlighted the deep divide that still exists between the education system and the broader community. While teachers are disappointed and angry about the board’s vote, they also share some board members’ disappointment that the community is unaware of the district’s accomplishments over the past three years. One teacher, Carl O’Connell, who worked as a mentor teacher, emphasized that he persuaded two people to resign for the benefit of the students, highlighting the fundamental change happening within the district.
School officials assert that Rochester’s reform efforts stem from the belief that the school system needs to take responsibility for its students and ensure that each student has the opportunity to reach their full potential. When the city’s groundbreaking teachers’ contract was announced in 1987, "accountability" referred to teachers meeting their students’ needs and committing additional time to achieve this. However, over the years, the term has acquired a different meaning, leading to confusion among some residents of Rochester and raising questions about whether the promised accountability has been fulfilled. Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, noted that some residents are asking about the results in student performance, the presence of ineffective teachers in the system, and the implementation of pay for performance.
To the president of the school board, Catherine Spoto, the public’s outcry about teachers’ salary increases symbolizes the lack of understanding within the community after three years of reform efforts. She emphasizes that the perception persists that teachers were paid well in 1987 and did not deliver their worth, leading to reservations about paying them again.
The first contract agreement, announced in September, included a pay-for-performance plan that would have determined teachers’ raises based on their ratings under a new evaluation system. Teachers who consistently received superior ratings throughout the three-year contract could have earned total raises of up to 33.6 percent. However, concerns were raised about the affordability of the contract and confusion about how the evaluation system would work. Many teachers who voted against the agreement stated that their intention was not to avoid individual accountability. Rather, they felt they did not have enough information to ratify it. They expressed concerns about the new portfolios that the contract would require teachers to create, which included samples of student work, comments from parents, evidence of professional development, lesson plans, and other materials to demonstrate teaching skills.
Using portfolios to assess teachers’ work is still a relatively new concept nationally. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is in the early stages of research and development to create reliable performance-based assessment techniques as part of a voluntary certification system to acknowledge exceptional teachers.
Simultaneously, the language used in the initial contract effectively introduced the concept of "pay for performance" to influential leaders in the community and certain school board members. William A. Johnson, president of the Urban League and a critic of the salary increases offered to teachers, stated that now it would be exceedingly difficult to abandon this concept. He believed that it was too late for the union to reject the idea of linking pay to performance.
When the second tentative agreement was announced and subsequently ratified by 97% of the city’s teachers, the atmosphere surrounding it was shaped by the first contract. Instead of directly tying teachers’ pay to their performance, the new contract differentiated between providing raises to teachers who were fulfilling their job requirements and referring those who were not to an intervention process. At that point, a joint union-school district panel would determine whether to withhold some or all of a teacher’s salary.
Adam Urbanski, president of the R.T.A., expressed his opinion that the first contract did not align well with the expectations and dynamics embraced by teachers. However, he believed that it was necessary to experience some difficulties and challenges in order to eliminate certain approaches and build upon others.
The school district estimated that, over the course of three years, teachers would have received an average pay increase of 27%. School board members found this amount unaffordable due to the uncertainties surrounding the state, county, and city budgets that funded Rochester schools. Robert L. King, a Republican state assemblyman, argued against ratifying the contract, claiming that it seemed hollow to ask for a 27% pay increase when the district had not yet achieved financial stability.
Urbanski and his union members believed that board members succumbed to political pressure when they voted against the agreement. The district’s negotiators maintained that the new contract was affordable in its first year and allowed for new negotiations in the second and third years if necessary.
Mr. Johnson of the Urban League, as well as several parents, were offended by the teachers who spoke at a public hearing to advocate for the second contract. According to Mr. Johnson, too many teachers made the connection between their pay and their commitment to educational reform.
Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, provided consultancy to the negotiation teams on how to refine the unsuccessful September contract. She explained that the first proposal was based on the ineffective merit-pay model of the 1980s. In contrast, the second proposal built upon the existing career ladder system and established a foundation for further developing teacher professionalism. Unlike the first contract, which emphasized individual accountability and could have potentially turned teachers into competitors, the second contract did not pose this threat.
The second contract addressed the issue of professional accountability by allowing teachers on school-based planning committees to refer their colleagues for intervention. Darling-Hammond argued that professional accountability for the quality and competence of staff should be the foremost cornerstone of accountability, as it is the case in any other profession.
The contract also included several other provisions pertaining to teacher accountability. These included the elimination of the traditional dismissal time for teachers, the introduction of a mandatory home-base guidance program in every school, the implementation of a new code of professional standards, and an increase in the number of "lead teachers" on the district’s career ladder. Additionally, the contract included a section on school accountability that required each school to negotiate a multi-year improvement plan with the district and have their progress assessed annually.
The majority of taxpayers in the city are either elderly individuals living on fixed incomes or have lower incomes compared to the average Rochester teacher, who earns approximately $43,000. Minority groups make up 30 percent of the overall city population. Most taxpayers, when they observe the schools, do not see children who resemble them. Additionally, parents of 70 percent of the children notice a racial difference between themselves and their children’s teachers. To overcome these barriers, city residents need to recognize the importance of educating all children, according to Mr. Kaufman.
However, district officials acknowledge that they have a significant task ahead in convincing Rochester residents and political leaders in Monroe County that the affairs of the school system concern them, regardless of whether their children attend public schools. On top of that, involving overworked and underpaid parents in their children’s education proves even more challenging, as stated by teachers. Mr. Osborne, who teaches global studies and economics at Joseph C. Wilson Magnet High School, shares an example of a pregnant student who went into labor in the classroom. The teachers arranged for an ambulance and cleaned up the room. Another student at the school has to pay his mother for food, despite her disliking him. However, he still attends school and works hard.
Parental involvement is also lacking at Monroe Middle School, according to Robert Pedzich, the principal. Although the 24-hour voice mailbox system allows parents to receive recorded messages in English and Spanish about homework and school activities, a recent meeting of the school’s parent-teacher-student group involved only nine parents. The school has 1,300 students from around 1,100 families, highlighting the lack of parental presence. Many students come from single-parent households, and while these parents want to be involved in their children’s education, they often lack the time to do so.
Nevertheless, there are signs of increasing parental involvement, partly due to the issues surrounding the teachers’ contract. A newly formed group called the Union of Parents has started holding meetings, and the district is finalizing a new plan to engage parents. This growing parental interest gives Robin J. Dettman, a parent serving on two school-based planning teams, confidence in the continuation of educational reform. The teachers had previously warned that if the contract was voted against, reform would cease to exist. However, with the involvement of parents, they are determined to prevent that outcome.