Preliminary report on school reform in Rochester, New York

Four years ago, the Rochester Teachers Association signed a new contract. Through their board of education, the community declared their commitment to educational reform with a large teacher salary increase, a professional career ladder plan, and perhaps, most significantly, a restructuring of the system. School-based planning teams made up of teachers, administrators and parents, became the decision-makers for the schools. In addition, teachers were given the responsibility of improving the relationships between the schools and parents. Although some criticism of the reforms persists, Rochester’s teachers voted overwhelmingly last year to renew their contract. Christine E. Murray, professor, State University of New York College, Brockport, New York, interviewed teachers halfway through the initial period, to find out what they thought of the reforms.

Career ladder for teachers

Of the teachers interviewed, many expressed concern over career advancement. Some teachers welcomed the opportunity to diversify their roles by taking on new and challenging non-teaching tasks as they advanced to the “lead teacher” position. (Lead teachers are involved in curriculum development, in demonstration teaching, and in the teacher education program as adjunct university faculty.) However, many teachers expressed frustration that advancement leads only to administrative positions; many wished to advance while continuing to teach full time. These teachers were particularly critical of the fact that lead teachers were never assigned to work with the most needy children. They believe that the specialized knowledge of lead teachers was needed in the classroom to benefit children directly.

School-based planning teams

All teachers interviewed were positive about the concept of school-based planning teams, although many had encountered problems implementing such teams. Many teachers stated that much time was spent building relationships, fostering parental involvement, clarifying goals and solving immediate problems, all of which kept teams from meeting their goal of educational improvement. These teachers found that shared-decision making is time-intensive, contentious and demanding. In fact, only a few teams reported initiating any meaningful educational changes in their schools. General concerns regarding the team concept included:

-the amount of time required for meetings beyond the school day;

-lack of access to information to make informed decisions (for example, budgetary information usually reserved for administrators);

-lack of consensus-building and democratic, decision-making skills among the team members, which made it difficult to work together effectively;

-lack of clarity regarding the ultimate decision-making power of the teams; and

-external pressure to demonstrate educational improvement too soon.

Improving home/school relations

The “homebase guidance” program, which grew out of a successful program in one of Rochester’s middle schools, was initiated throughout the city in grades 7-12. The purpose of the program is to provide every student with one teacher who takes a personal interest in their overall progress and well-being. The demands of homebase guidance, however, have made the program frustrating for many teachers. In addition to paying home visits prior to the start of school in the Fall, teachers are expected to maintain regular contact with the parents of every child in their homeroom throughout the school year. Teachers are asked to monitor each student’s work in all classes and to serve as a primary resource person in resolving problems. Also, teachers are expected to teach effective problem-solving and decision-making skills during the homeroom period.

Teachers report that this program has been only partly successful. Teachers in some schools report that homebase guidance has increased parental involvement, helped set clear expectations for students and enabled teachers to demonstrate personal concern for students. However, many teachers feel overburdened and complain that they are being asked to be surrogate parents and even to be a kind of parent for their students’ parents. They feel that being held responsible for solving all the problems that may influence student achievement is an unreasonable expectation. And, they are concerned that because of these extra duties, the academic focus of teaching could be lost. For the homebase guidance program to be successful, these teachers believe that the community must accept more responsibility for providing support for students in the form of counseling and health-care services. In addition, teachers say that caseloads of more than 20 students per teacher jeopardize the success of the program.

Teachers overwhelmed

Rochester’s teachers continue to support the city’s educational reform efforts, but many feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities and expectations placed on them. Also, they sense that the public is impatient for results and they fear that the new initiatives will not be given enough time to demonstrate improvement in schools. They believe the community must bear some of the responsibility for the problems of youth and must be willing to help in substantial ways to ensure success for children. Murray concludes that there is a growing awareness in Rochester of the need for a reallocation of resources and for finding better ways of integrating and delivering existing social services to students and their families. Working together with the community, Murray reports, is regarded as the most important factor in the success of school reform.

“Rochester’s Reforms: The Teacher’s Perspective” Educational Policy Volume 6, Number 1, pp. 55-71.

Published in ERN May/June 1992 Volume 5 Number 3

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