Breaking the cycle of failure in Rochester’s schools

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With Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino’s report on the Rochester City School District as context, ROC the Future is collecting names on a petition seeking bold change. I’ve signed—you should too. 

ROC the Future is a “collective impact” initiative. Accordingly, its petition asserts: “This is a Unique Moment in Time for Shared Action” and “Change is Possible with the Right Unified Approach.”

The Democrat and Chronicle’s contribution is its declaration that “Something. Must. Change.” Its editorial board asserts that our leaders have failed to acknowledge the problem, that “not one of our state legislators has been vocal about addressing our education crisis.”

I’ve been in Rochester for nearly 30 years and have been hearing nearly the same catchphrases throughout. Like you, I am weary of failure and have lost patience with incremental solutions.

A power problem

A local solution is beyond our reach. Power is too fragmented to permit substantive change. New York has the power—and the obligation, per Article XI, Section 1 of the state Constitution—to intervene. 

As a community, we’ve watched countless reform efforts come and go. We might argue that they have all failed. But I don’t think that we actually know. Why? Because no initiative has been fully and consistently implemented over an extended period of time. 

Change is tough and inevitably benefits some adult interests and harms others. In the Rochester schools nothing ever gets fully or faithfully implemented because every interest group has the power to delay, derail or simply dismiss new initiatives. The Board of Education, the superintendent, the union leadership, individual union members—particularly teachers and administrators—and parents all have interests and concerns that can be in conflict with one another and often conflict with the best interest of our children, who hold no power at all. And all have sufficient power to block meaningful change.

The superintendents

Having observed many superintendents and worked closely with some during my years at CGR, I know how hard it is for a superintendent to change things. Any things. 

The half-life of a superintendent is generally less than two years—if you work for the city school district, you know that the superintendent has one foot out the door after 24 months. At this point in the typical superintendent’s tenure, he or she is spending more and more time in the mud pit wrestling with the Board of Education. She or he will either lose the match and be fired or quit in frustration. Moreover, few plan to stay in the position forever and have been faulted for seeking an early exit when the opportunity strikes.

Still, we’ve had many qualified superintendents who might have “moved the needle” if their plans had ever been executed. If ever. 

The Board of Education

Aquino’s report repeated what I’ve heard over and again: The Board of Education is too involved in the district’s daily business, undermining decisions made by superintendents. I support local control exercised by a democratically-elected board that understands the limits of its role. That role should be limited to hiring, supporting, and holding accountable an experienced professional educator who, in turn, makes and executes the tough decisions. The board can provide advice and counsel without undercutting the superintendent’s authority.

The Rochester board’s level of engagement with daily decision making might be explained in part by board compensation and staff support. The comparison with Syracuse and Buffalo is stark: Rochester board members earn nearly four times the salary of Syracuse members and more than five times what Buffalo members get paid. Unlike either of those cities, Rochester board members are also eligible for benefits, including retirement and health. Health insurance alone could easily total $12,000 or more, depending on coverage. The pension contribution is another $4,000 to $5,000. With benefits included, the value of the Rochester member’s compensation is at least 50 percent greater than the posted salary.

In addition, the RCSD board has a staff of 13 compared with two in Buffalo and no dedicated staff in Syracuse. Rochester’s board includes a costly audit function that is left to the superintendents in other districts.

Given the level of compensation and staff support, it is not surprising that the RCSD board functions as a “shadow” superintendent’s office. This gets back to pursuing and executing a consistent vision. If individual board members or board factions have the power to pursue a vision that is different in direction or emphasis from the superintendent’s, the result can be either diffused reform or simple confusion. 

There also is the problem of accountability. The board may be elected, but it is hardly accountable to a broad cross-section of the community. Given the dominance of the Democratic Party in the city of Rochester, the election that matters is the primary. The general election is irrelevant. The candidates who won the most recent primary received about 7,000 votes in a city of 208,000 residents. Given the low vote total, these positions are vulnerable to political influence, either from party leaders or vote-rich RCSD unions.

I have known many members of the Board of Education over the years and have found them to be committed to the children and eager to do the best job they can. Yet the intrusive behavior is consistent over decades of successive boards. The problem isn’t with the individuals but with the structure. 

Administrators and teachers

One theme that emerges from research on effective schools is the critical importance of building principals. An effective principal can forge a sense of shared mission, create a climate of respect among staff and students, and establish standards of behavior for all involved. If the principal is incapable or has simply checked out, the school is cast adrift. 

It’s a very difficult job. Some principals are effective leaders and some are not—and it is often difficult to know in advance. Unlike managers in other economic sectors, building principals are union members. The ability of a superintendent to reward effective leaders and replace ineffective ones is constrained by union contracts and time-consuming processes.

A principal can set the tone for a school but needs a cadre of like-minded teachers to carry it out.  Yet building principals have very limited autonomy or authority to build and motivate an instructional team. Teachers’ seniority dictates placement to a great degree. The teachers’ contract also makes it difficult to reward individual teachers for outstanding performance.

Declare an educational emergency and establish receivership for the district

In 2015, New York added a new provision to state education law that permits the Department of Education to designate a school as “persistently struggling” and allows the local Board of Education to appoint a receiver, empowered to implement a school improvement plan. If the receiver appointed by the board does not achieve established goals, the state may appoint a receiver who is independent of the local board and who reports directly to the commissioner of education.

A change in governance is not a panacea and will not erase generations of dysfunctional policies and culture. Yet the time for incremental change has come and gone. It is time for the commissioner to declare an “educational emergency.” Is there any less urgent word to describe the consequences for generations of Rochester children?

An emergency declaration should be followed by legislation that extends the receivership concept to “persistently struggling” districtsand appoints a temporary Receiver Board to replace the Rochester Board of Education. 

  • A simple change in governance without enhanced authority is likely to be ineffective. Adding an additional layer of oversight, mandating the creation of endless “improvement plans,” and demanding more frequent reporting will simply add wasteful bureaucracy. The Receiver Board would be snared by the same web of overlapping powers currently hindering constructive change. To counter or prevent this, the following are examples of powers that will be required:
    • During the period of receivership, the Receiver Board and the superintendent it appoints should be granted enhanced powers to deploy teachers. Although the Rochester Teachers Association’s “living contract” empowers changes at a building level with the approval of 80 percent of teachers, this is insufficient if districtwide change is required.
    • Although districtwide reform is essential, the success of individual schools established under the state’s charter law should not be discounted. Rochester’s charter schools have posted steadily improving outcomes even as they educate an increasing share of Rochester’s children (about 30 percent of 8thgraders currently). The Receiver Board and superintendent should be granted the power to charter new schools and encouraged to use this authority to seek to convert existing schools to charter status.
    • In keeping with research demonstrating the contribution of socioeconomic mixing to student achievement, the Receiver Board’s authority should also permit the creation of socioeconomically-diverse magnet schools aimed at enrolling both city and suburban students. 
  • Receivership should be time-limited. That said, the time period must be of sufficient duration to have a chance of success, perhaps five to 10 years. Neither the current stakeholders—teachers, administrators and parents–nor community leaders will accept an indefinite loss of local control. Nor should they.
  • During the period of receivership, the community should explore the nature of local control when the period of receivership ends. If a resumption of local control is by election, the problem of relying on the low-turnout primaries must be addressed. Alternative models should also be considered, including a board that is partly appointed and partly elected. An exploration of government models should be built into a transition plan as part of the receivership legislation.
  • The critical role of building principals should also be acknowledged. Although this would likely be vigorously opposed by organized labor, the Receiver Board and its appointed superintendent should devolve sufficient authority to building principals to justify removing them from the bargaining unit and improving their level of accountability to the administration. This would likely entail devolving expanded budgetary authority and discretion over teacher deployment and reward.
  • Finally, the Receiver Board and superintendent must be held accountable for the effective use of powers already within administrative control. RTA president Adam Urbanski rightly observes that the district leadership has long failed to employ the powers at its disposal.

Massachusetts’ experience with receivership, best documented in Lawrence, could be a model. Under Massachusetts receivership, the commonwealth’s commissioner of elementary & secondary education appoints a receiver. The receiver appointed in Lawrence in 2012, Jeff Riley, was given sweeping powers to redeploy teachers and administrators. In addition to the combined powers of the superintendent and the board, Riley also had the power to amend or suspend aspects of collective bargaining agreements. Riley stepped down in 2018 as administration of the district passed to an appointed board, the Lawrence Alliance for Education. WGBH in Boston has broadcast a profile of the Lawrence achievement. 

Return to neighborhood schools

For many years, the RCSD has granted parents and students a limited right to select a school. The policy was instituted with the best of intentions. 

We economists are guilty of applying the logic of markets to all spheres of human existence. “Surely it will work in the schools,” we said. “After all, if poor-performing schools lose students, the leadership at these schools will react to stem the tide, and emulate the practices of their more successful peers.” Sorry, fellow dismal scientists, this has been dismal failure.

The second argument in favor of school choice is based on a simple claim to fairness: If the “best” schools are in the “best” neighborhoods, then we’ve consigned children in poverty to our worst schools. 

Sadly, instead of raising the bar for all schools, the consequence of Rochester’s school choice policy, albeit unintended, has been to impoverish most of them. 

We forget that parents’ choices extend beyond the city boundary. The centrally-managed placement process has created a significant level of uncertainty for parents. As our children only go through school once, we’re understandably reluctant to leave the school-quality issue to chance.

Falling barriers to suburban housing for people of color, combined with the quality of Monroe County’s suburban districts, has supercharged what Own Rochester’s Kate Washington calls “green flight.” Many middle-class families of all races and ethnicities choose to flee the city, at least until their children complete high school.

Consider the map (below) of the residences of students attending School No. 8 in 2015.  The blue polygon shows the natural catchment area of the school. The dispersion of students across the city is not unique to No. 8—every school draws from nearly every neighborhood in the city. See a full set of maps here.

Students attend School No. 8 from every part of Rochester.

The consequences of such dispersion cannot be overestimated. The value of having parents involved in their children’s educations is well-documented (and, frankly, just common sense). Given the busy lives of many of our parents, particularly those who struggle economically and work multiple jobs, getting to a nearby school is difficult enough. Particularly if the family has limited or no access to a car, attending school events is difficult for most and impossible for some when the school is far from home. 

Community schools?

Our public schools can serve a larger function for the city as focal points of neighborhoods through the “community schools” model. Yet it is difficult to believe that this approach can be broadly successful when a school’s students come from every corner of the city.

Bus all children

Under New York law, Rochester city students are expected to walk to and from school if they live within 1.5 miles of their school. This rule (which is not in place in the suburbs, where almost every child is bused by their school district), supports the dispersion of children to schools throughout the community. Some parents, particularly those living at the edge of the 1.5-mile limit, select a distant school simply to ensure that their child is bused. The busing policy should not serve as an incentive for parents to select a school outside their neighborhood. All students should be offered bus service.

State law sets the 1.5-mile limit as the threshold for the receipt of transportation aid (with some exceptions by age, disability and safety considerations). Some in the RCSD’s Central Office believe that the added cost of busing every child would be offset by a reduction in the number of children being bused to distant schools, at least after a transition period. The state Legislature should pass a special provision for Rochester that would provide the district’s transportation aid as a block grant without regard to the 1.5-mile radius. 

Regents and legislators: The time has come to act

New York’s constitution makes education a state responsibility, only delegated to local government. If this problem could be fixed by local action in Rochester, surely one of the endless string of community initiatives would have made some headway. Our children deserve bold action in the Legislature with the vigorous and vocal support of the state Board of Regents. 

6 thoughts on “Breaking the cycle of failure in Rochester’s schools

  1. This community must first declare that it has failed these children, certainly the Board is responsible but We all share in this failure as we continue to allow thousands of children to enter into these schools every year knowing that no better than half will graduate and many of those that graduate are not up to par with their surburban counterparts. Only then can we move forward. So I applaud these recommendations and encourage more dramatic changes to help support a dramatically different approach to this Community responsibility. Change will take time, will be resisted and challenged, but if not us, then who, if not now, then when. We have seen many task forces and blue ribbon committees , this community is Report rich but implementation short. Let’s change that and demand systemic change through a comprehensive plan that includes clear community reporting on progress or failures and clear accountability measures. Enough is enough.

  2. As a former City Councilman, I have watched with dismay as the City School District has simply deteriorated. The City will never regain its pride and vitality as long as anyone with children of school age flees (if they can) to the suburbs. I have seen good people come as Superintendent and get ground up by school boards that don’t understand their role and some of whom are, frankly, not qualified to be School Board members. I’m sorry, but being a parent does not qualify you for the School Board! I agree with Kent Gardiner – drastic action is needed! The State must step in and appoint an overseer with the power to change things. And it needs to be done NOW! And please don’t tell me the need is for more money! They waste millions and (as Kent noted), it starts with the Board itself!

  3. I don’t see any mention of the East High UofR initiative. Are there programs/initiatives that are proving effective and can aid in the discussion?

    • Shaun Nelms, Superintendent of East High, will be participating in our May 13 forum. We’re also working with him to post a progress report before then. My concern is that “receivership” in NYS only applies to schools, not districts. This entire district should be in receivership.

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