It’s time to fix RCSD’s structural racism

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Rochester’s Commission on Racial and Structural Equity recently issued “No Time for Excuses: It’s Time for Action,”257 pages presenting the conclusions from its efforts to identify institutional and structural barriers and practices that maintain or promote racism or inequitable outcomes for people living in Rochester. There were many excellent recommendations, but the impact of one key city institution seems to have been largely overlooked.

Bryan Hickman

Structural racism may be defined as a system in which public policies, institutions, cultural representations, and other norms work to perpetuate racial group inequity. It is a feature of the social, economic, institutional and political systems within which people carry on their daily lives and work. The people perpetuating such systems may not be racist, but for reasons of perceived self-interest, misplaced perceptions of the public good, or simply obliviousness, may cling to and defend a system that generates racially inequitable outcomes. 

It would seem that the Rochester City School District fits this definition perfectly. Although unintentional and not by conscious design, the system has operated for more than three decades in such a way as to leave a very large proportion of its mostly Black and Latinx students undereducated and ill-prepared to rise into the middle class and take their place as fully productive citizens. Only 13 percent of its students test proficient in reading and math, only 53 percent graduate with a Regents diploma, and almost one third don’t graduate at all. This has helped to perpetuate Rochester’s status as one of the poorest cities in America. 

Structural means that the current performance is built into the system and that the system itself needs to be changed. 

■ Over more than 30 years, a dozen intelligent, skilled district superintendents have failed to bring about substantial improvements in student outcomes. The system doesn’t let them and the school board doesn’t hire them to do so. Terry Dade, a former superintendent, quit in disgust when his efforts were blocked. The dispersal of authority and responsibility among the state Legislature, Education Department, Board of Regents, local school board, district headquarters, union leaders, etc., makes strong leadership and bold action difficult. Principals have little authority over hiring, teacher placement or budgets and have difficulty building and maintaining strong teams.   

The one bright spot is that the district’s current superintendent, Leslie Myers-Small, seems up to the task. She needs all of us to give her our support and political cover to make the big changes needed. A “state monitor” is in place with the power to veto bad decisions by the school board and help force through some of the needed changes. If we miss this opportunity, we are unlikely to get another soon.

■ Thousands of good, dedicated teachers go home every day frustrated that they spent their day on bureaucratic mandates and handling undisciplined students instead of being able to teach, since the rigid system prevents them from instituting the positive school cultures that successful schools use to create a nurturing learning environment. They feel they have little support from administrators or the public. Frustration has led to a feeling of helplessness; many have bought into the destructive notion that children living in poverty can’t learn and that the low performance of the system is inevitable and acceptable. 

■ Professional training and development are woefully lacking. The system suffers from inbreeding—no outside ideas are tolerated—and allows low-performing schools of education to continue feeding our schools with poorly prepared teachers. Licensing rules make it hard for bright, academically superior people who have actually mastered various subject matters to enter the teaching profession without being indoctrinated into the policies, procedures and attitudes of the failing system. New teachers receive little coaching and work in isolation. Tenure is given perfunctorily to almost all teachers. By contrast, high-performing schools across the country give their teachers intensive coaching, have them work in teams to improve effectiveness, and quickly weed out the low performers.

■ There is no real accountability for performance. Pay is based on seniority, not merit. Few are dismissed for poor performance, and nearly all teachers are given excellent ratings based on cursory observations and in disregard of their students’ poor academic growth. Schools are allowed to fail for decades without being subject to new leadership teams, significant reforms, or closure.

■ The system has been corrupted because politicians depend upon union contributions to maintain their positions and then cave to union demands for laws protecting the current system. Example: In New York, when a public union contract expires it continues in effect, with cost-of- living raises until a new one is agreed upon. This makes it almost impossible to negotiate needed changes. 

Given these realities, is this not a glaring example of structural racism—staring us in the face but unacknowledged as such in our public discussions—defended, funded and perpetuated by our government and civic leaders? Isn’t a good education the only surefire route out of poverty? Why is this route not being provided to our city’s children?

Fortunately, the RASE Commission’s report offers a partial route out of these difficulties—at least enough to start us in the right direction. It suggests five “systemic solutions”:

1. Create and invest in sustainable economic opportunities in Black and Latinx communities.

The RCSD is a major employer, both directly and indirectly through its purchases, spending more than $1.2 billion a year, including construction projects. This should offer a huge economic opportunity to Black and Latinx communities. The structural problem is that many laws and union provisions make it very difficult to reorganize or to eliminate poor performers in order to make room for new hiring of minority teachers and staff. 

2. Implement and incentivize practices and programs that increase racial/ethnic diversity and cultural competence of employees. 

Currently, 80 percent of the district’s teaching staff is white; most live in the suburbs and may have difficulty understanding the cultural norms of their students. Cultural sensitivity training of all adults in the system is urgently needed in addition to hiring more people of color.

3. End practices that disproportionately drain resources from Black and Latinx communities.

Nothing would stop the drain of resources from these groups faster than improving the school system.

4. Decentralize services and embed them in trusted agencies throughout the community.

The city took a small step in this direction five years ago when it established East High and Middle Schools as independent entities with far more autonomy than other district schools, and a separate union contract. This could be replicated. Other cities, such as Indianapolis, have established multiple “innovation schools,” taking failing schools from the district and moving them to more autonomous operation with more accountability. 

Rochester’s charter schools now educate 24 percent of the K-12 public school students and are taking more each year. Parents want them. These schools have their own school boards and governance systems and are given considerable autonomy to hire, fire, train and teach—exactly the sort of approach the commission calls for. The charter schools are carefully regulated and assessed by the state Education Department. They outperform the RCSD on every measure of student achievement by a large measure (3:1 on reading and math proficiency rates, 2:1 on Regents graduation rates).

Some of the charter schools are distinctly mediocre and all need to improve, but even the lower-performing ones do better than many of the district schools. Given time, their autonomy combined with accountability will lead to the improvement of the better charter schools and weeding out of the poorly performing ones. If the district system cannot be overhauled, growing the charter sector as a parallel system would seem an obvious route to take. As documented in a study by the Fordham Institute, in the 17-plus cities with more than 33 percent of their students in charter schools, the Black and Latinx students do better in both charter schools and district schools (which finally catch on and start changing).

5. Embed accountability measures in all policies to ensure equity and fairness.

Charter schools are judged against a comprehensive performance framework and closed if they fall short. Such a system is needed for the district schools. There are many flaws in the standardized tests, but when good teaching is applied to a strong, culturally appropriate curriculum, a good test tells a lot about how well the students are doing. If a child can’t read, changing the assessment system won’t help. Massachusetts underwent major reforms 20 years ago, combining improved curriculum with better teacher training, periodic teacher recertification, and improved tests, with the result that their students consistently score more than 10 percentage points higher on NAEP tests than New York’s students. It took a coalition of civic leaders, business people, legislators, parents and others to bring this about. 

Much more could be said about possible solutions. One thing is clear. The situation cannot be remedied by minor tweaks to the present system, because the problem is indeed structural. 

Nearly a decade ago, Jada Williams, an eighth grader in the RCSD, wrote an essay after reading one of Frederick Douglass’ books. The book told her that slave owners didn’t teach slaves to read as a way of keeping them down. She wrote that half of the students in her classroom couldn’t read, and she asked whether the school system was doing the same thing to our city’s children. As reported in the local press, the upshot was that her teachers punished her severely for daring to raise the issue. 

The children can see what is going on and so can we, yet as in the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the adults in our city all avoid speaking up for fear of having their heads chopped off. Isn’t it time for all of us in the Rochester region to engage in an honest conversation and join together to take action? Why is the civic and business leadership in Rochester silent? Improving the education of our city’s children is a solvable challenge. It would go a long way toward mitigating the impacts of racism in our city.

Bryan Hickman is a retired businessman who has devoted the past 10 years to helping charter schools (and offering to help district schools), based in part on his experience assisting bankrupt companies come back to success.

13 thoughts on “It’s time to fix RCSD’s structural racism

  1. This analysis of structural racism fails to acknowledge the role our segregated school system plays in creating inequality. People who continue to shine a light on the rcsd and its shortcomings, like this author, without critically examining the school system in our county as a whole are actually perpetuating the racist structures. White men with experience in other industries working to create charter schools for children other than thier own and do nothing to dismantle the inequitable system that hordes wealth in the suburbs are not doing the world the service they think they are. Their medicore efforts as amateurs are overhyped due to their wealth, whiteness, and gender. While outside ideas are needed, people listen and are willing to be reflective of their own role in it are needed even more.

  2. “What, me WORRY?” (Alfred E. Neuman, MAD Magazine)
    Please, if you can, add these words of “wisdom.

    I think this should be the motto of Rochester City Schools.
    They keep on going, ignoring the most basic remedies for saving failing students.
    For example, they might use simple slogans, like this one, to remind themselves of neglect.

    In an earlier post, I suggested watching the 10minute BORED of EDUCATION, 1936 movie.
    All it would take is 10 minutes of Dr. Lesli Myers-Small’s precious time to watch it, and learn.
    If she does not have 10 minutes here is an edited, 6minute version, on YouTube: BORED of EDUCATION 1936

    We can learn from this Oscar winning film how a teacher put her foot down and turned things
    around. She did not let things slide. She acted and you see the results.

    Dr. Lesli Myers-Small’s name ends with SMALL. Surely, there are many SMALL changes
    that RCSD could try, to make BIG differences, by listening to criticisms and by ACTION..

  3. Competition – thankfully, RCSD is being forced to compete with charter schools for students. RCSD will either work diligently to improve or it will continue to lose market share and ultimately wither. Increasing charter school enrollment combined with private sector interest in funding charter school growth serve as a blaring alarm system for RCSD decision-makers. Take note of the alarm.

  4. The non RCSD districts compared to the Rochester district are doing fine. They collectively bargain, purchase goods and services and select teacher candidates the same as the RCSD. Then why the disparity of outcomes. Of the eight non RCSD districts the average number of students is around 8,000 compared to around 27,000 in the city district. Could the problems with the RCSD be functions of leadership, organization and politics? Could it be that the educational responsibilities of the teachers are not supported by the Downtown administrative body? The RCSD leadership seems to be looking for their next job. The current group seems to be beholden to politicians and “community leaders” rather than students, parents and the community at large.
    Instead of persecuting the teachers who are doing all they can to hold their schools together, the community should be supporting them and not replacing them through the elimination of collective bargaining and affirmative action tokenism. The expression, “lead, follow or get out of the way” should be directed to the group on Broad Street.

  5. As Beacon readers consider the dismal performance of the city schools, it may help to recall the 1987 action summarized in a New York Times headline (8/23/1987), “Big Raises Agreed on for Rochester Teachers.” As a Rochester resident in that era, I recall the commitments made and the national recognition received. The tragic fact is that the following decades have only produced failing results for students.
    The 1987 action was, however, a success if the measure is the transfer of wealth from taxpayers to RCSD teachers and staff. In a 2019 Beacon article, I explained that Monroe County annual K-12 education cost is $660 million higher than it would be if per pupil cost was comparable to a sample of booming metros in the South.
    While there are certainly talented teachers in RCSD, the system’s performance is both terrible and expensive. I will leave it to others to address the difficult question of solutions. Clearly, bad performance and high cost is a combination that no one should tolerate.
    There have been many RCSD superintendents and school board members since 1987 when superintendent Peter McWalters was part of the decision to approve the 40% raise reported in the NY Times article.
    There is one person representing the interests of one stakeholder group that is unchanged from 1987. The NY Times quoted Dr. Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, “I wanted to make a statement in these negotiations – that unionism and professionalism are not exclusive.”
    Considering the results, the statement actually made by Dr. Urbanski is that he has no accountability for student performance.

  6. Bryan, hello.
    Like so many before you, you have left out the most significant problem in the district. That is: the lack of sound foundational literacy skills in grades K-4 as measured by listening to children read, reading with them, taping their reading progress, reading their writing, asking them to retell a story, asking them to explain something, and having them do simple listening activities. Address this literacy problem from day one, and many of the district’s academic challenges will disappear.

    What does it take to accomplish this objective: Every person who works with children in grades K-4 must be an expert literacy teacher. That means from the principals on down, all staff members [paid & volunteer] must have a deep understanding of early literacy development with urban children. All staff members must have the same set of literacy skills and have worked together to achieve results beyond their expectations.

  7. Thanks for making these excellent points, Bryan. Basic literacy and numeracy are necessary (if not always sufficient) to reducing existing racial/ethnic disparities in income, wealth and health among Rochester families in poverty.
    The data show that most (although not all) of the public charter schools been doing a far better job of providing Rochester’s children with these basic skills than Board of Education-run schools. The resistance of both RTA and the Board of Education to the continued expansion of charters and to greater cooperation between the charters and the BoE is regrettable and should change. Moreover, the recommendations of the state-appointed monitors deserve to be implemented faithfully.
    There are no easy or quick solutions to the structural inequities that have been created over decades. But there is no intervention more important than the RCSD.

  8. It’s a status quo system by design. A system where many of the perpetrators rely on the ignorance and cultural crisis of the so-called black community to sustain their status quo agendas…

  9. MOTIVATION is key to school success, and I think this is an area where RCSD needs help.
    There are all kinds of motivational ideas and tools, available. For example, see YouTube.

    BORED of EDUCATION is a classic on student motivation, from 1936. It won an Oscar.
    It has some racist parts, but I think the lesson is very well put. School bored has cures.

    (Some students, teachers, parents, and others might benefit from the ideas of the film) BORED of EDUCATION 10 min.

  10. If I were a teacher with normal abilities, of course I would want good pay, good benefits and fair treatment by my employer. But beyond that, I would want to be in a school with a culture of competence, success, and teamwork where I would get the good training and support to be a really excellent teacher. I would want the school to establish clear rules for behavior for children and adults, consistently enforced but in a positive way, and a discipline system based more on love and caring than punishment. This would be the foundation for student success. The last thing I would want is for my union to focus on protecting the jobs of the small number of incompetent or lazy teachers who pass their uneducated students on to me, making my job much harder. The question is whether the political dynamics of the union would allow visionary leaders to emerge who could make the teachers union a truly professional organization helping to make the RCSD the best performing urban school district in the country instead of the worst. If so, there is hope. If not, then a parallel system needs to be established to displace the broken one.
    My modest experience in turning around bankrupt companies is that the “average employee” can actually be very good, given good leadership and training. For that reason, I never had to blame or fire the people in the bankrupt company; the problem had been poor leadership and management. The answer was to fully involve the entire workforce in the turnaround and show them how their jobs could be more fulfilling (and easier) if the right changes were made. The RCSD is “functionally bankrupt” in that it is not carrying out its mission, but most of the people in the system are good, capable people stuck in a badly structured system. The same approach to turnaround should work there as well, with the right union leadership.

    • Your experience does not appear to be relative to the experience at hand. The district involves three BARGAINING units: support, administrators and teachers. Intrinsic in the bargaining process is the fact that, given the laws of the State of NY and it’s regulations, everything can be bargained. Blaming the union leadership misses the point. There are two sides to negotiating contracts. One side takes its positions. The other side takes theirs. If the district wants concessions from the teachers, they must offer something in exchange, and Vice versa. This is how negotiation works. If the district has given away too much, whose fault is it, Urbanski’s? Except for Bill Cala, there has not been a competent superintendent going back to Mc Walter. Demonizing Urbanski just shows that scapegoating a person doing their job only hides the incompetence of the RCSD leadership.

  11. And more more thought.
    We do not need a paid School Board of misguided agendas and no accountability. No business would sustain the lack of accountability for such poor performance by this Board. The job is educate the students and ensure their graduation. The Board over the past 30 years has continued to receive grades of D’s and F’s! Not passing!
    Based on the condition of education in the RCSD, the Board should be made up of community leaders from Monroe County not just the City. The impact of the pathetic graduation rates and lack of good education have a negative impact on all of Monroe County! Not just City of Rochester. Why not a 3 year term ( with a term limit) to get smart, dedicated people that will serve the interest of students! No pay! Just accountability for improvements!

  12. Well, said, Bryan. One lacking recommendation is to get rid of Adam Urbanski, the Teacher’s Union President. Shameful that during his leadership and misguided power, the graduation rates of students continues to be pathetic and so damaging to our community. We can not longer have his type of single minded teachers only approach —- the district needs well rounded management. Not a silo for teachers, a silo for students, a silo for staff, a silo for parents and a silo for the community. That approach has failed- time to stop Adam’s style – teacher focused decisions..
    The RCSD needs over arching management- not the continuation of Urbanski focusing on TEACHERS FIRST, while leaving the students considered later in the list of priorities.
    The RCSD has one job —- educate the students! Train them to be productive citizens of our community or the communities they live in. FOCUS ON EDUCATING THE STUDENTS- why so hard? It’s so hard because the goal of all parties is not EDUCATE STUDENTS FIRST,

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