The Rocky Road of School Reform
Peter McWalters reflects on the educational changes he helped cultivate in Rochester, N.Y.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — AS superintendent of the Rochester (N.Y.) City School District, Peter McWalters has helped coax this urban district down the rocky road of reform. It has been one of the most closely watched urban education reform initiatives in the United States.This former social studies teacher took the helm of Rochester's 33,000-student district in 1985. In collaboration with Adam Urbanski, the local teachers' union president, Mr. McWalters has worked to raise teacher salaries and increase accountability. McWalters spoke with the Monitor just before leaving Rochester to become Rhode Island's commissioner of education. Why did you decide to leave your position here? ... It has something to do with the fact that I'm really beginning to understand the nature of this [educational] change that we're trying to go through as a country and as a city. There are roles to be played at the school level, at a district level, at the state level, and at the federal level. And of those right now ... the state plays the biggest role in whether or not we're going to move toward an outcomes-driven system or a highly regulated system. Why do you view the state's role as so powerful right now? ... We can talk about the school having more and more authority to make decisions it needs to make. But issues of teacher certification, the minutes a subject is required, the test that's administered by the state, the number of days in a school year - those decisions lock the system in in a way that makes some of this discussion about local decisionmaking really marginal. So I thought at the state level I could really contribute to the freeing up of the Rochester agenda. What is that agenda or the story that you have traveled around the country to tell? That this community over a period of time - before I was superintendent - through the politics of parents and community players confronted the institution with its own failure and started an honest discussion that "It's not working." That happened in the early '80s.... I came into an environment of community support for substantive and radical change. I didn't cause it; I was part of a much longer process. ... There are people who think that this whole thing is based on my leadership of the institution cooperating with Adam's leadership and vision as a union leader. You don't think that's a valid view? Oh no.... Most of what we've done was worked out in strategic agendas with the Board of Education before Adam and I would go to the table. It's a little bit too easy to make this all a people thing. How do you guarantee that the highest paid teachers here are really earning their pay? There's still this mythology that they're the highest paid teachers in the country. They're not? They're not even the highest paid teachers in the county. They never were. The much-touted $70,000 teacher salary isn't a reality? The $70,000 figure was accurate within $2,000 when it was stated, but it wasn't a real person. It was a conception.... What we did was stop dealing with teacher settlements as if we were apologizing for them and confronted the community and the nation with the real costs to see if people believed teachers were worth it.... Some people say that you can't professionalize teaching as long as there are teacher unions - that they are simply contradictions. That's a real strategic decision - to either do it over and around the union or to do it with them and through them.... You have lots of schools playing on the periphery. They're not changing any of the major variables - time, space, case loads, strategies, supervision, investment - because as soon as you touch something real you're going to bump right into your union. So you either decide up front that you're going to play on the margin, or that you're going to war eventually. Or you invite the union to the table in the beginning and say, "Folks, we're in a dying enterprise. The data's pretty clear. Do you want to join me in an adventure to change the nature of our business or not?" That's what you did? Yes, and I happen to have a union leader that said "Absolutely." I haven't seen bad faith there. We still fight around the contract, ... we still fight about admininstration, we still fight about lots of things. But we fundamentally agree on the issue of teachers being accountable for standards. But what if you don't have a union that is willing to work with you? ... What I come up against when I leave Rochester is an observation that my union is special because my union is willing to accept the beginnings of this discussion of being responsible and accountable. Nobody else seems to have this union. But when I probe it a little bit, people think that it's been a one-sided discussion here. When I introduce the giving up of authority, the changing of the role of superintendent, that's not desirable. I don't have a lot of colleagues - superintendents, principals, boards of education - who want their roles to change. They simply want the union to change. But some people say you've been co-opted by the union. Many people. The biggest criticism is that I have compromised the office of the superintendent. How do you respond? That if somebody didn't think that the office of the superintendent was going to change in its relationship and its role, then they didn't understand where we were going.... I have absolutely changed the nature of this office. But what happens when you leave? Well, we're going to find out whether the whole thing is people or whether those are institutional changes.... One of the classic dilemmas of the problem is that many educational players really think that politics is dirty, it gets in the way. They think they're in a rational management business. And yet we're in a people business, sorted out by communities that represent a national value system. ... It's very hard to represent a system that says all children can learn and will be measured by equal outcomes when more than half of both the administrators and teachers don't live in the city and really would not send their children to schools that they would work in. Some people would argue for getting rid of those out-of-touch, ineffective teachers and finding better ones. Absolutely. But there's no magic. If I emptied the schools out next week and put all new people in there and nothing else changed, they would re-create yesterday real quick. Most teachers - whenever they got hired - went through a time when they thought kids were important and they worked for kids and tried to do things for kids. And this institution that we created together beat 'em up. What would you like to be known for as you leave here? Probably that I was part of this collaborative effort to set high standards for all kids, not just some kids.... Whether we've done it or not is almost academic; we clearly haven't. But I'd like to think that I'd be remembered as having the integrity of staying with it.