The Rocky Road of School Reform Peter McWalters Reflects on the Educational Changes He Helped Cultivate in Rochester, N.Y

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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. …