OCHESTER, N.Y. -- Saying that parents of schoolchildren should be treated like "customers," the Rochester City School District is proposing an unusual measure: to use parents' opinions in the formal evaluation of teachers.
Rochester officials want parents to fill out surveys once a year for each of their child's teachers, answering questions about how adept the teacher seems to be at instructing their child and how thoroughly the teacher informs parents about the child's progress.
The principal and other administrators would take the surveys into account when evaluating the teacher's performance, a rating that could affect whether the teacher receives the contractually negotiated pay raise that year or a desirable teaching assignment.
Education experts said the use of parent surveys in teacher evaluation, which even leaders of the Rochester teachers union conceded was likely to be adopted in some form, appears to be unprecedented nationally. But they said it reflected a national drive to find ways to improve student achievement, especially in struggling city school systems, by linking teacher compensation and rewards more directly to how well students do.
"It would encourage teachers to contact the family, take the time to sit down with the parents," said Emily Wurtz, a senior education associate at the National Education Goals Panel in Washington. "If there's a teacher that is really not very good with people, it could give the school system an objective way to bring this to their attention."
On the other hand, she added, "the possibilities for abuse are pretty obvious. It has the potential for encouraging a popularity race."
Rochester officials said their intent was to make the schools more accountable to the parents of its 36,000 students. They also said the surveys might encourage more parents to become actively involved in their children's schooling.
"The parent is the customer," said Augustin Melendez, the supervising director of human resources for the Rochester district. "Why not have a quantifiable mechanism to tell us whether what we're doing is working or not? This could notch up the performance level a little bit and get teachers to improve. I see it as a dramatic thing, but I see it as an essential element to improve teaching in an urban setting."
The district, which made national headlines 10 years ago when it raised teachers' salaries to the highest levels of any city in the country, is known nationally for making many bold innovations in its schools.
The parent survey proposal is now the subject of heated discussion in Rochester, and the debate over issues like who would design the surveys and who would collect them is holding up an agreement on a new contract for teachers, who have been working without one for a year.
District officials want a standard survey form to be developed by a central committee of teachers, administrators and parents. The union wants each school to develop its own.
The union also wants teachers to collect the survey forms and turn them in to principals and administrators as part of a larger portfolio of work for evaluation. District officials said they want a way to ensure that administrators receive every survey filled out by parents, whoever collects the surveys.
The union wants the survey questions to deal exclusively with the teacher's relationship with parents; district officials want to allow other questions, including parents' observations about student progress and the teacher's professionalism.
Union president Adam Urbanski said the district's proposals were "fraught with dangers" and "predicated on the assumption that teachers are not to be trusted and that anyone walking off the street can influence the work of these professionals."
Urbanski, a colorful veteran just re-elected to his ninth two-year term, said he feared that most of the parents who would take the time to fill out the survey would be those with complaints. He said parents with criticisms or concerns about teachers could convey them directly to principals, as they do now, in letters or phone calls.
In their proposal, district officials are trying to address a concern that parents will edit their survey remarks to avoid angering their child's teacher.
"We want parents to have legitimate input to the administrators who evaluate teachers," said Louis Kash, the district's chief counsel and chief contract negotiator. The district and the union are in mediation over the issue.
However the specifics are resolved, the proposal goes well beyond the way other school districts tap parent sentiment, experts said.
Some schools ask parents to fill out general questionnaires about the school. Some teachers ask for written parent reaction or suggestions. A few districts, including Rochester, now require teachers to demonstrate that they have made efforts to keep parents informed.
The Rochester proposal comes out of a recent strain of thinking in education circles that business concepts like customer satisfaction and "total quality management" can be translated to schools.
"In many companies, it's not uncommon for the company to ask, 'How's your customer service?' or 'What's the quality of the product?' " said Gary Marx, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "We're dealing with human beings here, not products of course, but still I think there are ways we can learn from the people we serve."
Rochester officials have not yet drawn up the proposed survey or determined how much weight it would get. "Obviously, if we get only three surveys back from parents and they were all negative, we wouldn't rely only on those," Melendez said.
"We view it as a two-way street," said Lynn Coffey-Edelman, who, as parent negotiator, represents parent concerns on the district's contract negotiating team. "There are teachers who every year have the same problems -- they're too touchy-feely, they just give out dittos and don't do anything -- and yet those teachers are still there.
"There are parents who are not a part of their child's schooling and they need to be," she added. "The parents who tend not to talk to teachers tend to have kids that are not doing well."
At the end of the school year, the view from School Number 9 in Rochester was mixed.
Number 9 is on the state Education Department's watch list of poorly performing schools, meaning the state could strip its education license if more children don't learn to read better. In the last few years, a new principal and more experienced teachers have helped turn things around, but they say they still need more parents to take an active role.
Rachel Brown, a third-grade teacher, said she sends a progress report to each parent every month and keeps a log of every contact she has with a parent. But she said she worried that under the district's plan, parents -- in bypassing the teacher and sending surveys directly to the principal -- might criticize a teacher's technique without understanding it.
Irene Ingram, a vice principal, said meetings between administrators and parents might be more productive than surveys, because parents with literacy problems or stress-filled lives -- 85 percent of the children in the school are poor enough to qualify for a free school lunch -- might not fill them out.
On Take Your Parent to School Day recently, Essie Pitts, who is raising her niece, Melissa Mosley, a third-grader in Ms. Brown's class, said parent surveys "might get parents more involved, but if they don't know what they're talking about it could be bad for the teacher."
In another third-grade class, Thaddeus Bentley, who was reading his son Joshua Gibson's essay, "My New Sneakers," expressed the same sense of ambivalence.
"I think the teachers know their job," said Bentley, who works for a company that shrink-wraps books and magazines. "I don't feel I need to be judging a teacher."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company