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CITY SCHOOL CRITIQUE HAD IT RIGHT: PUT THE FOCUS ON THE BASIC JOB

If nothing else, the new study by outside national educators shows how much Buffalo schools need to improve to achieve higher academic performance. Better still, it offers a road map for getting there from here.

If the managers of city schools, starting with the elected board and Superintendent James Harris, follow that path toward progressive results, the independent study by the team of 14 educators, led by Carolyn Downey, a professor of education at San Diego State University in California, will be worth every dime of the $60,000 it cost.

The ultimate beneficiaries of all the thought and sweat will be the 48,000 students in city schools.

The overriding criticism in the study -- which nicely blended precise criticism with encouragement for change under way -- was this: "School district planning is fragmented and inadequate to focus the organization on achieving its goals."

With the hopeful addition: "Initial planning efforts have begun."

To meet the goals the study recommends, the Buffalo School Board must abandon its ancient habits of trying to micro-manage the system. The board members should step back and look at the larger dimensions and broad policies of public education.

Elected members must focus more intently on the quintessential responsibilities of instruction and academic performance. That job -- along with watching the budget that supports it -- is so overriding that there is no time to waste on smaller-focus problems that staff should be handling.

The schools must plan better. They must bring together diverse and complex programs more coherently.

Once the board has established its priorities, once it has fashioned long-term strategies, it must follow through. It must be consistently sure that its budgets bolster and reflect those priorities and strategies and that money is used efficiently.

Now, the study found, the budget process "lacks clear linkages with organizational goals and priorities."

It is less than half the job to paint beautifully coherent strategies but then let individual programs within the mix and the scarce resources available for them to fly off in different directions. Inattentive drift kills the best of intentions.

But again, there was some good news to balance. Some work has begun along these lines by Harris, who took over in mid-1996, and the board.

High middle-level administrators need to be rearranged, doing less of what they do now and more of what they don't do now, such as working more effectively with a key element of any school system, its school principals. Training and performance review, virtually meaningless now, of teachers must be overhauled.

The study stresses the imperative of improved reading programs directed at specific targets. It is unacceptable that reading scores for black students generally slump 11 to 17 percent below the national norm. Not surprisingly, Downey, who chaired the study, was concerned about the reading scores.

There has been progress on reading, as recorded in third- and sixth-grade state tests taken last May, but more must be done. Children who cannot read are disadvantaged for life.

These findings are nicely timed. The study identified a willingness to change among almost all personnel. It comes as the new Harris administration is picking up steam.

Its emphasis on managing curriculums, stimulating better teaching and raising student performance also dovetails perfectly with Albany's big push for similar progress statewide.

The study put Buffalo's problems in perspective. It's interesting that they are typical of those in many comparable urban systems, but that is no excuse for complacency or drift. It should prod Buffalo to advance beyond the urban pack.

If there is a true willingness and will to change, this study provides an insightful, independent set of guidelines. Now the city schools need the leadership, energy and resolve to get it done.

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