Share this article

print logo

Pinnacle dies, but what have we learned?

They tried it all. They reached into a deep tool kit to help kids from battered neighborhoods.

They hired bright, young teachers. They stretched the school day to 5 o'clock. They made sure every kid got art, music and foreign language. They cut summer vacation to a month, so kids remembered what they learned. They had a dress code, to buck up discipline. They limited classes to 20 kids. Look in the Book of Innovations, and Pinnacle is the poster school.

And still -- in the eyes of state Education Department bureaucrats -- it "failed."

State Ed voted this week to pull Pinnacle's charter. After nine years, the Buffalo K-through-8 school will close. The lives of 560 kids, their parents and their teachers will be scrambled. All because of -- you guessed it -- low test scores.

That should sound familiar. State Ed is force-feeding reform -- and dangling a $5.6 million carrot -- to a half-dozen of Buffalo's "failing" traditional public schools because of, yes, low test scores. Pinnacle -- where 9 in 10 kids are lower-income -- has something in common with the district schools under State Ed's microscope: All of them are overstuffed with disadvantaged kids.

I think I see a pattern.

Which gets me to the point: The reforms and creativity that State Ed bureaucrats want from Buffalo's "failing" schools have been practiced for years at Pinnacle. And it still "failed." And that, I think, presents what educators call a teachable moment. Not about the schools, but about State Ed's unreasonable expectations.

When even schools that throw every innovation against the wall "fail," the conclusion is inescapable: The problem with these schools -- whether district or charter -- is not "bad" teachers, "bad" programs or "bad" principals. It is classrooms filled with disadvantaged kids.

That's not me talking. Studies show that key factors in how kids do in school are the income and education level of their parents. As education reformer Alfie Kohn put it, "Non-instructional factors explain most of the [difference] among test scores when schools or districts are compared."

In other words, student performance depends largely on what happens outside the classroom, as well as in it. It's a lesson that State Ed bureaucrats have yet to learn. Stuff an overwhelming number of poor kids -- 4 in 5 Buffalo schoolkids qualify for free lunches -- in the same school, and it is not hard to guess what the test scores will be. Kohn said that force-feeding the test-based standards pushed by State Ed "has approximately the same effect on learning that a noose does on breathing."

I have long carried the flag for charter schools and the bigger tool kit they -- unshackled by union rules -- bring for disadvantaged kids. These kids need all the help they can get, and charters are Gumby-flexible.

When even innovative charters "fail," it underlines the absurdity of measuring inner-city schools by the same test-score yardstick as schools filled with the offspring of college grads. Pinnacle is hardly alone; M&T Bank-backed Westminster and Enterprise are creative charters on State Ed's watch list.

If State Ed wanted to embrace fairness, it would acknowledge the flashing-neon reality and ease up on test scores, or grade schools filled with disadvantaged kids on a curve. Either that or start busing these kids to upscale suburban schools. That would spread throughout the region the challenge of educating needy kids.

We all know how far that idea would get.

Pinnacle was sacrificed on the altar of unreasonable expectations. State Ed bureaucrats can claim a victory for "accountability." But there are 560 kids, their teachers and their parents who just lost.