Explaining, not excusing, Buffalo Schools’ low test scores - The Buffalo News

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Explaining, not excusing, Buffalo Schools’ low test scores

With all due respect to John King, the state Department of Education and its Results ’R Us bureaucracy: I think you are the ones in denial.

The state ed commissioner lashed out this week, in a conference call with The Buffalo News editorial board, against those who use socioeconomics to explain – or, in his mind, to excuse – the abysmal performance in many city schools.

Having written recently about the Sisyphean task of teaching classes stuffed with poor kids – many of them from busted families or foreign lands – I am presumably among those King had in mind.

I will politely remind him of the difference between an excuse, which this is not, and an explanation, which it is. King knows as well as anyone that stacks of research connect a kid’s situation at home to how he or she does in school.

The way I see it, unless people understand the larger forces that feed lousy test scores, low graduation rates and rampant absenteeism, they will keep shooting at the wrong targets. And confusing Band-Aids with remedies. I have heard bright people talk about how “bad” teachers must be in Buffalo – teachers who have the same advanced degrees as their suburban counterparts – or how backward the instruction, or how dysfunctional the Board of Ed, or how clueless the superintendent.

Granted, some teachers, board members and superintendents are better than others. But Buffalo’s “failing” schools and bottom-feeder graduation rates are common to virtually every poverty-afflicted district across the country. Something clearly is sabotaging kids’ performance beyond any particular district’s policies or personnel. Judging inner-city schools on one-size-fits-all test scores all but guarantees “failure,” while codifying unfairness.

Which does not absolve Buffalo’s lax administration, its often-disconnected board or its reform-stifling rules. The way the teachers’ union protests classroom breakfast cleanup and defends a luxury like cosmetic surgery numbs the brain. The administration’s absurd unwillingness to give Johns Hopkins University a free hand with two “failing” schools is typical of its cling-to-power mentality. There is no getting around it: In endlessly inventive and mind-boggling ways, district leaders have for years insisted on being their own – and the kids’ – worst enemy.

Such myopic hardheadedness is what opened the door to charter schools. Under enlightened leadership, which is not always the case, I think charters have the flexibility to better meet the emotional, social and academic needs of many kids. Yet even the charter school revolution hasn’t much moved the inner-city school performance needle.

If you want to know why, ask any inner-city cop, social worker or home instruction tutor (my wife, a nonclassroom Buffalo teacher, among them). I have heard countless stories – and seen a few myself – of houses where kids are barely spoken to, much less read to. Where there is not a book to be seen, including a coloring book. Where a blaring TV doubles as a baby sitter. Where kids grow up without leaving the neighborhood, much less going on a vacation. What ought to be seen as a national crisis is instead shrugged off as a fact of life.

But ignoring reality does not make it go away.

“Failing” urban schools, to my mind, are largely a symptom of a society that essentially warehouses its poor and broken families in inner cities. The concentration of poverty and problems only intensifies the dysfunction.

The roadblocks of home and car ownership, along with high rents and little lower-income housing, have for decades barred poor people – many of them minorities – from upscale suburbs and their schools, which predictably are not on any “failing” list. It is not mainly a matter of “better” superintendents, principals and teachers. It is because those schools are filled with the offspring of higher-income, college-educated parents. It’s a built-for-test-success clientele. If you are blind to that reality, whether your name is John King or John Doe, I think you are missing the larger picture.

Reformers from regionalism guru David Rusk to economic-integration advocate Richard Kahlenberg say the only way the school dynamic changes is by lightening urban America’s load of poor people. That happens either by busing kids to economically balanced schools, or by building more mixed-income housing in the ’burbs. I don’t see either happening here anytime soon. The walls already are up, and they’re high.

Just because the barriers are invisible does not mean they do not exist. Those “walls” explain a lot, for those who can get their minds off of test scores.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com

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