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What does it say about a school district when one-third of its students have reading or math skills that lag by at least one grade?

That many of its schoolchildren live in poverty.

That too many pupils -- and their parents -- don't take school seriously enough.

And that the school system's standards are lax and some of its practices ineffective.

"What we have here is mediocrity, and mediocrity is just is not good enough," said Catherine Cornbleth, a professor of education and an associate dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo.

As a group and measured by standardized tests, Buffalo elementary and high school students demonstrate about average reading and math skills when compared with students attending big-city schools across the nation.

But in Buffalo and other typical big-city schools, there are three low-achieving students for every two high-achievers. Moreover, students in big-city schools on average earn somewhat lower scores than the national average.

"This is what you would expect of Buffalo because it's a center-city school system with a high proportion of minorities and low-income families," said Robert Nichols, an education professor at the University at Buffalo who helped The Buffalo News analyze standardized test scores.

National studies have found that the race and income of students are the two most significant influences on test scores. Scores generally increase with income, and whites tend to post higher scores than most minority groups.

Nichols said his analysis of Buffalo schools found that family income had a stronger influence than race.

A decline in math scores, especially for high school students, caught his eye, Nichols said. Math scores for elementary pupils have dropped significantly the past four years but still are close to the national average. Average math scores for high school students, however, rank near the bottom third of the nation.

The drop-off in high school math scores is "exceedingly dramatic," Nichols said.

"It's astonishing. It raises serious questions about what's happening," he said.

The drop in test scores comes despite a number of improvements the district has made in its math curriculum in recent years.

The main problem, according to Superintendent Albert Thompson, is that many students have poor math problem-solving skills, which are rooted in poor reading skills. In addition, about 40 percent of high school students, those taking vocational and marketing courses, don't take the more difficult math courses and therefore don't develop those problem-solving skills.

Thompson laments what he considers a decline in reading skills and said that has a lot to do with the district's test scores.

"There are homes you can visit where there are no books, no magazines, no newspapers," he said. "It's tough to develop a desire to read if the environment around you doesn't value reading."

Reading and math scores at individual city schools vary greatly.

Scores at City Honors High School and Frederick Law Olmsted Elementary Schools are "exceptional," Nichols said.

Honors and Olmsted, along with Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, base their enrollment on academic qualifications and cull many of the city's brightest students. Hutch-Tech students also fare well on standardized tests.

Fifteen other elementary and high schools have posted average scores on standardized tests the past four years that place them above national norms. But scores at 47 schools are below national norms. All those schools have students who excel, but even more who have fallen behind and require remedial help.

Poverty is associated with unstable family life. And the two contribute to poor performance in school.

Buffalo's poverty is something that Mayor Masiello frequently refers to in his speeches. Among the statistics he cites: Of the nation's 100 largest cities, Buffalo has the fourth-lowest median income, the sixth-highest ratio of welfare recipients and the eighth-highest percentage of people living in poverty.

An alarming number of children -- up to one-third of kindergartners in some schools -- enter school lacking the basics, according to teachers and principals. They don't recognize numbers or letters. They don't know colors.

Sometimes the children's problems are rooted in physical problems. They were born with problems because their mothers drank excessively or abused drugs while pregnant. Lead poisoning has slowed the mental development of others.

Even more frequent, though, the children lack basic knowledge and skills because of their upbringing. Their parents haven't read to them enough, if at all. They haven't been exposed to art and music. They're overdosed on television.

Poverty has something to do with it, but educators say even many middle-class kids enter kindergarten lacking basic skills. Many others don't get the push from parents as the years go on.

"Parent apathy is a big part of it," said Gregg Hejmanowski, principal at West Hertel Academy in Riverside. "They are so hard-pressed to just get food on the table or have so many problems of their own that school becomes secondary.'

Parents, in effect, send children the message that school isn't important. That plays out in the classroom

"Kids are more difficult to motivate these days," said Judy Falkowski, a fifth-grade teacher at Waterfront Elementary School, on the West Side near downtown.

Motivated children learn in city schools, Thompson insists. But those who aren't motivated struggle, and the district needs more resources to deal with them if they are to improve. Modest achievement levels aren't solely the fault of schoolchildren, however.

The district and politicians who fund it also are partly to blame.

The district lacks the resources to provide enough of the programs that could make a difference.

For example, remedial educators say it would cost another $20 million to provide all the extra instruction needed by students who have posted low reading and math scores.

Others lament that prekindergarten programs are not provided in all schools to help many children who need to catch up.

"We see the difference -- big differences -- in the kids who have not had that year of pre-K," said Marion Mayfield, principal of School 12, an early childhood center. "Most kids need pre-K; the poorer their background, the more they need it."

Joel Weiss, a highly regarded principal who left the Buffalo district last year for a position in Clarence, agreed that lack of money is part of the problem. But he added that the district's status-quo culture is partly to blame.

"There often is no incentive for a teacher or administrator to effect change," he said.

Indeed, many city educators contend that district policies and practices contribute to modest student achievement.

Principals, teachers and parent leaders, in a Buffalo News survey, said:

City schools have lowered their standards to unacceptable levels.

Three-quarters of parents and two-thirds of teachers and principals who responded to The News survey said academic standards are not high enough.

Moreover, 60 percent of teachers and principals and 48 percent of parent leaders said they believe academic standards have been lowered during the past 10 years. Only 13 percent of both groups said standards have been raised.

"Our standards are getting lower and lower because the kids can't learn what we taught even five years ago," said Karen Lang, a fifth-grade teacher at School 57.

Many students are leaving school poorly educated.

Seven in 10 principals and teachers said too many students are failing to acquire the basic skills and knowledge needed to succeed in college or at work. Nine in 10 parent leaders felt the same.

A majority of parents and educators said the situation is getting worse.

"You have to be competent in basic reading and writing in order to succeed in any subject, and I think too many students lack basic English composition skills," said Lisa Baco, a teacher at Cardinal O'Hara High School in the Town of Tonawanda and the mother of two children who attend the Drew Science Magnet.

Teachers and principals cite some particular policies and practices that they feel have hurt education.

The criticisms include:

The failure to adopt innovative teaching practices.

"If kids aren't learning the way we teach, we've got to begin teaching the way they learn," said Thomas Kopera, principal of Burgard Vocational High School. "Lecturing at a podium just doesn't work any more. There has to be active participation."

Disjointed remedial programs to help youngsters learn basic reading and math skills.

The district operates two separate remedial programs that use different staffs and strategies. A more coordinated approach is needed, said Linval Foster, an associate with the state Education Department who monitors the city's schools.

"They're dealing with programs, not the child," he said.

Counterproductive pass-fail policies.

One district policy prohibits a student from failing more than once between first and sixth grades and once more between seventh and eight grades. Teachers also are prohibited from giving students a failing grade below 50 on their quarterly report cards.

The district's pass-fail policy "devastates some kids," according to Kensington High School Principal Robert Barton.

"It gives them the mindset that, no matter what they do, they're going to graduate," he said. "They think they're going to be protected."

Teachers complain that some principals and administrators also overrule teachers and pass students in order to placate parents who object to their children failing.

"You're not allowed to fail kids who just aren't working," said Patricia Smith, a special eduction teacher at Campus East, a magnet school on the East Side.

High schools become repositories for even bigger problems when elementary pupils are promoted despite lack of skills and knowledge. That is one reason why fewer than one in five graduates earn a Regents diploma, compared with one-third to one-half of graduating seniors in Buffalo's suburbs. Most of those receiving Regents degrees in the city attend just a handful of magnet high schools.

Meanwhile, the principals at most academic and vocational high schools complain that one-third to two-thirds of their freshmen lack basic reading and math skills.

"Too many students are coming out of the elementary program as social promotions. They're lacking reading and writing and math skills," Barton said.

"We have to go back to what we used to do, which was to have high expectations for every student," Barton said. "We also have to find a way to motivate kids so they realize there is a payoff at the end of their high school years.

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us. But I think it can be accomplished."

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