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AUDIT FINDS MASSIVE NEED FOR CHANGES IN CITY SCHOOLS

An exhaustive audit of Buffalo school operations, described by one official as "hard on all of us," portrays a system in need of an overhaul from the classroom to the superintendent's office.

In a critical but hopeful report released Wednesday, a team of 14 national education experts described in sometimes excruciating detail what many observers have long believed about the system:

The bureaucracy is top heavy and inefficient; the Board of Education spends too much of its time sweating details instead of dealing with larger issues; and teachers for the most part continue to rely on conventional practices that often aren't the most efficient way of teaching urban children in the 1990s.

The audit also noted the effects of the system's shortcomings on children. They range from a big achievement gap between white and minority students to filthy restrooms that lacked soap, toilet paper and stall doors.

But Carolyn Downey, an education professor at San Diego State University who led the audit team, said the problems are typical of urban system's Buffalo's size. She told the Board of Education not to despair, adding that the system has some important positives.

Ms. Downey said she was especially impressed by the willingness, even eagerness, of almost everyone associated with the system to embrace change. She also said she was "very impressed" with Superintendent James Harris and the management team he has assembled during his 15 months on the job. She said the system has started to deal with many of the problems cited in the audit, often before auditors had brought them to the superintendent's attention.

The report, by the International Curriculum Management Audit Center, looked at the system's management from an instructional point of view.

It complements a landmark study of school finances completed 2 1/2 years ago by the Buffalo Financial Plan Commission.

Harris, who commissioned the audit at a cost of $60,000 plus expenses, said he agreed with the audit's findings, adding that it should set the stage for ambitious reforms.

"We've gotten over the financial hump," he said. "We're going to turn our attention to curriculum. That's our challenge the next few years."

The audit team spent a week here in March, visiting all 72 schools, briefly observing more than 1,300 classrooms, interviewing more than 500 people and carting away thousands of pages of documents. Its 404-page report included about 100 findings and 15 recommendations.

The most notable include:

The system's planning is fragmented and inadequate. The audit identified this as the No. 1 problem.

"You're trying to do too many things. You're diluting the energy of your organization," Ms. Downey told the board.

The report said the system would be better off if officials focused on fewer goals and initiatives and kept student achievement as their top priority.

The downtown bureaucracy is top heavy and inefficient.

"You have too many senior officers," Ms. Downey told the board as she recommended a reorganization plan that is much different from a proposal Harris advanced this summer.

The Board of Education needs to spend less time on management issues and more energy on the big picture. Ms. Downey suggested the board focus on planning, developing policies and making sure the budget is aligned with those objectives.

"Focus your energy on learning," she told board members.

Personnel practices are lacking.

Perhaps the most eye-catching critique involved employee evaluations. When auditors checked a representative sample of personnel files, they found the performance of 60 percent of administrators hadn't been evaluated.

The evaluation used for teachers is almost meaningless. Only one of 200 teachers surveyed received an unsatisfactory rating in any of the 22 categories in which they were evaluated.

Problems with the curriculum abound. Auditors noted discrepancies between the planned curriculum, how it's taught and how students are tested to determine if they have learned it. Among other things, the auditors concluded that the system doesn't test students enough to see if they are learning what they are supposed to.

Too many programs are disjointed and have their own mini-bureaucracies because they are funded by grants, rather than out of the regular operating budget. Ms. Downey cited, as an example, five separate reading programs that aren't properly integrated.

Whites as a group are scoring much higher than members of minority groups on standardized tests that gauge reading and math.

The average reading score for whites ranged from 5 to 10 percent above the national average, depending on the grade level, while the score for blacks generally fell 11 to 17 percent below the national average. Ms. Downey said reading skills were of particular concern to her team.

Most teachers use conventional practices that involve lecturing to students and assigning work that students complete on their own at their desk, such as work sheets.

"There was a general lack of excitement about learning emerging from the students in many classrooms we observed," the report said.

"Most lessons were using low-level thinking skills."

The staff is clamoring for additional training, which would help modernize teaching practices, but most of what's offered is fragmented.

The budget isn't linked to goals and priorities. Ms. Downey cited as an example a decision in the 1980s to provide health insurance to retired employees, a move that initially cost little, but that has mushroomed to $7.3 million a year.

"Financial decision making is convoluted," the report concluded.

Many school facilities are inadequate, and some of them aren't properly cleaned or supplied. Four of every 10 student restrooms were deemed unacceptable.

"Many restrooms were observed to be filthy, lacking paper towels, toilet paper, soap, trash cans and privacy door stalls," the report said. "Others had limited running water due to broken faucets, inoperable sinks or poor plumbing."

Many at-risk students are getting short shrift. The report mentioned the bilingual and special-education programs in particular.

Bus scheduling, for example, cuts classroom instruction for the typical special-education student by 15 to 30 minutes a day, which costs students the equivalent of 13 school days a year.

The report noted that one auditor visited a school designated as bilingual in which all the instruction was in English.

The system needs nearly twice as many computers to reach its goal of one for every four students.

The system has 1,651 computers that are at least 10 years old, compared with 1,640 that have been purchased in the past three years.

Harris said he and his staff will evaluate the audit over the next month and then share their reactions and recommendations with the board, which seems anxious to act.

"This is probably the most excited I've been since I got here," Harris said. "I think we have a golden opportunity to take advantage of some of the best minds in the country."

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