The recent report calling for sweeping changes in the Buffalo Public Schools following a study by the Council of the Great City Schools has been heralded by school officials as "a major catalyst for change" based on 233 recommended reforms. To the contrary, there is no way that the Buffalo school system can be transformed into a quality-assured educational system capable of preparing students for the 21st century Information Age in the short term.
Like other city and suburban school systems struggling to implement and sustain change through a complete restructuring effort, the system in Buffalo has suffered a meltdown from one failed education experiment after another.
These include the dumbing down of the curriculum, social promotion, and grade inflation in the name of educational reform, a movement that dates back to 1983, when a federal report -- "A Nation at Risk" -- pointed out student performance was failing.
The fallout from this movement is an education establishment that is gummed up by brain-dead bureaucracies, mediocre and unqualified teachers, inept administrators, dysfunctional school boards, potent (and reactionary) unions and lots of trendy and goofy ideas, and that is incapable of fixing itself.
Other problems contributing to the mess the public education system finds itself in include: dysfunctional families, drugs, alcohol, poverty, violence in the schools, lack of self discipline, apathy, a growing number of kids having kids for parents, a debased, outdated curriculum, shoestring budgets, the plague of illiteracy, poor diet, teacher burnout, unsupervised homes and uninvolved parents. Given this climate, one can understand why up to one-third of new U.S. teachers leave public education within the first few years.
We need to take a closer look at those within the education establishment in a typical public school system who have presided over the continued deterioration of the system for the past two decades and the stakeholders outside the system in order to gain a better understanding of their capabilities in achieving a significant improvement in the classroom.
sh The uninvolved parent
Let's start with the parents, who bear the primary responsibility for the mess the system is in. According to recent studies, nearly one in three parents is seriously disengaged from his or her adolescent's life and, especially, from the adolescent's education. Nearly one-third of students said their parents had no idea how they are doing in school, and about one-sixth of their parents don't care whether they earn good grades in school.
Too many of today's parents want our public schools to take custody of their offspring, send home unalarming report cards and otherwise not bother them. While we can properly blame schools when they fail to educate the educable, we can't blame them when parents fill their classrooms with the unteachable.
sh The unqualified teacher
One of the biggest frauds in our public education system is the assumption that people who have become "certified teachers" can teach better than those who haven't been exposed to the nonsense aspect of contemporary teacher training conducted by schools of education.
Studies show no correlation between education courses and teaching success. Further, it is evident that many of the problems associated with student performance derive from the kind of people who are teaching, and some are being taught by teachers who should not be standing in front of classes. Here I refer, in particular, to those who are unqualified in the subject they are teaching and lack the necessary skills in classroom management.
Following two years of intense study and discussion, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future put the assessment of the quality of teaching in public schools in context, stating that "it is now clear that most schools and teachers cannot produce the kind of learning the new reforms demand -- not because they don't want to, but because they do not know how and the systems they work in do not support them in doing so."
The school board
Boards of Education are antique devices elected in most communities by a handful of voters (12 percent of citizens, on average, throughout the United States), and few know what they do or how. Members of the Buffalo Board of Education and its counterparts rarely have management experience or training and devote much of their time to budgets and buildings and usually nothing to education in its pure form.
They live in the "twilight zone," expecting teachers to be change agents by allocating, on the average, only a paltry 1 percent of the total budget for professional staff development, which amounts to a charade.
School boards, for the most part, prevent things from happening rather than making them happen, which is leading to a shift to mayoral takeovers of urban public school systems, as in Chicago, Boston, Detroit and Cleveland.
School superintendents are certified as administrators who, too often, are not prepared to provide leadership in reshaping the school program, based on their training conducted by schools of education.
They are caught in the middle of a growing crisis, with boards of education that hold them hostage to the status quo, the constraints of a union contract, lack of parental support, enormous pressures to produce top test scores, an underfunded school system, having little or no job security, "doing more with less" and other limitations.
This has led to an increasing turnover of chief school officers and a shortage of job applicants for this position to the point that superintendents are almost becoming an endangered species.
The veto power teachers' unions hold over educational decisions through their contracts has been and continues to be a major obstacle in developing a quality education system. Members of a teachers' union, in reality, belong to merely an industrial trade union, an organization that strenuously resists any connection between pay and classroom performance.
Over the years, teachers' unions have masqueraded as professional groups under the guise of improving the quality of education. Yet their mission is advancing their own interests, which are to ensure pay, retirement, tenure and benefits to teachers while keeping teachers immune from any consequences for failure.
Schools of education
Buffalo school officials should avoid seeking technical assistance in improving the education system from college/university schools of education, because they have failed to provide quality professional training for reliable quality classroom teaching.
Schools of education should be held accountable for the bankruptcy in the great majority of our public schools in failing to provide leadership for an educational system in crisis and floundering badly. This is reflected, for example, in only 40 percent of the 1,200 schools and departments in education in the nation being accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
The role of mandates
Add to the turmoil within public education the state and federal mandates that require school compliance. The New York State Education Department, for example, has dealt a set of mandated high academic standards to school districts, based on another "let's try it and see if it works" approach that reduces classrooms to test-preparation factories and uses a single test (the regents exam) as the vehicle for "standard-based reform" as a sledge hammer in the frantic rush to make schools accountable.
It's akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The standard-based reform, high-stakes testing and accountability craze in education in New York and elsewhere throughout the nation, was, from the beginning, a failure waiting to happen.
What needs to be done
The challenge facing Buffalo's public education establishment, therefore, is to develop a reliable, high-performance educational system based on continuous improvement and measurable quality that fosters dramatic improvement in classroom performance and prepares students as knowledge workers for successful transition in the Information Age and the high-tech global economy.
Those who believe that vouchers, charter schools, high-stakes testing and other "flavors of the month" representing a patchwork of disconnected remedies can transform K-12 public education are living in a fantasy land.
The Buffalo public education establishment needs to get its act together, pick up the pieces following a failed education reform movement and undertake a long-term unified effort to dramatically improve student achievement in a high-performance system in which:
Students and teachers know the standards.
Exams are aligned to the standards.
Curriculum is aligned to the standards.
Students receive expert teaching reliably, i.e., not by chance.
Schools offer as much time teaching as students need to learn.
Stakes in student and teacher success are high by holding the system accountable for results.
A quality management system is in place to insist on and support all the above.
Where to find help
There is a crushing amount of evidence to make it painfully clear that public education systems are incapable of fixing themselves. Therefore, the education establishment must look outside the system for processes that work in developing a quality-assured system.
Business, a major stakeholder in education, can play an important role in helping the Buffalo schools implement a volunteer, bottoms-up planning system that focuses on achieving continuous improvement and measurable quality based on its experience in meeting international industry standards of performance (ISO 9000) and the criteria for achieving excellence in quality management by companies receiving the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Both ISO and Baldrige have the basic elements of a quality system uniquely matched to public schools.
This is a winning prescription for fostering substantive school improvement based on processes that work, in contrast to the failed education experiments of the past 17 years, a real breakthrough that ensures students will receive expert teaching reliably.
Implementation of this effort will require a strong and effective local business-education alliance and outstanding leadership, with skills such as those found in retired military officers and active corporate executives, who have been gaining the attention of school boards for the purpose of running their school districts without certification in many states.
Over the long term, all parties responsible for the development of a high-performance educational system in Buffalo must be committed to devoting the required time, patience, hard work, discipline, intensive training of school staff in implementing a quality assured system with assistance from ISO/Baldrige companies, and the appropriate level of resources, both human and financial.
Time is short, and failure to act on this commitment to the Buffalo schools will lead, most assuredly, to an education train wreck in the decade ahead.
DR. DONALD M. CLARK is president and chief executive officer of the National Association for Industry-Education Cooperation. He has served in corporate management, is a retired senior military officer and has held faculty and administrative positions in both public school and higher education. He holds a doctorate in history and education.