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ONE IMPORTANT- and unavoidable -- point needs to be made regarding the criticism that State Education Commissioner Richard Mills leveled at the Buffalo School District this week: He is right. The district is falling behind the state's other big cities.

The school district's performance on the just-released academic assessment tests is flat, and it is depressing. Only 33.9 percent of students met the standard for elementary English, the same figure as last year.

Worse, Buffalo is the only one of the state's Big Five school districts not to show significant improvement in this area since testing began in 1999. New York City and Yonkers -- which, like Buffalo, are intimately familiar with the realities of economic hardship -- have shown dramatic improvements. Rochester, which is second-lowest in the rankings, started from a lower spot than Buffalo but has improved to a score that is notably higher than Buffalo's.

The Buffalo School District is enduring some of the worst pain in its history, having laid off some 500 teachers in the past two years, and staring at the likelihood of nearly as many again next year. That surely must have an effect on the district's difficulty in meeting state academic standards -- especially since remaining teachers are shuffled into new and unfamiliar roles -- but it can't account for all of it.

First of all, the other big city districts are improving, and their financial pictures are far from rosy. Second, and even more persuasive, both Superintendent Marion Canedo and Board President Jack Coyle are predicting significant improvement. "The results are flat so far, and it's disappointing because everything is in place for double-digit improvements," Canedo said in Wednesday's Buffalo News. "I can almost guarantee you that we'll see some improvement in the next round of assessments."

That's heartening news, to be sure, but it puts the lie to any claim that it is impossible, under current conditions, to improve student performance. By Canedo's own acknowledgment, the job can be done, and the district must now put up. Dramatic improvement would be nice, but steady improvement would be enough, for now. As Mills suggested, the district might want to look more closely at what cities such as New York and Yonkers have done to improve as much as they have.

Still, it is important not to overlook the strides the district has made in recent years, despite the economic battering it has taken. For example, it has made significant curriculum changes.

Other big-city districts have not yet completed that process, which, in the first year, often results in worsening scores, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools in Washington, D.C., an organization that has not been shy about criticizing Buffalo schools. In that context, and those of the district's severe job cuts, he said he "breathed a sigh of relief" that the city was able to hold steady.

He also observed that while the percentage of students meeting all the standards failed to improve, the rate of those meeting some of them has risen, suggesting that the worst students are improving. That sets the stage for the kind of rising scores that Canedo and Coyle are predicting, he said.

A review of the assessments also shows that while Buffalo is faring worse than the other Big Five districts, those districts as a group are performing worse than the state overall. That's a problem common to most big American cities, and it suggests the need to devise new strategies -- instructional, organizational and funding -- to address the realities of educating students in large urban areas.

The Legislature, Regents and the State Education Department should take on that job. In particular, Mills needs to be as committed to solving the problems of urban education as he is to pointing them out.

But those problems need to be seen as an opportunity, not an excuse. The immediate task is for the Buffalo School District to achieve what its peers have: a track record of steady improvement.

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