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Commissioner to Buffalo: "It's not rocket science"

It's safe to say State Education Commissioner John King is not terribly impressed with the Buffalo Public Schools' track record.

As today's story notes, he decried the number of failing schools here and implored the community to emerge from its passivity to demand better outcomes for students.

Buffalo is hardly a lost cause, King said. There are reasons to hope, he said:

John KingBuffalo has a lot of seeds of potential improvement. Clearly there is a philanthropic and business community that is dedicated to the success of the schools. And over the last two years, there's a degree of parent activism that has emerged, a community of parents that desperately want to see student performance improve.

On the other hand, I think it was clear from the poor quality of the school improvement grant plans that were submitted that there are some real challenges -- the knowledge and skills necessary -- at the central office level as well as at the school level.

I have to say, while resources are clearly a challenge for the community as a whole, the school system has a fair amount of resources to put towards these challenges. Now, how these resources are allocated is a real challenge. It was clear last year that some of the inability of the board, the superintendent and labor leadership to come to agreement on the best way to leverage existing resources to drive student achievement -- that was a huge problem, that inability to come to agreement.

Urban education is not an easy business. It comes with plenty of challenges. But King made it clear that that does not excuse Buffalo (or any city) from its responsibility to produce results:

"This isn't rocket science. There are best practices. And the charge of the district, in my perspective, is to go learn those best practices."

Which places are doing a good job?

As one example, King highlighted Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina, a district that was just recognized by the Broad Foundation. "They made it an honor within the district to get assigned to the lowest-performing schools," he said.

In Charlotte, the achievement gap between black and white students decreased 11 points from 2007 to 2010 for high school reading.

From a recent story about Charlotte schools:

"We give them freedom and flexibility, with accountability," Clark (the chief academic officer) says of the selective staffing initiative. Principals are given the freedom to revamp schools as they see fit, as long as their students perform. Kales did away with the idea that each teacher had a set class. 

Using internal assessments and teacher input, students are reassigned to different classes depending on their performance level. A student might be in a fifth grade reading class but a fourth grade math class, for example. Classes are rearranged dynamically throughout the year as students progress or need extra help. 

Students get the opportunity to work with many different teachers and find a fit that is best for them, Kales (a principal) says. 

"You get kids who are able to articulate where they learn best and how they learn best," she says. "They don't have a concept of what grade they're in." Many of her students progress more than one grade level per year under the model.

- Mary Pasciak

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