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Viewpoints: Drastic reforms are needed to improve Buffalo Public Schools

By Larry Quinn

On the surface, things are looking up for the Buffalo Public Schools.

For the first time in many years, the district has an able leader in Superintendent Kriner Cash. He has articulated the goals and aspirations of the district well and has proven himself to be an enthusiastic collaborator with outside agencies. Although Cash won’t perform miracles and shows very little appetite for the fight to truly transform the structure and methods of the district, he represents a healthy break from the past.

Graduation rates have risen by about 10 percent during the last three years. That is up from around 47 percent when I first joined the board. Now almost 60 percent of Buffalo Public School kids graduate from high school.

Class sizes in the early elementary grades, once as high as 30 kids per classroom, now average a little more than 20 per room. The district has also implemented a far reaching prekindergarten program and an academically reoriented kindergarten curriculum that emphasizes early reading and vocabulary skills. There is now more hope that children entering first through third grade will be able to read and learn at a high level.

The Buffalo district is experiencing a large increase in recent immigrant and non-English speaking students. The district has created Welcome Wagon schools for new immigrants and has reimagined Lafayette High School into a new international school. The new principal, John Starkey, who made his bones at the New York City International School, is an exciting and dynamic leader for this new effort.

After years of talking about the decline of the neighborhood school, the district has instituted a plan to create a series of community/neighborhood schools to let students go to school where they live. This does not mean an end to busing or the vigilance needed to ensure equity of education. But it does mean that the local elementary school can re-establish itself as the learning and social center of the neighborhood. The school gymnasiums are open, the facilities are available for extended learning and a wide range of community gatherings. And for the large percentage of our students and parents who lack a home digital platform, the community school provides them with an after-hours internet connection.

And, although it is highly dubious to call it progress, the district has recently settled its contract negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the school administrators.

Despite the slight uptick in graduation and an ever so slight increase in elementary proficiency, the district fails to truly educate the majority of its students. At best, 40 percent of our kids do not graduate from high school, and our elementary students score very low on math and language proficiency tests. When you look closer at these two indices, there is much to worry about.

In recent weeks, the State Education Department announced that Buffalo students in grades three through eight showed a little over a 1 percent increase in math and English proficiency. Buffalo scored 17.8 percent proficiency in language and 17.2 percent in mathematics. Put another way, more than 80 percent of our current elementary kids are not proficient as defined by New York State.

At this rate of advancement, it will take the district more than 20 years to simply reach the state average. Hardly a race to the top.
Proficiency is divided into four categories: 1 – significant deficiency; 2 – below proficiency; 3 – proficient; and 4 – excellent. Of 12,200 children who took the test, only 611 received an excellent rating and another 1,600 were deemed to be proficient. A little more than 10,000 were deemed to lack proficiency and 6,600 of them were rated as level 1 – significantly academically deficient.

The world is becoming increasingly global and incredibly competitive. These numbers should be a huge cause for concern.

The Buffalo high school graduation rate has been fluctuating up and down for years, but averages about 55 percent.

First of all, graduating from high school is not necessarily a success standard.

At the end of 12 years of education, our students should be prepared to perform well in college and/or be ready to pursue a technical or trade career.

Although the data is incomplete, a report presented to the Board of Education last year suggested that our college-bound students struggle to actually matriculate and graduate from college. And although I am not aware of longitudinal reporting on the subject, I remain concerned that our technical and trade training is not cutting edge.

But whatever value a college entry or trade degree may be worth, it should be alarmingly clear that the 45 percent who fail to graduate every year face extremely difficult challenges. If you define young adults as anyone over 18 and under 40, one can extrapolate that there are about 22,000 struggling young Buffalo citizens who are severely undereducated and unprepared to have a productive economic future.

A recent Buffalo News editorial sported the heading, “Uptick in test scores shows Buffalo is on the right track.” I know the writers and they care deeply about public education. However, there is a problem with their thinking – kids don’t stop growing and new kids keep entering the system every year. At our current rate of progress, we will sentence another 20,000 or so kids to a life of limited opportunity. The entire system for caring and educating kids needs an extreme makeover. This is an urgent, urgent problem.

The quote, supposedly from Einstein, is so overused today, but it is insane to keep doing the same thing over and over again when it clearly doesn’t work.

Meaningful reform starts with setting clearly defined standards, repurposing resources in a highly strategic manner and finally managing both in the most effective way.

Cash’s New Education Bargain is a very good statement of guiding principles and general intent. Unfortunately it isn’t new anymore and the bargain itself lacks quantifiable goals and standards. Is the goal to produce the highest urban test scores in the state, have every student reading at age 8, make every student digitally literate and graduate students who will excel in college and the work force? I would think so, but the district doesn’t dare set clear standards that could make students accountable for their performance. A vision without a way to measure actual results is not that helpful.

Despite enormous increases in funding for education in New York State, the district does not deploy its funds in a totally child-centric fashion. Many people are quick to say that the Buffalo Public School District, at $28,000, spends more per student than elite private schools like Nichols. Although on a gross basis this might be accurate, the truth is more elusive. When you strip away everything outside the classroom, Buffalo public school kids get around $12,000 of aid.

The district spends a lot of money on things that do not educate kids. Buffalo spends almost $200 million a year on teacher and administrator retirement, active teacher health care and retiree lifetime health insurance. Fifty million is spent on busing kids – often from one underperforming school to another. Tens of millions are spent on self-contained special education classrooms that rarely help students return to the mainstream. The district spends $6 million to $7 million on substitute teachers to cover daily teacher absences and teachers on suspended paid leave. And of course the administration expense of a large centralized system adds a significant cost as well. So when you look more closely, taxpayers might be spending a fortune on the Buffalo Public Schools, but not that much on education.

To the question of management. If stockholders told a corporate board of directors and its executives that they must achieve extraordinary, never seen before results, without hiring new or different people, without firing poor performers and rewarding good ones, and without any real control over spending priorities, they would either laugh in their faces or resign en masse.

This is the Hobson’s choice that every superintendent in Buffalo has faced for the last 30 years.

Despite a much-heralded agreement, the new teachers contract provides very little if any reform in the way of additional management prerogative. The district must still compensate and promote teachers based not on their success but on the length of their service. A breathing bonus, if you will. You get more pay and first choice of assignments based on how long you stay, not on how well you perform.

The new contract maintains the sick day bank that allows teachers to be absent from school at full pay. During the 2015-16 school year, teachers were, on average, absent from the classroom 7.1 percent of the time, or 12 days. That translates into a teacher being away from his or her class more than two weeks per year. I must say that I can’t recall an instance in my entire educational experience where my teacher missed more than a day or two. Certainly my teachers were never absent from the classroom for more than two weeks every year. Without a much stronger hold on who works and how in the classroom, a superintendent is at an extreme disadvantage when effectuating change.

Two recent news articles struck a chord with me. The New York Times published an article that showed that after 35 years of affirmative action, black and Hispanic enrollment at the top 25 U.S. universities declined on a percentage basis. Interestingly, the same report showed that white enrollment declined as well. The gap was filled by a large increase in students of Asian ethnicity.

I saw the other related bit of news in New York State Education’s press release on elementary proficiency. As we know, Buffalo’s proficiency numbers hovered around 17 percent and the New York State average was 40-plus percent. Again, the same report showed that Asian students scored an average proficiency of over 60 percent.

I’m sure the reasons for this disparity are complex and nuanced. But it does bring into question the role racial discrimination and socioeconomic status may or may not play in determining educational achievement. Certainly Asian-Americans have faced extreme prejudice and discrimination. First-generation Asians are often English language learners and, depending on their country of origin, are fleeing political oppression and serious economic deprivation. These numbers seem to show that they are able to achieve on a high level despite the obstacles of racism, language and poverty.

I personally believe all children can learn and that no ethnic group is innately better than any other. So I also believe that we must address the underlying social-cultural issues that prevent many of our other students from achieving on the same level as their peers.

Stepping into these waters is fraught with peril. But the discussion has to happen in an open and forthright manner.

If we expect to bridge the achievement gap there are many questions to ask and answer:

Why aren’t kids coming to school? The Attendance Category report for 2016 showed that of the approximately 27,000 children in grades prekindergarten to eight, 60 percent had unsatisfactory attendance. More than half, or about 8,500 kids, missed as much as 18 to 36 days of school, and of those, 2,500 missed even more. Obviously young children cannot build an educational foundation missing six weeks of school.

What is the parent’s responsibility? Should there be a direct link to social services for chronic and severe absentee students? Should there be an absentee court like the one in liberal San Francisco? How much does busing play a role in this problem? Bottom line: A child has to go to school to learn.

How much do families understand or inherently value an education? Can the clergy and many community-based organizations help more to highlight the absolute necessity of earning a degree? Are the types and levels of family assistance aligned with a culture of achievement? For example, when the district enrolls a child in a self-contained special education classroom, the parent often qualifies for additional monthly Social Security payments. Should we look at this differently and create an additional financial incentive for the opposite result? In other words, can we reward the child when they succeed and leave the special ed class? Should we also financially incentivize the teachers who helped the child achieve this goal?

We’ve been told in board meetings that the district may have as many as 1,600 homeless children – or so-called couch surfers. Having no permanent place to live, and no adult care or guidance, usually spells disaster for a young person. Is is time for a dormitory school? What role do social services and family court have to play? What responsibility does a school district have for its students outside the classroom?

Many of our students have been arrested for non-serious crimes and spend countless hours in holding cells and the courts waiting for adjudication. Is this huge expense of the courts, the police and various holding centers doing these kids or society any good? Maybe it’s time to get serious about alternative sentencing programs to get these kids out of courts and holding cells and into a comprehensive family assistance environment with a direct link to their education.

Finally, should we think about a system of financial incentives based on student achievement? I personally think it’s far better to incentivize kids for academic achievement than to spend money on truant officers and courts. Directly linking financial reward to education achievement make sense to me and could be a great financial boost to poor families.

After serving on the board for three years, I am convinced that the current system cannot meet the needs of our children. As I alluded to above, Cash or his eventual successor could be Superman and this antiquated, broken system would eventually defeat him. Something has to change in a major way.

The city was once at a similar crossroads. It was broke, the local economy showed only a flicker of life and there was little or nothing on the horizon to offer hope. Faced with no other options, the state of New York established a hard control board in Buffalo. The control board was given the power to approve all city contracts – including collectively bargained labor agreements – the power to approve all spending and borrowing, and the general discretion to abrogate poor management practices and policies. Despite a lot of political hand-wringing, it worked beautifully. The results of their effort bear witness today.

It only happens every 15 years, but next election cycle, every seat on the Board of Education is up for grabs. There are no holdovers. If the governor and the mayor eliminate the board, no voter will be disenfranchised.

In two years, Cash will be at the end of his employment contract and may choose to retire.

And oh, by the way, the district essentially runs out of money in three years as well. By 2020, despite projected significant annual increases in state aid, the district projects that it will have spent all of its unencumbered cash reserves and will face an annual $54 million deficit.

The time to act for the future is now.

The school district needs a completely reconstituted governing body with extraordinary powers. This will take a lot more than substituting the current members with political appointees. There must be a new administrative organization endowed with the same type of powers that made the control board successful. It will need the power to make unilateral changes to such things as health care reimbursements, work rules and disciplinary procedures, as well as all expenditures and budgets. It will need the power to modify the non-economic terms of collective bargaining agreements and have the unfettered right to hire and fire. This governing body will have to radically revolutionize our system of education, avert a serious financial meltdown. It will also have to hire new leadership when Cash retires.

Since the state funds 85 percent of the Buffalo Public Schools, the governor needs to be directly involved. The members of the new body should be equally appointed by the mayor and the governor and those two executives have to take responsibility for the results.

There has been simply too much talk about helping kids with little or no action. Real change and real education reform will be much harder in the short run, but so much more rewarding to society than the preservation of the status quo.

This is a hugely vital task that will require the attention and commitment of our highest elected officials and most prominent community leaders. It is not a task to be left in two years to inexperienced, aspiring politicians elected by 1 percent of the city population.

Larry Quinn has been a member of the Buffalo Board of Education since 2014. This article was originally published by Counterpoint, a Buffalo-based collective fostering informed conversation on important topics through live panel discussions, video interviews and essays on

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