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Editorial: Homework for the schools

The slow-moving, incremental gains in student test scores around New York are as aggravating as they are encouraging. As schools across the state open for a new year, the numbers offer a reminder of the essential work ahead.

The scores are hopeful because even small steps in the right direction are welcome. They are disheartening because too many students continue to perform poorly. That is especially true when looking at the pervasive performance gap between black, Hispanic and Native American students compared to their white peers.

New York State showed slight gains this year in student test scores. That’s good, but satisfaction in that performance runs headlong into the brick-wall fact that less than half of students were deemed proficient in English Language Arts and math. The task remains steep.

A similar story played out in Buffalo Public Schools. Scores in English Language Arts improved slightly but, as with the state, they don’t offer much to cheer about when considering that less than one-quarter of students performed at or above grade level in both English and math. Even in a city marked by poverty and populated by non-English speaking refugees, that’s intolerable.

The top-performing schools in the region were concentrated in just seven districts. In English Language Arts, the 10 highest-performing local schools were in Lewiston-Porter, Buffalo, Williamsville, Clarence and Starpoint.

The same districts scored in the top 10 for math, with the exception of Starpoint. One school from the Iroquois School District and one from Niagara Wheatfield were among the top 10 in that subject.

Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash pointed to strong gains among five district schools and “impressive” improvements in ELA scores by advanced English language learners.

However, he remains appropriately unhappy. These small gains, mere ticks in the upward direction, are nothing to celebrate. “Mixed results are no longer acceptable to me, and they are not enough for Buffalo’s children,” he declared. His response is to focus more on literacy and continued efforts to provide social and emotional support to students.

Parents, he said, “must work with us to keep their end of the bargain.” The New Education Bargain demands rigor in early elementary education and innovative new high schools. The superintendent’s high expectations have resulted in some progress in graduation rates since he took the helm in 2015.

It is not enough and, while parents have to be full partners in the education of their children, the onus is on the district. Its employees are being paid to do the job.

The charge is to deliver high-quality education to students who can then transition into college and the workforce.

Meantime he has had to answer tough questions from School Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman about pay raises averaging 5% for top-level administrators, totaling $185,210.

Cash said the raises better match those at peer school districts and keep Buffalo competitive for attracting top talent. The board approved the raises in an 8-1 vote, with Belton-Cottman objecting.

The superintendent later said the raises account for the four years his cabinet members and staff have been in place. Moreover, he said, the raises should not be “conflated with graduation rates or test scores or anything like that. That is inappropriate and unfair.”

Instead, he said, remember that the district was on the verge of a state takeover when he arrived. Now more schools are in good standing with the state, the graduation is higher and the district has a $200 million fund balance. It all adds up, he said, to a well-deserved raise for staff.

It’s plausible. Nonetheless, Cash and his administration must show that they can deliver on promised educational outcomes for the students and community which they serve. That, in the end, is the measurement that counts.

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