Pop-quiz time, class; multiple choice. Ready? The Buffalo School District's terrible performance is the fault of:

A. Students

B. Parents

C. Teachers

D. Principals

E. District administrators

F. School Board members

G. The teachers union

H. The Board of Regents

I. The State Education Department

J. All of the above

K. No one; in Buffalo we're persistent victims, pathetically unable to influence our direction


The answer, of course, is "J," all of the above, but even that may be misleading if it implies that culpability can be evenly distributed among the usual suspects. It can't. Some are guiltier than others.

Teachers, principals, administrators and School Board members shoulder a lot of the responsibility because they are the ones who are charged with — and except for board members, paid well for — doing the job. Yes, students and parents play significant roles in undermining the quality of education in Buffalo, but it's a cop-out to say that their issues block all avenues of improvement. Other districts overcome those obstacles; why can't Buffalo?

The Buffalo Teachers Federation bears a share of the responsibility. With its president, Philip Rumore, in office for 30 years, the union leadership has been the one constant during the district's decades of decline. Superintendents have come and gone, as have School Board members, but the union under Rumore has been a fixture. Its fingerprints, too, are all over the tragedy of thousands of poorly educated students.

Here is just a sampling of the hurdles facing the school district:

* It has struggled to win federal funding for its persistently low-achieving schools. Six of 13 schools have won funding, but the district has failed to produce acceptable plans for seven others and one of them, Lafayette, has failed in three tries. For those schools, $42 million is on the line.

* Sixteen Buffalo schools last month were placed on the state's list of schools needing to improve. Overall, nearly three out of four public schools in Buffalo are on the state's watch list.

* Of the students who started ninth grade in 2006, only 47.4 percent graduated in 2010—and that was down from 53.1 percent the previous year. (In New York City, 61 percent of the 2006 cohort graduated. Statewide, 73.4 percent graduated.) Just 3.2 percent of Buffalo's 2006 cohort graduated with a Re-gents diploma with Advanced Designation, compared with 16.4 percent in New York City and 30.9 percent statewide.

* Only 26.9 percent of students in grades three to eight met or exceeded the English proficiency standard in tests given in May, compared with 43.9 percent in New York City and 52.8 percent statewide. In math, 31 percent met or exceeded the standard, compared with 57.3 percent in New York City and 63.3 percent statewide.

It doesn't have to be this way. Around the country, there are large, urban districts that are doing it right or at least making strides. Students are becoming invested in their own education. Parents are making their voices heard. Teachers, with the encouragement of their principals, are unleashing their creativity on students. Superintendents are putting capable administrators in key positions and then insisting on accountability.

Similarly, school boards are hiring excellent superintendents, requiring accountability and then getting out of the way. Even other teachers unions are cooperating in the urgent and morally imperative task of improving the education of American students.

Schools are exploring new strategies, it is true, but by and large, those strategies are being employed in the service of the fundamentals: attendance, behavior, instruction, accountability. After decades of public education, they remain the tracks on which this train runs. So the question is, can Buffalo climb aboard, or will the city be left, once again, at the station? The platform is jammed with children.

> Leadership teams

In the end, it comes down to leadership. That is among the conclusions of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, whose mission is "to focus academic research, public education and innovative outreach activities toward eliminating achievement gaps."

In a 2009 report that focused on the examples of 15 public high schools, leaders of the initiative concluded that "The main lesson . . . was that student achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction."

Ronald F. Ferguson, co-chairman and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative, thinks it is happening. "I'm making the argument that we are in the early phases of a national movement," he said. Around the country, Americans are expending a lot of energy to improve school performance, graduation rates and other measures of academic success, he said. That movement is being driven by multiple engines, including parents and business leaders, among others.

Those engines are beginning to hum in Buffalo. Advocacy groups are making noise, inserting themselves in the problem. They include Buffalo ReformED and the District Parent Coordinating Council, an organization whose public face — Sam Radford — is turning parents into a force that everyone, from the School Board to the union, is being forced to reckon with.

The problem, said Radford, isn't a shortage of money. Like Ferguson, he believes the main obstacle is a lack of leadership — and at just about every level, from the board to the superintendent to principals to teachers and even to parents whose presence in the schools is lacking.

"Who is in charge?" Radford asked. "It's an open secret. The truth of the matter is, there is no one in charge of the public school system."

Who could argue? Just consider the district's inability to put together acceptable turnaround plans for its seven persistently low-achieving schools and the subsequent failure to secure $42 million in federal aid. The district is preparing a new application and, with new leadership, it may get a different result; but to date, the failure has been abject.

Hannya Boulos, director of Buffalo ReformED, sees leadership failures in "botched lines of communication."

"Lots of things come out of central office that don't take hold in the classroom," she said. "They don't take the time to get buy-in."

Such criticisms flow mainly from the autocratic six-year reign of former Superintendent James A. Williams, who was feared by many employees and who was finally pushed out of his job three months ago. Observers, including Radford and Boulos, are withholding judgment on Williams' successor, Amber Dixon, who is functioning, at least for now, in an acting capacity.

> The Columbus model

There are plenty of examples around the country of the importance of leadership. That is the quality that helped turn around failing schools in Columbus, Ohio, according to School Board President Carol Perkins, but that leadership flowed from multiple sources. It took the efforts of the board, the superintendent and, significantly, the Columbus Education Association — the teachers union — to do the job, she said.

"We had to develop working relationships between the board, the superintendent and the CEA," she said. "We came together on goals, and everyone could see that we were not that far apart . . . Everyone saw the need to do it."

Even then, the district didn't do it on its own, Perkins said. Two outside organizations, the Panasonic Foundation and Teamworks, helped facilitate the discussions.

The president of the teachers union agreed that the outside groups played a large role in helping the district to improve. Indeed, it was the Panasonic Foundation that first helped the district and union to break through their deep suspicions, said Rhonda Johnson, president of the Columbus Education Association. "Before the Panasonic Foundation, we were killing each other," she said.

The Panasonic Foundation was established in 1984 with a $10 million endowment from Panasonic Corp. of North America. Its mission, according to its website, is to partner with public school districts and their communities "to break the links between race, poverty and educational outcomes by improving the academic and social success of all students."

"The Panasonic Foundation played a huge role in making sure we had a good relationship," Johnson said. Most critically, she said, the foundation brokered the establishment of an effective labor-management organization — one that never would have come into being had either the union or school administration proposed it on its own. With that, the two sides learned better how to approach one another and to deal with the issues that arose. That growth, in turn, helped both sides agree on approaches to improving the education of the students of Columbus.

And it did improve. Graduation rates soared from 59.9 percent in 2002-03 to 77.6 percent in 2009-10. (Buffalo's rates remain mired around 50 percent.) Various strategies helped produce that improvement, said Keith Bell, deputy superintendent and chief academic officer. Establishing a system of feeder schools helps middle schools and high schools prepare for the students they will be receiving. A system of "vision cards" not only helps the district to set goals, but to measure, monitor and adjust as needed.

The district achieved this despite a poverty rate that has 77 percent of its students receiving lunch subsidies. Like Buffalo, it is burdened by too many children coming to school unprepared to learn. Those are real problems that hinder education, Bell said. "But they're not an excuse for not being able to do it."

> The Charlotte-Mecklenburg model

Leadership also made the difference in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. There, in nearly half of the schools, students were falling behind yearly. The reason cited by School Board President Eric Davis will register in Buffalo. Too many students were coming to school unprepared to learn, and for the same reasons it occurs in Western New York: poverty, uninvolved parents, children with special needs and more.

The district made changes. "What we have chosen as a strategy is to focus on results and outcomes, as opposed to our former strategy of equal distribution of resources, access and consistency." The old strategy, while sounding democratic, penalized both students who needed help and those who were exceptional, Davis said. Its cookie- cutter approach failed to account for the differences among students.

"You've got to connect with students where they are," he said.

The district's new strategy is to insist that all students are consistently achieving a minimum of one year of academic growth every school year. The results have been impressive. While only 55 percent of schools met the state's "expected growth" standards five years ago, the figure rose to 94 percent of schools in 2009-10 before falling to 88 percent in 2010-11, following years of recession- fueled budget cuts. Still, the district had nearly doubled school performance levels in just five years.

The district also improved its graduation rate to 74 percent in 2010-11 from 66 percent two years earlier and showed continued strength in fourth-and eighth-grade math and reading assessments. It also narrowed achievement gaps among students of different races and family income levels.

It did all of this through a boots-on-the-ground approach. The district invited its best principals and teachers to transfer as a team to the lowest-performing schools, and asked principals to place the most effective teachers with the most struggling students, said Ann Clark, the district's chief academic officer.

Teachers were sent to a "differentiation academy" to train them how to individualize education for students with different needs or abilities. The district told principals "to speak truth to teachers," she said, and as a non-union state, replaced poor teachers with better ones. And it made more careful decisions regarding tenure.

Just as important, here's what the district did not do to produce these gains:

It didn't put a dent in the district's poverty rates.

It didn't find the cure for parents who don't care about their children's education.

It didn't reduce the number of special-needs students.

And in not doing any of these, Charlotte- Mecklenburg put the lie to claims that schools are fatally limited by factors outside their control. They're not. Students can achieve, even when they're hobbled from home.

Two months ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg was named the country's top urban school district, winning the Broad Prize. It didn't come without stresses, but it came. More children are learning.

A question: What stresses is Buffalo willing to endure in order to give students the education they deserve?

> Some changes under way

It's not as though the city and school district aren't already under stress. The district has failed to secure $42 million in federal turnaround aid. In September, after months of confrontation and dithering, it finally pushed Williams to retire. The conflict between the district and the head of the teachers union is unrelenting and destructive. And, of course, too many children are failing to learn.

Yet Buffalo is also witnessing change.

Most obviously, the district has a new interim superintendent, Amber Dixon, who is laying plans and changing directions as though she were already Williams' permanent successor. She hasn't decided if she even wants the permanent assignment, she said, but she also understands that Buffalo's students can't wait for her to make that decision.

"Even if I am interim, the children are not here on an interim basis," she said. "I'm stubborn, and unwavering in my principles."

And the changes she is making are notable. On Day One, Dixon cast aside the culture of intimidation that was the hallmark of Williams' administration. Rather than insisting on strict adherence to an inflexible academic formula, for example, she encouraged teachers to take advantage of the "teachable moments" that naturally occur.

More aggressively, she decided that the school district needed to make difficult decisions to secure the $42 million in federal turnaround aid. Thus, she announced that teacher transfers would be considered, even though Rumore said they violate the union contract. On Wednesday, that plan became reality, with the district announcing plans to replace half of the teachers at Futures Academy and Drew Science Magnet. Rumore says he will sue, if necessary, to block the transfers. But the state has also made it clear that it will not accept turnaround plans that fail to include teacher transfers among the strategies.

Many teachers are understandably upset, but in the end, this is about the students, not the teachers. The teachers are getting paid while the students are getting shafted.

> Accountability is key

Also changing soon will be the concept of accountability, without which leadership is meaningless. It's not just for teachers. Principals, administrators, superintendents and even School Board members must be held accountable for tasks with which they are charged. That's a concept that has been lacking in Buffalo — as Boulos noted — and for that matter, around New York.

Of course, accountability also presumes some level of authority to get the job done, but in what has been Buffalo's rigid, top-down system of management, teachers and principals have been discouraged from exercising their creativity. Dixon says she wants to change that, but she also recognizes that accountability is key — for everyone in the school system.

"We have a lot of control over these kids," she said. "We have a responsibility to make an impact. That's the reason we come to work every day."

The state has developed a new system of teacher accountability based on a variety of factors, including student test scores and classroom observations. New York State United Teachers, which collaborated with the state to develop the system, challenged its implementation after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made changes. The matter is now pending before the state's highest court.

But teacher and principal accountability is only the start. Superintendents also need to be held to high standards. And, critically, so do School Board members, who hire superintendents and who frequently insert themselves into the day-to-day operations of a district. For them, there are virtually no standards.

The Buffalo Board of Education certainly has some capable members but, legally, this is what it takes to run for election to the board:A candidate must be at least 18 years old, a qualified voter in the school district and able to read and write. No special training is required, and you don't need to know anything about education or leadership or finances. You don't even have to be a high school graduate. It's true that some districts thrive under poor leadership, but so do some businesses. That doesn't make it wise, especially in a district that is large and floundering.

> A watershed moment

This is a watershed moment in Buffalo education, and the opportunities for improvement are greater than they have been in years. Beyond the advantages of a new superintendent and energized community groups is the proposed partnership with Say Yes to Education, a foundation that could do for Buffalo what the Panasonic Foundation did for Columbus — if Buffalo is actually ready to accept that help.

The decisions that are made in the coming months can materially affect the lives of thousands of today's children and theirs, as well: What authority will the School Board give the superintendent, and what will the superintendent expect of her principals and her principals of their teachers? Will Buffalo finally secure the $42 million in federal turnaround funds? What outside influences will help the district change course?

"It's an urgent issue in the community," said Dixon. "Education has not been working for kids for several generations."

It's a damning acknowledgment. It won't change by doing the same old things.