Talk about a gang that couldn’t shoot straight. What is it that the Buffalo School District can do right?
Its approach to complying with state directives appears to be just as parent leader Sam Radford describes it: Do as little as possible with as little effort as possible and hope the problem goes away. But the problem isn’t the state’s relentless demands for improvement, it is the futures of its students that the school district is sacrificing with its unwillingness to act with commitment.
The latest evidence of the district’s deficiencies arrived Monday in a letter from the State Education Department to Buffalo Superintendent Pamela C. Brown. In it, Assistant Commissioner for Education Ira Schwartz rejected the district’s plan to allow families who want to transfer their children from a low-performing city school to one in good standing.
Parents have that right of transfer, but so many Buffalo schools are substandard that there are few slots available. That doesn’t matter, the Education Department ruled in May. It demanded then that the district submit a corrective action plan by the end of June documenting how it would achieve that requirement.
On June 28, the district submitted a plan, all of seven pages long, to allow those transfers. On Monday the Education Department sent the plan back, concluding that it “lacks sufficient detail in terms of goals, progress targets, activities, time lines, documentation and measurement strategies for the department to conclude that the BPS plan” will bring the district into compliance with the state’s directive.
Those are significant shortcomings, and are right in line with the district’s approach to other requirements set down by the state, including an agreement on teacher evaluations, plans for school improvements and other issues. The district’s failures are chronic and, evidently, unique.
Just last week, the Education Department intervened at East and Lafayette high schools, noting that the district had failed three times to produce acceptable turnaround plans for the distressed schools. And while some school officials complain that the state is picking on Buffalo, King retorted: “If they can’t figure out how to submit an approvable plan for improvement in these schools, then they are unlike other districts around the state that have figured that out.”
The requirement to hammer out a teacher evaluation system was similarly snake-bitten, though in that the efforts of the dysfunctional district were hampered by its collusion with the dysfunctional teachers union. In the end, the district produced a plan that contained a poison pill: a secret side agreement with the union pledging that evaluation results would not be used in making employment decisions.
Under pressure from the state, the district backed out of the agreement, and later so did the union. That leaves the district in limbo, and under threat of losing millions of dollars in government assistance.
Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, said on Monday that despite the district’s ongoing failures, he believes it now has all the tools it needs to turn around the district. Those tools include help from private-sector groups such as Say Yes to Education and the arrival of a new School Board whose freshman members seem committed to breaking the pattern of non-achievement – by students, by the administration and by the School Board.
The first task has to be to deal with educational requirements correctly the first time. That would demonstrate not only professionalism, but a public commitment to the hard work of improving student performance.
To do that, the board and administration need to aim their efforts carefully before they pull the trigger. In that way they can shoot straight with the Education Department, with parents and with students who today are the district’s unwilling targets.