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Buffalo’s low state test scores are higher than those in Rochester and Syracuse. But according to the state education commissioner, Buffalo’s educational leadership is so weak that it may stand less of a chance of turning things around than other upstate cities that are currently doing worse.

“Rochester and Syracuse are struggling with performance, for sure,” said Commissioner John B. King Jr. in a conference call with the Buffalo News Editorial Board. “Two major differences: Both of those superintendents in Rochester and Syracuse have been very clear with their community that they can, and must, do better. In fact, the Rochester superintendent pointed to what’s happening in Buffalo to call for a sense of urgency in Rochester around improving performance.”

Last month, Rochester City Schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas used Buffalo as an example of the harsh consequences that could be imposed if a school district can’t get its act together in repeating his warning that Rochester needs to work harder to improve its schools faster.

Rochester had the worst student performance of any of the Big Five urban school districts in the state, with only 5 percent of its students meeting or exceeding proficiency levels in English and math on the new Common Core assessment exams given to children in grades 3 through 8.

Buffalo’s scores were 9.6 percent on the math exams and 11.5 percent on the English exams, placing Buffalo third among the Big Five districts.

King called Buffalo’s test results “dire” but not unexpected. He did, however, take issue with much of the negative rhetoric coming from the community and local leaders as a result of his mandate that two struggling high schools, East and Lafayette, be forced to partner with Erie 1 BOCES.

The fundamental problem for Buffalo, he said, is the willingness of so many to embrace the idea that Buffalo students can’t do better because of outside factors. Those are excuses that he doesn’t hear coming out of other large, underperforming districts, he said.

There are three things underperforming school districts need in order to raise student achievement, he said.

“One significant factor is certainly a matter of belief: Do you or do you not believe that students can achieve at high levels?” he said. “Do adults believe that even students who face the challenges of poverty or recent arrival to the United States – do they believe that students can achieve at high levels? Unfortunately, I think we’ve heard, in the discourse in Buffalo in recent weeks, supremely strong assertions from people who don’t have that belief that students can achieve.”

The second thing districts need is better quality instruction, he said. That’s the reason behind the state’s adoption of the national Common Core Learning Standards and its requirement that districts adopt teacher and principal evaluation agreements in order to receive an increase in state funding last school year.

Finally, he said, there are out-of-school factors like poverty and other social and cultural deficits that put children at greater risk for failure. Buffalo education defenders tend to focus on this alone, he said.

“Too often, across those three factors, people will defend lack of belief and lack of quality instruction by blaming the out-of-school factors,” he said. “I think that’s a mistake. We’ve got to address all three.”

He also faulted Buffalo’s educational leadership on two fronts: For repeatedly failing to live up to its obligations to the state by submitting incomplete and unacceptable school improvement plans, and for failing to present to the public a strong educational vision for how the district will grow student achievement.

Instead of proactive leadership, he said, the district has a history of repeatedly “shading the facts.” He cited the side agreement with the Buffalo Teachers Federation regarding teacher evaluations and exaggerated claims regarding the district’s career and technical education programs.

Comparatively, Rochester’s leaders have clearly stated that improving student achievement is a matter of urgency, he said, “and they have organized their central office staff to deliver high quality, approvable applications that describe improvement plans in those schools. Now, there are other obstacles in those buildings, but at least at a leadership level, the leadership has been different.”

Superintendent Pamela C. Brown did not return to a call seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

She has previously stated that improving student achievement is a priority and announced Wednesday that the district’s preliminary, on-time graduation rate for this year has improved to 53 percent, up from 47 percent.

King, however, referred to a series of Buffalo school district shortcomings that have drawn headlines in recent weeks:

• The district’s repeated failure to submit acceptable school turnaround grant applications for East and Lafayette high schools, costing the district millions of dollars in federal grant money.

• The district’s failure to submit an acceptable school choice plan that clearly outlines how the district will accommodate all transfer requests from families interested in moving their children out of an underperforming school and into a school in good standing,

• The district’s submission last month of an obviously incomplete grant application for Highgate Heights Elementary School 80, that substitutes a memorandum of understanding for a signed contract agreement with Westminster Foundation as its educational partnership organization.

The district was required to submit a revised school choice plan today. It must also submit to the state a new school improvement plan for East and Lafayette by Monday. That plan must include a partnership with BOCES, but does not prohibit the district from also partnering with Johns Hopkins University.

For more on this story, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone email: stan@buffnews.com