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Looking back through rose-colored glasses, it’s easy to remember the 1980s as a glorious era of Buffalo education when experts came from all over to view the city’s successful school desegregation program.

Fast-forward to today’s opening, and the district is an educational mess.

How did things go downhill so fast? Or were schools really not that great back then, but we just didn’t know it?

Robert Bennett, local member of the state Board of Regents, posits that there really wasn’t a good assessment system in place back then. He points to the introduction of state learning standards in the mid-1990s as the “beginning of a very important era in school accountability.” It put an end to the charade of local diplomas that signified little in the way of real academic achievement.

In that sense, ignorance was bliss – though it didn’t do much for graduates.

But others point to a district that was, in fact, performing better back then, thanks in no small part to infusions of federal and state aid targeted to help disadvantaged students as part of the court-monitored desegregation effort.

“That’s why everything was going like gangbusters, because we had all of these resources to provide special programs,” said teachers union head Philip Rumore, who was in the classroom back then and remembers money for school psychologists and other supports.

That’s in contrast to now, when schools struggle to even restore attendance teachers.

Lloyd Hargrave, a longtime parent activist, also believes that city schools really were better when the district was riding the coattails of the desegregation effort.

“You had building leadership that really cared about what happened to kids. In most cases, principals really ran their schools,” said Hargrave, who calls most of today’s principals “managers” who, with some exceptions, don’t know much about instruction.

Hargrave recalled leading a group of Title I parents in the mid-1970s who negotiated an agreement with the district covering how parents would be involved in their child’s education. He called it a time of much greater transparency and professionalism that translated into better schools.

He might be right. On the state’s 1992 report card, for instance, district reading and math scores were comparable to the statewide averages. The assessments were less discerning, and everyone looked good, but at least the district held its own.

By 1998-99, the first year of the state’s modern report card covering math and English in fourth and eighth grades, the district’s performance matched the state’s in fourth-grade math. But in the other three comparisons, the percentage of Buffalo students reaching proficiency ranged from two-thirds to three-quarters of the state average.

By 2011-12, in tests covering grades 3 through 8, the gaps had grown. Buffalo students reached proficiency at only about half the rate of students statewide.

So education at least looks better looking backward.

But something else was different then, too: a belief in activism coming off the ’60s and ’70s. If schools were better, maybe it was because an activist public would accept nothing less.

That’s one part of a halcyon past that can be recaptured. The desegregation money from the ’80s won’t come back, but the growing sense of activism can.

email: rwatson@buffnews.com