Monday, September 29, 2014

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: The Myth of Failing Schools_Are You Smarter than a 3rd Grader?

For the last few weeks I have been writing about the impact that the New York State Standardized Assessments:  the ELA (English Language Arts) and Math Tests have on how our schools are categorized – Good Standing, Focus and Priority.  This will be the last in the series on this issue for now.  But before I leave this subject I thought my readers would be interested in getting a first-hand look at an actual test question (space does not permit more).  The State Education Department released a sampling of the 2014 tests in August and you can find these questions and rationales used for grading each test at

The ELA Tests are principally made up of long reading passages.  The paragraphs in the articles are numbered and students are given multiple choice questions or are asked to write short answer responses.  The multiple choice questions give four possible answers.  Students need to reference the article in order to provide their answer.  The Math tests combine word problems along with questions based on charts, graphs and other visuals.  Here is an example from the 3rd grade Math Test.

The ELA and Math Tests are given to all children in the schools, across New York State.  That includes students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency.  While these students are given some accommodations, e.g. students with disabilities are given more time to finish the tests, they take the SAME tests.  This means that other than extended time, there is no substantial differentiation in the tests themselves for students who have different levels of ability.

The ELA tests are given over a three day period during one week followed by the Math tests over the same period during the following week or two.  The testing series takes about an hour and a half for each day of testing.  The tests are timed, so this adds added stress to the test taking process for students who have test anxiety or do not do well on timed tests.  There are many more issues regarding student response to these tests.  For example, many parents in Buffalo and other Districts have decided to have their children “Opt-out” of the testing.

Over the next few weeks I will be asking teachers for feedback on their experiences with their students and will share those in a future article.  If you are a teacher and want to share your experiences; bad and good with the New York State ELA and Math Tests, Grades 3-8, please email me at

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Myth of Failing Schools: The Case of Houghton Academy #69– An Injustice or Just Plain Dumb?

September 21, 2014

For the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring the myth of our “failing schools”.  I want to be clear; I am not offering an argument opposing the fact that we have serious problems in our schools.  But the issues contributing to poor student achievement are complex and should not be defined solely through the lens of standardized tests.   Yet, detractors are quick to cite these test statistics as a rationale to justify the labeling of our schools and the children in them as “failing”.

Each year, the New York State Education Department compels children in grades 3 thru 8 to take standardized tests that measure English Language Arts (ELA) and Math proficiency.   High school students take regents exams in these subjects, in addition to other subjects.   As such these tests are used as the basis to assess and categorize our schools as:  good standing, focus or priority (with priority being the schools with the lowest tests results).  Again, it’s important to point out that all students, with few exceptions, take these standardized tests.  That includes students with disabilities and students who have limited English proficiency. 

The tests were changed radically in 2012-13 to conform to the new Common Core Learning Standards.  The result was a precipitous drop in the percentage of students, across the State, who ranked at the proficient or exceeds proficient levels.   In fact, only about 30% of all students scored at these levels. The 2013-2014 tests produced negligible growth, particularly in the ELA exam results.  None the less, Buffalo’s International School #45 and Houghton Academy, School 69 both demonstrated “historical growth”, based on the standardized measures and other growth measures over a period of time. This warranted both schools being moved to the Schools in Good Standing List.  But, and here’s the irony or the insanity of the system, the District could not move Houghton Academy to a School in Good Standing without moving a current Good Standing School from that list to the Focus List! 

When Board members received this information, we were dumbfounded.  Why?  The explanation lies in the State’s submission of a Waiver request to the Federal government.  Now, I admit that I don’t understand the details of this Waiver.  I even posed the question to Commissioner John King last week during his visit to Buffalo.  He gave me an explanation but it’s really not any clearer.  I will have a conversation with a State Education Department member this week so I have a better understanding.  The bottom line, however, is that the Buffalo School District is deprived of having another school moved to the School in Good Standing List.  Not because the school, its students, its teachers and administrators have not earned this designation but because there are bureaucratic guidelines in place which will not permit the move, unless we penalize a current school in good standing by placing it on the Focus School list.  It doesn’t make sense!

So, here are my questions to the Commissioner and his staff, “How do we incentivize individual schools to improve student achievement when they may not get moved to the Good Standing School list because of a bureaucratic impediment?”  “How can a District like Buffalo be properly recognized for improvement?”  “With this system, how will we ever move the District forward, school by school, to one that has many schools in good standing?”   “What do we tell Houghton Academy about why their achievement did not get the proper recognition they deserve?”  If you have other questions, please email me and let me know, so I can pose those too?  Send mail to

The Myth of Failing Schools: Part 2

September 14, 2014

We all know that tests and testing are an integral part of our educational system.  In fact we’ve all taken our share of tests, no matter how far we’ve gone in the system.   Certainly there is a place and a rationale for educational testing.  Tests measure student growth from one point in time to another, e.g. from the beginning of the year (or class) until the end or at points in between.  Testing can also be diagnostic; to identify gaps in student learning or to determine areas of need for a specific student or group of students.  Teachers can use the information from this form of testing to target instruction or develop individualized strategies to accommodate a student’s differential learning needs.  Testing, however, is also used to assess overall student achievement in individual schools or in an entire school district.  And recently, we also see the use of testing as a tool to evaluate teacher effectiveness and competency.

When the conversation is about “failing schools”, however, the tests most often cited are the standardized ELA (English Language Arts) and Math tests that students in grades 3-8 take annually.  Students across the state take the same tests so that the State can compare the students in Buffalo to the students in Williamsville to the students in Rochester or Syracuse for example.  And according to the State’s newly adopted Common Core Learning Standards, these tests “more accurately reflect students’ progress toward college and career readiness.” Students are ranked, as a result of their scores, in levels 1-4.  Level 1 = well below proficient in the standards for this grade level, Level 2 = below proficient, Level 3 = proficient and Level 4 = excels.  Children with special needs and children with limited English proficiency also take these tests with little to no compensation for their needs.

In 2012-2013 the State Education Department changed these tests to align with the new Common Core Learning Standards.  The result was that student scores plummeted across the state.  Even children in Districts that had consistently scored high level 3s and 4s experienced a major drop in their rankings.  Only 31.3% of students scored proficient or excels on the ELA, while 31.2% obtained those ranks in Math.  In Buffalo, our students scored 12.1% in ELA and 11.4% in Math.  We scored higher than students in Rochester (5.6% and 4.8%) and Syracuse (8.5% and 7.2%).  Scores did not improve appreciably in 2013-2014 when state-wide scores for ELA were 31.4% and 35.8% for Math.  Buffalo’s scores also showed modest gains, ELA score rose to 12.2% matching the one tenth of a percent gain statewide and the Math score went to 13.1%.  Again compared to our sister Western New York cities, Rochester students scored 5.7% in ELA and 6.8% in Math; while Syracuse posted the same score in ELA, 8.5% and Math at 7.6%.

So why does all of this matter?  Let’s set the record straight.  Too often, people including some Board of Education members recklessly label our schools as failing as a result of the scores on these standardized tests.   Remember that these are standardized tests that ALL students take, with almost no exception.  There was a time when African American and other minority group members questioned the validity of standardized testing with our children.

Issues of cultural bias and relevance of these tests were questioned.  Today the questions are broad-based and go to the issues of instructional time spent on test preparation instead of teaching; on tests that tell us little about the individual child as they are not diagnostic; of subjecting children to long hours of testing that  frustrate and demoralize them; the use of testing based on new standards (the Common Core Learning Standards) that have not yet been validated; the promotion of these tests almost exclusively benefiting one testing company; the use of these tests as measures of teacher effectiveness and competence (again a new idea, as yet unsubstantiated as credible). 

By raising these questions I am not ignoring or minimizing the problems we have in student achievement gaps in our schools.  We do have a lot of work to do to improve student learning.  But it’s time that local educators, parents and interested community members have an open dialogue about the Common Core Learning Standards, the use of the accompanying standardized tests and how they affect our children ; how they’re used, what they tell us, and how they inform the education of our children.  Let’s clear up the myths, half-truths and labeling of our schools and the children in them.

The Myth of Failing Schools – Part I

September 7, 2014

Let me begin with a disclaimer.  I do not believe that the Buffalo Schools are meeting the challenge of educating all of our children to reach their potential.  In fact, this is not new news as the District has struggled for many years to increase student achievement.   Yet we were beginning to see incremental progress under Superintendent Dr. Pamela Brown. (That’s a whole other article, however)  Even the new Interim Superintendent, Don Ogilvie has admitted that there has been positive movement in the right direction.  However, too often the District is described only by referencing its struggling schools.  “The Buffalo Schools has 47 failing schools!” is the refrain most often exclaimed.  

I take exception to this statement because it reduces the very complex problem of student achievement to one baseless accusation.  It ignores the impact of poverty and other social problems that affect our community.  Further, it is an insensitive remark that targets not only the schools but all the children in them as “failing”.  I vigorously protest such reckless and pejorative labeling of our children and their schools.  Yet, when I and others object to this outlandish claim, we’re often ridiculed as making excuses for the District and by implication, the incompetent and lazy teachers. 

Those of us who raise these concerns are portrayed as people who want to maintain the status quo and have something to gain personally by doing so.  Nothing could be further from the truth.
I believe that parents and concerned citizens should understand the process that is used to determine school rankings so we can have an honest dialogue.  Schools are ranked as Priority, Focus or Schools in Good Standing.  The primary basis used by the State to rate school success is through student achievement on standardized tests and other measures.  A Priority school is one which is within the bottom 5 percent of public schools, based on measures including high school graduation rates persistently below 60 percent or low performance on English Language Arts (ELA) and Math tests.

The second group of schools is classified as Focus Schools.  These schools are determined by a two part process starting with identification of districts with lowest-performing subgroups, such as low-income students, racial or ethnic groups, students with disabilities or English language learners. Districts then single out Focus Schools within the districts.  Schools in Good Standing have met the requirements set by the State Education Department again as determined by the standardized tests, graduation rates and other measures.  The Buffalo School District has 27 Priority Schools, 16 Focus Schools and 12 Schools in Good Standing.  This year International School #45 has now come off the list and is recognized as a school in good standing.

It’s important to note that a few years ago the designations for school progress were different.  At one time terms such as “Schools in Need of Improvement” and “Persistently Low Achieving Schools” were used.  The standardized tests have also gone through a transition and from time to time, the “cut” scores (the passing grade) were changed.  In other words, for the purpose of identifying a school district’s success their student’s progress is determined by “standardized measures”.  In fact these measures have become so central to school achievement, not just for the students but there is an attempt to relate teacher performance to student performance on these tests, making these tests not just a measure of student progress but a high stakes measure of overall .  The new Common CORE standards have raised these tests outcomes to a new level of importance that will be discussed in a future article.

Thanks to/for the Black Press

 August 30, 2014

In 1827 the Black Press was launched with the pronouncement:  “Too long have others spoken for us…We wish to plead our own cause.”  The publication of “Freedom’s Journal” marked a movement that spread across this country and continues to the present day.  In Buffalo, the history of the Black Press is carried on by two legendary papers, the “Buffalo Criterion” and the “Buffalo Challenger”.  Each has an impressive history and continues to articulate the challenge established by “Freedom’s Journal”.  In a city dominated by one major newspaper, we are indebted to the Black press for providing a platform that ensures our community is not held hostage to the slanted and biased reporting of that publication.

The most recent case in point is illustrated by the Buffalo News’ article on the August 27th special Board of Education meeting.  It appears that a new strategy was employed in reporting on this meeting – just ignore many of the events that took place all together. There was nothing in the article about the fact that the meeting was held at the uncommon hour of 9:00 am; nothing about the fact that the Board room was packed by an audience of 60 to 70 individuals; nothing about the vocal protestations from many of these community members opposing the actions of the majority Board members.

There was nothing about the presentation by Dr. Constance Moss (named only as a “local consultant”) of her proposed reorganization plan for Bennett High School; nothing about the  Interim Superintendent’s “recommendation turned resolution” that was objected to because it was procedurally flawed; nothing about the vote of the majority to “receive and file” Dr. Moss’ proposal, pay her for work completed but end her contract early; nothing about the vocal opposition of the four minority members of the Board to this resolution; nothing about the concerns voiced by these same members about their continued exclusion from information shared with the majority members of the Board leading to decisions arrived at long before the official vote is taken…and I could go on but by now you get the picture.

I was there and couldn't believe that this article was reporting on the meeting I attended!  I have heard from many others who attended the meeting and share this perspective.  However, thanks to this newspaper, I’m able to share a true picture of the events of the August 27th board meeting. The Black press, now joined by the Black electronic media, e.g. WUFO radio, is as needed today as it was over 180 years ago.  Our local publications need and deserve community support.  I thank the editors/publishers of these publications for the opportunity to share these articles with their readers and I urge everyone reading this article to continue to help maintain these papers and other media.

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: Another Voice Raises Questions about the New Majority’s “Vision Statement”

August 23, 2014

Several weeks ago I wrote about the “Vision Statement” issued by new Buffalo School Board President James Sampson.  I raised a number of concerns that I and fellow members of the minority Board had regarding this document and the way in which it was presented.  On July 2, one day after the new Board was sworn in Mr. Sampson e-mailed this five-page “Vision Statement” to Board members.  Although he claimed the Statement was intended to “guide our discussions and decision making over the coming year”, the Board has yet to discuss the Statement. However signs of the implementation of some tenets are evident, e.g. the appointment of the new Interim Superintendent.

The Saturday tour of Bennett High School, given to several members of Tapestry Charter School and the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, by Board Member Larry Quinn also raises concerns about the suggestion in the Vision about “expanding high performing charter schools.”  Mr. Quinn has not said why he gave the tour, why it took place on a Saturday and why other members of the Buffalo Board were not made aware of this tour or its purpose. The District has been directed to re-organize Bennett High or face State ordered closure of the school.  Dr. Constance Moss has been working to develop a plan, with stakeholder input, for the restructure of the school.  There was great opposition to using Dr. Moss as a consultant by the majority members of the Board and it doesn't appear that this opposition has changed. The Board will determine if the plan should be forwarded to the State at a special board meeting on August 27th.  The deadline for state receipt of the proposed re-structuring of Bennett is September 1, 2014.

As for the Vision Statement, others are questioning this document and what it means for the future direction of the District as well as the factors that will impact its implementation.  Specifically, what financial impact will several proposed components and actions have on the economic health of the District?  What financial plans are being developed to address these questions? That’s what the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority (BFSA) wants to know.  For example, the Vision Statement suggests a “New Deal for Teachers”.  This new deal calls for a contract that includes:  “increased base pay; merit pay, health care reform, work rule reform and professional development.”  Another section cites “right-sizing facilities; management and organizational restructure; system and technology; interscholastic athletic program” among other areas for restructuring.   

I believe that the financial ramifications are enormous.  In a letter dated August 15th, the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority raised a number of important questions regarding how these fiscal issues will be addressed.  Noting the requirement of the BFSA to “review the financial plan and make determination as to whether or not the financial plan is complete and complies with the provisions of the BFSA Act 3857, subd. 2”, the BFSA has rightfully reminded the Interim Superintendent, Board President and the Board of the District’s responsibility to be accountable for actions that impact the District’s annual and 4-year financial plans.

School Board members have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that resources are used appropriately, responsibly, ethically and legally.  The proposals contained in the new majority’s Vision Statement require the School Board’s thorough study and consideration of a whole host of issues, including fiscal, as integral to any of these proposed changes; Prior to Implementation.  There also needs to be a call for public comment.  I’m pleased to see that others are taking the proposals, as advanced in Mr. Sampson’s Vision Statement, seriously and requiring open, transparent and honest communication regarding the Statement and its proposed outcomes.

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: Buffalo News Gets it Wrong, Still!

July 31, 2014

If we lived our lives guided only by the information printed in the Buffalo News, we’d be living in an alternate universe.  One in which down is up, left is right and the new brown is black, for example.  The News would have us believe that the feature stories and editorials on the School District are “fair and balanced”, to borrow a phrase from another media outlet.  Yet, too often these stories and the companion editorials distort the truth, omit facts that do not support the slant the News wants to portray and most importantly purport to reflect responsible journalism.  The July 25th front page story lauding the New Majority Majority for reaching out to stakeholders and the follow up regurgitation in Saturday’s editorial (July 26th) illustrate this point.

The News is anxious to commend the new majority for reaching out to external as well as internal groups.  Citing members of the old majority as among the internal groups to whom the new members reached out, the News lamented “what more the new leaders could have done” to sooth the “still seething” old majority, now minority members.  The News failed to acknowledge that the “reaching out” was not a one-way street.  No one was rebuffed in this effort. The minority members were open to meeting with the new members to determine how we could work collaboratively in the best interests of our students and families.

But then in the same article, the News made a statement that “Most encouragingly, the new majority has made a point of including members of the board minority in decision making.”  Excuse me?  Oh, I forget, here’s another instance of that alternate universe experience.  The News continued, “The exception was the appropriately fast decision to hire Donald A. Ogilvie as interim superintendent.”  The Board of Education has the authority and responsibility to search, recruit, hire, supervise and evaluate ONE employee; the District’s Superintendent.  That is the responsibility of all nine members not just five.  The exclusion of four members from that process demonstrated poor governance, lack of transparency, violation of Board policy and ethics.  Further four public officers were denied the ability to represent thousands of Buffalo constituents.  It was a disgraceful act and one that flaunted the power of the five.  What would have been the response of the News and others, if the old majority had acted in the same privileged manner?  But then it appears that the “appropriately fast decision” was needed so that less than two weeks after his appointment Mr. Ogilvie could take off the week of July 21st.

As always there is much more that can be addressed but I will just point out one other misrepresentation in the News’ account of the “reaching out” process.  The old majority is accused of taking an “imperial approach” regarding seeking meetings with New York State Education Commissioner John King.  I speak from firsthand knowledge as the Board President who tried to get a meeting with Dr. King on several occasions beginning soon after my election in July 2013.  I had a personal conversation with Dr. King during which I requested a meeting.  The response was not a gracious one, so I will not repeat it here, but subsequently due to the intervention of Regent Robert Bennett, I tried to set up several meetings between myself, Dr. King and Dr. Brown to be held in Buffalo or Albany.  Dr. King’s concerns about attracting media attention resulted in these meetings never materializing.

I think that we should have no illusions about the Buffalo News.  These stories and editorials are purposeful and intended to support the agenda of the New Majority Majority and their supporters.  Let’s be clear, however, about the motives of the members of the old majority, henceforth the new minority.  We are just as committed to improving student achievement, resolving conflicts with stakeholders, reaching out to form inclusive alliances that will support our schools and more, as are the members of the New Majority Majority.  But we will not be complacent when attempts are made to exclude us or silence our voices.  As I noted earlier, reaching out only works when someone else reaches back.  It takes both actions to accomplish change.