Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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.

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