I am almost speechless regarding the events of this past week. Governor Andrew Cuomo issued his State of the State Address, which included his plans for “educational reform”. The Governor, in a graphic and stunning illustration of the old adage, “politics make strange bedfellows”, has joined Carl Paladino and his cohorts, who advocate the “disassembling” of the Buffalo Public Schools; label our children as failures; demonize our teachers; and champion the myth of the redemptive value of charter schools.
I have been writing this column for about six months. When I started it, I entitled it “Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads” because I believed that the District had reached a critical juncture. We could go in one direction: movement to develop a reasoned strategic plan, conceivably including pushback on unfair mandates from the State Education Department, to correct our problems. Or, we could take the path advocated by the new Board majority to dismantle our public education system. Frankly, our best opportunity to take the road leading to incremental but steady growth in student achievement was diminished when Dr. Pamela Brown was forced to resign as Superintendent. Unfortunately it now appears that we are being pushed down the latter path, thanks to powerful and moneyed forces that support the “disassemblers”. Robert Bennett, Board of Regents Chancellor Emeritus, Chancellor Merryl Tisch, local banker Robert Wilmers, and as noted the Governor are all weighing in on the urgency of “fixing” Buffalo’s failing schools. Today, we are at the crossroads as well as in the crosshairs, referencing the increased targeting of our District by these powerful and influential detractors.
Now, I’m not a “whiner”, nor an “apologist”, nor “unrealistic” when it comes to the Buffalo Schools and the serious problems and challenges that have beset this district for decades. Unlike that nameless Board member, who several years ago uttered the words, the “State Education Department is picking on Buffalo”, I have not made that claim, at least not publicly until now. But I believe that the District has been the subject of unfair and overly focused attention as the crucible in which all negative attributes of “failing” schools are conjured up for display.
The District received no credit for positive accomplishment, such as a significant increase in graduation rates over the last two years and incremental growth in some of our schools that resulted in their movement to the list of “schools in good standing”. Also, when have you last seen any, in depth reporting of the arbitrary changes by the State in cut scores (those scores that determine pass/fail on the standardized tests) or a presentation on the merits of those standardized tests, which are used to test all children regardless of language proficiency or educational ability? Or what about the mandate to send students from East and Lafayette to BOCES, which resulted in few positive gains for the students but a gain of nearly $500,000 for BOCES?
As for the Governor, like Chancellor Tisch, he too is pointing fingers at Buffalo. He agrees with Dr. Tisch in wanting to make it possible for the State to take over “failing” Districts, like Buffalo’s. He proposes increasing the number of charter schools, apparently believing that they have the answers to resolving our educational problems. He also is in favor of continuing to use “high stakes” standardized tests. They’re called “high stakes” because they not only determine student proficiency upon which school success or failure is based, but he plans to assign a greater significance to the use of these tests to evaluate teachers and determine employment opportunities, tenure and salary. “Aaron Pallas of Teachers College says it is unfair to use the Common Core test scores to gauge achievement because they have a different passing mark from the previous tests. Only 30% passed the Common Core tests, but the year before, 80% were passing. The teachers didn't suddenly get worse. The State Commissioner decided to change the standards.” (Diane Ravitch’s Blog)
And most disturbing, the Governor calls for breaking “one of the only remaining public monopolies,” referring to public education, while he’d increase the number of charter schools but not call for increased accountability of these privately run, publicly funded institutions. Finally, it appears to make little difference that Buffalo is listed as the third poorest city in the Nation and that poverty correlates with student educational success or that New York State has been named as the most segregated in the Nation exacerbating the poverty impact. We are in the crosshairs and those taking aim, plan to strip our communities of inclusion/participation in the public education system.