During a visit to Buffalo just nine days into her tenure, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told the School Board, in no uncertain terms, that we needed to fix the schools or she would use all the authority at her disposal to do it for us. Between that first visit on July 17th and last week when the District received a second visit from the Commissioner, a flurry of activity has taken place. New State regulations have designated 25 Buffalo Schools as receivership Schools under the authority of the Superintendent (for now). Plans are underway to create models that will show “demonstrable improvement” for those schools in the coming year. The Board has also hired a new Superintendent, Dr. Kriner Cash, whose appointment received active and unprecedented endorsement from the Commissioner. It would appear that the District is on track to addressing the significant issues identified by the Commissioner. So, it was somewhat of a surprise that Commissioner Elia scheduled a second visit to our schools the day after Labor Day. This visit may be a signal that given the Commissioner’s Western New York roots and her strong pronouncements about the District’s future, we can anticipate greater activism on her part with respect to Buffalo’s schools.
Unlike the first visit during which time was set aside to meet with the Board and members of the DPCC, the Commissioner focused her attention on two “persistently struggling schools”, South Park and Burgard. She addressed her questions and concerns about these schools to the principals and their staffs. She also met separately with several groups of district staff stakeholders: City Hall administrators, representative principals and teachers, including the respective union leaders of the latter two groups. Accompanied by Regent Catherine Collins, Ms. Elia spent the day in these District meetings. Although not specifically invited to attend these sessions, I joined the Commissioner and Dr. Collins at South Park and Burgard as well as the principal meeting. In contrast to her predecessor, she has been open to meeting with members of the Buffalo Board and to my knowledge has provided equal access. Board member Paladino also attended the meetings held at South Park High School.
The Commissioner was blunt regarding her assessment of the situation at Burgard and South Park High Schools. She came armed with data regarding teacher effectiveness ratings and student performance as measured by standardized tests. Wasting no time, she told Burgard and South Park staffs that she discerned a “disconnect” between these two measures. She said that while the majority of teachers, in both schools, were evaluated as effective or highly effective, student achievement was not correspondingly ranked. In other words, students with effective teachers are expected to receive test scores that mirror their teachers’ ratings. How did they explain this discrepancy, she queried? The staff members were hard pressed to respond. Her assertion about this disconnect and her question left no doubt that the Commissioner believes that there is a “connect” between these two measures. Although, not a subject for in-depth discussion, the pointed attention given this issue communicated the Commissioner’s support for the hotly contested teacher evaluation system pushed by the Governor and the Legislature.
The Commissioner continued with inquiries about professional development opportunities; administrative follow-up on compliance; and implementation of teaching strategies resulting from the PD. She also asked about concrete strategies that were being instituted to improve student attendance and parental engagement, for example. Demonstrating her knowledge and grasp of best practices, the Commissioner offered a number of suggestions for consideration in improving attendance and other outcomes.
Following up on the Commissioner’s focus on the teacher evaluation and high stakes testing, I asked her about State Ed’s response to the Opt Out movement. How will the refusal of the ELA and Math exams by over 220,000 students affect the validity of these tests in the future and their use for accountability? Given her previous comments on the teacher evaluation/high stakes test connection, the Commissioner’s answer was consistent. She responded that as I had noted the Opt Out movement did not have strong support in urban schools districts. Fewer children in these districts refused the tests; therefore the scores from last year’s tests could be compared to this year’s scores. No change is forthcoming, she said. The opportunity for dialogue on this issue was not offered and I dropped the subject, at that moment. However, I don’t believe that the answer to my question is as simplistic as the Commissioner indicated. There is a question of the validity of the ELA and Math tests, for a number of reasons; there is a question of the impact made by the Opt Out movement on the future use of high-stakes tests; and even though urban districts in the State, like Buffalo, had relatively few students opt out of the standardized testing, we are part of the New York State Education system. As the system is impacted, so are its parts.
Commissioner Elia’s visit was billed as a “listening tour”. Yet, her message carried more weight. Her message to Buffalo is unambiguous and has not changed since her first visit. She expects and education regulations demand “demonstrable improvement”, verified by data, in the “persistently struggling” and “struggling” schools. There is little to no tolerance for failure to achieve progress as defined by the State. And, apparently little room for dialogue that contradicts or questions the State narrative. As she told the staff at South Park, major shifts are required or “you will be taken over”. I can assure the Commissioner that we heard her. We would hope that she will hear the voices of the hundreds of thousands who do not share her vision. We encourage her to open a dialogue; to include more stakeholders, especially parents and community members; to consider the arguments against high stakes testing and to re-evaluate the Common Core Learning Standards. She has an opportunity to partner with Districts throughout the State in strengthening public education.
Commissioner Elia concluded her visit to Western New York at the Sweethome School District. The News reported that she thanked the teachers there for “all their work”. I didn’t hear any thanks to Buffalo teachers but I would suggest that on her next visit the Commissioner find an opportunity to acknowledge the work of these educators as well. That’s a message that needs communicating, too.