Last Friday’s announcement that Dr. John B. King, Jr will be appointed Acting US Secretary of Education has generated much speculation about what this could mean for the Buffalo Schools. Both his supporters and critics can envision the positives and negatives associated with Dr. King’s powerful new role. And given his prior history with, focus on and knowledge of the challenges of urban districts, Buffalo as a prime example, one can imagine that the city schools may receive special attention from the new Secretary.
Contrary to popular belief, however, Buffalo is not unique in this state or in the country for that matter for the distinction of having a school district with serious problems. Yet Dr. King will undoubtedly call on his New York State experience and use Buffalo and other urban districts (Rochester and Syracuse) as exemplars of his philosophy of how to fix “failing schools”. He doesn’t officially assume his position until December. In the meantime, both his record in New York State and his blueprint for the direction he will take US SED will be the subjects of further conversation and scrutiny. As for his Buffalo record, let me remind the readers of a few of Dr. King’s decisions that adversely affected our School District.
Remember: as the Commissioner, he made the phrase “building the plane, while flying it”, describing the implementation of the Common Core and its accompanying high stakes testing system, the rallying cry for every questionable educational “reform” idea that is poorly conceived and even more poorly implemented. The current approach to create Receivership schools is another example of the mentality that produced the former expression. In fact it appears that the State Education Department under its present leadership is continuing to walk in the path(s) built by John King.
Remember: as the Commissioner, he forced the District to send East and Lafayette High School students to BOCES for CTE (vocational) programs, many of which are offered in the District. This unfunded mandate cost the District nearly $8,000 in tuition for each student (almost double the expense to offer the same vocational course in the District). The results? In 2013-14: 33 of 77 (43%) students sent to BOCES passed their courses. The following year, 2014-15, 52 of 96 students or 54% were on track to complete the BOCES classes. In contrast, the graduation rate for students completing programs in the Buffalo CTE schools exceeds 86%.
Remember: as the Commissioner, he appointed Dr. Judy Elliott, in 2012, as the Distinguished Educator. She was reappointed in 2013 and 2014. She was hired “to assess the learning environment in the District's Persistently Lowest Achieving and Priority Schools, serve as ex-officio member of the District’s Board of Education, and review and make recommendations regarding the plans developed by the District for its Persistently Lowest Achieving and Priority Schools”. This is another State mandate that cost the District $110,000 to $120,000 for each year of this consultancy.
During her tenure, Dr. Elliott developed action plans but it remains to be seen what improvement has resulted from this work. In fact, given the continued pressure on the District during her term and impending Receivership, one would have to conclude that Dr. Elliott has not helped the District to improve its priority and focus schools. It should be noted that the evaluation of Dr. Elliott’s performance is the purview of the Commissioner. However, as with her appointment the Board has never been consulted regarding her performance. And to my knowledge, no evaluation has been shared or made public by the Commissioner. What does this say about the equity of the State’s accountability standards? Buffalo was used as the testing ground for a new strategy that didn’t work for us and since no other District in the State has a DE apparently is not a workable strategy for school improvement anywhere.
A year ago, last December; the picture was very different for Dr. King. He left the New York State Education Department for Washington. Supporters lamented his leaving but there were many opponents who thought it was time for a change. I wrote a column at the time and since we’re remembering Dr. King, the Commissioner of NY SED, here is the concluding paragraph:
Will Dr. King be missed? Most certainly. Should we be worried? Not in the least. His legacy, not just in Buffalo but across this state is one of oppressive mandates, seemingly personal petty politics, failure to dialogue with parents and other stakeholders, insistence on imposing the Common Core and incessant standardized testing tied to teacher evaluation and other “reforms” that have not been validated. The results, however, have been detrimental to the educational system statewide. So as Dr. King exits the State Education Department and the Regents begins a national search, we must be vigilant to demand that the next Commissioner provide the open, transparent and honest interaction that has been demanded of us.
As Dr. King takes the reins of his new position, I think the last sentence could easily apply to him as public education advocates across this nation will demand accountability, transparency and communication with the incoming Secretary. I look forward to Dr. King’s next visit to the Buffalo Public Schools. His dialogue with the Board should be quite interesting; that is if he meets with all of us.