Education Op-Ed: Predictable outcome: Buffalo’s board of education

by Bruce Adams

ILLUSTRATION BY JOSH FLANIGAN

Nothing.

The answer is “nothing.” This is the question: “What will the new majority on Buffalo’s Board of Education do for student achievement?”

Don’t get me wrong; the well-intentioned board has big plans to “overhaul” the system. They may indeed achieve some or all of their goals—which include closing so-called “failing” schools and distributing students in a shell game of obfuscation to private, charter, and suburban schools, where they will continue failing or passing at about the same rate. The board calls this reform, which appears to be code for privatizing as much of public education as possible, breaking the teacher’s union, and farming the biggest problems out to the state. None of these ideas have been found to be reliable and effective in other counties and states where they have been tried before.

In July, the board appointed former Erie 1 BOCES superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie as interim superintendent as it continues to search for a permanent district leader. Newly elected board member Larry Quinn reflects some board members’ thinking when he implies that a new superintendent would not necessarily need to be an educator, saying, “I think [the school district is] a very large business that has to be run.” This echoes a mindset among some school reformers that favors business experts over education professionals. But public education is not a business, and, where experimental schools have been run like businesses, the results have generally been disappointing.

Ogilvie is a highly respected administrator. But an administrator’s influence on student achievement is also highly limited. With the current emphasis on testing, most school officials struggle vainly under pressure to produce quick results. As a stand-in, Ogilvie is largely immune to this pressure. By the start of school he might well have made some administrative cuts that marginally improve the efficiency of an unwieldy and sometimes wasteful bureaucracy. He might replace a few principals, initiate charter schools, and urge the state to take over “failing” schools, none of which, research indicates, has significant impact on student achievement.

School boards are the sideshows of the education big top, sometimes creepily entertaining (like the dysfunctional Hamburg board), often full of carnie bluster, but functionally peripheral to student learning. The Buffalo board will hold more rancorous meetings, send out statements contradicting each other, and likely engage in union contract disputes (an oft-repeated act that usually ends badly for taxpayers), but they are largely unable, unwilling, and untrained to address the real problems facing schools. Carl Paladino said it best in an article in the Buffalo News: “We’re good, well-intentioned people, but we don’t know diddly about making schools better.” So why hire Ogilvie to carry out their ideology-driven reform plan—the educational equivalent of rearranging the furniture? Why not allow those who know significantly more than diddly to develop a plan based on sound research?

My non-clairvoyant prediction at the top of this essay is not intended to suggest that district graduation rates and test scores will fail to improve over the next few years. Though you would hardly imagine it from the media’s focus on the district’s problems, these indicators of success have been creeping upward for some time. Last June, it was reported that Buffalo made the greatest advances in graduation rates of the five largest districts in the state. This was during the tenure of now departed Superintendent Pamela Brown with the support of the former board majority. In the wake of a highly contentious board election, newly added members Larry Quinn and Patti Bowers Pierce joined existing members Jason McCarthy, Carl Paladino, and Jim Sampson to form a new majority whose first act was to force Brown to resign after two years on the job.

Improvement in graduation rates would have happened—as they have across the region, state, and nation—regardless of the particular superintendent in charge. The endemic nature of the improvement demonstrates that it has nothing to do with how districts are managed. Some progress likely results from improved teaching methodology; some may be due to a slowly building pro-schooling zeitgeist among a public enlightened by intensive media attention. However, the important thing to remember when you make predictions is that Buffalo students (when you include the ones shuffled around) will trail as far behind other local districts as always.

Former board member John Licata, who was defeated in the last election, is a major proponent of mandatory kindergarten. Though the board had no authority to enforce this, Licata influenced Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Mark Grisanti to sponsor a state bill that became law just as Licata left the board. A few years down the line, this tiny step should produce tangible dividends. It will not, however, be enough.

If the new board is not irrevocably committed to dismantling public education, it could take a page from John Licata’s playbook and promote sweeping statewide research-based initiatives that have been shown to produce dramatic results. For starters, they could aggressively pursue state funds Governor Cuomo has placed on the table for daylong pre-kindergarten classes. So far, these funds are inadequate for the whole state; only districts (mostly New York City so far) that precommit to a program receive them. School boards are understandably reluctant to commit to costly initiatives before they know how they will pay for them. A truly enlightened board could act as a powerful unified advocate for social reform that would radically improve student achievement and eventually boost city coffers as graduates land better jobs and rely less on socioeconomic safety nets. But, as the old business adage goes, you have to spend money to make money.

A clue to how this might be done came last June. Around the time the new board was negotiating Superintendent Brown’s costly resignation, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) made a major policy announcement. Going forward, it will urge its 62,000 members to vigorously advocate for reading to infants from birth. Why? The research-based AAP cares about student academic achievement. The educational importance of reading to children daily in their first three years cannot be understated. It is also well documented. In a major, oft-quoted 1995 study, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley looked at why children from low-income homes lag throughout their education well behind economically advantaged kids. It turns out that the offspring of wealthier professionals hear millions more words in their early years than children of low-income parents. This advantage results in learning gaps that appear as early as eighteen months. Significantly, pre-kindergarten programs fail to close these gaps, which then persist throughout the students’ education.

 

The AAP has also recommended keeping children away from TVs, computers, tablets, and any other screens for their first two years. A 2011 study states, “Children from higher-educated, upper-income families spend less time with media than other children do.” Researchers also know that poverty leads to poor nutrition, and poor nutrition negatively impacts student achievement. The AAP named poverty one of the greatest threats to child health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly linked academic success with health. None of these factors are within the control of public, charter, or private schools. Studies show that you can’t remediate away the effects of early childhood deficiencies. In other words, to “fix” education, you have to fix society.

The new Board of Education should start the school year by extending special thanks to the demoralized teachers and administrators engaged in Sisyphean struggles in what have been derisively labeled “failing” schools. They should publicly acknowledge that it is not teachers, principals, or schools that are failing; it’s students who come to school with persistent early childhood poverty-related deficits. Instead, the new majority is using poor student test scores to justify a dubious ideology-driven agenda.

“My whole thing is it’s the kids first, and then the other stuff comes second,” Larry Quinn has been quoted as saying. If that’s true, he and the rest of the board should throw their weight behind free, high quality, cradle-through-kindergarten daycare/preschool, ideally with one teacher and two nurses for every twelve children. Sound radical? A study published earlier this year in The Journal of Human Resources, “Can Intensive Early Childhood Intervention Programs Eliminate Income-Based Cognitive and Achievement Gaps?”, finds that providing full-time, high-quality preschool for impoverished children under the age of three can entirely eliminate the achievement gap. The study also finds that the positive effects of very early intervention are less likely to fade as children age, even when they do not continue past age three. It’s those first three years that make the difference. From their earliest days, children in TV-free preschool would be read to, fed, and provided with health care. The positive impact on student achievement would be staggering. Yet, it’s easy to imagine the school board calling this a pipe dream: “Overburdened taxpayers can’t afford it,” they will say. So let’s put it in terms the business-minded new majority can appreciate. The Phoenix Business Journal reported in June that each Arizona high school dropout results in a $421,280 loss in economic activity and wages during his or her lifetime for a total statewide loss of up to $7.6 billion in lower wages, lower tax revenue, and social costs. Students who fall behind in school are those most likely to drop out. The aggregate loss to Arizona—a state with less population than New York City—is more than $127 billion. Imagine the savings that closing the learning gap through early childhood preschool would produce in New York State!

Finland already provides the daycare program described above for all children. Their schools also have small class sizes and unionized teachers who are paid on par with doctors and lawyers and have complete classroom autonomy. Schools are not blamed for student failure; those with socioeconomic challenges are given extra funding. Finland has no charter schools and few private ones. Yet Finnish students beat all other countries in science, reading, and math—leaving Americans in their dust—and they spend thirty percent less per student than in the US. Will the new board majority and interim superintendent look to Finland’s daycare system to see what effective reform might look like? Make your own prediction.