Buffalo, NY Moving in the Right Direction… Maybe?

Many years ago now I remember a phone call with John King, then New York Commissioner of Education, who expressed his concern about Buffalo Public Schools. We discussed the possibility of my organization, the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL), providing support to some of Buffalo’s persistently low performing schools. I recall that our team felt that the district did not have stable leadership at the time or a strong educational plan for improving the schools. It would be difficult for any outside organization to provide enough support to see a measurable academic impact.  

I have been pleased to watch Buffalo’s progress from afar over the last number of years. Two examples include the fact that a new superintendent has been in place since 2015, and Say Yes to Education has helped to build an infrastructure that provides services, supports, and funding to prepare students for success in higher education. So, when The Buffalo News reporter Jay Rey reached out to me seeking my comments on the new collective bargaining agreement, I was eager to hear more about the district’s improvement plan.

The new collective bargaining agreement includes a provision to add time to the district’s school schedule—25 minutes each day—thereby bringing the district’s daily school schedule to 7 hours and 15 minutes. Supporting districts to expand learning time in schools serving low-income students has long been NCTL’s mission, but we have learned over the years that expanded time must be used well to have an impact. Implementing the added time by adding three minutes to the end of each class, for example, will not impact student achievement. Using the 25 minutes daily to provide small group intervention by experienced teachers around specific academic needs, on the other hand, is more likely to move the needle. It looks like most of the schools will be implementing an approach like this.

One of the areas of contention in Buffalo is whether that extra time could be used for teacher development and planning. The district has pushed back on that, but the teachers have prioritized it.  We know that U.S. teachers are given much less time than teachers in high performing countries to review data, work with colleagues on best practices, and plan their lessons. Our report, Time for Teachers, identified how seventeen high-performing schools serving low-income students in the U.S. utilize expanded teacher professional learning time to improve overall instruction. The teachers are right to want more. 

With only 25 more minutes a day, however, I understand why the district wants to focus that precious additional time on student learning. Another approach could be to give school teams time to thoughtfully plan for a new school design and schedule—rather than scrambling to add 25 minutes right before school starts. As NCTL has seen in communities across the U.S., planning for the effective use of expanded time can accelerate student achievement, improve teacher quality, and expand engaging enrichment opportunities. 

Maybe Buffalo will adopt a continuous improvement approach and work toward creating a stronger school design in at least some of their schools before next year’s first day of school. That would make me stand up and take notice.