School & District Management

Think Tank Helps Buffalo Superintendent Weigh Issues

By Karla Scoon Reid — January 15, 2003 3 min read
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Marion Cañedo wanted more time to think.

The superintendent of the Buffalo, N.Y., public schools was in the middle of a sweeping reform effort last year when the district was hit with yet another multimillion-dollar budget crisis.

To keep the 44,000-student district’s strategies for improving student achievement on track, Ms. Cañedo and Donald J. Jacobs, an associate dean of the graduate school of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, created an education think tank. The Education Innovation Consortium researches issues facing the Buffalo schools and offers proposed solutions to guide district policymakers.

“Most of the time, you have a committee here and over there reporting back ... and a thousand other things happening in a large city school district,” explained Ms. Cañedo, who has been superintendent for almost three years. “There’s a huge gap around the time you have for real thinking, brainstorming, and planning.”

The research consortium, a nonprofit group, is guided by the district’s needs. The superintendent chairs the consortium’s board.

To strengthen the district’s focus on data and research- driven reform efforts, Ms. Cañedo created a top administrative position—chief planning officer—to oversee progress and to serve as her liaison to the Education Innovation Consortium.

The group, which began work last year, is also actively involved in guiding the implementation of policies. Projects include a pilot program to delegate more decisionmaking authority to schools and the development of a district report card.

“The EIC is not just out there thinking lofty thoughts and passing them back,” David J. Lanz, the chief planning officer, said. “It’s also a group that rolls up its sleeves and gets involved directly with the work of the district.”

‘Work Tank’

Mr. Jacobs likens the consortium, which is financed by a $200,000 state grant and some private money, to a “work tank.” In addition to the superintendent, the seven-member consortium board includes Mr. Jacobs, who heads the consortium, the dean of the university’s graduate school of education, and members of the local business and philanthropic communities. With a staff of four, the consortium relies on a mix of national, state, and local experts for assistance.

That help was key for the Buffalo school system, which started an ambitious improvement effort in 2000 after receiving a detailed analysis of the district’s management and operations from the Council of the Great City Schools.

The critical report by the Washington-based organization, which represents the nation’s largest urban school systems, made more than 240 recommendations. The suggestions covered professional development, accountability, student achievement, school choice, and decentralized decision- making, among others. (“Urban Districts Turn to Their Peers for Hard-Hitting Tips,” Feb. 28, 2001.)

While the district does have researchers and committees assigned to various problems and goals, all are terribly overburdened, Ms. Cañedo said. Now, with its own “problem-solving arm,” the school system defines issues for the consortium, which in turn develops solutions to be evaluated by district staff members.

Making the consortium an independent, nonprofit organization also gives the district creative ways to problem-solve and hire consultants without “bureaucratic red tape,” Ms. Cañedo added.

The consortium’s direct link to the district will serve Buffalo schools well, said Shazia Rafiullah Miller, an associate director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Still, she said, there’s also value in having an objective “outside body looking in,” which is the Chicago group’s role.

The Chicago consortium, founded in 1990, is an independent federation of local organizations, scholars, and foundation representatives that conducts research on Chicago’s public schools. Ms. Miller said the group forms its own research agenda with some input from the city’s public school educators.

Mr. Jacobs explained, however, that Buffalo’s residents had lost confidence in its public schools. The city needed a more immediate and active approach to addressing the district’s needs, rather than an arm’s-length research organization, he said.

That’s not to say that the consortium agrees with the superintendent at every turn. Mr. Jacobs said that when opinions differ between the superintendent and the consortium’s other board members, they “arm-wrestle it out.”

And although Ms. Cañedo expects an intellectual challenge, in the end, he said, the superintendent always wins.

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