Last week was a bounty of good news for boosters of the Pittsburgh Promise. It was announced that $160 million had been raised over the past four years, putting it well on its way to a ten year target of $250 million. The first recipients of money from the 2007-08 graduating class that went to a four year program just completed their studies.
The Promise uses funds to provide money for post-secondary education costs for students of the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) or one of the City's charter schools who attend from at least the 9th grade on, have a minimum 2.5 grade point average, a minimum 90 percent attendance record, and are accepted to an accredited public or private post-secondary school in Pennsylvania.
The stated goals of the Pittsburgh Promise program, as outlined on its website, are threefold:
- Mitigate and reverse population declines in the City of Pittsburgh and enrollment declines in Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS)
- Grow the high school completion rates, college readiness, and post-high school success of all students in PPS
- Deploy a well-prepared and energized workforce and an eager core of community volunteers
The focus of this analysis is on enrollment and college readiness. Presumably, from the stated goals, both should have improved as a result of the Promise. Has either happened?
According to District audits, total enrollment in PPS from the year before the Promise was announced (2004-05) to the most recent available year (2009-10) fell from 32,529 to 27,132, or by 5,397 students. This was slightly more than the decline in the previous five year period (2000-01 to 2004-05) when enrollment dipped by just over 5,000. The District's 2012 general fund budget summary states "even as the City of Pittsburgh's population has declined, the number of students attending [PPS] has declined even faster". If the budget's enrollment numbers are accurate, enrollment in 2011-12 stood at 25,034.
Using SAT scores as the best objective measure of academic achievement and preparedness for college we can assess whether the Promise program has had a salutary effect on learning in Pittsburgh schools. In the 2004-2005 school year, 1,096 Pittsburgh school district students at ten high schools took the SAT exam. The average score on the math portion was 478 while the average for the verbal section stood at 473. In the 2010-2011 school year, 977 students took the exam, a drop of 11 percent from 2004-05. The number of test takers fell from the 2004-05 level at eight of the ten schools, with only the CAPA performing arts school showing a significant rise in the number of students taking the test. Westinghouse test takers were also up slightly. The average math score in 2010-11 had slipped to 462 and the verbal slid to 458. Scores fell at every high school on either the verbal or math portion and most often both except for CAPA.
What's worse, the average for all high schools hides a bad story. If the reasonably good scores at Taylor Allderdice and CAPA are taken out, the average math score for the eight other schools dips to 425 and the verbal to 416. Several schools' combined verbal and math score failed to reach a total score of 800 and have fallen even further below the state and national averages since 2004-05. By way of comparison, the state combined average score was 994 and the national was 1,011.
As long as SAT scores keep falling why would parents who care deeply about the quality of their children's education want to keep them in Pittsburgh schools or move to Pittsburgh so they can take advantage of the Promise program? If they can enroll at Taylor Allderdice or CAPA, maybe: otherwise, no.
The Allegheny Institute noted on previous occasions that education performance might well decline since the criteria set for receiving Promise funds were so low in order to provide help to virtually all students who graduate and apply for the money.
In short, the Pittsburgh Promise has yet to deliver either greater enrollment or better academic performance. By promising money to anyone with a 2.5 average, the incentive to study hard is even further reduced. And there is no way to tell how much easier grading has become over the period in order to help as many students as possible to receive college funds. But to the extent these factors are operating, the Promise program is actually hurting education. Sending unprepared students to college is a dreadful thing to do in terms of their futures as well as wasting resources that could be put to better use.
If the Promise is going to achieve either of these primary goals it needs to establish stricter standards of academic achievement by putting a minimum SAT score qualification. Certainly, any student that cannot score 850 on the SAT is going to have problems in college. Promise grants could be escalated for each 100 additional points scored on the SAT. By encouraging students to do better in order to receive Promise funding, the PPS might actually see some improvement in academic achievement.