Time to Revamp or Drop Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profile

A Policy Brief from January (Volume 15, Number 3) laid out the case that the School Performance Profiles (SPP) produced by the Pennsylvania Department of Education are misleading at best and useless at worst. The recently released 2015 SPP scores for high schools, generated by the same procedures and factor weighting as the SPP scores from school year 2013-2014, remind in starkest terms of just how far from giving a true picture of school academic achievement the SPPs are.


To illustrate the absurdity of the SPP as an indicator of academic performance, this Brief examines two Allegheny County High Schools at opposite ends of the quality of education spectrum.  First, Wilkinsburg is used because there is no other school with as much room for academic improvement. Indeed, things are so bad the 7th through 12th grade students are scheduled to go to Westinghouse Academy next year—not a school known for academic achievement. Second, North Allegheny High is used as an example of what 11th graders at a good school are able to achieve.


How did the schools fare on the 2015 SPP?  Wilkinsburg High posted an SPP score of 40.7. North Allegheny High received a score of 89.9.  Looking at these scores one might conclude that North Allegheny High is performing at a level that is just over twice as good as Wilkinsburg High. But as it turns out the gap between the academic performances is actually a vast chasm.


To begin, it is important to note the horrendous shortcomings in the SPP measurement system. The fundamental problem is that comparison of actual levels of academic achievement has been rendered virtually impossible because of the weights assigned to the factors used to evaluate schools. Consider that scores on the math, English and Language Arts (ELA) and science tests, and Career and Technical Education program taken by 11th graders along with SAT/ACT College readiness account for 40 of the 100 points scoring system at North Allegheny and only 35 of the 95 points at Wilkinsburg which does not have not have Career and Technical Education.  Meanwhile, indicators of meeting annual academic growth (with whatever validity that can be measured) are worth 40 points and indicators of closing academic gaps another ten, and other indicators add ten more points to get to 100 and 95 possible final score points for each school. There are up to seven bonus or extra credit points that can be awarded for the percentages of students scoring at the advanced level on the tests.


A major problem is that on the “academic growth” measure, the school is guaranteed 20 points because each of the three tests (math, ELA, and science) is arbitrarily assigned a minimum share of 50 percent for the number of students meeting annual growth expectations regardless of the actual percentage who do.  Thus, every school is guaranteed at least 20 points out of a possible high of 40 points in this category towards its final profile score.  And it gets worse. A total of ten points are allotted for four “other academic” factors at 2.5 points each:  attendance rate, graduation rate, PSAT participation and advanced placement programs.  Even a poorly performing school should get six or seven points out of the ten with practically no effort or achievement.  Indeed, as remarkable as it sounds a school with 80 percent attendance will get two points in that category despite the fact that an 80 percent attendance rate means the average student misses school 36 days a year and is almost certainly not learning very much. Attendance rates that low should be viewed as a negative and certainly should not count as a positive.


Then too, a graduation rate of 70 percent will get the school 1.8 points even though a graduation rate that low should be a negative for any performance profile.  Then there is the PSAT participation. Since everyone (according to the reporting) takes the preparatory SAT that is another 2.5 points toward the SPP score no matter how poorly the students do on the tests.


In total, a school basically starts out with 27 points if it just opens its doors and hands out diplomas. And with a little actual annual “growth” in language arts, it takes very little effort to boost the profile points to over 30.


Wilkinsburg manages to get 38.7 points on the SPP weighting scheme, which is then normalized by adjusting for the 95 possible points to give a total score of 40.7.  Bear in mind that of the 38.7 points, 24.8 were in the “annual growth” component, 5.9 were in the attendance and graduation component, four came in the closing the gap section, and a mere four points for actual academic achievement. There were zero students proficient or higher in math; zero percent proficient or better in science and 26 percent in ELA.   None reached the advanced level on any of the three tests. Because ELA has a multiplier weight of 15, it was able to account for the only four points earned for academic achievement. Math, science and college readiness are weighted at 7.5, 7.5 and 5.0 percent respectively. But with zero scores on these factors they contributed nothing to the academic achievement point count.


In sum, only four of the 38.7 earned points (and of 95 total available points) can be viewed as reflecting actual achievement levels. And even that is questionable since a zero percent scoring proficient on a test does not tell how far behind academically those scoring below basic (far below grade level) have fallen. Sadly, an average of 40 percent of Wilkinsburg 11th graders scored below basic in math and ELA.


Most of the remainder of the school’s profile points comes from artificial gifts including attendance (82 percent) and graduation (53 percent) that should, in a meaningful performance measurement, be viewed as a negative.  All things considered, Wilkinsburg’s SPP at 40.7 is of no value whatsoever.


Meanwhile, North Allegheny High has one of the best SPP scores in the County and ranks second only to Upper St. Clair in the number of students scoring at the advanced levels on the three tests.  11th graders at the school did very well with 92.5 percent proficient or better in math, 96 percent proficient or better in ELA and 100 percent SAT college readiness.  And even more impressive, 44 percent achieved the advanced level in math, 28.6 percent scored advanced in ELA and 46.5 percent were advanced in science. And remarkably, only one percent of North Allegheny test takers scored below basic. The school’s achievements rank among the best performance numbers in the state.


The problem? Only 40 of the 100 points in the basic SPP ranking process are available for academic achievement and only seven bonus points are available for all the superb achievement of the students scoring at the advanced level. Getting all seven bonus points would require 100 percent of students to be advanced. Thus, most of the very best schools will acquire only four or fewer points as extra credits.


As a result of the seemingly jerrybuilt SPP methodology, a school with an academic record so bad it is hardly believable with only four points earned for actual achievement can score 40.7 on the SPP while a school with almost all students proficient in math and reading and large percentages scoring advanced receives a score of only 89.9. Clearly, the SPP is providing no real service to the schools or the taxpayers. It arbitrarily rewards factors that do not measure positive achievement and under values strong academic achievement.


Only education bureaucrats and apologists for poor public school performance can believe this system is worth saving.  A performance profile should measure performance, not ancillary factors.


The SPP program should be thoroughly revamped to place far more weight on actual achievement with say 90 points instead of just 40 and only 10 points for “academic growth” (if it can be measured meaningfully) instead of 50. There should be no points for attendance rate, graduation rate, or taking the PSAT. Those are essentially free gifts, unless minimum levels for receiving points are set. Perhaps 95 percent attendance or higher could get two points and anything below would get none.


Similarly, a graduation rate of 90 percent or higher could get two points with below 90 receiving no points. Merely taking the PSAT should receive no points. If students score above a certain minimum level, it might be a consideration. But if the PSAT simply verifies what the Keystone tests already reveal as being grossly inadequate progress, why should there be any credit for merely showing up to take the exam?


Finally, some thought should be given to including a formula that would reduce a school’s profile point count if the percentage of students scoring below basic on tests rises above some level, say 20 percent. Those scoring at that level are far below grade level and that should be viewed as a negative in the rating system.


Well intentioned the SPP in its current form might be, but useful it is not. If the Department of Education is unwilling to overhaul the SPP methodology, they should be instructed by the Governor and Legislature to drop it altogether. The PSSAs and Keystone test results speak for themselves. One can only imagine how much the design, implementation and yearly updating of this program has cost taxpayers.

Wilkinsburg Education—Looking for Answers

The worst ranked Pennsylvania school district that offers K-12 education is back in the news. Wilkinsburg School District made it known a few months ago that they are struggling to provide a quality education and would like to enter into a partnership arrangement and get help from other districts. Middle and high school enrollment has plunged as charter schools are taking students from the district schools. Population loss might be responsible for some of the decline as well.


School district officials constantly complain about inadequate resources despite the fact that in school year 2013-14 Wilkinsburg schools had revenue of just under $24,000 per ADM (average daily membership, an estimate of student count).  Moreover, they note the student count district-wide is a very low 1,260—making it one of the smallest districts in the state.  Notwithstanding the fact that the Pennsylvania Department of Education reports that 93.5 percent of classes in the high school are taught by highly qualified teachers with an average 13 years of education experience, only 8.5 percent of 11th graders are proficient in math and 13.3 percent proficient in reading. The scores are only slightly better for middle school students.


With scores like these, is it any wonder that parents who can get their child into a charter school are doing so?  The problem is not that charter schools are taking away resources; the problem is the academic performance of the Wilkinsburg public schools is simply atrocious and drives away students who want to learn.


Consider the Windber School District in Somerset County. It has 1,200 students of whom 36 percent are economically disadvantaged. Windber had revenue of $12,620 per ADM in 2013-14, about half of the Wilkinsburg revenue total. And yet despite the well below state average per pupil funding and having 36 percent of its students classified as economically disadvantaged, Windber ranks among the top 20 percent of school districts in Pennsylvania based on academic achievement.  Perhaps a big difference with Wilkinsburg is that high school students in Windber miss an average of fewer than ten days per school year while in Wilkinsburg high schoolers miss an average of 32 days per year.


As we have written before (Policy Briefs Volume 14, Number 17 and Volume 15, Number 30), poor attendance is indicative of low interest in learning. And high absenteeism students are likely to be a negative influence in the classroom, making it harder for serious minded students to learn.


The problem is not money; the problems are far deeper and cannot be solved by throwing more money at them. Failure to address adequately these problems long ago has allowed them to grow into education killing obstacles. It might well be that absent a sea change of reform such as instituting vouchers or scholarships for all students to get them into completely different environments than the ones that dominate today’s failing schools, there is little or no hope of righting the education ship or ending the depriving of young people a decent chance at a good job or higher education.


Now Wilkinsburg is talking to Pittsburgh about some arrangement whereby middle and high school students can attend Pittsburgh schools. Setting aside cultural and possibly territorial issues that might arise, which schools would these students attend? The best Pittsburgh schools are the magnet schools, and they are full. It is unlikely Pittsburgh school officials would put Wilkinsburg students ahead of Pittsburgh students waiting to get into those schools. That would be a political nightmare for the District. And what would be the point of transporting students several miles to attend Westinghouse Academy or Milliones for example.  The academic performance at those schools is almost as bad as Wilkinsburg—and this despite district spending of over $22,000 per pupil.  If  Pittsburgh officials decide to place Wilkinsburg students in better performing non-magnet schools, the question immediately arises:  If the district can put transported Wilkinsburg students in the better Pittsburgh schools, why can’t Pittsburgh students, stuck in bad situations, be shifted to a better school?


Given the dreadful overall academic performance in most of Pittsburgh’s non-magnet high schools, it remains an open question as to what exactly Pittsburgh has to offer Wilkinsburg other than taking their children off their hands.


Indeed, the Wilkinsburg School District is an ideal candidate to be taken over by the Department of Education and forced to enter into contracts with private, for profit or non-profit, education providers that would be supervised by the state. These organizations could hire or not, as they see fit, from the pool of existing teachers.  A separate school for perpetual malcontents who refuse to attend classes or to learn would be established. Something Wilkinsburg should have done long ago on its own.


For Pittsburgh schools to take on more ill- prepared students when it has far too many of its own already will not be of lasting benefit to either district. Would Pittsburgh have to take Wilkinsburg teachers along with their students? What will the teachers’ union in Wilkinsburg have to say about the contemplated move of students to Pittsburgh?  This idea needs a lot of study and some hard headed realism applied. Big problems should not be papered over with unrealistically optimistic statements and wishful thinking.

Wilkinsburg: Poster Child for Failures of the PA Education System

Last November the superintendent of the Wilkinsburg School District was complaining that poor education performance was closely tied to a lack of resources (see Policy Brief, Volume 14, Number 56). This argument has been made by so many defenders of poorly performing school districts that it has become a mantra despite the fact that in the case of Wilkinsburg, as well as other underperforming districts, it is simply not true.


In a recent news report concerning the Wilkinsburg superintendent’s effort to get another school district to take his 7-12th grade students, it was revealed that the Wilkinsburg District spends $27 million per year. Of that, $5.3 million goes to cover the 343 students who are attending charter schools and the rest to cover the 835 students in the District run schools. That means the charter students cost the district $15,450 per pupil while the students in the District managed schools cost $26,000 per pupil. Yet some still argue the charters are crippling the District financially. In either case, the cost per pupil should be more than enough to educate the children.


However, the School Performance Profile data reveal an unmitigated disaster is occurring as far as educational achievement is concerned.   The latest scores for Wilkinsburg high school students show only 8.6 percent to be proficient in math, 13.3 percent proficient in reading and none proficient in science. Notwithstanding these deplorable figures, 62 percent of the cohort who started 9th grade together will graduate.


Is the dreadful academic performance due to having poor quality teachers?  Not according to the PA Education Department’s evaluation procedure that shows 93.5 percent of classes are being taught by highly qualified teachers. Of course, this is the same Education Department that says 56 percent of the 11th grade students were making progress in science (in the Department’s terminology, “meeting annual growth expectations”).


In the Education Department’s academic scoring scheme, the “meeting expectations” metric accounts for the bulk of the school’s academic score points. Sadly, this is just one example of how the education establishment has tried to mislead the public about how bad things really are and, in so doing, has made itself an accomplice in the ongoing education debacle that characterizes far too many school districts across the state.


In the middle school achievement test scores were slightly above the high school results but with just 24 percent proficient in math, 34 percent proficient in reading and 15 percent in science, the middle school must also be considered a horrendous failure. This despite all the money that is being spent and having just under 99 percent of classes taught by highly qualified teachers—according to the standards used by the PA Education Department to measure qualifications.   The two elementary schools fared somewhat better but fewer than 40 percent were proficient in reading in the third grade at either school. Regrettably, this disappointing statistic means the prospects for improved educational achievement in later grades are doubtful at best.  This unpleasant truth is borne out quite clearly by what should be totally unacceptable middle and high school scores. The longer the kids are in these public schools the farther they fall behind academically.


The most recently published official data (2012-2013 school year) shows that 58 percent of Wilkinsburg funding came from other than local taxpayers. That means non-local tax base sources were providing $15,073 per pupil enrolled in Wilkinsburg public schools, while municipal taxpayers were providing almost $11,000.   For those levels of funding, taxpayers ought to be able to expect a far better academic performance than they are getting.


Trying to get other school districts to take students who are so poorly prepared is not the answer. These other districts have enough problems of their own already. What the State and the District should be doing is offering all the students who truly want to get a good education and their parents a voucher worth up to  $15,000 per year to attend the school of their choice, whether it be private or parochial. The number of school options will expand to meet the demand, especially when the student can bring $15,000 a year.


Interestingly, at the school meeting where the farming out of the students was being discussed, a young woman stood up and complained of having to pay for her son to attend a non-public school so he could receive a decent education.  This is the exactly the person the State and the School District should be listening to when trying to figure out what to do to improve education.  Parents with that much dedication to their children’s future should be rewarded with real help in getting their child into a decent school where learning is actually taking place on a consistent and disciplined basis. Many such parents want a lot more from schools than experience tells them they can expect from the failing public schools. Unfortunately, they are not in a position to afford the better alternatives.


It is far past the time for the education establishment and the pro-public school lobby that defends even the most abject failures to recognize the damage that is being done to society and the lives of thousands of children who are being denied a respectable K-12 education.  Granted, there are societal and cultural problems at play in the poor educational performance at many public schools. But that cannot be used as an excuse to deny children and parents, who value a good education as the best chance for success in life as well as personal accomplishment and self-worth, a real opportunity for an education.


It should be absolutely clear by now that the downward spiral of educational attainment, with its accompanying lack of skills and lowered self-esteem and motivation, are closely bound together with the other social pathologies that are truly crippling communities. It is not, as the apologists always cry, due to a lack of funding.  If money was the answer, the problems would have been solved long ago.


How long will Pennsylvania taxpayers tolerate this inexcusable money wasting and life ruining education- in- name- only system that continues to become worse and more intractable before they demand legislative action? Sadly, the political dynamics do not favor any significant or meaningful reform. The education establishment, including the teachers unions (with all the retirees), the principals, the superintendents, many school boards and all the lobbyists who work for them have an enormous vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. And they also have sufficient clout and political influence with enough elected officials to forestall any of the real reforms so desperately needed.  So the horror stories never get fixed, they just get worse and the taxpayers keep getting handed the bill for an intolerably poor product at the failing schools.

Education Bargains in Pennsylvania?

The non-stop complaints about inequitable education funding in Pennsylvania have become tiresome. And the constant demands for ever more spending with no evidence that more spending will fix what ails schools is even more wearisome. As we have demonstrated in recent Policy Briefs, the argument that state funding is inequitable is simply wrong. The state formula for allocating funds to districts based on need and taxing capacity works quite well. There are glaring examples where it does not work well such as the generosity towards Pittsburgh schools which receive far more per student from the state than other school districts with similar tax capacity.


The principal issue in the equitability argument is actually about the fact that richer districts raise a lot more money per student from local sources than do the poorer districts. That is an argument about unequal resources but it does not obviate the fact that richer districts receive far less per student from the state than do needy districts.


Having established a system which allows local school boards in wealthy districts to raise massive amounts of revenue at fairly low tax rates, the state is now stuck with the problem of having wealthy districts that spend substantially more per student than does the average district in the state.  Eliminating or limiting the amounts wealthier school districts can raise from the local tax base will be an extremely hard, if not impossible, political sell.


But beyond that thorny issue, there is the really crucial issue of what the taxpayer is getting in return for the money spent.  Are there districts offering high returns on dollars spent and can we learn from them?  The answer is yes as this Brief will demonstrate.


We begin by looking at academic achievement and spending per pupil through comparing some wealthier, high revenue, districts with some less wealthy, lower revenue, districts.  There are a number of districts in the state that spend $20,000 or more per student each year not including revenue from the issuance of bonds. In fiscal year 2012-13, there were 15 districts in this category, most in the Southeast corner of the state.  Only three were in western Pennsylvania, two in Allegheny County—Pittsburgh and Quaker Valley—and West Greene in Greene County.


Three examples of high spending districts are evaluated:  Springfield Township in Montgomery County, Palisades in Bucks County and Quaker Valley in Allegheny County.  In 2012-13, the latest published revenue data, Springfield had total revenue of $21,453 per ADM (average daily membership is essentially the student count), of which $18,321 was local and $2,893 was state, the small remainder from Federal and other.  This Brief will use the high school performance to evaluate the district since that is the true measure of how well prepared graduates are to move ahead in life. How does the district’s high school measure up academically? Okay, but not strong compared to the state’s better schools. Only 73 percent of 11th graders were proficient or advanced in math, 88 percent in reading and 60 percent in science.  As we shall see later this is well below the performance in other schools that spend far less money. Interestingly, because of the muddled way the Department of Education (DOE) rates schools, Springfield High gets a score of 91.9 on its overall academic rating even though its test scores would suggest a much lower rating. This is a result of the DOE basically giving free points in several measurement categories and overweighting others (as outlined in Policy Brief, Volume 15, Number 3) that lead to a distortion in the evaluation of academic accomplishments.


The Palisades district had $20,977 per ADM in total revenue with $16,701 local and $4,136 from the state.  But the high dollar amount of revenue has not translated into outstanding academic performance. On math, 77 percent of students tested scored proficient or advanced, on reading 87 percent, but on science, a disappointing 41 percent.  The school received a score of 88.6 on the DOE scale after getting 20 points for academic growth in math and science notwithstanding the 41 percent scoring proficient in science.


Quaker Valley had revenue of $21,320 per ADM, $18,007 local and $2,538 from the state, the remainder mostly Federal.   Here the academic achievement is above average but not superior. 78 percent of test takers were proficient or advanced in math, 89 percent in reading and 65 percent in science.  Despite these scores the DOE assigns a rating of 91.0 owing to the gratuitous and irrational manner it awards the final score.


Of course, there are districts with very high levels of spending that have performed much better than these three but these districts illustrate the kinds of test results that occur despite district revenue that is far above the state average revenue per student of $14,873. But the point is these three are fairly well-to-do districts in terms of having a tax base per student that allows them to generate so much local revenue and receive relatively modest amounts from the state—as determined by the state’s formula.  And what’s more, it demonstrates that spending huge amounts of money does not necessarily translate into top tier academic performance.


Earlier Policy Briefs have demonstrated the woeful academic performance in non-magnet schools in Pittsburgh and the schools in Wilkinsburg despite revenues per student, other than bond issuance proceeds, in both districts being among the top 20 of all 500 districts in the state.


In a stark contrast, consider three southwest Pennsylvania districts that raise far less revenue, while relying heavily on the local tax base, and have academic performances that are far superior to those wealthy districts described above.


Peters Township in Washington County has to be one of the best education values in the state, if not the best, in terms of outcomes per dollar expended. Revenue in 2012-13 totaled $11,602 per student ($3,000 lower than the state average), $8,925 local and $2,608 from the state and a very small amount of Federal.  Here’s the astounding academic news. 93 percent of test takers scored proficient or advanced in math, 98.6 percent in reading, and 85 percent in science. These scores are head and shoulders above the three wealthy districts discussed above and achieved with per student funding at barely half those districts.


Next we look at the Hampton School District in Allegheny County. Revenue totaled $13,649 per student in 2012-13, $10,006 local and $3,427 from the state and small amount of Federal. Academically, the high school is top flight.  92.5 percent of 11th graders scored proficient or advanced on math, 97.5 percent on reading and 87.7 percent in science. Despite these outstanding numbers on the achievement tests, the school received only a 95 on the DOE rating. Why? Because, notwithstanding the tremendous performance on the subject area tests, the rating was held down due to an inexplicably low rating on indicators of academic growth.


Hampton is certainly returning strong education value per dollar spent compared to most districts spending at or above the state average.


Finally, we review the Greater Latrobe District. The district had revenue of $11,800, $7,574 local, $4,016 state and $210 Federal. Note first that 28 percent of students are considered to be disadvantaged based on qualifying for free lunches.  The high school does well academically with 85 percent of students proficient or advanced in math, 93 percent in reading and 75 percent in science. Certainly, it is better than the performance of the high revenue districts discussed above that spend twice as much per student. And, Greater Latrobe has nearly twice as many disadvantaged students as any of the three wealthier districts described above.


In short, these three examples of modest spending districts clearly show that it is possible to produce very good and even outstanding academic performance while using far less than the state average revenue per student and only half as much as some wealthy districts collect.


There is a lesson here. The focus should not be on ever more money for education. Maybe it’s time to take a look at what Hampton, Greater Latrobe and Peters are doing to obtain their good results and learn from them.

A New Federal Urban Agenda?

A Pittsburgh newspaper whose op-ed writers are hopelessly enamored of Federal government programs to solve any and all problems now think it would be just grand if the Federal government would launch a new urban agenda. One has to wonder where the writers have been.

Does anyone need a reminder of all the efforts the Federal government has launched over the decades to help cities? Public housing funding, block grants, all sorts of welfare programs, dollars for education programs, major financial assistance for mass transit infrastructure, and so on and so on.

Did all those programs stop Detroit or Philadelphia or Stockton, California and countless other cities from developing very serious or crisis proportion financial problems and massive loss of population? No. The cause of the problems can largely be laid at the feet of horrendously counterproductive policies by the local, state, and national governments. Public sector unions, a breakdown of law and order (in many cities), a collapse in public education quality as a result of educational folly masquerading as reforms (including a refusal to allow publicly funded voucher programs) and political correctness run amok.

The argument that people moved out of cities for greener pastures because they were induced to by Federal policies is getting stale. People left because living in the suburbs was more attractive than staying in the cities. Lower crime, better schools and all the reasons people want to be safe and comfortable.

Perhaps the original exodus was initiated by demographic and social phenomena, but there can be little doubt that the headlong rush toward public sector unionization, the attendant sharp rise in expenditures and tax burdens, runaway crime problems and rapidly decreasing academic performance in public schools encouraged more people to leave. Many cities became increasingly dominated by one party rule-the party being one of statist and government growth inclination and a party with practically no patience with free market capitalism. An almost guaranteed slow downward spiral began in many of the currently worse off cities. The worse they became the more Federal and state financial assistance was forthcoming in some form or other. Economic development, redevelopment, infrastructure, housing, education, social welfare payments, early childhood education, learning programs, jobs programs-the mind boggles.

And still, Detroit bankruptcy happened, Philadelphia is scrambling to open schools this fall because of a lack of money, Pittsburgh is under state oversight and is likely to remain so for a long time, Chicago is closing schools at a breakneck pace because students have abandoned city schools and it has gigantic pension problems looming.

These wounds have been self-inflicted by politicians and policies that can only be described as progressive, liberal, statist, and politically correct. Politically correct is a polite term for trying to force adherence to certain acceptable behaviors and thoughts through intimidation, ostracizing, or attempting to shame or embarrass anyone not subscribing to the latest fad in liberal dogma-dogma that gets more bizarre by the month. Little wonder thinking people want no part in it.

The worst part: calling for a new Urban Agenda is just a dreamed up politically correct scheme to avoid dealing with disasters created by earlier statist schemes.

Is the Allure of the Pittsburgh Promise Not Enough?

Begun six years ago with great fanfare and grandiose goals, the Pittsburgh Promise seems to be falling well short of its primary objectives to improve the quality of education and raise high school enrollment at City schools.   


And the even more lofty ambitions to grow the City’s population, boost regional economic development and transform the lives of students and families in Southwest Pennsylvania that rest heavily on achieving the primary objectives are a long way from fulfillment.  No doubt some of the students getting the program’s scholarship money have benefited from those funds.  But if the program was ever going to be successful in its basic stated purpose, there should be convincing evidence by now.


The Promise program offers scholarship funds to students who have been in Pittsburgh Public Schools for at least the four years of senior high, i.e., grades 9 through 12.  Those students who attend only senior high will receive 75 percent of the maximum award of $10,000 per year for four years. Students attending kindergarten through 12th grade will be eligible for the full $40,000 over four years. There is a schedule of amounts for intermediate years of attendance.  To complete the eligibility requirements, graduating seniors must have maintained a 2.5 Grade Point Average (GPA) and had 90 percent attendance, with accommodation for excused absences.


Obviously, for serious students who want to go on to post-secondary education, the prospect of the scholarship will be enticing, especially those who started attending Pittsburgh schools in the 9th grade or earlier. Students transferring to a Pittsburgh school in 10th grade or later would not be attracted by the program.


How’s the enrollment objective going? From school year 2006-2007 total Pittsburgh Public School enrollment tumbled from 28,265 to 24,849 in 2011-2012 and fell again in 2012-2013-a decline of over 12 percent. Meanwhile, the number of 12th graders has decreased from 1,965 in school year 2006-07 to 1,635 in 2012-13, a 17 percent slide. There is little that is reassuring for the Promise program to take away from these data.        


According to recent accounts, the number of scholarship recipients has been declining over the period since the Promise was created and with declining high school enrollment that is entirely understandable.  What’s worse, in the schools with 6th through 12th grades, only 34 percent of the graduating class qualified for the Promise scholarships in 2012. At Westinghouse only 17 percent qualified.  In the schools that have 9th through 12th grades, 52 percent of seniors qualified for the Promise scholarships. A serious problem standing in the way of qualifying recipients is the stunning 47 percent of students in high schools with 9th to 12th grades who are chronically absent, i.e., more than 10 percent of the days in a given school year.     


And then there is the academic improvement goal.  Based on the number of earlier Policy Briefs in which the poor academic performance of many of the City’s high schools has been lamented, it seems redundant to bring the issue up again. But here’s the problem in a nutshell. Between 2007-the year before the Promise plan went into effect-and 2012, the latest results available, SAT scores for Pittsburgh public school students became almost uniformly worse. Of the nine schools in existence in both years, two schools (CAPA and Allderdice) posted marginal improvements, Langley results held fairly close to 2007 numbers while all others recorded declines. Some of the schools suffered dramatic slides in SAT scores. Especially noteworthy was the 50 point dip in the verbal test results at Brashear along with an accompanying 44 point drop in the math score.    


Only two Pittsburgh high schools, Allderdice and CAPA, had combined reading and math SAT scores above the state average of 990.  Combined SAT scores at most schools were well under 900 and five were at 820 or below.  And if that is not bad enough, the 2012 PSSA math scores in the high schools also took a dip from 2011 levels. Only one school with 11th graders saw its math score improve. The number of Westinghouse 11th graders scoring at proficient or better levels in math nudged up from an abysmally low 6.9 percent to an also abysmally low 7.5 percent.


In short, it is hard to see how the Promise program scholarship has led to any improvement in academic performance. In fact, if anything, the results are worse than they were at the beginning of the Promise program.  


The Pittsburgh Promise does not provide the statistics necessary to determine how many scholarship recipients have earned a four year degree, a two year degree or some other certification of completing requirement degree. Nor do they estimate how much of the money provided to graduates ends up being spent to no effect.


Needless to say, on its two major objectives the Promise program is struggling mightily to find something useful to say. If those goals are languishing, how is the boosting of regional economic development going? Perhaps some scaling back on grand plans is in order.


At some point, it would be very useful for the Promise program to hire an independent consultant to study whether or not the guarantee of money for students who make it through high school in a Pittsburgh school and qualify for a generous four year scholarship is having a positive or negative effect on work effort of students. In this era of grade inflation-as shown by the SAT scores of graduates-any easily obtainable “free” benefit could reduce the need for some students to work as hard as they might otherwise.  


As we have noted before, and it bears repeating, a more powerful and effective education enhancing way to employ the scholarship dollars would be to create scholarships for elementary and secondary students to get out of Pittsburgh schools and attend private or parochial schools. Provide $10,000 a year to students who want an alternative to the academic failures masquerading as schools in Pittsburgh.  The impact would be salutary in creating pressure on City schools to either improve or watch their enrollment leave. Perhaps such a plan would serve as a demonstration program with the potential to convince the Legislature to enact-at long last and way overdue-a well-funded universal voucher system for Pennsylvania.

Did Funding Decline Cause Drop in Achievement Scores?

The recent release of 2011-2012 PSSA test results showed a decline in the statewide percentages of student scoring at the proficient or advanced level (-1.4 percent in math and -1.6 percent in reading). In a press release the State Secretary of Education noted the scoring decline was attributable to tightened security in the wake of an investigation of some adults who might have made changes to student answer sheets in previous years.  Not unexpectedly, educational system apologists blamed the decline in PSSA scores on a reduction in educational spending.


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Business Owner for Higher Taxes? Had to be One Somewhere

In a recent op-ed piece a business owner made an incredible statement. "My business would be hurt far more by allowing the tax cut for America’s most fortunate to continue and instead slashing budgets for things like public education, research and infrastructure to pay for them."

Nice rhetoric but completely wrong on every point. Federal income taxes are not even close to the most important component of education spending. Public education is funded primarily by state and local taxes. Infrastructure, especially roads and bridges, are funded mostly by special taxes designed to collect money from people and businesses that use them. And the notion that Federal budgets have been slashed totally ignores the fact that Federal spending is up a trillion dollars since 2007. Which budgets have been slashed? Federal spending as a percent of GDP is at its highest level in history save for WWII. The claim that programs are being starved is nothing if not hilarious.

The writer is obviously concerned about Federal tax revenue not keeping up with the nation’s spending binge. But the primary reason for depressed tax revenue is the weak economy that has not responded to the bulge in Federal spending as we were promised it would by the President and his people. Moreover, the policies of regulation and the threats of higher taxes coming out of DC are depressing private sector investment and growth. It is important to remember that the USA has one of, if not the, highest corporate tax rates on the planet. And the magnitude of the final real costs of Obamacare is still unknown both in terms of direct expense for employees for health care costs and for compliance.

The notion held in some quarters that allowing the tax cuts to be eliminated for those making over $250,000 is going to solve the nation’s fiscal crisis is irrational. That will not raise nearly enough money in a depressed economy and will have a chilling effect on business growth. The tax raisers are forever and always disappointed when higher rates fail to produce more revenue. But they never learn.

Getting more people on private sector payrolls is the only sensible answer to our fiscal woes, Federal or local. Current and prospective policies in DC are pushing in exactly the opposite direction. It is too bad and very sad that some folks can be successful in the private free enterprise system and still have so little understanding of what makes the system great or have so little respect for keeping free enterprise free and as unfettered as possible. A look at France, Greece or Spain might help them but the writer of the op-ed in question is too busy linking things together fallaciously to take a look elsewhere to see what happens in the world he thinks would be better than ours.

Finally, the typical ignorant comment about the need to spend ever more money on public education in the country fails abominably to see what is happening in public education in Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and other cities. Seven percent of Westinghouse 11th graders are proficient in math. The majority of Chicago students are unable to function at grade level. Lack of spending? Over $20,000 per pupil in Pittsburgh and the nation’s second highest paid teachers in Chicago. How many more tax dollars must be thrown at these failed school systems to satisfy the business man who thinks we are under taxed?

Acquiring some actual knowledge about the world and how it works could go a long way to correcting the thinking of the business owner.

Pittsburgh’s Second Bill of Rights Proclamation

Never has so much inanity, ignorance and denial of reality been on display as the Pittsburgh City Council’s proclamation calling for the Federal government to enact a second Bill of Rights to protect the middle class. The proclamation would have the new Bill of Rights include a living wage, education rights and full participation in the electoral process.

How fascinating that Pittsburgh’s City Council would be the promoters of a Bill of Rights which have in effect already been implemented in the City. Are they not happy with Pittsburgh’s results? Has the City’s living wage bill not worked to grow the middle class’ income? Apparently not. Has spending over $20,000 per pupil, having a Promise scholarship program that guarantees money for Pittsburgh school graduates and adopting every politically correct education strategy and gimmick coming down the pike improved education in City schools? Absolutely not. What new educational rights could possibly do more than is already being done? And how likely are they to achieve better results than are already occurring? History says they will be a counterproductive waste of time.

The nation has long since had a minimum wage and a labor policy that gives great power to unions. Look at the industries the unions have decimated through their demands. The nation and the state have had prevailing wage laws for decades. Pennsylvania has labor laws that give public sector unions enormous bargaining advantages over the elected officials representing the taxpayers. And given the incestuous, mutual back scratching relationship between elected officials and public sector unions taxpayers end up getting short shrift. Those laws enrich the government employees but have pushed 26 municipalities in the state into distressed status, including Pittsburgh.

Which of these policies, along with business strangling environmental policies, have been helpful in promoting private sector activity and creating sustainable high paying jobs? Look at the deep blue cities all around the country such as Philadelphia, Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, San Bernardino, Scranton, and Harrisburg. Where is the evidence that all the "progressive" programs in those cities have protected the middle class?

The unwillingness to recognize the damage being done to our economy and financial system by progressive programs is to be in complete denial. Model cities ring a bell? How did the Civic Arena work out for the Hill District? Have progressive education policies improved education? Look at academic achievement in Chicago, Atlanta and many other cities across the country where the lack of discipline and kowtowing to teacher unions have held sway for years.

Finally, how can a City that has been totally under the control of one party for 80 years in a country that has been under the control of the same party for much of the same time and is in a country which has a voting rights act have concerns about electoral participation? Where has their party been? The same party that has a very checkered history when it comes to electoral malfeasance. Philly Black Panthers ring a bell anyone? ACORN shenanigans? Then there is the candidate for Congress in Maryland who has had to drop out for voting in both Florida and Maryland in the same election season. Does full participation in the electoral process include being able to cheat?

Rights cannot specify outcomes as the Council apparently believe they can. Rights should ensure freedom to work, start a business or any other pursuit of happiness an individual chooses with minimum of interference and then only to protect the same rights of other people. Rights should ensure the sanctity of life, the ability to own and dispose of private property and the right of free speech, the freedom of the press and religion. In fact, the founding documents including the Bill of Rights and other amendments already do these things as long as politicians and judges do not subvert them. And therein lies the rub for the Council’s proclamation. They are unhappy with the tried and true way the country has guaranteed our rights and produced the greatest prosperity the world has ever seen.

But progressives are never happy. And they have enacted idiotic laws such as those that led to the subprime mortgage debacle that nearly destroyed our financial system. They have worked to choke off the country’s ability to exploit its own resources and to hamstring the ability of entrepreneurs to build and grow businesses. The drafting of the proclamation demonstrates the inability of progressives to be open minded enough to question whether or not all they have done before is doing what they promised? Or will they ever they recognize the unintended consequences of their policies and beliefs? They would choke the goose that lays the golden eggs and expect the goose to keep producing the eggs.

Appeals for School Spending

Students of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, education advocates, and parents of children in the District are in Harrisburg today to petition for more money for public education. At least one student stated "we need to prioritize the budget and make education the No. 1 thing like it was a long time ago".

Without any reference to when "a long time ago" was exactly, let’s look at it from the perspective of a high school senior who will graduate in June of 2013, just about when the 2012-13 fiscal year will be wrapping up. That senior would have been in kindergarten in the 2001-02 fiscal year. Here’s how the spending of $1 in general fund money compares now and then:

Fiscal Year


All Other Functions


42.3 cents

57.7 cents


40.5 cents

59.5 cents

The other functions include health and human services, protection of people and property, direction of services, economic development, and other.

Education has been the top dog in state spending likely for much longer than the public school enrollment for the soon to be graduating senior. Keep in mind that Federal and local dollars are in the mix and that, for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, if there is an issue about in-class resources it should be noted that the last decade has seen tremendous growth in personnel and costs associated with folks who won’t step foot in a classroom and have a direct influence on the student.