Promises and More Promises

The Pittsburgh Promise program that provides scholarships of up to $10,000 for four years to graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools who meet certain qualifications continues to grab headlines.  The program boasts of having spent over $55 million on 5,500 students.  Most of the money goes to those who earn a 2.5 or better grade point average and meet the 90 percent attendance requirement. Note that no standardized test score minimum is necessary, such as ACT or SAT. Hence, the grade point average is virtually meaningless.


Consider the Keystone exam results for the graduating class of 2014 who were 11th graders in 2013 when they took the exams. 51.1 percent of these students scored proficient on the math test. That test is on Algebra 1, and it taken immediately upon completion of the course.  Most 9th graders should have taken Algebra 1. In any event, the math exam is not covering extremely difficult material. 63.5 percent were proficient in literature (used to be reading but is now literature) and only 23 percent scored proficient on science (biology). In short, the Keystone exams are not SAT level exams and should be considered very basic.  Note that the average combined math and reading SAT score for the non-magnet high school students is only 827, with half the schools failing to reach the 800 mark.


Nonetheless, 71 percent of the student cohort that began 9th grade together graduated in 2014. If these graduates had to have earned a 2.0 grade point average, then the grade point average is meaningless in terms of indicating education that has taken place.


Then too, consider the 90 percent attendance requirement.  If a student misses 10 percent of classes that means they have missed 18 days during the school year. Given the attendance figures for the District’s high schools one can easily see why the overall academic performance is poor. At Perry High, attendance last year was 82 percent, Carrick 80 percent, Westinghouse 87 percent, Milliones 85 percent. Bear in mind that Milliones and Westinghouse have 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in the student population who typically have much better attendance than high schoolers.  It is a virtual certainty that the attendance rates of 10th, 11th and 12th graders at Westinghouse and Milliones are comparable to Perry and Carrick.


Here’s the problem. As stated, Perry’s overall attendance is 82 percent and that means the average student is missing 32 days per year. And since that is the average, there must be many students missing 40 or possibly 50 or more days per year. Little wonder that only 28 percent of 11th graders meet the Keystone math standard and 5.6 percent the science standard. High rates of absenteeism are undoubtedly highly correlated with lack of motivation to learn.


The issue with the Pittsburgh Promise then is threefold. First, the Promise program has not resulted in any meaningful improvement in academic achievement of graduates.  Presumably, that was a motivating factor in creating the program. Indeed, as we suggested years ago, the promise of scholarship funds for hitting low qualification criteria could actually work against improving academic performance since the scholarships are guaranteed for low qualifications.


To be sure, students going to the purely magnet schools appear to be more highly motivated than those attending the non-magnet schools.  At CAPA for example, 82 percent of 11th graders scored proficient in math, 89 percent in literature and 60 percent in science.  The combined reading and math SAT scores averaged 1032.  All these test results compare very favorably to statewide scoring. And one of the most conspicuous differences between the CAPA magnet high school and non-magnet high schools: the attendance rate at CAPA is 93.4 percent—far above the other schools.


Second, the Promise program has not succeeded in boosting school enrollment.  And there can be little doubt as to why. Parents for whom their children’s education is very important to them will be very skeptical of moving into the City in order to qualify for the scholarships given the generally poor quality of education, particularly in the high schools.  Only those fortunate enough to get into a magnet school would be interested, and except for CAPA, you must be a resident to apply to a magnet school.


Moving into the City is made even less attractive by the fact that a student must enter Pittsburgh schools in kindergarten and go all the way to graduation to be eligible for the full $10,000 per year for four years of scholarship money. Given the poor quality of educational results, why would a concerned parent put a child through 12 or 13 years of Pittsburgh schools?  Then too, coming to the District later qualifies only for a reduced amount. And students coming to the City after the ninth grade are disqualified from any Promise funding.  So, there is no inducement to move into the City related to the Promise program for a family with a 10th grader.


Note that graduates wishing to attend a trade school are eligible for Promise funds under certain criteria.


Third, by giving scholarships to so many graduates who by almost every measure are not prepared to do four year college level, or even community college level, work does two unfortunate things. It leads to high failure and dropout rates and that means large amounts of Promise funds are being wasted.  And it encourages students who have shown little interest in getting educated in high school to go college where they have little chance of success.


The Promise program ought to look at ways to offer parents of children who want to learn more options for quality education than just a roll of the dice chance of getting into the better magnet schools.  The program ought to set aside some of the money it is not using wisely to offer scholarships for students still in school to attend a private or parochial school.  And if Pittsburgh Promise won’t do it some of their concerned private sector board members ought to take up the challenge. There is one thing for certain: The Pittsburgh Public School District has had decades to get its act together and has not done so.


The Promise program is a good thing for the motivated, qualified students who are ready to go to college. But if the funders and supporters of the Promise really want to help, they must do something meaningful to give k-12 students in the City who want to learn a better opportunity than they now have. And that would be scholarships to attend private or parochial schools. There is no prohibition on the use of private money to give children scholarships to non-public schools.


After a long enough period of time, perhaps the City schools will improve.  But the evidence suggests it will not be soon enough for thousands of children who deserve a better shot at a good education. It is a moral issue. Letting kids languish in the poorly performing schools ought not to be acceptable. Giving those parents who want more for their children the funds to get out of public schools if they choose is the right thing to do and it ought to be done sooner rather than later.


Those who argue against giving parents that option should at least be consistent and recommend the closing of magnet programs. What is that but offering choices? And what’s worse it is a lottery that sends a terrible message about life’s unfairness to parents and children who do not win by luck of the draw.

A Proposal for The Mayor’s Education Reform Task Force

Back in 2007, Mayor Peduto’s predecessor, along with the Superintendent of Pittsburgh schools and the head of UPMC, worked to put together the Pittsburgh Promise program, wherein graduates of Pittsburgh high schools can receive scholarship funding to attend college or other post-secondary education. UPMC was to provide $100 million over ten years to kick start the program. Since its inception, the program has raised $170 million, awarded 4,735 scholarships and handed out $42.9 million to grantees.


The program was begun with several objectives but certainly central was the idea the program would be an enticement for students to stay enrolled in Pittsburgh schools and that the promise of funds would improve academic achievement. Surprise. Seven years into the program neither objective has been achieved. Of course, there is no denying that the students receiving the aid have benefitted from the program. However the Promise program, along with the countless others that have been implemented in the school system, have not solved the problem of very poor academic performance in Pittsburgh public schools, especially at the high school level. SAT scores remain well below national average and the PSSA results point to startlingly low scholastic achievement (Policy Brief Volume 12, Number 46).


To his credit, the Mayor recognizes that a poorly performing, very expensive school district is detrimental to efforts to grow the city’s economy and population, especially the population of families with children. Far too many families with middle and high school age children have moved out of the City and are not being replaced. Unfortunately, the City depends on net in-migration of unmarried and mostly young who are prone to leave once they get married and have children rather than put them in the public school system.


Moreover, with costs over $20,000 per pupil, the school system is very expensive for taxpayers in the City even though the state provides over 40 percent of the funding for the district budget. Indeed, the school district is predicting ruinously large budget deficits in the next three years. Jumps in the amount the district will have to spend to cover its pension and health care obligations are driving expenditures through the roof (Policy Brief Volume 13, Number 57).


The Mayor not only recognizes the obstacle to growth the school district represents, he apparently would like to do something to help. That’s probably the major reason he has chosen to appoint a task force on the schools.  Here is what he should focus on. He ought to place emphasis on children getting a quality education and then look for ways to make that happen. Unfortunately, dozens of programs designed to improve performance over the years have done precious little to make a dent in the awful academic record of the high schools.  And that is the true test of a good educational system. It matters little if a child is doing okay, if not great, in the 5th grade. What matters for the child’s future is whether they learn enough in high school to prepare them for the working world or for post-secondary education and training once they graduate.


So, the Mayor should begin by thinking outside the normal limited set of solutions that focus on trying to fix school district problems. One solution comes to mind quickly. Offer a program to help students and parents who truly care about learning get into schools, private or parochial, where there is discipline and laser like focus on academic achievement.


One possibility would be to ask the Promise program to set aside a sizable portion of funds to be used to create scholarships for students who would like to get out of the public schools and into a non-public alternative.  There must be thousands of parents in the City who feel their children are trapped in subpar schools who would jump at the opportunity to find a good alternative for their children.  The state does administer the opportunity scholarship tax credit program, which provides scholarships to students in low achieving school districts to attend non-public schools.  There are income guidelines and restrictions on the use of the scholarship.  In the current school year, twenty-one of the district’s schools are on the list of low achieving schools.  Still a broader, more generous approach is needed.


To satisfy the desire for alternatives, the Mayor could head up special fund raising efforts to supplement the Promise program assets. There might be a number of local foundations, corporations and individual donors who would be glad to provide financial assistance to a dedicated fund within the Promise program that offers scholarships to public school students that would enable them to attend a non-public school of their parents’ choice.


And if the Promise program board feels that it would be inappropriate to be involved in an effort to focus on improving education for K-12 students as opposed to giving scholarships to those who make it through to graduation, then the Mayor could put together another program that would raise private funds to provide scholarships to K-12 students to move to non-public schooling.


Some will say, as they always do, that such a program would take the better students out of public schools. Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps some potentially good students are not achieving as they should because the environment they are in is not conducive to learning or challenging enough. In any event, students—whether good or currently not doing well but would be better suited to a different school environment—should have an opportunity to get out of the situation they are in.


It will be argued that the program would undermine the public schools. On the other hand, it could be argued that competition might cause them to improve. Certainly, there is no possibility that per student spending would be lowered in the public schools. If the public schools do not or cannot respond in a positive way to the loss of students—which will arguably be a small number at the beginning—what does that tell us about the attitude and culture of the public school establishment? The school district is a creature of the state with a mission to educate the City’s children. If they cannot deliver on the fundamental commission they have been given by the Commonwealth, they should not expect to be coddled or to have their inadequacies swept under the rug.


Granted, there are many details to be worked out and a lot of serious discussion about how to proceed in the development of such a program as the one being recommended. The difference in this approach if adopted by the Mayor would be that he does not have to get involved with the school board and its prerogatives.  Undoubtedly such a move would be bold and likely very unpopular among defenders of the school establishment and unions, particularly the teachers’ union. The question is; to whom and what objectives does the Mayor owe allegiance?  It would seem to be a no brainer that opportunity for quality education for the City’s children should trump politics and powerful interest opposition.


It is too bad the state government, with all its financial support for education, has not been able to thwart the power of the public education establishment through the creation of substantial meaningful education alternatives and better use of taxpayer dollars. Thus it is necessary to seek bold private sector solutions to save children from the poorly performing public schools in Pittsburgh.

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.

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.

Pittsburgh Promise Raises Money, But Misses Primary Goals

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.


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Promise Program Sends a Better Message


The Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program, in an abrupt departure from its original plan, announced changes to the amounts available to graduating students who qualify for funds.  The Promise will now offer more dollars to students who score well on standardized tests.  Does this change represent a movement toward a performance based rewards system-something we have argued it should have done from the outset?

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Goodbye Superintendent, Better Luck at Your New Job

In a going away interview the Pittsburgh school superintendent regaled the interviewers with how hard he worked to make a difference. He declared success in improving teacher effectiveness and creating the Promise Scholarship Program. He was more modest in regretting that only modest improvement was achieved in the high schools.

Too bad he did not mention the Promise Program’s failure to keep or attract students as its advocates predicted excitedly it would. Enrollment continues to fall, especially in the high schools. Nor has the Program helped academic progress. Indeed, as we have suggested earlier, there is a very real possibility the Promise Program has reduced incentive of serious students to work hard.

After five years, per students costs have not been reduced despite school closings and fewer teachers employed. Meanwhile, non-teaching administrative jobs have jumped sharply. Moreover, the District has maintained its spending levels without raising tax rates because of a $40 million infusion of state money provided through the Federal stimulus program. The next budget cycle will look a lot different as the Federal money is no longer available. A tax increase is almost inevitable.

So here’s wishing the outgoing superintendent better luck at his new job. Resurrecting a bankrupt college might be a snap compared to making progress in an urban school district.

One wonders if in his heart of hearts he ever thought, "You know. There might be something to this school choice, voucher idea." That could keep a person awake nights for a long time.

Has the Promise Been Kept?

A Post-Gazette editorial sings the praises of the Pittsburgh Promise Program, a scholarship program that benefits graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools. The piece claims that the money has been well spent and the "promise" has been kept. But is it the success they claim?

The editorial notes that the first class eligible for the Promise funds, 2008, are in college and sticking with it. The program reports that of 481 recipients they have tracked who went on to higher education, the retention rate after their freshman year was 73 percent. This figure includes trade schools, two-year, and four-year colleges (both private and public).

While that sounds noteworthy, keep in mind that, according to the Promise’s website, the class of 2008 included 1,200 students who applied to the Promise Program with 1,000 meeting the eligibility requirements (which at the time were a 2.0 grade point average and having been enrolled in Pittsburgh Public Schools since the ninth grade). Of these 1,000 students, 600 were planning to attend a four-year school and 350 were to apply to a two-year school. Presumably, the remaining 50 went to trade schools. It is unclear how many students actually received scholarships and what their current status is.

But the editorial brags about the 481 they have tracked. Of these 481 students, 46 percent or 219 attended Community College of Allegheny County and, of those, only 160 made it to their sophomore year (73 percent, which the editorial author notes is better than the 20 percent retention rate in the past).

The Promise Program may have kept more students in college by lessening the financial burden, but it cannot help overcome the inadequate learning in the City’s high schools. Did so many of the remaining graduates leave or not enter college because they were not prepared for its rigors? According to figures from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), in the 2006-07 school year fewer than 50 percent of 11th graders in seven of the District’s ten high schools scored proficient or better on the math portion of the test. On the exam’s reading section, five of the ten high schools had fewer than 50 percent of their students scoring proficient or better. These 11th graders became the class of 2008.

The editorial laments the fact that more foundations and organizations from outside the City have not contributed to the Promise Program. And why should they? Why would they want to encourage people to move from their neighborhoods into the City?

The truth of the matter is that the Promise has not lived up to expectations. It was expected to bring new families into the City schools and it has not as enrollment continues to slide. It has not caused an improvement in student performance as PSSA scores still remain woefully low. And now we find out that less than half of the first eligible class has made it into their second year of college. Clearly a promise not kept.

A “Super”-Intendent

With apologies to the recent documentary on public schools, if the results of a community meeting are any indication of the resume the next chief of the Pittsburgh Public Schools needs to have, the City will indeed be "waiting for Superman". And for a long time at that.

To wit, some of the responses included "experience in the classroom", "[from] an urban school district", "fiscally responsible", "reduce the racial academic achievement gap", "someone who knows how to manage change", "build student and neighborhood morale by bringing all sectors of the community-like parents, colleges, businesses and service groups-together for the benefit of students", and "promote teacher excellence".

Consider that the next superintendent has labor peace (the teachers’ contract runs through 2015) and the Pittsburgh Promise program (which was sold as a way to improve academic performance and slow enrollment declines).

A consultant participating in the meeting said that the board needs to define their goals and move forward from that point. First and foremost has to be the trends facing enrollment, performance, and spending. How will the next superintendent confront the fact that the District spends $20k per pupil yet performance by 11th graders is woefully substandard? What will the next superintendent do to reverse enrollment trends that project further declines through the end of the decade?