Day of Bizarre Education Stories

Man bites dog. The headline every reporter is salivating to use. Well, there is now a perfect opportunity courtesy of the Bethel Park School District. Parents are protesting teachers who are on strike. Not just taxpayers, but parents whom teachers normally count on to defend union demands and urge the Board to cave.

This is big news. Too bad it has taken so long for this to happen. Perhaps the parents will begin to consider supporting state office candidates who will vote to eliminate the right of teachers to strike. Still, if more parents and other taxpayers will join in and set an example, there is a chance such protests will spread and begin to undermine the teacher union belief that there are no consequences to walking off the job.

Then there was the report of City Council honoring Superintendent Roosevelt as he prepares to depart to head up a completely failed educational institution as opposed to the Pittsburgh Schools that are barely holding on to any semblance of respectability that he has decided to abandon. What a joke. Spending per student has risen above $20,000 under Roosevelt, enrollment is still falling despite the Promise Program and 11th graders have shown no improvement in academic achievement. Other than that he has been just swell as superintendent.

Of course City Council’s governance of the City gives them no standing to honor actual examples of superior performance, or for that matter an example of adequate performance. How would they know the difference?

Goodbye, Mr. Roosevelt–With Apologies to Mr. Chips

The Pittsburgh school superintendent will be leaving at year’s end with almost four years remaining on his contract. He is headed for new challenges and opportunities as president of a defunct college.

Perhaps the challenges still unmet in Pittsburgh have proved too daunting. After years of effort and massive spending to improve the schools and student performance, high school academic achievement-as measured by SAT score and PSSA results-point to an unmistakable conclusion: there has been no progress in the education of 11th graders. And as anyone who has thought about it knows, we don’t spend over a quarter of a million dollars per student for 13 years so they can enter the world unprepared. It does not matter if they are good 5th grade students. The ultimate goal is not good 6th grade students. Important, but not the final objective.

Could it be that Mr. Roosevelt, upon realizing that the public school model in Pittsburgh would never accept the changes necessary to fix the high school problem, despaired of stopping the outflow of students and improving student test scores? Good time to jump at an opportunity such as going to resurrect a failed college. Let’s hope the college’s finances are able to cash his paychecks.

Pittsburgh Schools Fail to Hit Progress Targets

Once again, Pittsburgh’s eleventh graders point to the failure that is the City’s school system. Because these students were unable to improve their scores on the state’s assessment tests, the District will not hit the modest Federal standards of adequate yearly progress. And adequate yearly progress is easiest to achieve when the students are already at low performance levels. Moreover, hitting an adequate yearly progress target does not mean students are doing well-just that they have made some improvement.

But the big issue here is Pittsburgh high schools’ abject inability to make progress despite program after program, spending vast amounts of money and launching the Promise Program. As we have pointed out repeatedly, why is progress at grade three or five ballyhooed as evidence that school policies are working when students near graduation continue to fall well below minimal requirements? It’s the equivalent of focusing on drawing up plans to build a house and then failing to pay attention to the flaws in actual construction. The house will turn out poorly and the money spent on plans will have been wasted.

Little wonder school enrollment continues to decline. Not even the promise of college tuition money for anyone who graduates is helping to boost scores or enrollment. Indeed, the Promise Program, rather than creating incentives to do well, is for many students probably being viewed as another entitlement that requires little or no effort on their part and for some formerly serious students could be seen as removing the need to work really hard in order to qualify for financial aid upon entering college.

As long as the school district and its defenders refuse to face up to their real problem they will never develop a way to get better. The schools and the community should welcome and adopt vouchers that will allow students who truly want to learn an opportunity to escape the education nightmare that exists in many City schools.

Good Money after Bad?

According to a Tribune Review report this morning the Pittsburgh school district needs $44 million dollars in order to receive all of the $40 million in the Gates Foundation grant. All the money is to go to yet another remaking of education in the district.

Here’s the untold story. The Pittsburgh district spent $525 million in the last school year to educate 26,123 students. That amounts to over $20,000 per pupil. And that does not count all the money being doled out by the Promise Program to district graduates to help with college costs. Despite all the spending and programs, enrollment continues to plunge at the rate of a thousand students a year. Does anyone think this new effort and additional spending will succeed in the Pittsburgh environment?

Pittsburgh schools have engaged in countless reforms over the years and still have dismally performing high school students. One very important reform has never been tried nor is it likely to be-the establishment of a voucher program to allow students to opt out of poorly performing public schools. It is always the same argument: vouchers would allow the best students to escape and undermine the public schools. Never has it been considered that the public owes students the best opportunity to learn and it is morally reprehensible to force them to attend grotesquely inadequate public schools. Schools that administration after administration have failed to improve in any meaningful way.

Moreover, competition might actually force the worst schools to try to get better at delivering education. But the denial of opportunity of a good education to kids and parents who want and value quality education reflects a seriously distorted moral compass.

Promise Program as Tax Preparation Instructor

Now that the Promise program has had a couple of years of operational experience, they have seemingly encountered a problem. Perhaps they have made a bigger promise than they can keep. So they are requiring students applying for Promise money to fill out the "Free Application for Federal Student Aid" (FAFSA) in order to leverage government assistance as much possible before receiving Promise funds. What’s up with that? We were led to believe from the announcement of the Promise that money would be there for the asking for all graduating seniors who met the grade and attendance requirement. Now they have to jump through the FAFSA hoop before their scholarship is granted.

What’s worse, evidently a lot of students who can graduate from high school and presumably are ready for college cannot fill out the requisite forms so their families will need assistance in filling them out. But wait. The FAFSA forms rely heavily on tax returns which, according to the Promise’s executive director, many families have not done and are scared of the prospect. Little wonder. That will raise questions the IRS might be interested in getting answers to. In any event, the Promise program, in cooperation with the United Way, will offer tax preparation instruction to student families.

But it gets worse. The tax preparation course will be open to the 3,700 student families who make up to $52,000. One would have thought people making, say, $35,000 or more per year, would know about tax returns and would have done their own or had a tax preparation professional prepare their returns.

And, why aren’t guidance counselors and other school professionals helping students fill out scholarship applications if they need it? That’s what they are paid for. Using limited Promise funds seems like an egregious duplication. Unless of course the real reason is that with the big jump in funding to $10,000 per year for students graduating in 2012, the program managers are starting to feel the need to direct students to other sources so as to reduce the amount the fund will have to provide.

City Gets Another Summit

No, not another event on the scale of the G-20; this time, it is a summit on education. Funded by a $10k grant from the America’s Promise Alliance, the forum will allow "community leaders to convene key stakeholders to develop and/or advance action plans for improving the high school graduation rate" according to a City Council resolution to accept the funds.

What more can be done? They can’t argue for college aid. The City and the School District have already tapped the local foundation community to create the Pittsburgh Promise, a program that awards college scholarship money to graduates of the Public Schools. The chance at getting the money should be spurring on students to work harder and graduate on time with the necessary grade point average if we are to believe the proponents.

Then too, they can’t argue that the School District has been tight-fisted: per pupil expenditures have almost doubled in the last decade (($11k in 1999 to $19.5 in 2008 according to the Schools’ financials). That should be adequate money to prepare students to graduate on time.

Maybe they can discuss the increasing impact charter and cyber charter schools are having on the District. In FY2005, the enrollment ratio of the Pittsburgh Public Schools to students living in the District attending charter schools was 17 to 1: three years later, enrollment in the Public Schools has fallen and enrollment in charters has grown to the point where the ratio is 11 to 1. Perhaps parents are seeing something that others aren’t. But don’t look for these stakeholders to be invited to the meeting.

Bigger Promise Will Be Needed for Pittsburgh Schools

While lauding the school district’s improving achievement scores in the 2008-2009 school year, the superintendent studiously avoided a thorough discussion of two troublesome and potentially devastating results. First, the percentage of third graders scoring at the advanced or proficient level fell in both math and reading. Generally speaking, since third graders are the first grade to be tested, they tend to have better scores. They are more malleable and teachable, by and large, than older children. They are also less exposed to negative social influences that hurt or discourage learning. Thus, to have third graders going backward is never good, especially when the percentage of students at proficient or advanced levels already trails the statewide average by a significant margin.

The second and more worrisome development was the big drop in the percentage of 11th graders scoring proficient or higher on the math exam. The number fell from 52.4 percent in 2007-2008 to 43.5 percent in the 2008-2009 school year. Moreover, the latest result is only marginally higher than the 2004-2005 percentage achieving the proficient level. And on the reading exam, 11th graders had a slightly lower percentage scoring at the proficient level than five years earlier-50.7 percent compared to 51.1 percent in 2004-2005.

After five years of per pupil spending near $20,000 and innumerable special programs to assist high school students, the results for 11th graders must be considered pathetic. Today’s students-on average-are no better prepared to graduate and go into the work force or enroll in college than those of five years ago. What a disgrace and indictment of the school system, City residents and elected officials for tolerating such an outrage.

These latest results will certainly not help the district to make the case that parents should keep their kids in Pittsburgh’s junior high schools and high schools. Undoubtedly, the bribe program called Pittsburgh Promise will have to be expanded in some manner to create more immediate benefits. Maybe a free car for students who maintain a "C" average once they obtain a driver’s license.

Pittsburgh Promise Tries to Make Up for Broken Prior Promise

There is much rejoicing in the office of the Pittsburgh Promise program as well in the Mayor’s and Superintendent’s office. Several million more dollars have been squeezed from the corporate community to ensure that UPMC’s pledge of $10 million will be forthcoming.

The Promise program was established to provide college scholarships to graduates of the City’s high schools in an effort to stanch the flood of students abandoning the public school system-a bribe by another name. And why is the bribe necessary? Because the school system has been, and continues to be, an almost utter failure in delivering quality education to the majority of its students. So parents are enticed to stay in the City or move into the City in order for their children to get help with college expenses.

But the supreme irony is that the larger and more morally important promise to provide a good education implicit in the district’s very existence has not simply been broken, it has been shattered. Having failed in its moral obligation, the school district and the City have launched an effort to keep kids in the schools. Their first and primary obligation should be to restore a quality education program that achieves good results. When that happens, parents will not have to be bribed to send their children to Pittsburgh’s schools.

After all, the expenditure of over $20,000 per pupil ought to be enough to get the job done. The fact that it isn’t getting done argues for dramatic changes and reforms in the management and oversight of the schools. Some real competition and choice through a voucher program would do wonders for the public schools. They would either get better or disappear. Instead, the Pittsburgh solution is in place: Ignore the real underlying causes of the problems and just throw more money at the them. Money that could be spent on far better things.

Of course all this depends on a corporate and foundation community that is willing to spend money on politically correct things as opposed to things that might actually work-such as a corporate scholarship program to let students choose a school other than the public school.