Pittsburgh’s weakest performing schools show scant progress from 2016 to 2019

Background

From PPS website September 2021:

“The Pittsburgh Public Schools will be one of America’s premier school districts, student-focused, well-managed and innovative.”

From Strategic Plan 2017-2022:

“We have much work to do. … Our graduation rate has dropped, enrollment continues to decline. …Yet there is reason to expect good things because of the strategies outlined herein.”

A review of the highly touted strategic plan’s performance

In 2016, the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) hired Anthony Hamlet as superintendent with great fanfare about new beginnings to turn around the district’s long slide in enrollment and academic performance. Would Hamlet be able to do what a long line of predecessors were unable to achieve?

Now that Superintendent Hamlet has abruptly resigned shortly into a second term, it is a good time to see if there has been any academic improvement in PPS schools, especially those that were posting dreadful results when Hamlet took the reins.

Because 2020 and 2021 state achievement tests—the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and the Keystone Exam—are not available at this time, we only have three years of test scores with which to evaluate fairly the superintendent’s impact.  It could be argued that two more years would have been necessary to make a fair assessment.  However, since the lives of students are enormously affected by the education, or lack of education, they are getting every year, it is justified to see if all the hype about all the changes and programs that were put in place had an impact from 2016 test scores to 2019 scores.      

All data are taken from the Pennsylvania Department of Education website data and reporting section.

Enrollment and spending 2016 and 2019

To begin, it is useful to show PPS’ enrollment and expenditures to illustrate the fact that students are not being shortchanged because of inadequate finances.  In the 2016-17 school year there were 23,286 enrolled students and the average daily membership (ADM) was 26,583. ADM includes all students in the district PPS is financially responsible for.  Current expenditure per ADM was $22,282. By the 2019-20 school year, ADM had fallen 3 percent to 25,744 and per ADM current expenditure had climbed 13.8 percent to $25,354.

By comparison, Peters Township had the sixth-highest academically rated high school and middle school in Pennsylvania with per ADM expenditures of $14,814 in the 2019-20 school year.

Choosing schools for evaluation

To evaluate the degree of progress in PPS schools, the focus of this Brief will be on the schools that were the poorest performing and where the opportunities for quick and meaningful improvement in test results were most needed and easily measured.   The measurement used is the change in PSSA math scores from 2016 to 2019 for grades 5, and 8 and the Keystone exam for grade 11. A group of poorest performing schools with 11th graders, 8th graders and 5th graders were selected to see if there was meaningful improvement. 

PSSA is the commonwealth’s test that assesses the scholastic achievement of students. Test results are grouped into four levels—advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. The key measure is the percent scoring proficient.  Students who are not proficient at grade level are clearly going to have trouble with the subject matter at the next higher grade.  The basic category recognizes some but inadequate mastery of the subject. Below basic points to both a failure to grasp the subject content and the strong likelihood of failure to catch up in later grades.  

Math is chosen for the annual test score comparisons because it has been the subject with the most trouble in recent years, although reading and language arts test results typically parallel math in most schools.

11th grade achievement results 

The analysis looked at four PPS high schools with the lowest statewide academic ranking—Brashear, Milliones, Perry and Westinghouse. Of 690 high schools, standard, charter and specialty schools in Pennsylvania ranked by SchoolDigger based on 2019 PSSA results, Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy was PPS’s highest ranked at 117, placing it in the top 20 percent. CAPA was second at 152, just outside the top 20 percent. Six schools were ranked below 500th with Brashear at 607, Perry at 635, Milliones at 639 and Westinghouse at 642.  The last three are in the bottom 10 percent of Pennsylvania high schools. There are several high schools in Philadelphia and Allentown that perform worse academically than the Pittsburgh schools. On the other hand, they spend $7,000-$9,000 less per student.

Results for the four schools are shown as averages for combined advanced and proficient and basic and below basic for 2016 and 2019.       

Year% Advanced and proficient% Basic and below basic
201624.475.6
201924.175.9

By way of comparison statewide, 63.3 percent of 11th graders scored at the advanced or proficient level in 2019.  Brashear at 32.6 percent was the highest scoring of the four schools but had a small decline from 2016.  Perry and Milliones posted marginal improvement in proficient but basic and below basic remain at double the state level.  Westinghouse’s performance worsened slightly over the three years as the basic and below basic rose 5 percentage points to 82.1 percent in 2019. 

Meanwhile, Peters Township High School offers a demonstration of the profound difference between really good school math performance and the PPS schools.  In 2019, Peters Township high had 56.3 percent advanced, 38.8 percent proficient (95.1 percent total), 4.3 percent basic and 0.6 percent below basic. All while spending $14,814 per ADM, nearly $11,000 less than PPS.  

8th grade achievement results

This section examines the improvement, or lack thereof, in 8th grade math scores for six schools with 8th grade students—at Langley; M.L. King; Mifflin; Milliones; Academy at Westinghouse and South Hills.   There were 22 PPS schools in the category in 2019 and 879 in schools in the state, including charters and other specialized schools. Eight are ranked in the lowest fifth statewide and five of those in the bottom 10 percent of Pennsylvania middle schools. Four of the five lowest are in this analysis group.

In the selected group of six schools, Mifflin was the highest rated statewide at 698.  Note that the highest ranked PPS middle school is the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy at 189. Two other schools, Brookline and Greenfield, were in the top third with all other in the bottom half of schools.

Results for the middle schools are shown as the six school average percentages for combined advanced and proficient and combined basic and below basic for 2016 and 2019.

Year% Advanced and proficient% Basic and below basic
20167.492.6
20194.495.6

Taken together the performance on 8th grade math worsened between 2016 and 2019. Mifflin had a big drop in proficient while only M.L. King showed measurable gains.  Every school except South Hills (89.4 percent) had over 90 percent basic or below basic. Westinghouse and Milliones were at 100 percent basic or below and zero percent proficient.

5th grade achievement results

SchoolDigger ranks 1,536 Pennsylvania elementary schools, including charters and specialty schools.  These schools are typically k-5 or k-8.  PPS has 34 schools in these grade groups ranked by SchoolDigger.  Changes in scores on 5th grade math will be used as the measure of whether there was any progress over the 2016 to 2019 period.  

Note that Colfax k-8 ranked 225 in 2019, the highest of any PPS elementary schools, placing it in the top 15 percent of the state’s schools.  Dilworth and Montessori ranked in the top third of schools. Two other schools were in the top 40 percent (Greenfield and Brookline), one between 40 and 50 percent and all others in the bottom half.   

Five of the lowest ranked PPS schools with 5th grade students were chosen to gauge progress—M.L. King; Arlington; Faison; Langley and Miller.  All the schools were in the lowest 10 percent with two in the lowest 5 percent.   

As with the high schools and middle schools, the results are shown as the five-school average of advanced and proficient and basic and below basic for 2016 and 2019.

Year% Advanced and proficient% Basic and below basic
20163.397.7
20193.896.2

With no meaningful improvement in the advanced or proficient scores or the basic and below basic scores, the conclusion is clear:  There has been no progress overall in the poorest scoring elementary schools. Langley did have a modest gain in advanced and proficient from 4.5 to 8.2 percent but still had well over 90 percent at the basic and below basic level. Miller remained mired at zero percent advanced or proficient. All this while per ADM spending increased 13 percent to $25,354 in 2019.

Meanwhile, statewide 5th graders averaged 43.1 percent advanced and proficient and 56.9 percent basic and below.  Clearly, both statewide and these PPS schools compare very poorly to very good schools. Mt Lebanon’s Markham Elementary 5th graders scored 95.7 percent advanced or proficient and 4.3 percent basic, no below basic with district expenditures of $16,474 in 2019.  

Summary of findings

This analysis examined the change in test score performance at the four weakest performing high schools (11th graders), six weakest performing middle schools (8th graders) and six elementary schools (5th graders).  There was overlap in the schools because some schools have both 5th and 8th and one has all three grades.

With only two exceptions there was no meaningful improvement in test scores for students in any school or any grades. Perry High, M.L. King 8th grade and Langley 5th grade saw a modest pickup in advanced and proficient, although these improvements still left very high percentages of test takers at the basic and below basic level.

Pittsburgh, the U.N. and the schools

Summary: Pittsburgh’s mayor has decided to adopt the United Nations’ goals for sustainability—which include providing quality education.  However, based on the most recent achievement test scores for Pittsburgh Public Schools, the goal of quality education will require more commitment by all concerned than we have seen.

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Recently Pittsburgh’s mayor, along with members of city government and local organizations, announced the city’s plan to adopt 17 sustainable goals the United Nations (U.N.) has identified for its future efforts.

The goals are “no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequality, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, life on land, peace and justice, strong institutions and partnerships.”  The mayor said, “Working with stakeholders across the city, these goals will allow us to aid residents who need our help now and future generations of Pittsburghers to come.”

Sounds like Utopia in the making. Bear in mind, however, that one of the biggest failings of the U.N. is its so-called Human Rights Council that supposedly works to apply the “rights and freedoms” enumerated by the U.N.  With recent outgoing members including China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Rwanda and incoming members including Indonesia, Somalia, Pakistan, Bahrain, Sudan, Qatar and Venezuela it is reasonable to ask how much attention to basic human rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, right to own property and other fundamental rights the council actually intends to pursue diligently. These basic rights are just as or more important than a long wish list that cannot possibly be achieved absent honoring and protecting essential freedoms.

But one thing is sure.  The U.N. has its work cut out on the poverty goal. In 2018, the world average GDP per capita was $11,355, according to the International Monetary Fund. Of the 186 countries listed 126 have below world average GDP per capita while 44 are below $2,000. By comparison, the U.S. GDP stood at $62,600. Income figures by country track the GDP figures closely. U.S. and Pittsburgh median per capita incomes are close at around $34,000 in 2017. In short, poverty in the U.S. is certainly a far cry from poverty in most of the third-world countries.

Indeed, compared to most of the world, Pittsburgh and its population are doing very well on virtually all the listed U.N. goals. No doubt there is room for improvement in Pittsburgh, especially in the areas of economic and job growth, quality education and its water and sewer system.  While the universities, colleges and hospitals add greatly to the city’s economy and quality of life, the public schools as a whole are in woeful shape with far too many children not receiving the education necessary to be successful in today’s, or tomorrow’s, economy. There is little hope of solving the city’s pressing social problems unless or until there is substantial improvement in the public schools’ performance. 

Pennsylvania System for School Assessment (PSSA) achievement test statistics for the Pittsburgh Public Schools for the school year 2018-2019 are now available.  The news is not good.  Statistics for third grade reading achievement, regarded by some educators as a key to future academic performance, show half the students are not ready for the fourth grade.  In the 35 schools with third grade enrollment, 48 percent scored below the proficient level at the basic or below basic level in English Language arts—reading and writing. In 16 of the schools, over 50 percent were basic or below and in 10 over 70 percent were basic or below.  Math scores for the third grade were even worse.

In the 22 schools with eighth graders—Oliver and Online Academy not included—56 percent of PSSA test-takers scored at basic or below in English Language arts. Seven schools had 70 percent or more in the basic or below group with three at 80 percent or higher. Math results for eighth grade were even more appalling. Of the 1,362 PSSA test-takers, 80 percent scored basic or below (53 percent below basic). In 10 of the schools, 90 percent or more fell in the basic or below category.  In three schools not a single student scored at the proficient level. Two thirds of the mere 66 test-takers—out of the 1,362—scoring at the advanced level were accounted for by CAPA, Colfax and Greenfield.   

Compared to Pennsylvania’s all-school scores, Pittsburgh trails by significant margins despite atrocious percentages of scores below proficient for the state as a whole with 41 percent of Pennsylvania eighth graders basic or below in English Language arts and 70 percent basic or below in math. As noted in previous briefs, terrible scores from most of the schools in the huge Philadelphia district play a major role in the state’s overall poor academic performance.

Statewide, 63 percent of 11th graders scored proficient or better on the math exam. In Pittsburgh 50 percent of test takers were proficient or better.  However, absent the relatively good performances at CAPA, Allderdice and the Science and Technology Academy, only 37 percent scored proficient or advanced.    

But, as a reminder, spending more money on education does not necessarily translate into learning.  Consider Peters Township School District which spends $8,000 per student less than Pittsburgh and yet has 95 percent of 11th graders advanced or proficient in math with over 50 percent advanced. Not as dramatic but the same pattern holds true for advanced and proficient scores at Pine-Richland (90 percent), Mt. Lebanon (90 percent), and North Allegheny (86 percent). And consider the Windber School District in Somerset County where spending is $10,000 below Pittsburgh and a high percentage of kids come from poor families and yet they have 76 percent scoring advanced or proficient.

As demonstrated in Policy Briefs (Vol. 15, No. 30 and Vol. 19, No. 30), a high percentage of Pittsburgh schools suffer from extraordinary levels of absenteeism; a virtually perfect indicator of all the social and attitude problems that afflict education and learning. A school system that tolerates such woeful attendance problems will be incapable of achieving better academic results.

Why is school performance important? It is equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. Failure to address massive academic weakness makes any real progress on the U.N.’s social goals wish list impossible. When children are not educationally prepared to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, including economic self-sufficiency, the problems of dependency never end.  And that means addressing poverty and other social ills are made manifestly more difficult.

So, if the mayor is really looking for the most important thing he can do for the city, he should make dramatic improvement in school performance a top priority. Granted, the school district is a creature of the state and has its own governing powers and funding sources and can claim independence from the mayor. However, there are steps he can take. He can go to the governor and Legislature and ask that the state create a voucher program that will allow any and all parents who want to remove their students from failing district schools the ability and funding to enroll them in private or parochial schools of their choice. The district has magnet schools for limited numbers of students. Why not choice for all? The cost per student for those using vouchers would almost certainly drop precipitously compared to the $24,000 the district spends.

Second, the mayor can use his bully pulpit to call attention to the enormous negative impacts the poorly performing district has on the city’s ability to attract and keep people with school-age children. And it could also lead to lower a tax burden for property owners and residents paying the school earned-income tax.

The degree to which city officials want to reverse the decades long slide in population, especially families with school-age children, can be gauged by the seriousness they attach to finding ways to improve school performance.

Of course, it will be hard. The entire political clout of the teacher unions will be arrayed to fight meaningful changes. That is a major reason nothing ever gets done other than throwing money at the problem. It is not working. Year after year, graduation after graduation, a huge percentage of students are going into the world with totally inadequate reading, writing and arithmetic skills thinking they are prepared. This charade is a sham and immoral. Yet the district will spend $24,000 per student per year for 13 years to achieve this outcome for more than half of the students passing through.

Another greatly disappointing year for Pittsburgh Public Schools

Summary: Despite the upbeat slogans continuously trotted out by Pittsburgh Public Schools, the academic achievement of its students continues to disappoint.  This Brief looks at the dismal performance of the district’s 8th graders on the state’s standardized test.

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A couple of years ago, the newly installed superintendent presented a new five-year plan. The slogan for the new regime was “Expect Great Things”—not much of an improvement on the “Excellence for All” slogan previously touted.  At that time the Institute argued that while the objectives in the plan were mostly laudable, the steps and programs to live up to expecting great things were not likely to produce great things for all students.  And the plan avoided mentioning its most glaring problem—outrageously high levels of absenteeism.

The single best measure of how the schools are doing is the demonstrated academic achievement of the children in the district’s charge. And for the majority of schools the achievement levels are woeful.

This Brief looks at 8th grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) math exam results.

To be fair to the 8th graders in Pittsburgh, it should be pointed out that statewide, 8th grade scores are very weak.  In 2018, only 31 percent of 8th graders across the state scored at the proficient or advanced level. That means only 31 percent are actually ready to take on high school level work. And what is more startling is the large decline in the percent scoring proficient or above as students move to higher grades. In third grade 54 percent were proficient or higher but by 8th grade that percentage had fallen to 31 percent.  By 6th grade the percentage was already down to 39.6 percent. This could mean the tests get progressively harder or the concepts taught in each higher grade level rise in difficulty faster than the ability of kids to grasp them. Alternatively, it could mean that kids just become less enamored with learning and do not put in the necessary practice and study time.

In Pittsburgh 22 schools have 8th grade students although Pittsburgh Oliver has only 16 students and too few taking the math exam to warrant separate reporting.  Overall, 1,389 8th grade students took the PSSA exam.  Of that number 82, or 6 percent, scored at the advanced level and 192, or 14 percent, scored at the proficient level for a total of 20 percent proficient or better. This is 11 points lower than the state’s 31 percent proficient (21 percent) or advanced (10 percent).

But the Pittsburgh average score hides a very wide range of scoring by schools. Three schools (Colfax, CAPA and Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy) with a total enrollment of 240 of the 1,389 total 8th graders taking the test (17 percent) accounted for 55 of the 82 students (67 percent) at the advanced level and 85 of the 192 proficient scores. Fifteen schools had combined totals of fewer than 20 percent of students reaching combined advanced and proficient levels. Eleven schools had below 10 percent of their students reaching advanced or proficient.

Shockingly, four schools had no students at the proficient or advanced levels (King, Sunnyside, Pittsburgh Oliver and Milliones). Two more schools had only one at the proficient level and no advanced (Langley and Morrow). A total of 10 schools had five or fewer students scoring advanced or proficient. In addition to the six just mentioned, Academy at Westinghouse, Allegheny Traditional Academy, Arlington and Carmalt were in the five or fewer students in the proficient or advanced category. The 10 schools combined had 380 8th graders take the math exam and of that number only 14 students scored advanced or proficient with just three at the advanced level. These results are a scathing indictment of Pittsburgh schools.

The other way to look at the scores is to combine the basic and below basic scores. Basic means some grasp but not enough to be considered proficient in the subject at that grade level.  Students scoring at the basic level will find the next grade subject matter very difficult. Students scoring below basic have totally inadequate mastery of the material and can look for forward to a really hard time in the next grade—since they will not be held back. And as they move up the students who were barely proficient in 6th grade will almost certainly fall further behind in the 7th grade.

And so on through their elementary grades. These students will likely never catch up as they keep moving higher in grades having no mastery of the previous grade. Indeed, they are destined to fall further behind. Thus, much of the teachers’ time is spent in remedial education for the basic and below basic levels.

This pathetic performance by such a large percentage of Pittsburgh’s 8th graders is not the result of inadequate spending.  The district’s current expenditures per student stood at $22,282 in school year 2016-17—the latest official state-reported statistics.  No doubt spending was higher in the 2017-18 school year.  By comparison statewide the spending is just over $16,500.

For a stark comparison, consider Peters Township in Washington County where current expenditures per student were $13,193. The 324 8th graders in Peters Township had 41 percent scoring at the advanced level and 41 percent at the proficient level for a total of 82 percent. Basic and below basic were 13 and 5 percent, respectively. Not a single school in Pittsburgh, even the best magnet schools, came close to matching the achievement by Peters Township 8th graders. And all for $9,000 less per student than Pittsburgh spends.

There is little more to be said about the situation in Pittsburgh Public Schools. It is a disaster for far too many students. It is stuck, and has been stuck, in a politically driven management and education mentality that are not only failing students but constantly finding excuses for why they should not be blamed. They claim more money, more programs and more decades of experimentation will get the job done. But, as old timers used to say, “That dog won’t hunt.”

Broken Promises for Pittsburgh Students

Summary: The students in Pittsburgh’s public schools have seen two promises broken. First, the promise of up to $40,000 in scholarships for those who graduate from city high schools has been replaced with a promise of $20,000. Second the promise of a quality education for all students continues to be empty words.

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The Pittsburgh Promise program (TPP) has broken faith with the parents and students in Pittsburgh public schools. Ten years ago, TPP promised parents that if they would keep their children in the district from kindergarten through graduation, and if the students maintained a modest 2.5 grade point average and had attendance of 90 percent, they would be eligible for $10,000 per year in financial aid each year for four years. Thousands of students have stayed in the district for the last 10 years with many having been there since kindergarten.  The 12th grade students are now only months away from graduation.

And they just received the second installment of bad news concerning the promised and hoped-for scholarships.  In 2015, TPP announced the maximum benefit would be reduced to $7,500 per year for four years. On Jan. 29, TPP announced the maximum annual stipend would be reduced to $5,000, effective for 2018 graduates. To rub salt in that wound for those who have stayed since kindergarten, the new plan will extend the maximum stipend to students who only attend 9th through 12th grades.

What’s worse, TPP says with this latest reduction it has enough money to make it through 2028. Presumably, that means the fundraising is not going well lately. Indeed, TPP website shows that after 11 years it remains $50 million short of its original goal even with the UPMC-promised $100 million having been received.  Where are the corporate and foundation benefactors that need to step up and guarantee the program will last in perpetuity? And what does the Pittsburgh school administration think about this massive cut in scholarship funds after years of prominently advertising the $40,000 figure on its website?  It cannot be happy.

What does this mean financially?  Over the last 10 years the cost of tuition and room and board at public colleges on average has gone up 30 percent.  Thus, the promised $10,000 per year 10 years ago would have been worth only $7,600 today in 2008 dollars. And with the cut to $5,000 per year, the value of the expected scholarship in 2008 dollars would have been only $3,800 today. One can only conjecture how many parents who were staying in order to get a $40,000 payoff and who now are looking at a real payoff of only $14,000 or so would have made the same decision.

Then, too, if there is no guarantee the money for scholarships will be there after 2028, parents of children just starting school who might be contemplating staying in the city to take advantage of the $5,000 per year stipend, which will almost certainly have considerably less purchasing power in 10 years, will have another reason not to stay. And given the wretched academic performance at the non-magnet schools, parents who care about education will be even more inclined to leave.

And that poor performance represents another broken promise that has been made by Pittsburgh Public Schools for years. It has promised excellent education with every five-year plan and it is always posted prominently on the website—in the latest plan, “Expect Great Things”.

It is useful to focus on the high schoolers and those close to graduation since they will be leaving soon to work or go on to higher education. How prepared are they after 12 or 13 years in Pittsburgh’s schools? In short, except for Allderdice, CAPA, Obama and the Science and Technology Academy (the last three listed are magnet schools), the quality of educational outcomes in Pittsburgh’s high schools leaves a lot to be desired.

Case in point, based on 2017 SAT scores, of 712 PA schools ranked—some of which are quite small in terms of test takers—the highest ranked Pittsburgh high school was Allderdice at 166th with an average combined math and language score of 1,101. CAPA was 204th at 1,090, 17 points higher than the commonwealth average of 1,073. The Science and Technology Academy with a score of 1,058 ranked 350th and Obama (1,038) ranked 422nd.  Of course these are averages for the schools. No doubt there are some students with higher scores as well as some with lower.

Meanwhile, Milliones (798) ranked 666th, Perry (844) stood at 644th, Westinghouse (851) rated 639th, Brashear (911) ranked 596th, Carrick (978) ranked 543rd.  To be fair, these schools are not alone; Philadelphia-area schools account for many of the very worst SAT results.  But the problem is that Pittsburgh schools overall are nowhere near the level of performance of several Allegheny County schools such as Upper St. Clair, North Allegheny, South Fayette, Pine-Richland or Mt. Lebanon, all of which have significantly lower current expenditures per-pupil than the city schools.

What’s worse, no Pittsburgh school had an SAT score as has high as Windber (Somerset County) high school’s (1,133) where the average per student spending is $7,000 lower than Pittsburgh’s outlays per student. The same is true for Peters Township high school in Washington County with its SAT score of 1,192, well above any Pittsburgh school and with per student spending $8,000 below Pittsburgh.

Then, too, the achievement level of far too many Pittsburgh 11th graders bodes poorly for getting a Promise scholarship—if they graduate. And even if they were to somehow manage to qualify for one, they simply are not academically ready to get into college or succeed if they were to be admitted. Using the basic math exam results from the 2017 Keystone Exams that are taken by 11th graders in Pennsylvania, it is clear that Pittsburgh students as a whole did not do well. Indeed, they lag well behind the state averages for the percentage of students scoring at the advanced level and have much higher percentage of students scoring at the basic and below basic level. Basic is the level below proficient. Proficient is the targeted minimum score in evaluating whether education has been adequately successful.

There is an apparent and expected relation between Keystone math results and SAT scores. Schools with high percentages of students scoring at the advanced level and low percentages of students scoring basic or lower have the best SAT results. Conversely, low advanced and high below basic numbers are closely correlated with low SAT scores.

Thus, in Pittsburgh it is the case that the same schools with highest SAT scores (Allderdice and CAPA) also have the best Keystone math scores. Of the 1,300 11th graders who took the exam in 2017, 162 (12.5 percent) scored at the advanced level. Note, however, that 97 of those 162 students attend Allderdice (57) and CAPA (40), 60 percent of the total although the two schools account for only 35 percent (452) of the test takers. Meanwhile, the other schools with a combined total of 848 test takers produced only 65 advanced scores.  Thus, Allderdice and CAPA had a combined 21.5 percent of students in the advanced group while the other schools had an advanced percentage of only 7.7 percent.

Sadly, the 1,300 test takers in Pittsburgh had 625 (48 percent) scoring basic or below on the math exam. By comparison, the state average was 33 percent. Pittsburgh’s much higher percentage was led by Westinghouse (85.9 percent), Perry (73 percent), Milliones (70 percent), Brashear (67.5 percent) and to a lesser degree by Carrick at 50.6 percent. Allderdice, CAPA, and the Science and Technology Academy had much better performances and kept the 48 percent overall figure from being much worse.

Again, all these poor results must be viewed in the context of how other schools that spend far less money see much better academic achievement. To highlight this in starkest terms consider Windber’s 11th graders who had 37.9 percent scoring advanced, 44.5 percent proficient, 11.5 percent basic and, 5.7 percent below basic.  And Windber spends $7,000 per student less than Pittsburgh.  No Pittsburgh school, not even the Science and Tech Academy, could match the nearly 38 percent advanced scores posted by Windber.

There is no happy face to put on these results especially compared to the Pennsylvania averages and Windber, a district that spends less than the state average per pupil.

Broken promises indeed.

The Plan’s the Thing—Or is It?

Summary: So many plans and so little to show for them. That has been the sad and long running story of Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) over the last several decades. Overall student academic performance languishes in a sorry state, and the academic achievement gap persists. And of late, graduation rates for African American students have plummeted. Now, newly installed Superintendent Hamlet offers yet another plan. It has serious flaws.

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Superintendents have come and gone about every five years since 2000. Each one has offered new ideas and strategies to combat the long standing problems. In 2006, under a newly installed superintendent there was the “Excellence for All” plan.  The next superintendent was quoted in the Hive Pittsburgh website (February 25, 2012), “the District’s overarching goal is to get students Promise-Ready and prepared for success after graduation. We know that significant progress doesn’t happen overnight. While the PSSA results offer evidence that our efforts to improve academic performance are taking hold, we also know that the only way more of our students will become Promise-Ready is if we remain committed to our work to ensure that an effective teacher is in every classroom, every day.”  Too bad she had to be quoted again in August as being shocked at the sharp drop in 2011-2012 PSSA scores, blaming it (or making excuses for it?) in part on having to focus on budget issues and the state’s requirement of tighter security measures at the test sites (Remake Learning.org website, August 20, 2012).

And now comes yet another new superintendent who just released a strategic plan that will attempt to address many of the recommendations in the latest Council of the Great City Schools Report (Council) as well critical basic objectives. A January 2017 Policy Brief (Volume 17, Number 4) discussed the findings of the Council.  That report was a scathing indictment of almost every aspect of school management and especially the failure to improve academic performance, noting with strong disapproval that there had been no progress in academic achievement since their report of ten years earlier.

The latest plan covers years 2017-22 and focuses on four broad long-term objectives:

  1. Increase proficiency in literacy for all students
  2. Increase proficiency in math for all students
  3. Ensure all students are equipped with skills to succeed in college, career and life
  4. Eliminate racial disparity in achievement levels of African American students.

The strategic plan states that the progress toward these goals will be monitored frequently by the superintendent and the board of school directors and that the District community at large will be updated on the progress.  The specific performance measures that will be monitored are listed as follows.

  1. Percent of students proficient/advanced on English Language Arts (ELA) PSSA
  2. Percent of students proficient/advanced on Math PSSA/Pennsylvania Alternate State Assessment/Keystone Algebra 1 by subgroups
  3. Graduation rates, professional certifications, AP/Gifted enrollment, enrollment in college after completion of high school
  4. Gaps in the measures listed under number 3.

The plan also mentions monitoring out-of-school time, attendance, and proficiency in grades not tested by PSSA.

The new plan uses many pages to describe “steps and initiatives” but is remiss in spelling out in detail the scope of the problems it faces.  Further it fails to spell out annual or periodic mile posts the initiatives will be required to meet. Then too, with the goal of eliminating the racial achievement gap there is a brutal reality that creates enormous, and almost certainly insurmountable, obstacles to overcome.  With only a few exceptions, primarily in magnet schools, the current achievement gap between African American and white students is very large.

For example, the 2015-16 school year performance gap between all sixth through eighth grade African American test takers and white test takers stood at 32 percent in math and 30 percent in ELA.  That is to say 32 percent more white students scored proficient or advanced than African American students.  The lowest gaps occurred at Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) where 6th through 8th grade African American students actually outperformed the school district average for white students in both math (2 points) and reading (12 points) although they trailed the white students at CAPA by 15 points in math and 20 points in the ELA test. Similarly, African American students at the Science and Technology Academy also scored very close to white students district wide in math and ELA but trailed well behind the percentage of proficient or advanced scores posted by white students at the Academy.

Unfortunately, the good results at CAPA and the Science and Technology Academy are more than offset by very wide gaps at Westinghouse (35 math, 49 ELA), Milliones (36 math, 47 ELA) and several others including Obama, King, Langley, Arlington, and Morrow each with gaps in the high 20s or 30s. Bear in mind that these gaps are with district averages for white students. For all the schools with white student scores available, the gaps of African American results with their fellow classmates are even wider.

The picture for 2016 testing is no better for students at the four traditional 9th through 12th grade high schools. Taken as a whole, the gaps between all African American high schoolers and white high school students stood at 29 percent in math and 34 percent in literature. The percentage of African American students scoring at the proficient level in math ranged from a low of 15 percent at Perry to a high of only 37 percent at Allderdice.  In literature the low score was also Perry at 33 percent with Carrick and Allderdice tied at 60 percent for the best scoring for African American students.

Further, test scores of African American high school students at Milliones and Westinghouse (6th-12th grade schools) trail disastrously behind white students in the district and the overall state average score on the Keystone exams.  Achievement gaps with state average results at these predominantly (over 90 percent) African American schools show a range of 45 to 50 percent fewer students scoring proficient in math and literature.

Finally, to point out just how far Pittsburgh schools have to go to improve overall can be seen in a state ranking of high schools, traditional brick and mortar as well as charters.  Of 674 diploma granting public schools, only one from Pittsburgh makes it into the top 100—the Science and Technology Academy ranks 83. Obama comes in at 233 and CAPA at 292. The next best is Allderdice at 467. However, Carrick ranks 506, Brashear at 593, Perry at 634, Milliones at 635 and Westinghouse 643. In short, for all the money being spent by the PPS—about $22,000 per student—the academic performance of these schools must be viewed as pathetic. (School Digger.com rankings for 2015-2016 school year are based on PSSA and Keystone exam results provided by the PA Dept. of Education).

The prospect of substantially improving overall student performance while also closing the wide racial achievement gap is daunting at best. But before the board and superintendent do anything, they should look at all the failed programs and previous strategies that have been announced with so much fanfare and at a cost of untold millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours of employees’ time. Time to stop looking for answers in jargon filled, pretentious sounding planning.

If the superintendent and the school board are really serious, there are two important steps PPS must undertake to have any hope of reaching the goals enumerated in the strategic plan.

First, set specific annual targets for the goals of increasing overall student performance at each school and specific, separate goals for African American students, where the gains will have to be much larger than for white students if the gap is to ever be closed. Indeed, if white student scores are moving higher, that will make closing the gap harder. Maybe eliminating the gap as a goal in five years should be replaced with reducing the gap by some percentage, say 50 percent.  And the gap reduction goals need to apply to each school for math, ELA and literature using each school’s scores for black students to compare to district scores for white students.

Second, the administration must recognize the massive attendance problem at many schools and place enormous emphasis on reducing absenteeism.  High levels of absences track very closely with the poor academic performance. Previous Institute Policy Briefs have addressed this problem on several occasions (see Volume 14, Number 17 and Volume 15, Number 30).

Data from the A plus Schools 2016 Report show that at Milliones, 67 percent of students were chronically absent in school year 2015-2016, which means they missed 10 or more days each school year. At Westinghouse 63 percent of students were chronically absent. Contrast those figures with the state’s 83rd ranked high school, The Science and Technology Academy, where only 11 percent were chronically absent and daily attendance averaged 94 percent.  The absenteeism problem is particularly bad in the high schools. In the last school year Perry had 65 percent chronic absences and a daily attendance average of only 80 percent—that means the average student missed 36 days of class.  Meanwhile, Brashear’s chronically absent students stood at 43 percent, Carrick 41 percent and Allderdice 29 percent.  None of these three ranked academically in the top two thirds of Pennsylvania high schools.

But poor attendance is not limited to high schools. For example, at Arlington K-8 chronically absent students was reported at 37 percent. Percentages of African American students in 3rd through 8th grades at Arlington scoring at the proficient level averaged under 10 in math and under 20 for reading. Only 25 percent of third graders reached proficiency in reading. Other K-8 schools with poor African American test results include King with 29 percent chronically absent, Langley at 32 percent chronic absentees and Morrow at 35 percent. Meanwhile at other K-8 schools, Carmalt with 12 percent chronic absentees, Colfax at 10 percent and Greenfield at 13 percent all have substantially higher African American test scores than the high chronically absent schools.  Obviously, many students are becoming truant or near truant at an early age.

The absenteeism issue is too important to keep receiving lip service from administrators and the board.  Students who are not in class a large number of days a year cannot be expected to keep up with class work and will perform poorly on tests.

This is undoubtedly a complex issue that will require firmness to address.  But it cannot be allowed to continue. If this problem cannot be fixed or improved substantially, efforts and initiatives to increase overall academic performance and close the achievement gap at the schools where poor attendance is a severe obstacle to learning will be for naught—as other efforts have been in the past.

In November 2006 (see Policy Brief Volume 6, Number 61) we commented on the first Council of the Great City Schools report, concluding with the following:

With perspicacity and candor, the Council team did observe that correcting the district’s problems would require the Board, staff, and community to recognize the urgency in agreeing on the future direction of the schools and have the willingness and ability to tighten their focus and energies  around necessary actions. Unfortunately, the team noted that they did not observe these preconditions in the district. What an indictment for a group of outsiders to hand down. Pittsburgh’s school district has major financial problems and academic achievement deficiencies and the principal players in the drama do not see the need to work together quickly to repair the system. But why should they? Their version of history tells them that the state or city taxpayers can always be counted on to bail the district out of its crises.

Sadly, from all appearances nothing has changed. The board and superintendent offer platitudes and lip service.  But the reality is the discussion about what to do to improve academic performance or the achievement gap never gets to the heart of the problems. They cannot bring themselves to admit they have been unable to solve the problems because they are blinded and hamstrung by politics and special interests.

Pittsburgh School District Hammered by Latest Report

Summary: A recently released report by the Council of the Great City Schools gives Pittsburgh schools extremely low marks in nearly every aspect of school operations, particularly the academic performance of students where there has been no progress since the Council’s previous report in 2006. Surprisingly, the Council study failed to address adequately the horrendous absenteeism problem and does not mention the extraordinarily high per student spending in Pittsburgh compared to other city school districts that have much better academic results. This Policy Brief discusses those two deficiencies in detail.

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A just completed study of the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) by the Council of the Great City Schools (Council) is brutally scathing in its findings. Indeed, the report is such a severe indictment that the Pennsylvania Department of Education should consider taking control of the District.  School board members, the administrative staff and the instructional staff must be in shock after reading the report and seeing the harsh criticism they received.

The report looks at all aspects of PPS operations including instruction, finance and budgeting, research, and facilities management.  None was treated kindly.  An indication of the scope of problems found by the study is the number of recommendations proffered.   Covering in extreme detail all aspects of PPS’ shortcomings, the report contains 135 recommendations accounting for 27 of the 110 pages of the body of the report—excluding the appendices.

A few quotes from the synopsis and discussion section will illustrate the exceptionally critical tenor of the report’s findings.

  • “…the school district now finds itself in a place where it is achieving limited results from the work, and student outcomes are little better off than what they were before the reforms. In fact, analysis of student achievement trends shows little to no improvements since 2007.”
  • “Paired with the district’s lack of research, data, and evaluation capacity to determine what works and what doesn’t, this leaves the school system with no clear direction or strategy for improving student achievement.”
  • “The district has not articulated what rigorous standards-based instruction looks like, or provided strong guidance to teachers or other school-based staff on the knowledge or level of understanding that students are expected to develop from instruction or exhibit through their work products.”
  • “The district’s K-5 ELA curriculum is voluminous but weak, which results in teachers creating extensive work-arounds.”
  • “The Council team suspected that the rigor of the (math) courses was weak overall and uneven in its implementation.”

 And there are dozens of other equally scathing comments in the study covering the entire range of functions of PPS operations.

In short, the Council’s study is a stunning critique of the ongoing failure of the Pittsburgh school district to make progress in its dismal academic performance despite decades of efforts that have come to naught. Of course, the Allegheny Institute has chronicled that failure for the last 15 years to no avail in terms of moving the series of superintendents and boards to abandon their commitment to a deeply flawed approach to running a school district that has proved incapable of delivering quality education.

Recalcitrance on the part of the educational establishment to implement reforms that would actually lead to improvements are always dismissed as “they are not fair, or they won’t work here.” Sadly, the corporate and foundation communities have been part of the problem by sponsoring or supporting programs that sound good but have done nothing positive or even made matters worse.

The Council report provides interesting data showing PPS academic performance compared to other cities.  The Council data compare National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results by grade, subject and race.  NAEP scores for PPS are scaled from PSSA results.  While the data are not discussed in any depth by the report, they do point to useful further analysis.

Supplementing the report’s test result data with expenditure data for a couple of other city school systems demonstrates the true magnitude of PPS’ colossal failure.

PPS was compared to 20 of the nation’s largest city school districts.  PPS had higher scores for 8th grade white students on reading than only three cities (Cleveland, Fresno and Philadelphia—although probably higher than Detroit for which data was not shown) and higher scores than only four cities for black students (Detroit, District of Columbia, Fresno, Cleveland). Of the cities with better black student scores than PPS, all spend less per student and in most cases far less than Pittsburgh.

We look in detail at two of the cities with student scores above or well above PPS. Consider the following spending and NAEP statistics for 8th graders in Charlotte, Austin and PPS.  Other cities could be selected but they would show the same comparative results. These two cities will serve to illustrate the point.

Expenditures: Charlotte spending per student in 2015-16, $8,500; Austin, $8,800; Pittsburgh, $21,000[1].  Note that the Council in its report never mentions the extraordinary level of spending in Pittsburgh. Nor does it point out that Charlotte schools have four times as many black students as the PPS.  The data show:

  • 8th grade NAEP scores on reading for white students; Charlotte, 284.2; Austin, 289.8; PPS, 265.7.
  • 8th grade scores on reading for black students; Charlotte, 251.2; Austin, 241.2; PPS, 240.2.
  • Scores on 8th grade math follow the same pattern and fourth grade results are similar as well.

What does this tell us? For just over 40 percent of per student spending in PPS, white 8th graders in Charlotte and Austin are about 20 points higher on the NAEP reading scale. Black 8th graders in Charlotte are 10 points higher than Pittsburgh while in Austin the score is just a notch above PPS.

In other words, not only are PPS’ scores low, the District is spending well above the national average and far above the Charlotte and Austin district spending to get those poor results. Indeed, the Commonwealth allocates more state dollars per student to PPS than Charlotte or Austin spend in total. And the City taxpayers are providing more dollars per student than the state allocation.

This has been the case for years and yet the state education department has never seen fit to demand accountability for the disaster that is PPS’ overall academic performance—there are some pockets of good performance but far more pockets of terrible performance.  City taxpayers also ought to be outraged at the level of spending that accomplishes such poor outcomes.  And the story is not new as the Council report notes. There has been no improvement in the ten years since the last Council report in 2006.

The latest Council study touches briefly on PPS’ attendance problem but does not focus nearly enough on the ramifications of the absenteeism problem. The report data shows that ninth graders in Pittsburgh have the third highest absenteeism of all the schools in the country studied by the Council.  Allegheny Institute Policy Briefs have pointed out on several occasions that in some high schools in the City official statistics indicate an average absenteeism of 20 percent.  That means the average student is missing 36 days of class during the school year.  It is a virtual certainty that the official rate is understating the true out of class time.  Moreover, to get to an average of 36 days missed per school year many students are missing far more than 36 days.  Missed days appear to increase with each higher grade in high school.

Learning problems created by absenteeism of this magnitude dwarf all the other issues the Council study talked about in its discussion of instructional shortcomings.  What good is a great lesson plan, course description, or pedagogical skills if the students are not in class?  If students are missing large numbers of days they probably are not paying much attention when they are in class and are likely a serious disruption for other students.

Absenteeism is undoubtedly a major factor in the poor academic performance of PPS students—particularly in the high schools.  And it makes the annual spending of over $20,000 per student doubly outrageous.  It is unconscionable for taxpayers to be forced to fund the enormous per student outlays when the students average missing school 36 days per year.  To be sure, the school board, administration and the faculty ought to be embarrassed to preside over such a terrible situation.

Obviously, it is time for the Legislature to ask very pointedly why PPS gets so many state dollars every year only to see them be essentially wasted on students who obviously do not care about getting an education.

In conclusion, despite its failures to address adequately the massive absenteeism problem the Council study does call the PPS to task for its inexcusably poor academic results in strongest possible terms.

[1] Spending statistics are from North Carolina and Texas Departments of Education.

The Problem of School Absenteeism

Many studies showing the negative effect of absenteeism on academic achievement have been carried out over the last 40 years.  Ideas to reduce chronic absenteeism and truancy have also been offered in great abundance. Apparently none of those has been able to stem the tide of what appears to be an increasingly intractable conundrum.

 

High absenteeism is associated with high dropout rates, low scores on standardized tests, poor employment prospects, and greater usage of welfare programs.  In short, not much good, and a great deal that is not good, comes from this education malady.

 

And the malady does afflict several western Pennsylvania school districts, especially high schools in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities. Recent newspaper articles have highlighted some of the more severe instances of enormous levels of chronic absenteeism and truancy.  Rates of “chronic absenteeism”, which was defined as a student missing 18 days or more of school, were 30 percent or higher in Wilkinsburg and Duquesne, with Sto-Rox and Woodland Hills not far behind.  Rates of “habitual truancy”, meaning six or more unexcused absences, were greater than 40 percent in McKeesport and Wilkinsburg.  A more recent article examined the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which showed chronic absenteeism district-wide at 26 percent.

 

Indeed, there can be little doubt in the Pittsburgh schools that towering rates of chronic absenteeism in its high schools (three of the four 9th-12th grade high schools had chronic absenteeism rates of greater than 40 percent) are a key factor in the dreadful academic performance of students. Combined schools with 6th through 12th graders tend to have lower chronic absenteeism rates (except Westinghouse 6-12 at over 60 percent, and Milliones 6-12 at 45 percent) because 6th to 8th grade students tend to have much lower rates of absenteeism than high school students.

 

In suburban schools with strong academic achievement, as measured by PSSA scores or SAT results, attendance rates are quite high. For example, North Allegheny High had 96.5 percent attendance in 2013 and had 95 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced on the reading portion of the PSSA. By way of comparison, Perry High in Pittsburgh, with 82 percent attendance, had a mere 36 percent scoring at proficient or advanced in reading.  Meanwhile, the combined math and verbal SAT score at Perry averaged 772. At the same time, in Mt. Lebanon High with 96 percent attendance, the combined SAT score averaged 1132, well above the state and national average. And it’s not money. Mt. Lebanon spends far less per pupil than does Pittsburgh on its schools.

 

In the case of Perry High, 60 percent of students are chronically absent, meaning they have missed 10 percent or more of school days—18 or more days per year.  An 82 percent overall attendance rate at the school means the average student is absent 32 days during the 180 day school year.  Using an estimate of 15 days missed by those who are not chronically absent, we can calculate the average days missed by the 60 percent who are chronically absent to be 44. (To be sure, the days absent number for this group could be higher than 44 if the days missed by those not chronically absent is actually well below 15.) And of course 44 is the average, which means a sizable percentage could be missing upwards of 60 days per year.

 

We don’t know how the absences are distributed throughout the year. That is, do the chronically absent stay away a week or more at a time? Do they opt for Mondays and Fridays? Is absenteeism higher in spring than in the fall? In any case, a lot of class time is missed, assignments are not done and likely many tests are not taken, at least on time.  Indeed, how can a school hope to educate these students?

 

But more to the point, why are parents not held accountable? Are there no truancy laws? Can they not be enforced?  Obviously not enough to reduce absenteeism.

 

And this is not to single out Perry High.  Many other schools in the Pittsburgh district and in surrounding communities have attendance problems.

 

The problems presented by such egregious attendance issues go to the heart of classroom order, discipline, and learning environment. Inevitably, large amounts of resources are expended trying to offset the missed days, attempting to get students back to school, etc.  And most of all, the disruptions and the lowering of expectations for these students will have a negative effect on students who want to learn. Because many of the chronically absent will get through somehow to graduation, the entire academic enterprise suffers a loss of standards to the detriment of children who have a desire to be educated.

 

So what does the Pittsburgh school district, or other districts in the County facing the severe absenteeism problem, do to address the needs of students who want to learn? Create magnet schools that are hard to get into—often done by lottery—and involve substantial travel for many kids?  What does having one’s future determined by lottery do for a child’s view of their place in the world when they are not lucky enough to be selected.

 

There is no easy answer to fixing the attendance problem but one thing can be done and fairly quickly. Leaders should stop kowtowing to educrats and teachers’ unions and set up real choice programs for the kids and parents who want a shot at a quality education.  We have recommended a scholarship program be set up and funded by private donors and foundations to provide tuition funds to children who want to opt out of the failed public schools, especially the high schools. This would avoid legal challenges based on “diversion” of public funds arguments.

 

School board and political refusal to provide children who want desperately to have a chance at an alternative opportunity to learn is the height of arrogance and borders on immoral given the importance of a good education for a child’s future.

 

It is time to stop talking about and bemoaning the problems of absenteeism and poor quality education and do something substantive to help the students who want to learn. Perhaps helping those students will send a message to students who don’t care enough to show up for classes that other students can move on from the rut they are stuck in now.

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.

Are Consultants Finally Seeing the Light?

In early 2013, the Pittsburgh Public Schools announced it was going to use a $1.2 million foundation grant to hire consultants who would help steer the District through a "large scale visioning process" leading to a strategic plan to be delivered to the Commonwealth by 2014. Some of the work completed by the consultants was reported in a newspaper article and, lo and behold, the consultants found that the District spends more per-pupil than comparable districts in the state (the article did not identify the other districts, and the findings are not on the District website) by a margin of $6,800.

We have written much over the years about per-pupil spending in the Pittsburgh Public Schools so the findings should not be much of a surprise. Based on the statement of the District’s Superintendent ("the board has to have the facts on the table") does this mark a turning point in how blunt consultants working with the District will be?

Consider that in 2005 an audit found that, when examined against various school districts in the northeast and Midwest U.S. consultant data revealed the Pittsburgh Public Schools spent 20-45% more per pupil and spent less than half of their budget on administration and instruction (meaning they spent money on other expenditures) and yet could only recommend closing schools (something that was being planned on at the time) and obtaining savings that would have amounted to less than 5% of the budget. Much was left unanswered.

A year later the Council of Great City Schools came to the Steel City and presented its own set of overly general recommendations and they too left out the critical measurement of per-pupil spending when looking at districts from Chicago to Boston to Orlando. The resulting 59% gap between Pittsburgh and the other cities would have led a consultant to recommend steep expenditure reductions until the gap was closed.

But here we are in 2013 with a new set of consultants still finding a gap in per-pupil spending and there is still a gap in time before recommendations will be delivered and then, possibly, implemented. The District has said it would like to "…cut that [$6,800] gap by $2,000 a student" (the consultants’ adjusted per-pupil amount for Pittsburgh was $18,400 for 2011-12) but based on the 2013 budget ($521.8 million) and the enrollment posted on the District’s fact page (26.4k) the resulting per-pupil amount is closer to $19,718. A decrease of $2,000 per pupil means the budget target would have to be $448 million (if enrollment holds steady) or enrollment needs to grow to 30,000 if the budget stays flat to arrive at per-pupil spending closer to $17,000. And then what? Does the District want to drive spending down past that or make it a one year goal to serve as a baseline for future increases?