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.

Perfection as Enemy of Improvement?

In an April 17 editorial, the Post- Gazette chastised Pennsylvania’s voucher advocates as promising more than they can deliver. The editorial lists reasons why the voucher plan might not be as successful as advocates believe or suggest they will be. Okay, maybe vouchers are not the end all and be all answer to government funded education problems.

But good grief, look at the horrendous trail of broken promises brought to us by public schools. Many school districts across this Commonwealth are a disgrace when it comes to the academic achievement of students and the amount of money spent to accomplish their pathetic results. High dropout rates are common, which means huge amounts of money have been wasted trying to get people to the dropout age-people who, in many cases, are far below literacy and numeracy levels for their age. There is low achievement by vast numbers who do graduate but score far below the national averages on SAT tests and require remedial education of they pursue higher education.

And the editorial writer is concerned that vouchers won’t make everyone Phi Beta Kappa scholars? This is the clearest example of the true liberal mind. Claim to be for the little guy and the poor and the helpless and support wasteful, expensive government programs to solve the world’s perceived inequities. But the problem for them is that vouchers do work to improve educational opportunities and they do result in better outcomes. Besides they are used all over the world so as to allow parents and students to select schools that work best for them and their goals. It is a freedom issue and it is a moral issue. Letting people choose is always good. Keeping kids trapped in a failing school when there could be avenues to a better is a moral travesty that leads to wasted lives that need not have been wasted.

So for the liberal their true objectives are revealed when they fight vouchers or demean them. They do not put the interests of children first as they claim. They put the interests of big government and powerful groups who benefit from the status quo ahead of the children. Enough said.