With all due skepticism

With all due skepticism

All too often – and all too tragically — dysfunctional bureaucracies only beget more bureaucracy and more dysfunction. Witness what’s been happening with Pittsburgh Public Schools. And word of the creation of a new position to supposedly address the district’s problems deserves scrutiny.

It was a year and a half ago that the latest Council of the Great City Schools roundly panned the district. It cited “limited results” from much ballyhooed “reforms.”

“In fact,” the report said, “analysis of student achievement trends shows little to no improvements since 2007.”

The word “foundering” comes to mind. So does the realization that such a word likely is too kind.

The council’s report also concluded that a “lack of research, data and evaluation capacity to determine what works and what doesn’t … leaves the school system with no clear direction or strategy for improving student achievement.”

Furthermore, the council found Pittsburgh Public Schools “has not articulated what rigorous standards-based instruction looks like.” Teachers were given “no strong guidance” as to what students were expected to take away from their instruction.

Additionally, there might be lots of course offerings but the courses are weak, especially when it comes to math.

As the Allegheny Institute’s Jake Haulk put it (in Policy Brief Vol. 17, No. 4, in January 2017):

“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.’”

Now comes word that the district has created a new position – the jargony “assistant superintendent for transformation.” Lynett Hookfin “will support the district’s lowest performing schools,” according to a newspaper account. She will be paid $132,000 a year.

As Superintendent Anthony Hamlet told the Post-Gazette in a statement:

“We are on a path to transforming the district and make momentous change in our schools. The theme and initiatives outlined in our strategic plan reinforce our tiered approach to transforming Pittsburgh Public Schools by improving our standards of support to all schools to bolster system-wide improvements, while also acknowledging the need to provide intensive support to our lowest-performing schools.”

But is that strategic plan worth much? Likely not, Haulk offered a year ago (in Policy Brief Vol. 17, No. 21):

While the new improvement blueprint uses many pages to describe “steps and initiatives,” Haulk said it falls woefully short in describing the scope of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ problems.

Furthermore, Haulk said it fails to establish timely metrics by which the progress of the proposed initiatives can be measured.

“The prospect of substantially improving overall student performance while also closing the wide racial achievement gap is daunting at best,” Haulk said in the May 2017 white paper.

“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.

“(It’s) time to stop looking for answers in jargon-filled, pretentious-sounding planning.”

In a district, it must be re-stated, that spends about $22,000 per student per school year for “pathetic” results, he reminded.

Haulk maintains that Pittsburgh Public Schools first must take two important steps to have any hope of achieving the goals set forth in the latest strategic plan.

First, not only must annual targets be established for measuring overall performance, Haulk says separate goals must be set 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.”

Second, the district’s massive absenteeism problem must be reduced.

Haulk says the seemingly endless efforts to improve academic standards and close the achievement gap never address the heart of the problems.

Administrators and the board “cannot bring themselves to admit they have been unable to solve the problems because they are blinded and hamstrung by politics and special interests,” he says.

But once again, with fanfare and flowery prose, the district touts “a path to transformation” that promises “momentous change” – with more bureaucracy and a handsome stipend to accompany it.

Past being prologue, skepticism and scrutiny are warranted.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).