At a public hearing Monday, Pittsburgh Public School board members were riveted by the story of a boy we will call Brian, a first-grader at Faison Elementary, a historically low-performing elementary school in Homewood. Beaten down by a perfect storm of obstacles, Brian had behavior problems and low self-esteem that put him on a depressing downward slide. The system labeled him "special needs," a designation that carries tremendous future costs -- primarily for the child, but also for taxpayers.
Brian's teacher, Keisha Jones, refused to be distracted by his acting out, her principal, LouAnn Zwieryznski, told the board. "She would not accept 'I don't care.' She would not accept 'I won't learn because nobody cares.'
"She worked to challenge him academically ... would not let him alone," Ms. Zwieryznski said. "And he is now in the gifted program instead of special education."
This story is not an uncommon one because the school district's reform efforts, building upon the often-heroic efforts of its teachers, have begun to take hold. The entire system and everyone in it -- teachers, administrators, board members, union leaders, parents and funding foundations such as those we represent -- are focused on measurable learning gains for students at every ability level, including the most challenged students in the district -- the Brians.
The impact of effective teachers is obvious. The district has achieved its federal adequate yearly progress goals for two of the past three years, a rare achievement for an urban district. Test scores continue to improve -- especially in historically low-achieving schools -- and racial achievement disparities, so often driven by disparities in teaching, are narrowing, albeit too slowly.
Recognizing the need to expose all of our children to a Ms. Jones is what led leaders of the district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers to create ways to assess and improve the work of teachers. These tools were designed not only to measure learning outcomes, but also to identify teaching practices essential to the success of every child.
One stunning result of this collaborative effort was a $40 million grant from the Gates Foundation to support the initiative. When the grant agreement was signed, both the district and the union pledged to each other, to Gates and to the Pittsburgh community that this work would continue.
It has continued, and it has included the implementation of an evaluation process that helps identify both individual teachers and groups of teachers working together who have been able to help children realize the potential that resides within each of them. But now, a one-size-fits-all law that enshrines seniority as the defining basis for teacher layoffs is jeopardizing this critical progress.
As a result of cuts in funding for urban schools such as Pittsburgh's -- cuts so deep that the very bones of education bear the knife marks -- our district will soon say goodbye to hundreds of teachers without so much as a glance at the data, at whether these teachers have been deemed "highly effective."
This is devastating news at our foundations, where we have seen our $18 million and the Gates Foundation's $40 million investment in creating a model for effective teaching just beginning to bear fruit. Now we are sadly wondering how this could happen just when the district was starting to attract national attention for learning gains that would be the envy of other urban districts.
For parents, teachers and administrators, the combined effects of the funding cuts and antiquated laws regarding furloughs are potentially devastating: At Faison, for example, Ms. Jones is among an astounding 40 percent of teachers who, with less than four years of service, may be furloughed based on existing law.
At Wednesday's school board meeting, members showed commitment and courage in directing Superintendent Linda Lane to work with the teachers' federation to find another way, a way that achieves better results for students and teachers alike.
Too much good work has been done by both the union and the district to sacrifice it on the altar of one-size-fits-all practices such as the union seniority rule. Too much student progress has been made to reverse course.
We cannot overstate how important this issue is to the well-being and future quality of life of every child in the Pittsburgh schools, to the critical contributions made and yet to be made by our teachers, to the economic health of our entire region.
One truth that we know for sure from our foundations' work is that no one -- not the school board, not the teachers' union, not the superintendent, not the parents and certainly not the students -- like the situation now in front of us. The only alternative is for all parties to work together to solve this crisis. And we hope that Dr. Lane and teachers' federation President Nino Esposito-Visgitis rely on the strength of earlier ground-breaking agreements to plot a sensible path forward.
Just two years ago, then-federation President John Tarka teamed with national American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to celebrate the latest teacher contract with the Pittsburgh Public Schools. It was an enviable blueprint for a partnership that promised to put aside long-hardened positions and instead find ways to make the system work for the betterment of everyone in the district, especially the students. One key point the union leaders made was this:
"The partnership we've created should provide a strong foundation for building shared responsibility for student success. As we now take the agreement from the printed word into implementation, we will work as a team to solve problems, not point fingers. Instead of explaining why one of us can't do it all, we'll each say what we can do to help -- and then do it."
We enthusiastically endorse the spirit of that agreement, and we offer to help in any way we can to preserve great teachers and great teaching in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Grant Oliphant is president of The Pittsburgh Foundation. Robert Vagt is president of The Heinz Endowments. Gregg Behr is executive director of The Grable Foundation. First Published April 29, 2012 12:00 AM