Regional Insights: How can our region compete if our children can't read?

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There has been a lot of attention given recently to how badly students in the Pittsburgh public schools are doing. State test scores showed that in most grades, Pittsburgh students' proficiency levels in reading and mathematics declined between 2011 and 2012. In some individual schools in the city, there were double-digit drops in performance.

All of the focus on how Pittsburgh Public Schools is doing might lead you to think the city is the only place in southwestern Pennsylvania where there are problems with student achievement.

But you'd be wrong. Most of the region's suburban schools aren't doing very well either, and a number of them are doing worse than the Pittsburgh public schools.

In fact, there are a dozen school districts in the 10-county region where 11th-graders are less proficient in math than students in Pittsburgh Public Schools, and 16 school districts where students have poorer reading skills. While it's a serious problem that only 56 percent of the 11th-graders in the Pittsburgh school district can read at grade level, the 2011-12 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment shows there are 11 other school districts in the region where fewer than 50 percent of the 11th-graders can read adequately. In fact, proficiency levels in both reading and math are twice as good in Pittsburgh Public Schools as in the Clairton City School District.

Low proficiency in basic skills isn't just a problem with high school students. Many schools are failing students at a very early age. For example, there are 13 school districts in southwestern Pennsylvania where fewer than half of the fifth-graders can read adequately -- and the Pittsburgh school district isn't one of them.

Looking only at the lowest performing schools in the region risks missing the fact that many schools perform only marginally better than do the schools in Pittsburgh.

Indeed, in the majority of school districts in the region, 30 percent or more of the 11th-graders can't read properly and 40 percent or more aren't proficient in math. Among the 314 elementary schools in the region, there are only 17 where 90 percent or more of the fifth-graders read at grade level. (If you'd like to find out how your own local schools are doing, the Post-Gazette has an interactive website you can use at http://newsinteractive.post-gazette.com/PSSA/2012/.)

This widespread mediocrity means that even if student performance in Pittsburgh Public Schools was to improve dramatically, it would barely make a dent in the student achievement problem the region is facing.

There are more than 6,400 students in the Pittsburgh region who will be entering the workforce this year without being able to read properly, but fewer than 10 percent of them will be products of Pittsburgh schools.

If you're tempted to think that Pennsylvania's tests may be too tough, or that having 30 percent of high school students unable to read isn't so bad, think again. U.S. Department of Education data indicate that students' skills in the Pittsburgh region are likely a lot worse than the state tests imply.

The National Assessment of Education Progress tests student proficiency across the country, and it shows that Pennsylvania students are only doing half as well as the state's own tests indicate. For example, the 2011 NAEP tests showed that only 38 percent of eighth-graders in Pennsylvania were proficient in reading or mathematics, even though the state's own tests claim that 76 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in reading and 80 percent are proficient in math.

Are the NAEP tests too tough? The only way to know that is to look at international benchmarks.

Every three years, the Program for International Student Assessment tests 15-year-olds in 65 countries to assess their skills in reading, mathematics and science. The most recent results, for the test given in 2009, found that mathematics scores for U.S. students were below the average for developed countries.

In mathematics, students in 17 of 33 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries had higher average math scores than students in the U.S., and only five had lower scores. For reading, the U.S. was a little above average; six countries had higher scores, 13 had lower scores and 14 were about the same.

Which countries are beating us? Students in Australia, Canada, China, Japan, Korea and Singapore are all doing better than U.S. students in reading and math, and students in many European countries are doing better than American students in math while matching their skills in reading. (If you'd like to find out how education performance in your own school district stacks up against the rest of the world, you can use The Global Report Card available at http://globalreportcard.org/.)

How can southwestern Pennsylvania families expect their children to get jobs in an increasingly competitive global economy if they can't read? How will they find work in technology-driven industries if they don't have adequate math skills?

The knee-jerk response to poor school performance from most educators and many politicians is to claim that school funding is inadequate. However, schools in the Pittsburgh region already spend more per child on education than the state or national average, yet they clearly aren't getting significantly better results. Moreover, some of the best performing schools in the Pittsburgh region are spending less than the average, not more.

The fact that our schools probably won't meet the federal No Child Left Behind law's goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 doesn't mean the law should be changed, it means that schools and communities need to completely rethink their approach to educating students:

• First, we need to reward the many teachers who are successfully helping their students to learn, and replace the teachers who are just going through the motions.

• Second, we need to cut the billions of dollars in school district spending that's going to administrative overhead, sports and other noninstructional programs, and focus school funding on improving education proficiency.

• Third, we need people leading our school districts who will implement these kinds of bold changes. Now is the time to recruit candidates for next year's school board elections who will commit themselves to ensuring that every child has the skills they need to be successful.

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Harold D. Miller is president of Future Strategies LLC and adjunct professor of public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University. He publishes www.PittsburghFuture.blogspot.com, an Internet resource on regional economic and civic issues.


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