City schools draw federal praise

Obama's education chief cites district-teacher cooperation


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The cooperation between the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration and teachers union should stand as a model for public schools across the country, according to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who visited Pittsburgh's King PreK-8 School on the North Side on Wednesday as the first stop on his second annual bus tour.

The tour, dubbed the "Education and the Economy Back-to-School Bus Tour," spans three days and will conclude Friday in Chicago, where Mr. Duncan served as the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools from June 2001 to December 2008 before being named to his Cabinet post by President Barack Obama.

Mr. Duncan's appearance marked his first visit to Pittsburgh, but he said he has been following the progress of the Pittsburgh Public Schools since becoming education secretary and wanted to "spotlight its success." His visit came a week after the district announced that based on its scores on the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment exams it made Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"There has been tremendous progress made in Pittsburgh," Mr. Duncan said during a news conference after his visit and panel discussion at the King school. The panel included Pittsburgh Superintendent Linda Lane, whom Mr. Duncan called "the right leader at the right time," Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.

Mr. Duncan specifically commented on the Pittsburgh district's teacher evaluation program and the incentives offered to teachers who perform well. Recently, teachers at the top of the pay scale became eligible for $1,000 bonuses included in the contract for each year the district attains AYP.

"Pittsburgh celebrates great teachers," he said, adding that in too many districts, tensions between teacher unions and school administration block progress.

He also commended the Pittsburgh union's flexibility in allowing the district to try innovative programs and praised the Pittsburgh Promise program, which provides scholarship money to students from Pittsburgh high schools who meet grade point average and attendance requirements.

Though the Pittsburgh Promise is heavily funded by foundations, Ms. Lane pointed out that when it was first announced in December 2006, with no money in the fund, the first organization to make a contribution was the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

Ms. Esposito-Visgitis said her union hopes to collaborate more with the district to improve education.

As for the theme of his bus tour, Mr. Duncan said his message is: "We have to educate our way to a better economy."

Mr. Duncan spoke of individuals his age who dropped out of high school and took jobs in the steel mills and stock yards and were able to raise and support families on those salaries. "Now those jobs don't exist," he said. The secretary said educators must persuade students to graduate from high school and move on to higher education to prepare them for the highly skilled jobs in today's workforce.

He said he realizes that he is asking this of schools at a time when the economy is not allowing for increased funding. "We must learn to do more with less."

Of the Pennsylvania budget, which included nearly $1 billion in cuts to public education at the request of Gov. Tom Corbett, Mr. Duncan said: "Budgets reflect our values. Anytime we chose not to invest in education we are in challenging times."

In an interview after his public appearance, Mr. Duncan said his department soon will have ready a waiver system for the requirements of the current No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that all school children be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Last month, the department announced the waiver system, which will allow states who can show through alternative methods that they are making progress, to apply for a waiver.

"There is a lot broken in No Child Left Behind," Mr. Duncan said.


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com ; 412-851-1512.


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