Acting state education secretary gets a primer on Allegheny County issues
April 8, 2015 12:12 AM
Pennsylvania acting Education Secretary Pedro Rivera greets students at Pittsburgh Lincoln PreK-5 after speaking Tuesday during an assembly.
Andrew Rush / Post-Gazette
Pennsylvania acting Education Secretary Pedro Rivera talks to students at Pittsburgh Lincoln PreK-5 Tuesday during an assembly.
Members of the Westinghouse marching band, from left, Kevin Tyler, Louis Doby, and Robert Rose-Thompson, take a break after performing during an assembly at Pittsburgh Lincoln elementary school that celebrated the school’s STAR status.
By Mary Niederberger / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
During his first meeting with school superintendents in Allegheny County, acting Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera was able to convince them of one thing: He’s walked in their shoes.
Mr. Rivera, the former superintendent of the Lancaster School District with previous teaching and administrative experience in the Philadelphia schools, understands the pressures of tight finances, high stakes, high-frequency testing, teacher evaluations and unfunded mandates.
So he was able to hit the ground running with the suburban superintendents on issues they had outlined for him in writing beforehand and in person during an early morning meeting Tuesday at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead.
Mr. Rivera also visited Pittsburgh superintendent Linda Lane on Tuesday, when he attended a celebration at Pittsburgh Lincoln PreK-5 to commemorate its status as a STAR school — one of six Pittsburgh schools recognized for ranking among the top 25 percent of schools in the state for student growth.
The acting secretary told superintendents that he is already reviewing the teacher evaluation process, the heavy reliance on test scores and other factors in the School Performance Profiles, and the number of tests students take.
The superintendents, in their written comments, called the teacher evaluation system “cumbersome” and said it “has led to principals being crushed under the weight of paperwork and meetings.”
They also contended that high-stakes testing is a deterrent to innovative and creative teaching.
While Mr. Rivera said he wants to see achievement improve for all groups including “those in the 40th percentile and those in the 90th percentile,” he doesn’t want to see the state “overtest,” prompting teachers to teach to tests.
A particular situation Mr. Rivera said needed to be reviewed was presented by Elizabeth Forward, where all eighth-grade students must take Algebra I and students are required to prepare for two state tests in math — the end-of-course Algebra I Keystone Exam and the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment exam. The tests evaluate different standards and course content.
Mr. Rivera’s meeting with suburban superintendents, which took place during his first official visit to Pittsburgh, was closed to the media at the direction of AIU executive director Linda Hippert. But both Mr. Rivera and the superintendents were willing to talk about it afterward.
“He has dealt with a very good representation of what most superintendents have dealt with,” said Baldwin-Whitehall superintendent Randal Lutz.
In addition to universal issues among the superintendents, other concerns varied by district, Mr. Lutz said. Those with high charter school tuition costs asked about the progress of charter funding reform. Those with construction projects lamented the lack of Plan Con reimbursements.
Mr. Rivera said he hopes to operate a collaborative administration where school leaders and other stakeholders have input.
Avonworth superintendent Thomas Ralston said Mr. Rivera’s face-to-face meeting with the superintendents “will go a long way to fostering relationships and trust.”
Cornell superintendent Aaron Thomas said he was heartened to hear of Mr. Rivera’s review of the School Performance Profiles, but fears any substantive changes on “heavy duty” items such as charter school funding, pensions and basic education funding must come from the Legislature.
McKeesport Area superintendent Rula Skezas said Mr. Rivera’s meeting made her feel “optimistic about the future of public education in Pennsylvania.” She said the acting secretary appears to understand “the difficult challenges” facing districts, particularly those, like McKeesport, in economic distress.
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