In Rebuttal / Give ‘insiders’ a chance to reform Pittsburgh Public Schools

Plenty of outsiders have weighed in; the city must listen to neglected voices on school reform

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Last week the editorial board of the Post Gazette called for more outside voices to contribute to the mayor’s education task force (“Establishment Panel: The Education Task Force Needs Outside Perspective,” June 18).

As a Pittsburgh parent who has been trying to get the voices of parents heard since 2009, I must respectfully disagree. The mayor is right to include on his task force stakeholders who are linked to the district, especially those parents, teachers and students whose voices are not always heard.

My boys, Ayden, 11, and Amari, 9, attend Liberty K-5, a Spanish magnet school in Shadyside. They have been in the Pittsburgh Public Schools since kindergarten, and for the last six years I have watched as outsiders have made decisions that have hurt our schools, including the statewide billion-dollar education cut made by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011.

Locally, both superintendents who have served the Pittsburgh Public Schools over the last 10 years came here as outsiders. Mark Roosevelt and now Linda Lane both have worked closely with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also a group of outsiders. The foundation has made huge investments in our district, both directly and via contracts with outside consultants who have brought us the very latest in outsider thinking.

These investments include more than $3 million to Global Scholar, a pop-up education company that sold the district some software and other services and then folded. The district has also spent millions on these outside consulting groups: Cambridge Education (Massachusetts), The New Teacher Project (New York), Mathematica Policy Research (New Jersey) and Battelle for Kids (Ohio). More recently, to run its “envisioning” process, the district contracted with FSG, a group of social-impact consultants based in Boston, and Bellwether Education, based in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Outsiders have been given a fair chance to implement their reforms and show their results.

The assertion that parents, teachers and students and those with “links to the district” are not creative thinkers and are not capable of producing innovative educational ideas adds to the marginalization of their voices. We must end the years of injustice and invisibility of these voices, particularly those of black and brown parents and students inside our public schools. Our schools suffer from an equity gap that has been created by decades of racism and poverty. No one knows more about this than the insiders.

At the top of the list, Pittsburgh parents deserve a voice in how to transform our schools. These decisions directly affect our children, and many of us are already working on engaging and innovative projects in our kids’ schools that could be spread across the district.

Teachers, too, deserve a voice. I have observed teachers with years of experience talk about successful programs that have come and gone because an outside consultant brought in alternative untested and unproven ideas. We hold teachers accountable for closing the equity gap, yet we do not trust them to shape the solutions.

Our children, too, need a voice. As initiatives such as the Hear Me project and the Youth Media Advocacy Program have shown, Pittsburgh students have really smart ideas for how to reduce bullying in their schools, improve the quality of their cafeteria food and enrich their education. They are the ultimate insiders, and we must listen to them.

Last Friday, I was one of hundreds of Pittsburghers who volunteered to help the Hill District Consensus Group build a Kaboom playground at Weil PreK-5. As I worked alongside Lesely, a teacher from King PreK-8, we watched in amazement as we built a structure from the ground up with other ordinary people who came together from across the city. As we were finishing, Lesley pointed out, “If we can do this, surely we can come together to fix our schools.”

When Mayor Bill Peduto was elected and announced he would create an education task force, I was optimistic that he would bring some of the city’s marginalized voices to the surface. Mayor Peduto has the ability to bring Pittsburghers together to find great solutions for our schools. But before his task force has even rolled up its sleeves, let’s not attack the process for not including more outsiders. Let’s give our insiders a chance.

Pamela Harbin is a parent who lives in Point Breeze (harbinpa@gmail.com).


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