Let’s keep Pittsburgh’s Promise

This is no time for the Pittsburgh Public Schools to backtrack on teacher excellence, say community leaders Martin and Ann McGuinn

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Since its conception in 2006, we have been big supporters of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program. From our perspective, it’s an investment that’s paying off. The Promise is working to stabilize Pittsburgh’s population and bring children into city public schools. It’s removing barriers to college and trade schools for all of the city’s public school children, and it’s forcing our school district to transform itself so that it is able to ensure that all children graduate and take advantage of the scholarship. In many ways, it’s the most important thing going on in our community right now.

Although the Promise has provided over 4,700 children with scholarships for post-secondary education, we know that too many are unable to access it. We believe our schools and community should use every tool available to create the transformation in education that will enable all our children to go to college.

That’s why we were dismayed when we read that one of those transformational tools, a $40 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help improve the feedback, training and support for teachers was at risk (“Teacher Evaluation Fight May Prove Costly,” Jan. 12 Post-Gazette). With all the progress that we’ve made in the past few years, this fight is a distraction that takes the focus off changing a school system to prepare all students for college or vocational training. Most disturbing, from our perspective, it looks like the fight is over lowering the bar for what we can expect of our teachers, something we can ill afford to do if we are going to help students get ready for the rigors of post-secondary education.

Teachers’ jobs are enormously complex and our investment in the Pittsburgh Promise is our way of showing that we believe in their ability to greatly move student achievement. Part of that belief was based on the exciting collaboration between the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and Pittsburgh Public Schools to create a nationally recognized model for how to accurately and reliably evaluate and provide feedback to teachers. Just as the Promise has put our city on the map for its commitment to its children, so too has this commitment to teaching put our city on the map for being an innovative leader in improving teacher quality.

Because of this work, we now know that great teachers in this system get children to learn almost twice as much in a single school year as a failing teacher. In every one of Pittsburgh’s public schools, there are distinguished teachers who are getting incredible outcomes with students, regardless of those students’ backgrounds. We are perplexed to think that, now that there’s a system in place, it would be made almost useless by putting everyone into the same category again, diminishing the importance of distinction and undermining the school’s ability to remediate teaching deficiencies. It just doesn’t make sense.

If the Promise is going to remain a truly transformative program for all of Pittsburgh’s children, those children are going to need schools and teachers who prepare them. Abandoning work to figure out how to support and improve teachers seems to be the worst thing we could do to meet that goal.

We urge the leaders of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers to recognize the serious damage to our schools that would result from the course of action they currently endorse. Ultimately, our children need all the help they can get, from whatever source. Let’s make sure we don’t retreat from progress because of a few who don’t believe our teachers can make the cut. Our investment is evidence that we believe they can.

Martin McGuinn is the former chairman and CEO of Mellon Financial Corp. and serves as vice-chair of the board of the Pittsburgh Promise. Ann McGuinn serves on the boards of The Andy Warhol Museum, LEAD Pittsburgh and Women for a Healthy Environment. They are the co-founders of The McGuinn Family Foundation.

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