James B. Stewart: Pittsburgh must rededicate itself to closing the black/white achievement/opportunity gap

Still walking in circles

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Four years ago I wrote an op-ed for the Post-Gazette entitled “Let’s Stop Walking in Circles: It’s Time to Close the Achievement Gap between Black and White Students.” That essay described both historical and then-contemporary efforts to reduce the racial achievement/​opportunity gap in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The late Barbara Sizemore’s path-breaking study, “Walking in Circles: The Black Struggle for School Reform,” served as my starting point.

Four years later I revisit this issue because there has been limited success in achieving educational equity.

In 2010 the primary driver for disparity-reduction efforts was a September 2006 conciliation agreement among the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Advocates for African-American Students, prompted by a lawsuit the advocates brought in the early 1990s. The district pledged to remedy 94 problems over a five-year period.

A volunteer Equity Advisory Panel was empaneled to monitor compliance and recommend strategies, methods and programs to address disparities. The relationship between the EAP and the PPS was often uneasy, in part because the EAP continually highlighted shortcomings in the district’s initiatives.

At the end of the agreement, minimal progress in reducing the gap had occurred. Consequently, a second agreement was reached extending the human rights commission’s oversight through the 2013-2014 school year.

The EAP/​PPS relationship has improved markedly under the leadership of Superintendent Linda Lane. Previously limited coordination of equity initiatives has been remedied by the creation of an Equity Office. In addition, the PPS board of directors has reaffirmed the district’s commitment to educational equity.

There are a variety of other promising developments.

The recent report, “Whole Child, Whole Community,” recognizes the centrality of educational equity as the district moves forward. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to fund development of a new teacher evaluation system eventually may lead to improvements in the quality of instruction in the lowest-performing schools.

However, that outcome is not guaranteed, as the recent controversy regarding teacher evaluation metrics illustrates. Many teachers have participated in “Courageous Conversations” workshops that cultivate enhanced understanding of racial issues impacting the school environment. The “We Promise” program is working to increase the number of black male students eligible to benefit from the Pittsburgh Promise. This program is notable because it partners community mentors directly with students. It should be noted, however, that African-American female students are experiencing increasing difficulties in the schools which warrant similar targeted interventions.

Unfortunately, these and other initiatives have not yet made significant headway in reducing racial disparities. The reasons are complex.

The negative effects of school closures and grade reconfigurations, for instance, have been borne disproportionately by predominantly black neighborhoods. This unequal burden reflects the limited political influence of these communities’ residents relative to more affluent communities.

Many parents of current students were themselves poorly served by PPS and have little faith that conditions will improve. After all, the complaints that eventually led to the conciliation agreement date back to the mid-1960s.

None of the efforts to reduce racial disparities will ultimately be successful unless a comprehensive effort is made to re-engage parents. This cannot be accomplished by PPS alone. Widespread disengagement is symptomatic of neighborhood disinvestment, limited employment opportunities and deteriorating social capital. A broad coalition that includes PPS, local government, foundations, businesses and community organizations is required to confront the legacy of decades of neglect and marginalization.

Recently much attention has been focused on the issue of teacher evaluation. Available data document that although there are some high-performing teachers in the lowest-achieving schools, these schools are saddled disproportionately with the lowest-performing teachers.

The failed effort to develop a partnership with the Teach for America program was undertaken, in part, to address this problem.

The argument that proposed standards are too stringent because they are more stringent than in other jurisdictions rings hollow. Any organization attempting to improve outcomes must challenge its members to perform at higher levels and hold nonperformers fully accountable. It is simply not the case that all teachers in the PPS are performing at an acceptable level — especially in the low-performing schools that have high proportions of black students.

There is a significant mismatch between the racial composition of the student body and the instructional staff. Unfortunately, district hiring practices reinforce this disparity, and efforts to diversify the pool of candidates through programs like Teach for America program have encountered stiff resistance.

Local colleges and universities are neither attracting diverse candidates to, nor graduating them from, educational majors, further limiting possibilities to diversify the teaching corps. The Heinz Endowments continues to support a program that has brought two cohorts of African-American males to PPS as teaching fellows. This program has similar objectives to the “Call Me Mister” program initiated at Clemson University designed to increase the number of black male teachers.

Redevelopment and gentrification programs notwithstanding, Pittsburgh will be unable to realize its vision of becoming a first-class city until all community stakeholders stand up and commit collectively to address the racial achievement/​opportunity gap that plagues PPS schools. We are still “walking in circles” because we refuse to acknowledge and address both the historical and contemporary racial disparities that are manifested most visibly in our schools.

James B. Stewart is a professor emeritus at Penn State  and chair of the Equity Advisory Panel of the Pittsburgh Public Schools (js8@psu.edu).


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