A bad report card: Reforms galore, but little progress in city schools
January 15, 2017 12:00 AM
Westinghouse Academy 6-12 in Homewood.
By the Editorial Board
Perhaps the most disquieting part about a new report on the Pittsburgh Public Schools is that so much of it is so familiar. Disjointed curriculum, weak academic performance, student discipline problems, failure to use data to measure results, principals who function more as building managers than instructional leaders — all were problems targeted by Mark Roosevelt, superintendent from 2005 to 2010, and Linda Lane, who was his deputy before serving in the top spot until last year.
In a report released in February 2006, the Council of the Great City Schools advised Pittsburgh to “recommit to a standardized, districtwide curriculum to ensure that every classroom is focused on a common set of rigorous expectations for student learning.” That made sense, and the district spent money on a curriculum designed to standardize instruction across schools and grade levels. It also launched a bonus system to reward principals operating the best schools, changed school configurations (more K-8 buildings, for example) to create better learning environments and piloted longer school days to drive achievement.
So what happened? The new report from the council, released Tuesday, indicates that the district changed without significantly improving — it’s been treading water in many ways. The council asserted the district is “unable to discern which teachers are most effective and which ones are the least,” has “an instructional system that doesn’t work properly” and lacks “clear direction or strategy for improving student achievement.” The instructional system is so weak that some students may be labeled underachievers through no fault of their own.
“In fact, analysis of student achievement trends shows little to no improvements since 2007,” the report said. “Although some scores went up and others went down over the period, achievement gaps are about the same — if not wider — than they were when the work started.”
But the work of Mr. Roosevelt and Ms. Lane was not in vain. They inaugurated a coherent system of reforms, made the federal benchmark known as “adequate yearly progress” twice in three years, restored the district’s credibility with the foundation community, forged a closer relationship with the teachers union and generated a new sense of optimism. The course they charted is worth revisiting. As the council said in its new report, “A great deal has been learned from this work, not only in Pittsburgh but nationally.”
It may be that they did not stay long enough for their efforts to take root, that the reforms became too cumbersome to manage or that they were unable to fully impose their will on a sprawling school district with many constituencies. The council’s new report underscores how stubborn the district’s problems are and what a challenge they will continue to be.
The deja vu character of the report is disheartening partly because of the extent to which Pittsburghers — and outsiders — rallied to the city schools over the past decade. The most prominent example is the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program, funded with a $100 million commitment from UPMC and many smaller gifts from individuals, businesses and foundations. The district also received national publicity because of funding it received from the prestigious Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The council put the best possible face on its findings, noting that the problems are similar to those in other urban districts and asserting that Pittsburgh’s schools have “the talent, the will and the determination” to achieve a turnaround. But there is no sugarcoating the fact that issues targeted years ago now have to be addressed anew under superintendent Anthony Hamlet. The council urged patience as officials work on a turnaround, but a city surging forward in so many respects actually should take the opposite tack — impatience — with a perpetually troubled school system.
As the council suggested, the district should sketch out long-term and short-term goals for improvement, and the public should hold school officials accountable for meeting them. If enrollment continues to fall — that is, if more families flee the district — the schools only will get worse.
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