Saturday, May 13, 2006

Finally, A School District That Has Goals

Pittsburgh School Superintendent Mark Roosevelt yesterday announced "Excellence for All," a four-year plan for improving proficiency of students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

What is unique about the plan is that it doesn't just say what the school system intends to do, but what it intends to achieve -- it sets explicit, quantitative objectives for student proficiency in each subject at each grade level. The plan doesn't just say the school system wants every child to be able to read, or that it will increase the number of children who are proficient, or that it will meet what the law requires. It says that within 3 years, 71% of fifth-graders will be proficient in reading and math, 66-69% of eighth-graders will be proficient in reading and math, 66% of 11th-graders will be proficient in reading, and 58% of 11th-graders will be proficient in mathematics. (If you're thinking that the percentages should be higher than that, those represent 25-50% improvements over current proficiency levels in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and they are higher than what is required by federal law.)

Most school districts in the Pittsburgh Region don't have explicit goals for student proficiency. Go to any school district's website and see if you can find any goals at all. If they have a search feature, search on "goal" and see if you find anything. If you find goals, see if any of them actually commit to achieving specific proficiency levels for the children, particularly if the current proficiency levels are low.

In some districts, you will be able to find a "Strategic Plan" on their website. Every district is required by state law to have one. But if you can actually find the plan for a particular district, you will likely discover that it has no clear goals and no clear strategy. It's much easier to claim success if you have no goals to be measured against.

Until a few years ago, most school districts didn't even publish information on how their children were doing (unless it was unusually good). Now you can get reports on student proficiency on virtually every school district's website. That's not enlightenment by the schools, it's a federal/state requirement under No Child Left Behind. But you generally still have to dig for it, and if you find it, you may have a hard time understanding it. If the school district trumpets the fact that it "meets federal AYP (adequate yearly progress) requirements," you should realize that all that is required right now to satisfy AYP requirements is for half of the students to be proficient (54% must be proficient in reading, and 45% must be proficient in math). One would hope schools would want to do better with kids than a coin-flip.

If you'd like an easy way to see how a particular school district is doing compared to others, click on You can find out what percentage of 5th graders are proficient in reading and math in each elementary/middle school in southwestern Pennsylvania, and you can compare each school to the other schools in the region that have similar spending levels and similar numbers of low-income children. You may be surprised to find that last year (2005), there were only 21 elementary schools in the entire 10-county region (out of 355 total schools) where 90% or more of the 5th graders were proficient in both reading and math. You may be even more surprised to find out where they are located.


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