Better Performing Schools Are Key to the Region's Future
It’s no wonder – state test scores show that more than one out of four 11th graders in our region (28.6%) can’t read adequately, and two out of five (41.4%) can’t do math properly. And there’s been little sign of improvement – the percentage who are proficient in math and reading has barely changed in the past 3 years.
If you think your school district doesn’t have a problem, think again. None of the 125 school districts in the 10-county region had 90% or more of their 11th graders proficient in math, and only three districts had 90% of their 11th graders proficient in reading. In over 100 school districts, 30% or more of the 11th graders were not proficient in either reading or math. In 39 districts, more than half weren’t proficient.
In other words, if you graded school district performance the same way schools grade kids, no districts would get an “A,” and most would get a “C,” “D,” or “F.” (If you’d like to see your school district’s grade, go to www.pittsburghfuture.com/schoolgrades.html .)
It’s not just high school students that are failing. The problem starts much earlier. One-fourth of the fifth-graders in the region aren’t proficient in math, and over one-third (37%) aren’t proficient in reading. And we have a genuine educational crisis with African American students – more than half (52%) of black 5th graders aren’t proficient in math and over two-thirds (68%) aren’t proficient in reading.
What business could survive if 30% or more of its products failed to meet minimum standards? How can the Pittsburgh Region survive if 30% or more of its children aren’t proficient in basic skills? The answer: It can’t. Our public schools need to do better – a lot better – if our region is going to attract and retain businesses and jobs in the future.
Many people seem to believe that 70% proficiency is the best schools can do without more money. But on average, students in the higher-spending schools in the region do worse, not better.
In the 33 lowest-spending districts in our region (each spending less than $9,000 per child in 2005-06, the most recent data available), an average of 41% of the 11th graders were not proficient in math, and 26% were not proficient in reading. Although that’s unacceptably low, the 32 highest-spending districts (which each spent $11,000 or more per child) did worse – on average, 48% of their 11th graders weren’t proficient in math, and 34% weren’t proficient in reading. In fact, four of the ten best-performing districts in the region spent below-average amounts per child.
Educators often justify low proficiency scores in schools that are educating a lot of poor children or children with disabilities. But our schools aren’t doing well even with the kids who aren’t disabled and aren’t economically disadvantaged – 35% of those children aren’t proficient in math, and 22% aren’t proficient in reading. And again, it’s not a matter of money. Some school districts perform significantly better than others at a lower cost, even with similar numbers of poor and disabled children. For example, about 20% of the 11th graders in the both the Freedom Area School District in Beaver County and the Gateway School District in Monroeville are economically disadvantaged, but significantly more of the kids at Freedom are proficient. (79% of the 11th graders at Freedom are proficient in math, nearly a "B" grade, but only 59.5% at Gateway are proficient, for an "F" grade. 80% of the kids at Freedom can read proficiently, but only 72% are proficient in reading at Gateway.) But the Freedom Area School District spends 27% less per child than the Gateway School District does.
What needs to be done?
1. Demand that every school establish a goal of 100% proficiency for its students and a plan for achieving it. (Try this: go to the website for your school district and see if you can find either a goal for student proficiency or a report on what’s being done to improve it.)
2. Elect school board members committed to achieving 100% proficiency. (Attend a school board meeting and see how much time they spend talking about improving student proficiency. )
3. Improve the quality of early education. Learning starts before school begins, and children with quality pre-school experiences at home and in child care will do better when they start school.
(A shorter version of this article appeared in the May 4, 2008 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)