Sunday, November 01, 2009

Better School Performance Needed to Grow the Economy

The recession has taken a huge toll on the national and regional economy over the past year. Many of the tens of thousands of jobs that have been lost won’t be coming back, and when job openings do appear, the competition for them will be more intense than ever.

Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Region isn’t doing well enough in preparing its children to succeed in an increasingly competitive, knowledge-based economy. More than 30% of the 11th graders in the 10-county region can’t read adequately, and over 40% can’t do math properly. In other words, 1 out of every 3 high school graduates in southwestern Pennsylvania isn’t proficient in the most basic skills.

We wouldn’t expect a business to survive if one-third of its products were defective. How can we accept the fact that a third of our public schools’ graduates don’t have the skills the schools are supposed to teach them?

If the percentages don’t frighten you, the numbers should: our region’s schools are graduating over 11,000 students every year who don’t have the minimum skills needed to compete in the economy. Over the past four years, more than 40,000 southwestern Pennsylvania teenagers have entered the workforce without an adequate ability to read, do math, or both.

What’s worse, school performance in the region isn’t improving. There was essentially no change in 11th grade math and reading proficiency rates between 2006 and 2009.

It’s not just a problem with our high schools. The problem starts much earlier. Nearly 1/3 of the fifth graders in our elementary schools can’t read properly either, and nearly 1/4 of them aren’t proficient in math.

You might think that the biggest problems are in the City of Pittsburgh, since media coverage of schools tends to focus almost exclusively on the Pittsburgh Public Schools. But the fact is that 90% of the 11th graders in the region who aren’t meeting proficiency standards are in school districts outside of Pittsburgh, and more than half of them are in schools in the 9 counties outside of Allegheny County. In other words, we can only blame Pittsburgh for 1,000 of the region’s non-proficient graduates each year; the other 10,000 are coming from the other 124 school districts in the region.

If you think poor performance isn’t a problem in your own school district, you’re probably wrong. Only 4 of the 148 high schools in the entire region had 90% or more of their 11th graders proficient in reading, and only 1 had 90% of its 11th graders proficient in mathematics. Proficiency levels in over half of the region’s high schools were worse this year than last year.

If we graded our high schools the way they grade students, only one high school in the entire region would receive an "A," only 7 would receive a "B" (the best of which is CAPA in the Pittsburgh Public Schools), 19 would receive a "C," 33 would receive a "D," 40 would receive an "E," and the remaining 48 would receive an "F." (Click here for a complete list of the high schools in the region and their "grades.")

The problem isn’t lack of money. For example, the Shenango Junior Senior High School in Lawrence County was one of only eight high schools in the region where more than 80% of the 11th graders were proficient in both math and science, yet the school district’s instructional expenses per child in 2007-08 were only $6,200, 13% below the regional average.

The problem also isn’t the difficulties of educating low-income children. Although 79% of the 5th graders in the Propel Charter School in McKeesport were economically disadvantaged last year (one of the highest percentages of any school in the region), 100% of them became proficient in math and 92% achieved proficiency in reading, the second best performance of any elementary school in the region.

The problem is that parent, taxpayers, and businesses aren’t demanding better performance. What can you do?

1. Ask your local school board to publicize both the proficiency ratings for the district’s students and the board’s plans for improving proficiency. (Try going to your school district’s website to find out how it’s performing; you probably won’t find the information, or at least not easily.)

2. Hold the school board accountable for the district’s performance. Your first chance comes this Tuesday, when over 500 school board seats across the region are up for election.

If our region is going to grow in the future, it needs a high quality workforce that can attract and retain businesses. Creating that workforce starts with high-performance schools in every district in the region.

(A shorter version of this post appeared as the Regional Insights column in the Sunday, November 1 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)


Blogger Zach said...

I agree that Pittsburgh Public Schools is failing our children. And I also agree that it is not because there is a lack of money in the school district. But I disagree with your final problem diagnosis and proposed action steps.

While parents should always demand better performance from schools, do schools not also have a right to demand more from their parents and students?

I find that many of the problems at PPS result from an underutilization of services (i.e. parents that skip parent teacher conferences, remarkably poor school attendance, and a parent culture that is not fully invested in their children's education.)


The Foundation Community, along with the School Board, the City, and the County implement a pilot Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program.

These programs provide monetary incentives to impoverished families to encourage positive behaviors (like school attendance, parent teacher conferences, and, even, paying children for getting good grades.)

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg recently developed a comprehensive CCT program. The program is called “Opportunity NYC,” and you can read about it here:

I wrote my thesis researching the feasibility of the program in Pittsburgh. If you have the patience, you can read that here:

If we are going to really change PPS for the better, we need to consider bold, evidence based initiatives like Conditional Cash Transfer programs that can incentivize parents and students to take full advantage of the education system that we provide.

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Pete said...

I agree whole-heartedly with Zach. My wife teaches 8th grade English for the PPS system. Although she does an amazing job raising the proficiency of her students from when they start the year to when they finish (I know that sounds biased!) her biggest complaint is the lack of involvement from parents. A recent conference night saw parents from only 12 of her 28 students bother to show up or reschedule. A program like Zach speaks of could go a long way in helping to mitigate the problem. The Pittsburgh Promise is a great example of this!

11:13 AM  

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