Saturday, November 06, 2010

Our Children Aren’t Ready for the Jobs of the Future

As the nation’s economy struggles to recover from the recession, how is our region doing in preparing children to compete for the jobs of the future?

Not very well, unfortunately. State test scores for 2010 show that over one-fourth (28%) of our 11th graders can’t read adequately and more than one-third (37%) aren’t proficient in mathematics. That means southwestern Pennsylvania schools are sending nearly 10,000 young people into the workforce every year without the minimum skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future.

It’s not just the high schools that are failing. The problem starts all the way back in elementary school. Nearly one-third (32%) of the fifth graders in the region can’t read at grade level, and nearly one-fourth (22%) aren’t proficient in math.

No business could survive if a third of its products were defective. Our region can’t expect to succeed, either, if 30% of our workforce lacks basic skills.

If you think this isn’t a problem in your local schools, think again. Only one high school in the entire region (Upper St. Clair) had 90% or more of its 11th graders proficient in both mathematics and reading, and only 11 of the region’s 319 elementary/middle schools had 90% or more of their 5th graders proficient in both mathematics and reading.

In fact, if we graded schools the way they grade kids, more than half of the elementary schools in the region would get a “D,” “E,” or “F,” and nearly three-fourths of the high schools would get a “D” or worse. (If you’d like to see your local schools’ grades, go to

Although news media tend to focus on the Pittsburgh Public Schools because of its size, fewer than 10% of the non-proficient students in the region are from the City of Pittsburgh. Most of the problem is in the other 123 school districts, and we won’t have a competitive workforce unless every school district improves.

The problem is getting worse, not better. Fewer than one-fourth of the elementary schools in the region improved student proficiency in both reading and math between 2009 and 2010, while one-third did worse on both reading and math proficiency.

Wait a minute, though – didn’t the state Department of Education say that most schools were making “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) according to federal standards? Yes, but AYP is not a standard that any school should be proud to achieve. A school can have over a third of its students (37%) failing in reading and nearly half (44%) failing in math and still be labeled as making “adequate yearly progress” under federal standards. (See for more information.)

As bad as the overall performance of our education system is, it’s far worse for African-American students. In 2010, over half (59%) of the African-American 11th graders couldn’t read adequately, and more than two-thirds (70%) weren’t proficient in math. Here again, this is not just a City of Pittsburgh problem – two-thirds of the non-proficient African American students are in high schools outside of the City of Pittsburgh.

Educators often claim that low proficiency scores should be excused in schools that have large numbers of economically disadvantaged students or disabled children. But in the majority of schools, 25% or more of the non-disadvantaged, non-disabled 5th graders can’t read adequately, and 20% or more aren’t proficient in math.

The problem isn’t lack of money. Some of the best performing schools in the region are in districts that spend below-average amounts. For example, in the Beaver Area School District, more than 90% of the fifth graders were proficient in both reading and mathematics (the best performance in the region), but the district spent only $6,260 per student in 2008-09, 16% below the regional average. In contrast, in the Quaker Valley School District, which spent $10,734 per student (the highest spending in the region and 44% higher than the regional average), only 78% of the 5th graders were proficient in reading.

It’s time to declare that “adequate yearly progress” isn’t adequate, and to demand that schools dramatically improve their students’ proficiency with the resources they already have. Although Presidents, Congressmen, Governors, and State Legislators all talk about improving education, it’s the more than 1,110 elected school board members in the region who actually control how nearly $5 billion in tax monies are spent to educate the 350,000 children in the region. Half of these school board members are up for election next year (2011). Typically, there is little competition for these positions, and most incumbents are re-elected. If you’re unhappy with your school district’s performance, now is the time to think about recruiting new candidates who are committed to dramatically improving performance. Information on how to run for a school board seat is available at

(A version of this post appeared as the Regional Insights column in the Sunday, November 7 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)


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