Sunday, November 06, 2011

Reinventing Our Schools

Tuesday is Election Day, and the most important vote you cast will be for people you almost never hear about: the members of your local School Board.

It’s your most important vote because the performance of our public schools is one of the most important determinants of our region’s economic success.

Businesses won’t create or retain jobs in southwestern Pennsylvania if they can’t find workers that are proficient in basic skills. Although many people think that our region’s workforce strength is determined by how many college graduates we have, the fact is that most jobs, both now and for the foreseeable future, will require a high school-level education and on-the-job training, not a college degree.

Unfortunately, a high school diploma in the Pittsburgh Region doesn’t mean that a student has the basic skills employers expect from a high school education. Pennsylvania State System of School Assessment test scores for 2011 show that over 1/3 (37%) of our 11th graders can’t do math properly and over 1/4 (26%) can’t read adequately. That means that southwestern Pennsylvania schools are sending over 9,000 young people into the workforce every year without the minimum skills they need to get a job, much less go to college.

It’s not just the high schools that are failing. The problem starts all the way back in elementary school. Nearly 30% of the fifth graders in the region can’t read at grade level, and more than 20% aren’t proficient in math.

No business could survive if one-third of its products were defective, and our region can’t be competitive in the global marketplace if a third of our workforce lacks basic skills.

If you think the state tests may be too tough, think again. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has found that Pennsylvania’s standard for “proficiency” is only equivalent to what NAEP calls “basic” skills. Under the NAEP standard for proficiency, fewer than 50% of the elementary school students in our region would be considered proficient in either reading or math.

You might think that your own local school district is doing well because it proudly told the community it is meeting state standards for “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or “AYP.” But a school can be classified as making “adequate yearly progress” even if 1/3 of its students are not proficient in math and 1/4 are not proficient in reading. In fact, some schools are classified as AYP even if the majority of their students can’t read or write, due to the complex rules by which the state awards AYP status. For example, the Clairton Middle/High School is classified by the state as making “adequate yearly progress” even though 82% of its 11th graders aren’t proficient in math and 63% can’t read properly on state standards.

If we graded schools the way they grade their students, 150 of the 322 elementary schools in the region would get a “D,” “E,” or “F”, and 109 of the 150 high schools would get a “D” or worse. (If you’d like to see your local schools’ grades, go to

Are the schools getting better? Some are, but most aren’t. This year, there were more than twice as many elementary schools that had 90% or more of their 5th graders proficient in both reading and math as there were last year (25 vs. 11). That’s great news. But more than half of the elementary schools in the region had worse performance in math, reading, or both in 2011 than in 2010. That’s terrible news. And 62% of the high schools did worse in 2011 than in 2010. Clearly, the majority of schools are going in the wrong direction.

Even if you’re not concerned about how poorly our schools are educating children, you should be concerned about how much of your money schools spend to do it. Schools in the Pittsburgh Region spent an average of $14,000 per child in 2010, more than both the state and national averages. To get that money, they collected over $2.4 billion in local taxes from the residents and businesses of southwestern Pennsylvania. That’s nearly four times as much as our county governments collect, so the people you elect to your school board will have a far bigger impact on your wallet than those you elect as your County Executive or County Commissioners. Moreover, schools in the Pittsburgh Region spend an additional $2.4 billion of your state and federal tax monies on top of what they collect locally.

Although many schools claim they need even more money in order to improve educational performance, the fact is that some of the best performing schools in our region spend significantly below-average amounts of money, including schools that have large numbers of low-income children, so most districts could be spending less while still getting better results than they do today.

Unfortunately, if you go to the polls to try and make a change in the leadership of your school district, you likely won’t have much of a choice. For example, in 19 of the 46 school districts in Allegheny County, there is no competition for any of the seats. In 22, there are more candidates than there are seats, but in most (13) of these, there is just one more candidate than there are seats available (i.e., six candidates for the five seats that are typically open in most districts). In 5 Allegheny County school districts, there are not even enough candidates to fill all the available seats.

It’s not surprising that with little improvement in school performance and little choice about who will lead the schools, the Governor and General Assembly are looking for ways to give parents more choices about which schools their children can go to, including private schools, and to change the way teachers are evaluated. Rather than fighting these efforts, school boards, superintendents, and teacher unions should instead focus their energies on radically reinventing the way their schools function in order to deliver much better performance at much lower costs. And if you’re in a school district where you have a choice about whom to vote for on Tuesday, you can elect the candidates who are committed to making dramatic improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the schools.

(A version of this post appeared as the "Regional Insights" column in the Sunday, November 6, 2011 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)


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