Making Southwestern Pennsylvania
One of the World's Greatest Regions

Improving Public Schools

Although there are many specific areas where improvements can be made in the match between the needs of employers and the skills of the regional workforce, the most fundamental issue is the quality of the region’s public schools.

Why?  Because most jobs in the Pittsburgh Region, and in any region of the country, will require only a high school education plus on-the-job training provided by the employer.  Although a growing number of jobs, particularly in technology industries, will require some kind of post-secondary education, these will still represent a minority of total job openings for the foreseeable future. And for those jobs that do require a college education, a worker has to have finished high school in order to go on for post-secondary education.

How are high school graduates in the Pittsburgh Region doing? Not as well as they need to.  Currently, over 40% of the region's 11th graders are not proficient in math, and over one-fourth of them are not proficient in reading! In addition, nearly 1 in 5 of the ninth-graders in the Pittsburgh Region don't graduate from high school.  This means that at least half of the 18-year olds in the Pittsburgh Region are unable to read and/or do math at the level they should.

Moreover, since over half of high school graduates go on to post-secondary education, this means that most of the teenagers who look for a job right out of high school are not proficient in basic skills.  

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 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 (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, five 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.

This is a serious problem for a region that will be a center for technology jobs in the future -- jobs that require employees to think, read, and do math.

Every school district in the region needs to improve. 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.

How did the South Fayette Township School District go from 67% proficiency to over 90% proficiency for fifth graders in just 5 years? Here's what Superintendent Linda Hippert said were the keys:  

"First, a clear focus with high expectations and no excuses. We believe that every child is important and must achieve at high levels regardless of his/her ability, income, or home environment. It is our responsibility to level the playing field. South Fayette introduced a more rigorous, consistent curriculum, intensified staff training, differentiated instruction, used a variety of technologies, and provided after school tutoring, and summer programs.

"Second, a culture of learning driven by data. 'You can't hit a target you cannot see and you cannot see a target that you do not have.' Student achievement data allows you to set the target and then join forces to find strategies to reach it.

"And, Third, a Leadership Team and School Board that shares a common vision for student learning. The South Fayette Board charges their administrators with recommending the very best teachers for hire.  In turn, the School Board holds us accountable for teacher performance and student achievement. The board has also supported our rigorous curriculum with high standards for student learning and lofty demands for teacher performance. They stood firm even when they sometimes found it difficult with complaints from some parents that the students were working too hard or that someone else should have been hired."

What's the answer?

Action Agenda

Establish a Goal of 100% Proficiency for Fifth Graders in Every School District and Work to Achieve It

It's up to parents and citizens to hold the leaders of the public schools -- the elected school boards — accountable for making a commitment to 100% proficiency for every fifth grader and working tirelessly to achieve it.

The education of children should be the top priority issue at every school board meeting.  Unfortunately, too many meetings focus on everything but academics.  It's great to have a good sports team and activities for children, but if the kids can't read and do math, then the top priority should be ensuring that they can.

How do you improve proficiency in your schools?

Step 1: Know how the schools in your community are doing. You can see how your local school district is doing here and you can also see how it compares to other similar school districts.

Step 2: Attend the meetings of your local school board. Ask them if they have established a goal of 100% proficiency for children.  If they haven't, urge them to do so.  If they have, ask to see the plan for achieving the goal and a report on progress.  

Step 3: Encourage other parents and citizens in your community to attend school board meetings with the same message.

Elect School Board Members Committed to Achieving 100% Proficiency

If the school board won't commit to achieving 100% proficiency, or if it won't hold the school superintendent and teachers accountable for achieving it, then it's time for the voters of the school district to elect school board members who will.

Every two years, elections are held for school board members. Despite the fact that education is a top priority for every parent and for the region as a whole, the turnout in most school board elections is abysmal.  Citizens must go to the polls and elect school board members who will make proficiency their number one priority, and who will hire and support superintendents who can provide the leadership needed to achieve proficiency for all children.

Change State Law to Better Define the Roles and Qualifications of School Boards

There are over 1,100 school board members in southwestern Pennsylvania who collectively control the spending of $3.5 billion in tax monies and oversee the education of 380,000 children.

Current state law gives school board members the direct responsibility for almost every aspect of administration of the school district, from hiring and firing teachers to buying pencils. Many school board members micromanage superintendents because they are technically required to do so under state law. Because of this, being a school board member takes an extraordinary amount of time — time that most people are unable or unwilling to spend, even if they would like to help lead their school district.

Despite these extraordinarily extensive responsibilities, the only qualifications for a school board member under current state law are that they be at least 18 years old, a resident of the school district for at least one year, and of "good moral character." There is no requirement for any training.

Both of these aspects of the law need to be changed. The Pennsylvania General Assembly needs to amend the Pennsylvania School Code to make the following changes:

Improve the Quality of Early Education

Although fifth grade proficiency depends heavily on the quality of public education, it also depends on the extent to which children who enter school are ready to learn.  And children's readiness to learn depends heavily on the quality of their pre-school experiences. How are the region's pre-schoolers doing? And how can we improve their readiness?  That's the second half of the agenda for quality education.

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