Achievement disparities put Pittsburgh Public Schools to the test
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories examining Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Kelly Howze is frustrated.
The mother of three boys in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system and a preschooler says that throughout the school year, her children often mention "being drilled on the state tests."
Howze believes teachers are too focused on administering the yearly tests required by federal law: the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA; the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, for kindergarteners through fifth-graders; and the 4Sight benchmark test, given several times a year to students in third through 10th grades.
With such emphasis on testing, Howze fears little creative teaching happens in classrooms in the state's second-largest school district.
It is a district with myriad problems: a $540.9 million budget that projects a $41 million deficit for this school year, continued dwindling enrollment that could lead to the closing of seven schools and a stunning disparity between the achievement levels for white and black students.
"They drill these kids on how to succeed on tests, and they do it all year," said Howze of Lincoln-Lemington. "It's practice tests and drills, and how to pass this test and that test. How is that going to help my children succeed in life?"
Her frustration intensifies because Pittsburgh schools haven't scored well overall on achievement tests. Only twice -- in 2009 and 2011 -- has the district made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the law that governs how well schools meet educational standards.
Howze intends to move her family outside the city. Suburban school districts, she says, are less crowded and chaotic, and she thinks that would give her children a better chance to succeed.
Superintendent Linda Lane says she realizes some parents think the district puts too much emphasis on PSSA testing.
"If we don't do well, the parents will not be happy, and our performance on those tests helps decide if they keep their children in Pittsburgh Public Schools," she said. "But we have to do this. We are required to by law."
Lane recently met with school principals to talk about the way the district handles achievement tests.
"I told them, 'Don't talk to students about the PSSA or about test-taking. Talk to them about learning and what they want to do in life,' " she said. "But the reality is, to be successful they must be able to read and write, do math and work well with others."
Perhaps a larger challenge than perception over testing is the district's achievement gap between black and white students. Though 55 percent of students in city schools are black, records show white students score 28 percent higher in reading proficiency than black students and 26 percent higher in math proficiency.
The gap has narrowed on all PSSA exams since 2007, but officials at the watchdog group A+ Schools say it will be 40 years before black students achieve at the same level as whites, given the rate at which the gap is narrowing.
According to the 2011 PSSA results, about 49 percent of black students met state reading standards, compared to 77 percent of white students. In math, 81 percent of white students met state standards, while 55 percent of black students did.
The district has initiatives, such as the African American Achievement Trust, to address lagging black achievement. The AAAT involves black community leaders, elected officials and business professionals who provide mentoring to black students and support and resources to their families. It exposes them to academic and economic successes, says Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.
The Urban League runs a K-5 charter school in East Liberty, where about 95 percent of students are black, Bush said. Its students scored 91 percent proficient in PSSA math tests last school year, she said.
"Knowing that it will be another 40 years to have equality is simply unacceptable," said Bush. "Every time a teacher looks at one child and has lower expectations for them than the child next to them, they are contributing to the racial achievement gap.
"Education is the foundation, particularly for these children who come from disadvantaged and struggling backgrounds. Future economic prosperity starts with education. We can't lose these kids to the streets and to a life of lower standards."
Terea Pope-Green, a newly appointed "learning environment specialist" at Pittsburgh King Pre-K-8, believes most Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers are passionate about their jobs and want to inspire students.
"My goal is to make sure every student has a very positive school experience, in every way," said Pope-Green, who will work with less experienced teachers on classroom techniques. The district has 1,734 tenured teachers and 271 pre-tenured.
In the most recent results, elementary schools in the city showed the biggest gains on the achievement test and middle schools showed the smallest.
The number of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders scoring at or above grade level in reading and math on the 2011 PSSA increased by about 6 percentage points over the previous year. Among sixth- through eighth-graders, the scores increased by 1 percentage point.
"We're pleased with the gains that we're seeing on the elementary level, but we're not seeing the improvements in the high schools -- and that's critical," Lane said.
Statistics from the 2010-11 school year show only three of 12 schools with grades nine through 12 are high-achieving: Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts in Downtown; Pittsburgh SciTech Academy in Oakland; and Pittsburgh Obama Academy in East Liberty. They are magnet schools, with specialized programming in arts, science, technology and languages and a separate application process for enrollment.
Though the district has problems with student achievement, its teachers will reap a reward for the adequate progress students made on the PSSA this year. As many as 1,400 teachers could get a bonus as a result. They negotiated a performance-based bonus as one of the pay provisions in the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers contract ratified in 2010.
Teachers who could receive the bonus must be at the top of the salary scale by July and meet attendance and performance standards. Based on their college degree level, those teachers will make an annual salary of either $80,300 or $84,300 in 2012.
The bonus could cost the district as much as $1.4 million.
Lane acknowledges the district also pays principals bonuses that are tied to student achievement -- including reaching a level of 80 percent proficiency in reading, writing and math and ensuring that ninth-grade students have enough credits in the right courses to be on track for 10th grade and eventual graduation.
Among its initiatives to keep students progressing, the district assigns mentors to ninth- and 10-graders so they can adjust to the rigors of high school more easily, said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers union.
In high school, the school day is longer and homework is more challenging, and some students have trouble adjusting to a social culture involving kids from different neighborhoods, Lane says.
"We know there are areas we have to talk to our staff about -- making sure they're prepared and able to reach across those cultural barriers, whether it's race, gender or socio-economic class, to build relationships with children," Lane said.
"It's incredibly important for kids to know you believe that they can learn and you behave like it. You hold them accountable, you support, push when you know that they can do better, and you work to understand aspects of their culture that you may not know about."