A few days after A+ Schools released its annual report on the Pittsburgh Public School District, revealing an increase in the racial achievement gap, the district held their first annual State of the District. The event gave the community an update on the district’s direction, priorities and progress.
Prior to the event on Nov. 15, PPS Superintendent Linda Lane spoke with the New Pittsburgh Courier about the racial achievement gap, teacher effectiveness, budget restrictions and how the district plans to overcome its future challenges in light of recent data showing a drop in achievement overall.
“The district as a whole lost ground even though we did have some students increase,” Lane said. “In some cases, our African-American students are more vulnerable. The question of course is why did we lose ground.”
To help answer that question, over the past year, the district has been working with education consultant Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew professor of education at New York University. Noguera is a co-chair of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, “a national campaign that acknowledges the impact of social and economic disadvantage on schools and students and proposes evidence-based policies to improve schools and remedy conditions that limit many children’s readiness to learn.”
“His response to us was Pittsburgh you don’t need to add more initiatives,” Lane said. “To my knowledge we’re doing everything other districts have done, but we’re not producing the same results. His advice was not to add things, but to be more effective.”
Lane believes the dip in student achievement is related to the district’s financial problems, which include a 47 percent increase in healthcare costs over the past year. This coupled with funding cuts at the state level have forced the district to make difficult decisions about their budget allocations.
As a result, the district was unable to fund the 4Sight testing system that monitors student progress at appropriate intervals throughout the year. They were also forced to furlough more than a hundred teachers and since the furloughs were based on seniority, Lane believe some of the districts stronger teachers were lost.
“I still think it is important to consider effectiveness in furloughing teachers,” Lane said. “There were a number of teachers in that furlough list who I would’ve given anything to keep.”
Lane said she would continue to try to work with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers to include teacher effectiveness in furlough decisions. If an agreement isn’t reached, it could hamper the district’s Empowering Effective Teachers Plan.
“One of the goals of that plan is to increase the effectiveness of teachers but the second thing is making sure students who need it the most have the most effective teachers. We’re beginning to look at that. We want to be able to measure that over time. As we look at kids in schools that are vulnerable schools, if we find out we need more effective teachers, what are some of the ways we’re going to address that.” Lane said. “We’re trying to provide greater support to our lowest performing schools. The key thing is still effective teachers in classrooms. I still hope there are ways we can address the concerns (the PFT has) while finding a way to improve outcomes for children.”
Moving forward, Lane said the district’s priorities will be accelerating academic achievement, eliminating racial disparities and becoming a district of first choice.