Come to Brunch

Do you like jazz? Do you like to eat? Do you want to support a simply incredible, grassroots effort led by local parents to help some of the most struggling students in Pittsburgh?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, clear your lunchtime calendar for Saturday May 10th. Seriously. Go to your calendar and write in “11AM, Jazz Brunch, Manchester Elementary School, 1612 Manhattan Street, 15233.” Here’s why:

This fundraiser is being held by a new initiative called the Pittsburgh Struggling Student Association, or PSSA (a delightfully ironic acronym, given that those letters usually stand for the state’s system of standardized high-stakes tests), organized by parents in the Manchester neighborhood on the Northside (who may or may not have intended for their acronym to be delightfully ironic).

The group is currently running an all-volunteer program they developed themselves called “The Math Doctors,” to help students at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 learn math skills. Volunteers show up in the classroom wearing surgical masks and help students save their “patients” (math problems). The students apparently love it. And now those parents are creating a summer camp called Math, Mud, and More that will combine math lessons with a new edible garden (the “mud”) and plain old fun.

These efforts are the brainchild of Mr. Wallace Sapp and his wife, Ms. Lisa Freeman. Some of you may remember them from the “Manchester Miracle” eighteen months ago, when our post about the empty library shelves at that school went viral. Within days we had thousands and thousands of people all over the world, and right down the street, sending books to fill the shelves. Famous authors were tweeting our messages. News reports of the campaign caught the attention of local activists who solicited donations and labor to create an entirely new and gorgeous library space for the students. And Mr. Wallace was there every day opening all those boxes of donated books. In fact, he is in the school nearly every day of the year as a volunteer.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

A couple weeks ago Mr. Wallace invited me to his home to learn more about his idea for the Math, Mud, and More summer camp. While our kids played games together, I talked to Ms. Lisa, who is also a case manager for the Salvation Army, about her efforts to get local parents engaged in their children’s education. Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 is a very special place, serving a tremendous number of families living in poverty: 89% of the students receive free and reduced price lunch and many parents face multiple barriers and challenges to engaging more fully with the school. Eighty-nine percent of the students are African American and the school provides regional classrooms for autistic support, multi-disability support, emotional and therapeutic support, and life skills support.

When Wallace and Lisa set out to do something, they get it done. (They are also working with a group to get a free children’s health clinic at the school.) Their enthusiasm is contagious. Honestly, you cannot say no to these two beautiful people. I have learned a lot from them, and we should all be paying attention to their wisdom.

Their camp will serve 30 kids this summer, with the involvement of many current and retired teachers. There will be reading coaches. Slippery Rock University and the University of Pittsburgh are both partnering with them, to prepare college students to be excellent substitute teachers. The camp will be held at the school, where the kids will be turning part of the school grounds into a garden. They will receive a free lunch every day. The entire program falls under the fiscal sponsorship of the Manchester Citizens Corporation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit community development organization.

Manchester principal, Ms. Theresa Cherry, practically gushes about the program, saying that it “embodies some of the best principles of education.” In a letter of support for the Pittsburgh Struggling Students Association, she writes, “The transformative power of whole community involvement in children’s lives lies in its ability to help students understand we are all partners in their education.” After explaining how she feels this summer camp will benefit the students she continues, “This may seem a little over the top for a typical support letter, but it is at the heart of what I believe that education is all about; helping individuals achieve their potential.” Indeed.

Transformative power. Whole community involvement. Kids achieving their potential. Parents acting at the grassroots level, responding effectively to local educational needs. Let’s help make Math, Mud, and More as big a success as the Manchester Miracle in the school library. It starts with us being willing to show up for an hour to have lunch together on Saturday, May 10th.

That’s exactly one week before the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation ruling. With equity issues staring us in the face here in Pittsburgh, we have certainly not achieved the full promise or potential of the Brown decision. But this is one thing we can do together: please come to lunch. And bring a friend or two.

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Reporting Back on Community Schools

After our fantastic gubernatorial candidate Education Debate two weeks ago, some people did not get much sleep. Early the next morning, over thirty people went to Cincinnati, Ohio for a national conference on community schools. Pittsburgh sent the largest delegation, which included school board members, district administration, representatives from the Mayor’s office and City Council, parents, teachers, foundation officials, faith leaders, and community members.

Members of the Pittsburgh delegation get ready to board the bus for Cincinnati!

Members of the Pittsburgh delegation get ready to board the bus for Cincinnati!

Now this group is ready to report back what they learned. Want to find out more about community schools and what they might look like for Pittsburgh? Many of us really wanted to go to the conference but could not – so this is our chance to hear all about it and be a part of the discussion. Please come!

Monday, May 5, 2014: 6PM
{note the date change! this was previously announced as April 29 – new location to be announced here as soon as I receive that information}

You can also RSVP on our Facebook event page and invite your friends to help spread the word. Many thanks to the Heinz Endowments for making it possible to send so many parents and community members and to the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers for the thankless task of organizing the registration, bus, and hotel details.

At this point you may still be asking, what are “community schools”? I like this quick definition: a community school is both a place and a set of partnerships, linking the school and community resources. It integrates the work of local non-profits, businesses, healthcare and social service providers, after school programs, and more – not just by asking groups to donate their services, but by becoming full partners in a way that benefits all. Community schools are central hubs in their community and respond to local needs. Many offer classes such as adult literacy, provide exciting enrichment programs, and open their recreational facilities to everyone in the evenings and on weekends. [Read more about community school models in the report, “Great Public Schools for all Pittsburgh Children: A Community Based Plan.”]

Are community schools a magic bullet? Of course not. But the models do offer a new way of thinking about public schools – and there is some promising data coming from cities that have implemented the concept. An evaluation of 20 initiatives across the country showed improvement in student learning, attendance, and behavior as well as increased parent engagement, “[i]mproved safety and security, increased community pride, stronger relationships between school and community, and greater utilization of schools….” [Community Schools Research Brief, 2009]

What could community schools do here in Pittsburgh? What do you think? What happens next? Please come and be a part of this important conversation!

Debate by the Numbers

Here’s a re-cap of last night’s Education Debate in numbers, news, and photographs. First the numbers:

4 -  Democratic gubernatorial candidates: Rob McCord, Katie McGinty, Allyson Schwartz, and Tom Wolf.

2 -  Co-hosts for the evening: PA Interfaith Impact Network and Yinzercation.

10 -  Community organizations co-sponorsing: Action United, A+ Schools, Black Political Empowerment Project, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, Greater Park Place Neighborhood Association, League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, YMCA Youth and Government Club at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12.

21 -  Members of the planning team. Thank you to all the volunteers who made the debate possible.

500 -  People in the audience!

17 -  Questions asked by moderator (Lisa Sylvester from WPXI) and our community panel (Rev. Richard Freeman, PIIN President; Cassi Schaffer, Pittsburgh Public School parent and community activist; and Joel Macklin, Pittsburgh Obama junior).

1,000 -  Number of times the candidates pledged to restore the budget cuts and implement a fair funding formula (OK, that was an exaggeration, but it was certainly a main point of agreement among them).

The debate aired live locally on PCNC TV and across the state on PCN TV. We also had broad print, radio, and television followup coverage, including:

If you missed the live broadcast, WPXI TV plans to run a one-hour, edited version of the debate this Sunday, April 13th, at 9AM. Set your DVRs now! Our radio partner, WESA FM, also plans to air a 60 minute edition of the debate tomorrow, Thursday, April 10th, at 10PM.

Here are some photographic highlights, most taken by our volunteer photographer, Jessica Chow (a Chatham University student), with others by Karen Hochberg and Sheila May-Stein:

D.E.B.A.T.E. Today

D- Democracy
E- Education
B- Be there
A- At 6PM
T- To learn
E- Exciting!

That about sums it up. But here are a few more details. You haven’t heard from me in over a week because Yinzercation and the PA Interfaith Impact Network have been super busy organizing the Democratic Candidate Gubernatorial Education Debate. (That spells DCGED and isn’t nearly as exciting as D.E.B.A.T.E.!) Dozens of community volunteers have been hard at work on this event, now all you have to do is show up.

Really. This is important. We want to show these candidates that Southwest Pennsylvania is serious about public education and that it needs to be a top priority in Harrisburg. Over 200 people have already RSVPed on the Facebook event page. Have you? Can you help spread the word?

BE THERE TODAY. Tuesday, April 8th  at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12
515 N. Highland Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15206
(Bus Service: 89 and 71B. Free parking across the street at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.)

Doors open at 6PM with music by the Obama Steel Drum Band. Bring your questions for the candidates! The doors will close promptly at 6:50PM for the live broadcast, which will be moderated by WPXI’s Lisa Sylvester. Please allow time to get through security.

With last week’s horrible Supreme Court decision allowing unfettered campaign donations from the super-rich, it will be getting even harder for ordinary folks to get the attention of candidates and elected representatives. (If you have a few extra million laying around for political contributions, let me know!) We produced this entire event with a budget of $0. Yes, zero. This is as grassroots as it gets. And this is our chance to help these candidates see what real people really care about. So please re-arrange your schedule if you have to. See you tonight!

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Rolling in Dough, or Debt?

To hear Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of education, Carolyn Dumaresq, tell it, our school districts are rolling in dough. In an op-ed piece this week she said the proposed “2014-15 budget dedicates a record $12.01 billion for Pennsylvania’s early, basic and postsecondary education system.” [Indiana Gazette, 3-23-14] I like how you can roll three program areas together and get one giant-big-huge sounding number. Oh my gosh! Twelve billion!

Politicians apparently like to roll things together. It reminds me of when Gov. Corbett rolled a bunch of line items together in the K-12 “basic education” budget a couple years ago and then went around claiming he had “increased” K-12 funding, while overall he had slashed it by close to $1 billion. [See “The Truth About the Numbers”] Oh wait a minute. The administration is still making these outlandish claims. In her piece, Dr. Dumaresq repeated Gov. Corbett’s old story, saying, “Since taking office, Corbett has increased support of public schools by $1.55 billion.”

Why there you go. All along we thought he had decreased funding, but he has really increased it. Schools are literally rolling in extra dough. Hiring back thousands of laid-off teachers, restoring program cuts, re-opening those early childhood education classrooms – wait, what? They aren’t? Did anyone in the Governor’s office talk to the Allentown School District, which just announced yesterday that it will lay off another 100 teachers and educational staff? [Morning Call, 3-26-14] If only Allentown realized how much cash Gov. Corbett has been giving them. Maybe the check got lost in the mail.

Never mind. Dr. Dumaresq assures us that “Through targeted initiatives, the governor has … infused stronger educational resources into classrooms.” I’m glad those resources are strong, because now that we’ve laid off 20,000 teachers in Pennsylvania in the past three years, they are going to need muscles to do all the heavy lifting of educating 35 kids in a classroom. Seriously, “stronger educational resources”? Do we even know what this means?

That sounds similar to the next assertion that Gov. Corbett has “focused financial resources into initiatives that support all students.” When the governor eliminated our state’s fair funding formula he pretty much assured that financial resources were not going to equitably support all students.

After that op-ed, a sobering dose of reality might be in order. University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg delivered just that in a speech Monday, warning that students are now burdened with “crushing personal debts” as they try to pay for higher education while the state and federal government continue to slash support. [Post-Gazette, 3-24-14] In fact, Pennsylvania cut $67 million from Pitt’s budget three years ago, and then locked those cuts in for the past two years, meaning the University “now receives the same amount of state funding it received in 1995. If adjusted for inflation… state aid has fallen to its lowest level since the university became state-related in the 1960s.”

Yep. Pennsylvania public higher ed is definitely rolling in that state dough. Not. Indeed, Chancellor Nordenberg told the audience that “all but 10 states have begun to reinvest in higher education as the recession’s financial effects have eased; Pennsylvania is one of the 10 that has not.” Rather than rolling in dough, too many public education programs – from early childhood through higher ed – are rolling in debt.

The spot of good news in that area this week came from Pittsburgh Public Schools, which announced that it ended 2013 with an operating surplus of $20.8 million. That came mostly from unexpected increases in collections of earned income and real estate transfer taxes that may or may not continue. In other words, that bump may not be sustainable. And even with the welcome news from 2013, “the district is forecasting a $14.5 million deficit this calendar year, leading the district to run out of money in 2017 when the projected deficit is $59.8 million.” [Post-Gazette, 3-26-14]

So our fiscal crisis has been pushed back another year. But here in Pittsburgh, and around the state, we are still talking about mountains of debt, not dough.

Education Debate

Who is running for governor of Pennsylvania? What will the candidates do to help our schools? How will they support public education as a civil right and a public good?

So far this primary season, Governor Corbett has declined invitations to debate. He does have someone running against him in the Republican primary, but political analysts give his opponent almost no chance of bumping the incumbent from the ticket. I look forward to debates this fall when Gov. Corbett will be asked to publicly defend his record on education. But right now we need to know more about the Democratic candidates vying to take on the governor in the general election.

That’s why the PA Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) and Yinzercation decided to co-host a Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate education debate. This will be the only debate in Pennsylvania focused exclusively on education issues! And all of the major candidates have committed to coming: Rob McCord, Katie McGinty, Allyson Schwartz, Jack Wagner, and Tom Wolf.

Please mark your calendars now and plan to be a part of this event:
Tuesday, April 8th  at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12
515 N. Highland Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15206
(Bus Service: 89 and 71B. Free parking at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.)

Doors open at 6PM with student performances. The debate begins 7PM, with doors closing promptly at 6:55PM for the live telecast, which will be moderated by WPXI’s Lisa Sylvester.

Do you have a question for the candidates? This is your chance to ask the people who want to govern our state where they stand on education issues! Email your question to education@piin.org by April 1st. Or you can tweet it ahead of time to #PGHed or bring it with you to write on the question cards we will have available during the seating hour.

This is truly a community event with a wide range of co-sponsors, including: the Black Political Empowerment Project; the Greater Park Place Neighborhood Association; the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh; the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee; the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition; and the YMCA Youth and Government Club at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12.

For more information, updates, and to RSVP, please see our Facebook event page. And while you are there, please invite your friends – this is an entirely grassroots event with no budget and we are counting on you to help us spread the word. Can you volunteer on April 8th? We need lots of hands to make the evening a success – please let me know. This is participatory democracy in action!

GovDebateFlyer

Tweet!

It’s spring and the birds are tweeting. And so are education advocates! Do you tweet? I mean in the sense of using Twitter, not singing with sparrows. I found myself dragged rather reluctantly into the Twitterverse just over a year ago. As a historian fond of words, nuance, and careful argument, I find it incredibly difficult to say anything in 140 characters or less. But I’ve had some great teachers (thank you Pam and Sheila!) and have learned to appreciate Twitter’s grassroots power.

Here are just two examples of ways that Twitter can connect and amplify our voices at the state and federal level. If you tweet, please consider taking part!

Twitter Chat on PA Education Funding
Next Tuesday, March 25th at 8PM there will be a “live chat” on Twitter with school leaders from throughout the state. You are invited to join the conversation using the hashtag #PAEdFunding: you can just lurk and learn, or you are welcome to participate and share your thoughts on public education funding. The four hosts are:

  • @PASASupts – Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators
  • @PSBA – Pennsylvania School Boards Association
  • @PASBO_org – Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials
  • @PARSS2go – Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools

Here’s some good information about twitter chats from the PA School Board Association:

If you’ve never tweeted before, join us. It’s a simple, free and fast-paced way to communicate and share information. Here are directions and a few tips:

How to Get Started: Log-on to www.twitter.com, sign-up, create your profile, find people and organizations you are interested in following and start tweeting out messages in 140 characters or less.

What is a Twitter Chat? Twitter chats happen when a group of people all tweet about the same topic using a specific tag (#), called a hashtag, which allows it to be followed like a transcript on Twitter. The chats are at a specific time, once, and often repeated weekly or bi-weekly at announced times.

Follow the Conversation or Check Back Later: To follow a Twitter chat live or to read the conversation later, log-on to Twitter, click on the #Discover link, then search for #PAEdFunding. By searching for or clicking the hashtag on a tweet, you can see all of the recent tweets on that topic. Then, read, reply and post your own thoughts and messages.

It’s That Easy to Join the Conversation: Tell your friends and colleagues, anyone who wants to learn more about education or wants to join the movement to establish a fair and predictable way of distributing state education dollars to ensure equity and adequate support for all schools regardless of where students live. Join us!

Twitter Storm for a Federal Hearing
The national Network for Public Education (NPE) is calling for congressional hearings into the overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing. Their resolution, passed following the first national conference two weeks ago, has been picking up steam. [For more on that conference, see “We are Many.”] I am pasting the full text of that resolution below, so you have a chance to read the eleven very thoughtful questions that NPE is asking our federal legislators to investigate. But first we need to urge them to hold a hearing.

NPE.thunderclap

Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 19th, from 8-10PM, NPE is hosting a “twitter storm.” The idea is to get lots of people tweeting about the same thing at the same time to amplify the message. Learn more about the twitter storm here. You can also use a new tool called, Thunderclap, which calls itself a “crowdspeaking platform that helps people be heard by saying something together. It allows a single message to be mass-shared, flash mob-style, so it rises above the noise of your social networks.” I can report that it only takes a few seconds to sign up to participate in the NPE Thunderclap, which will automatically send a tweet out for you at the same moment as other participants.

Try it tomorrow and let us know how you weather the storm. It must be the promise of spring temperatures because I feel like chirping, I mean, tweeting!

Resolution from the Network for Public Education, March 2, 2014:
We are writing to request that the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee hold hearings to investigate the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools.

Starting with No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, which mandated standardized testing of every student in grades three through eight, many states have since rolled out testing in additional grades. This emphasis on testing has increased under policies of the Obama administration, such as Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers, that tie test scores to teacher and principal evaluations and school “turnarounds” and closures. There is a danger that tests now seem to have become the purpose of education, rather than a measure of education.

The tests were initiated to measure whether schools were delivering an education of high quality to every child. It makes sense to determine whether all students are achieving at a minimum level of proficiency in English and math, and standardized tests can help discern whether they are.

Our concern is that high-stakes testing in public schools has led to multiple unintended consequences that warrant federal scrutiny, including the following questions, among others.

Do the tests promote skills our children and our economy need? The most popular form of tests today are multiple-choice because they are easy and cheap to grade. But many educators and parents worry that teaching children how to take these tests doesn’t teach them how to think. The new standardized exams from the multi-state testing consortia do not appear to be significantly better, and will likely be scored by computers, which cannot gauge higher order thinking.. The challenges of the future and our nation’s economic success require the ability to solve and identify new problems, think creatively, and work collaboratively with others.

What is the purpose of these tests? Assessments should be used as diagnostic tools, to help teachers figure out where students are in their learning. But in most states, teachers are forbidden to see the actual test questions or provide feedback to students. Teachers do not see how their students answered specific test items and learn nothing about how their students are doing, other than a single score, which may arrive long after the student has left their classrooms. Thus, the tests have no diagnostic value for teachers or students, who do not have the opportunity to review and learn the material they got wrong.

How good are the tests? Problems with the actual content of tests have been extensively documented. There are numerous instances of flawed questions and design, including no right answer, more than one right answer, wording that is unclear or misleading, reading passages or problems that are developmentally inappropriate or contain product placements, test questions on material never taught, and items that border on bizarre, such as a famous example that asked students to read a passage about a race between a pineapple and a hare. Tests are not scientific instruments like barometers; they are commercial products that are subject to multiple errors.

Are tests being given to children who are too young? In many states, high-stakes standardized tests are required for even the youngest school children. In Chicago, for instance, Kindergarten students face four standardized tests two or three times a year and can spend up to a third of their time taking tests. Children of this age typically do not know how to read or even hold a pencil or use a keyboard. Subjecting 5-year-olds to a timed test is not only hopeless from a practical standpoint, but subject children to undue stress.

Are tests culturally biased? Every standardized test in the world is an accurate reflection of socioeconomic advantage and disadvantage. Thus, students from racial and ethnic-minorities, students with disabilities, and students of lower socioeconomic status tend to have lower scores than their more advantaged peers. Further, test results are often used as rationales for closing schools that serve low-income communities of color.

Are tests harmful to students with disabilities? Over the past few years, there have been numerous instances in which children with significant health situations, even undergoing life-saving procedures, were pressured to complete required tests – even from their hospital beds. Children with severe brain disorders have been compelled to take a state test. Recently in Florida, an eleven-your-old boy who was dying in hospice was expected to take a test. Such behavior defies common sense and common decency.

How has the frequency and quantity of testing increased? Testing is taking significant time away from instructional learning time. In Chicago, elementary school students take the REACH, the TRC, the MAP, the EXPLORE, the ISAT, and DIBELS every year. In North Carolina, third-grade students are tested in reading 36 times throughout the year – in addition to other standardized tests. Middle schools students in Pennsylvania may take over 20 standardized tests in a single school year. High school students in Florida can have their instruction disrupted 65 times out of 180 school days by testing. In New York, the time taken by state exams has increased by 128%. When so much time is devoted to testing instead of teaching, students have less time to learn.

Does testing harm teaching? Now that test scores are linked to principal and teacher evaluations in many states, teachers engage in more test prep because they are pressured and afraid, not because they think the assessments are educationally sound. Principals are nervous about their school’s scores. Many educators have admitted they are fearful of taking students on field trips, engaging them in independent projects, or spending time on untested subjects like science or history, art or music because it might take time away from test prep. As a result, the curriculum has narrowed and students have lost their opportunity for a well-rounded education.

How much money does it cost? It is difficult to calculate the entire costs of standardized testing – including the many classroom hours spent on test prep. But it is well known that nearly every state is spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to develop more high-stakes tests for students, and requiring local districts to spend hundreds of millions more to get their students ready to take them. In addition to the cost of the tests and the interim tests, there are added costs of new curriculum, textbooks, hardware, software, and bandwidth that new tests require. There are also opportunity costs when money allocated for testing supersedes other education expenditures, such as libraries, art and music programs, social workers and guidance counselors, and extra-curricular activities.

Are there conflicts of interest in testing policies? In many states, a company that has a multi-million dollar contract to create tests for the state is also the same company that profits from producing curriculum and test prep materials. In some states, a single testing company has been able to win a contract worth many millions of dollars by lobbying and engaging in backdoor influencing of public officials. In other states, school districts buy textbooks from the same company that makes the tests so their students have an advantage on the tests.

Was it legal for the U.S. Department of Education to fund two testing consortia for the Common Core State Standards? According to federal law and regulations, the U.S. Department of education is not allowed to supervise, direct, or control curriculum or instruction. Yet the funding of testing consortia directly intervenes in the curriculum or instruction of almost every public school in the nation, as the tests will determine what is taught and how it is taught.

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. Every child deserves a full curriculum in a school with adequate resources. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge you to pursue the questions we have raised.