The Wrong Questions

Pittsburgh seems to have a question problem. By that I mean, the school district and many other leaders seem intent on asking the wrong questions. Any researcher will tell you, half the battle is asking a good question, one that opens up possibilities and leads to new ways of thinking. The way you ask a question, inevitably shapes the solution you find.

For instance:

Perhaps we need to flip our thinking. Instead of asking, “How do we reduce our per-student spending?” maybe we should be asking, “What are our students getting for the money we’re spending?” The district is focused on the fact that we spend $20,000 per student and keeps asking how it can reduce that by $2,000. The focus on “per-student spending” disguises the fact that the district is not actually spending all that money on students (or things that directly affect student learning).

If we were actually spending $20,000 on each student, our children would not have lost hundreds of their teachers, classroom aides, librarians, nurses, office staff, parent engagement specialists, and other school support personnel. They would not be sitting in larger classrooms, and going without music programs, tutoring, athletics, and drum sticks for their marching bands.

If we were actually spending $20,000 on each student, we could afford all the wonderful things that our suburban peers have in their schools. For instance, last month when I toured my alma mater, Upper St. Clair High School, they proudly showed me the gorgeous new library with its separate resource room that is staffed with a teacher from every single subject, every single period of the day to help any student who needs it. Imagine!

But the district asks again and again, “how can we cut per-student spending?” rather than “how can we get a resource room like that for our kids?” At the Excellence for All parent steering committee meeting a few weeks ago, the district asked parents to play an austerity-budget game, distributing worksheets with pretend money and forcing parents to make “choices” such as cut the custodian or cut the school nurse. These are false choices and get us no closer to solutions for our students.

At the last Envisioning advisory group meeting, the administration shared with us a graph indicating the areas that the district has any control over spending (they can’t touch many line items because of state policies or legal obligations, such as debt service). By far the largest “actionable” area of the budget is in school operations, meaning mostly teachers. So any attempt to seriously reduce “per student” spending almost has to come from eliminating teachers. Closing schools alone will not “save” the district money unless it cuts more teachers and increases class sizes. How does that get us closer to the kind of education our kids need and deserve? (Remember my 7th grader with 35 students in his class? Let me tell you about the head wound he came home with last week from gym class with 35 kids trying to swim laps in a pool the size of my living room.)

I’d like the district to explain to us why our high schools can’t have a resource room staffed with teachers from every subject, every single period of the day. They tell us that we don’t have the money for that (because, contrary to logic, we are spending “too much per student”). They tell us we are spending “too much” on teachers, but at the same time, we can’t have that resource room because we don’t have the teaching resources – and to free up money for such things, we need to close more schools and fire more teachers. Excuse us if we don’t follow the logic here. I think it’s time for some fresh questions.

For instance, we might look at that steeply climbing expenditure line in our budget deficit forecast and ask, “What can we do to pressure our legislators to actually address pension reform to help our schools?” That leads to other questions, such as, “Why are our legislators considering Senate Bill 1085, which will eliminate the charter school double-dip pension payments, but only on the state’s side, without any savings for school districts?” [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] Or, “What’s the district doing to pressure our legislators to reinstate the charter reimbursement line which Gov. Corbett slashed?” That line alone cost Pittsburgh $14.8 million last year – a third of the district’s projected budget gap. [See “Charter Reform Now”]

Here are some more questions: What if the Gates Foundation had spent $40 million to help Pennsylvania “empower effective education policy” instead of its “empowering effective teacher” program, which reinforces high-stakes-testing on our kids? What if that money ­– and the $2.4 million the district spent on outside consultants to tell us how to close schools – had been spent on our crushing debt service (which is $471 million)? And here’s a really good question: Does anyone have $471 million?

6 thoughts on “The Wrong Questions

  1. Here’s a corollary question: Instead of asking ‘Which schools should we close?’, we should ask ‘How do we increase enrollment?’ In my region of the City, we have extremely popular programs at Montessori, Dilworth and other schools, yet we are turning away parents who then go to parochial or private schools. Why can’t we expand popular programs to meet the needs of families? Only 1 in 4 students get into the Dilworth program – why can’t this successful school be replicated?

  2. Just create a graph that shows what’s been increasing/decreasing in the district/budget every year since Roosevelt took the steps in the first right sizing programs started in 2004? You find all the answers you need right there. Lack of growth in local funding compounded by increasing employee salary and benefits coupled with decreasing enrollment. Throw in charter schools “competition” and there you have it. The $40M from Gates over the past 5 years represents 1.5% of the overall budget and it’s brought us an evaluation system that puts us years ahead of other districts. I’ve been pushing for an open budget that shows where each dollar is impacting each school. It’s also in the VIVA report delivered to PFT and District leaders a few weeks ago.
    http://vivateachers.org/2013/10/18/remaking-public-education-in-pittsburgh/#.UnJwrvmko9Y

  3. Lets look at a real problem: school librarians.I visited a school a few weeks ago that has a librarian one day a week. During the day that the librarian is there it was my understanding the librarian does not teach or help kids conduct research etc. Rather the librarian checks out books and restacks books. When I inquired as to why other teachers on their admin assignment or students who showed an interest could not do that I was led to believe that is the collective bargaining agreement that does not permit that to happen.If this is true how can PURE reform work to change this so libraries become resource tools to students? Could PURE reform work with the PFT to change this process so that the checking out and restacking of books is taken care of in another way and the librarian in this digital age?

    • Judy, I’m not affiliated with PURE reform, so I can’t speak to their goals about librarians. I believe that all students deserve access to a full time, professional librarian in their school. Right now our students can barely use their school libraries. Our district librarians are spread way too thin, racing from school to school (most have 5 schools they are responsible for!). A professional librarian does way more than stack books and check them out — from teaching data search strategies to finding just the right way to reach reluctant readers. In fact, there are several studies showing that a full time, professional librarian produces *significant* learning gains for students. I don’t want parents and others in the librarian’s desk — we should demand that all our children benefit from these professionals. It’s one of the smartest investments we can make.

    • Pennsylvania Law requires school librarians to have a Masters’ Degree in Library and Information Science. That is because being a school librarian entails much more than ‘checking out and restacking books”. It is a disservice to all involved that these highly qualified professionals have been reduced to doing the work of a library clerk. Numerous studies have shown that having a full-time librarian increases student test scores regardless of other factors.
      In the interest of ‘equity’, PPS has stripped a powerful tool of its efficacy.

    • Umm…the REAL problem is school librarians, Judy? I think not. Rather, the REAL problem is Tom Corbett, who has followed the privatization playbook his cohort Governors in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and others play: starve public schools intentionally while letting your charter school CEO’s write educational policy and fund your reelection campaign. Truly– the LIBRARIANS are the problem?? The lack of funding public schools have to place a highly educated specialist in children’s literature, research, information literacy, educational technologies, school and district-wide curricula is the problem. For generations, library work has been invisible work. Librarians are experts in book selection as well as the range of skill sets referred to above. Everything available on library shelves was chosen with exquisite care by a librarian. The very least of our duties is checking books in and out. That’s like saying a heart surgeon is the problem because he only applies a band aid. Please. Let’s all work together to get on the same page and fight for the children of our commonwealth to have equal access to high-level learning and information.

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