Your Cheat Sheet for the Test (In)

In case you missed the Test-In on Saturday, here’s your cheat sheet. We learned so much from the principals and teachers who spoke with us. And from the parents and students who shared their experiences with high-stakes-testing. Even the Post-Gazette attended. [Post-Gazette, 3-22-15] Be sure to study these class notes – there will be a test!

Over 50 people attended the Test-In on Saturday to discuss high-stakes-testing.

Over 50 people attended the Test-In on Saturday to discuss high-stakes-testing.


The event started with over 50 people answering sample questions from the PSSAs and Keystone exams. Following standard testing protocols, all the student work and art on the walls had been covered in brown paper (which will remain up for the next four weeks); participants had to hand over their mobile phones and sit behind testing screens to prevent cheating; and several actual teachers (who have to pass a test on how to give these tests) walked around the dead-silent room answering questions with the only thing they are allowed to say, “I can’t answer that. Please read the question.”

Parents and students took sample test questions from the PSSA and Keystone exams.

Parents and students took sample test questions from the PSSA and Keystone exams.

Parents tackle the 3rd grade English Language Arts PSSA.

Parents tackle the 3rd grade English Language Arts PSSA.

Parents found the Algebra 1 Keystone way too difficult!

Parents found the Algebra 1 Keystone way too difficult!

When one test-taker got sick and “threw up” on her test (OK, this was only a dramatization, but it happens to kids), Yinzercation steering committee member Pam Harbin pulled on rubber gloves and explained that there is a protocol for this: the test must be collected, placed in a plastic bag, and then the answers transferred to another sheet so they can be scored, of course. Ick! Ms. Harbin kindly distributed the test answers at the end of the Test-In, but explained that in real life, students do not get their results back until the following year. In addition, teachers are never allowed to see the tests and neither teachers nor students ever learn what they actually got wrong so they can learn from their mistakes.

Yinzercation Steering Committee member Pam Harbin as the PA Department of Education explains testing procedures.

Yinzercation Steering Committee member Pam Harbin as the PA Department of Education explains testing procedures.

A "student" gets sick on her test, but it still must be collected and graded!

A “student” gets sick on her test, but it still must be collected and graded!

After all the test-taking, Dr. Greg Taranto, Pennsylvania’s 2012 Middle School Principal of the Year and a member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team, explained four big concerns he has with the use of high-stakes tests. This is what he is seeing in our schools:

  1. Over testing. He said, “Too many tests are consuming mass amounts of instructional time.” The result is a narrowing of the curriculum, as schools add additional periods in tested subjects and cut back or eliminate non-tested areas such as the arts, social studies, and physical education.
  2. Over reliance. High stakes tests have become “the end all, be all for determining if a school is successful or not.” Dr. Taranto has serious concerns about the validity of these tests. For example, the testing company actually uses temp workers to grade the open-ended items on the tests. Another teach pointed out that testing companies advertise on Craig’s List and that graders need only have a bachelor’s degree (not a teaching degree or any teaching experience).
  3. Cost. There are huge costs to taxpayers as well as school districts. Dr. Taranto explained that the state is spending $58 million this year just to administer the tests (and that doesn’t include test development or other costs). What’s more, students lose the guidance counselor at his school for over a month because he is the staff member assigned to test administration.
  4. Student data tracking. Dr. Taranto also expressed concerns with the way that testing companies are tracking an enormous amount of information on our students, from test scores to even discipline data on children. He noted that, “This is not disclosed to parents” and asked, “Who has access to this information?  Who will have access to this information down the road?”
Dr. Greg Taranto explains the big concerns he has with high-stakes-testing.

Dr. Greg Taranto explains the big concerns he has with high-stakes-testing.

Dr. Taranto closed by saying, “My fear is we now have a generation of new parents and teachers coming about who think that this is what school is all about — narrowed curricula, test prep and taking all these standardized tests in the spring every year. The bottom line is: everything that is emphasized in schools now ties back to standardized testing.”

Pittsburgh teacher Jon Parker gives heart-wrenching examples of how high-stakes-tests are hurting his students.

Pittsburgh teacher Jon Parker gives heart-wrenching examples of how high-stakes-tests are hurting his students.

Parents then heard from Jon Parker, an English teacher at Pittsburgh Allderdice high school, who began by explaining the first assignment he gives each year. He asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.” Mr. Parker fears that “students’ self-worth is becoming inextricably tied to scores on high stakes tests.” Listen to his powerful explanation:

“So the tragic message from our high stakes test environment is ‘you are your score.’ And if we tell a student he’s below basic regularly from the time he’s in kindergarten, what else would we expect of him? One of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind was to combat the “soft racism of low expectations.” But instead it has created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. “You have failed in the past; you will fail forever.” I cannot imagine where I would be if I had that school experience, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be here.

“Besides the destructive linking of test failure to personal failure, districts regularly use assessments like Keystones, PSSAs, SRIs, Dibels, and a litany of other acronymed atrocities to exclude students from high quality courses and programs. I have a student this year, one of the most well-rounded and motivated students I’ve ever had, who will be excluded from taking gifted math and science courses next year. Her current averages in both those subject areas are in the high 90s. Her GPA last semester was a 4.0. Teachers universally agree that work ethic is the most important predictor of success in challenging classes. And she would do the work. But instead, though she has the desire, the skill set, the support, she doesn’t have the score. This is bad policy in Pittsburgh, but I can assure you that instances like this happen every day across our state. So we have a young female student of color who wants to take challenging math and science courses. … And high stakes testing is literally the only barrier to her enrollment.

“Finally, I’d like to take a massive intellectual leap here and ask you to assume for a second that our tests have some validity in indicating of which students need support so that we can help them. That’s the reason most testing advocates cite. We need consistent data so we can support students who need it. But ultimately what happens in many schools is that administrators and teachers create lists of “bubble students.” These are students who are close to passing the Big Tests. And then teachers work with them individually to help them pass the test. Perfect, right?

“But what’s really happening is that the students with the most needs are passed over—they’re not close enough to pass the tests, so they are neglected, perpetuating what has probably been the whole of their educational experience. You’re a failure; you’re not worth our time. Then we wonder why we have such disparity in opportunities, a lack of student or family buy-in, negative attention seeking behaviors (for which we then suspend students).”

Mr. Parker concluded by saying, “high stakes testing has massive negative implications for real students and very few, if any positive outcomes. We must be the voice for our own kids, for our students, and for our schools. What I have described this morning is real life for them. And it is up to us to stand for them and for their future.”

Yinzercation steering committee member and Steel Valley teacher explains why high-stakes-tests do not provide valid information to teachers and why his daughter won't be taking them.

Yinzercation steering committee member and Steel Valley teacher explains why high-stakes-tests do not provide valid information to teachers and why his daughter won’t be taking them.

Last but not least, Mr. Steve Singer, a teacher from Steel Valley and Yinzercation steering committee member, took the floor and shared his recent experience opting his daughter out of testing. His blog piece entitled, “Not My Daughter – One Dad’s Journey to Protect His Little Girl from Toxic Testing,” has gone viral and been shared over 10,000 times in just the past few days. I highly encourage you to read the entire piece, but here’s an excerpt to get you started [Gadfly On The Wall, 3-20-15]:

I’ll admit it – I was scared.

I’m a nationally board certified teacher with a masters degree in education. I’ve taught public school for over a dozen years. But I’ve only been a daddy for half that time.

Would making this call get my little girl in trouble?

I didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t want my daughter to suffer because her old man is making a fuss. I didn’t want her teachers and principal giving her a hard time because of something I did.

But I couldn’t deny what I know.

Standardized testing is destroying public education. It’s stressing kids out by demanding they perform at levels they aren’t developmentally ready to reach. And its using these false measures of proficiency to “prove” how bad public schools are so they can be replaced by for-profit charters that will reduce the quality of kids’ educations to generate profits.

No. There was no doubt about it. I had to make this phone call.

I used my most professional voice on the line with the principal.

“Hi, Mr. Smith. This is Steven Singer. I’m Amy’s father. I know she’s just in kindergarten but it’s come to my attention she’s taking standardized tests, and I’d like to opt her out.”

Before my little girl started school, I hadn’t even realized there were standardized tests in kindergarten. She takes both the DIBELS and the GRADE test. … When taking the DIBELS, the teacher meets with a student one-on-one while the child reads aloud and is timed with a stopwatch. Some of the words the child is asked to read make sense. Some are just nonsense words. The test is graded by how many words the child pronounces correctly in a given time period.

“My concern is that the test doesn’t assess comprehension,” I said. “It rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading.

“Moreover, there is a political side to the test since it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch. Cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job.

“Finally, focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help my daughter become a better reader.” …

Again, be sure to read Mr. Singer’s entire piece to get the full impact of his powerful message. But you get the point: our Test-In presenters all agree that there are major problems with high-stakes-testing. They are being over-used and mis-used. They are not valid measures of student learning. They are costing a fortune at a time when schools are struggling for basic resources. They label students and teachers as failures. They prevent students from accessing programs and opportunities and even prevent students from graduating. They encourage schools to focus on “bubble students” just below the mark, and ignore the most struggling students at the bottom.

IMG_6831 IMG_6841

To this sad list, parents added dozens more examples of the impact of high-stakes-testing that they have seen on students and schools. In small group discussions, they recorded these consequences on sticky notes, which we will share in a future post. For now, your assignment is to listen to these educators: re-read this crib sheet and bone up for the test!

Sharpen Your Pencils

Get out your bubble sheet and sharpen your pencil. It’s your turn to take the test! Join us this Saturday to see what the PSSA and Keystone exams look like, take sample questions, talk to teachers, and discuss the impact of high-stakes-testing on students and our schools. It’s like an old-fashioned teach-in, only it’s a “Test-In.” Get it?

We’ll be learning from some great teachers and educators, including Dr. Greg Taranto. He was Pennsylvania’s 2012 Middle School Principal of the Year and is currently serving on Governor Wolf’s education transition team. Other speakers include Steel Valley teacher (and Yinzercation steering committee member), Steve Singer, and Pittsburgh Allderdice teacher, Jon Parker. Please RSVP on our Facebook event page, and then invite your networks.

The Test-In runs from 11:30AM – 1:30PM in the University Center at Carnegie Mellon. Free parking in the garage at Forbes & Beeler. Snacks provided! Co-sponsored by the Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition and Carnegie Mellon’s Center for the Arts in Society.


Come to the Test-In to learn why the Keystone exams pose a particular concern for civil rights, as they threaten to fail enormous numbers of poor students and students of color, preventing them from graduating. In Philadelphia last year, pass rates at some of the poorest schools were in the “single digits and low double-digits for all three subjects – Algebra I, Literature, and Biology. … Pass rates were low, even in some highly selective schools.” [The Notebook, 11-14-14]

The Pennsylvania NAACP has demanded the removal of the Keystones as graduation requirements, calling the use of these high-stakes-tests a “present day form of Eugenics.” In a letter to the PA Department of Education, they wrote, “Attaching the Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. … Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised of potentially 60 percent of our young citizens.” [Pittsburgh Courier, 10-24-13] The letter uses strong language to object to the impact of high-stakes-testing on our most vulnerable children, including:

“human rights violation…unspeakable horror…holocaust on our youth and society…life-long trauma… a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania…depraved indifference…deficient in a moral sense of concern…lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk…LYNCHING OUR OWN YOUNG.” [NAACP letter to PDE, 9-3-13]

Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Tobash, a Republican from Dauphin County, is listening. He recently introduced a bill to repeal the Keystone graduation requirement and to stop the development of seven more subject-specific exams, required under current state law. Rep. Tobash explained, “The children of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, they need to learn, they need to be assessed, but when we’ve gone so far that we end up handcuffing our educational system with really an overwhelming amount of standardized assessment, we need to stop and put the brakes on here, take a look at it.” [Newsworks, 1-28-15]

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Democrat from Chester County, agrees. He has introduced similar legislation in the past, which has not gotten out of committee, but is doing it again this year. Citing severe budget issues for many impoverished school districts, Sen. Dinniman said, “the use of the Keystone Exams as graduate requirements must be stopped before they exacerbate an already dire situation.” He noted, “It’s clear to me that there are two systems of public education in Pennsylvania: separate and unequal … Until we resolve that discrepancy, how can we, in good conscience, stamp ‘failure’ on the backs of kids who lack the teachers, resources and classes to pass such standardized tests? To continue down this path without addressing such basic issues is beyond the pale. It’s downright shameful.” [Senator Dinniman, 1-16-15]

When students fail the Keystone exams twice in a row, they are required to do a “Project Based Assessment” (PBA). But these projects are equally troubling. The Superintendent of the Bethlehem Area school district explained last week that the PBAs are a “disaster waiting to happen.” He said, “We can’t figure it out yet how we’re going to make this work to the benefit of our students. … We’re really concerned. This is a major, major issue for high schools across the commonwealth.” [LehighValleyLive, 3-10-15] School officials have no way to administer the assessments without having students lose electives or other class time. And no one seems to know how teachers will be able to supervise the completion of all those projects. Where is that time coming from and how many other students will have their learning disrupted as a result?

Clearly we need to change state legislation and support the crucial efforts of Rep. Tobash and Sen. Dinniman. In addition, parents are using other strategies to combat high-stakes-testing, including refusing to allow their children to take the exams. At Feltonville middle school in Philadelphia this year, over 100 students will not be taking the PSSAs when they start in April. Many of those students are English Language Learners (ELL) who are not performing at grade level, yet Pennsylvania requires all ELL students – as well as special education students – to be evaluated at grade level on the high-stakes-tests. And when students do not score well on these tests, their school can be threatened with closure or turned over to a charter school operator. [The Notebook, 3-11-15]

We will talk more about these high-stakes impacts on kids and schools at the Test-In on Saturday. We will also generate strategies together to combat high-stakes-testing. Please come be a part of this critical community conversation. Get those pencils sharpened!

Talking about Testing

The movement against high-stakes-testing has mushroomed this year. Students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, and even legislators across the country are talking about the overuse and misuse of testing. A glimpse of what they are saying in a moment, but first: here’s your chance to do some of the talking! Please hold these dates for two important events next week:

  1. Wednesday, March 18th, 6-8PM at Sci-Tech: The Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh community meeting will focus on school funding issues, including a session led by Yinzercation steering committee member, Kathy Newman, on the financial impact of high-stakes-testing. Come learn about these un-funded mandates, how they are hurting our schools, what they are costing state tax payers, and discuss what we can do about it. Dinner at 5:30pm and free childcare available.
  2. Saturday, March 21st, 11:30AM-1:30PM at Carnegie Mellon, University Center: Yinzercation is hosting a “Test In” for the community to come see the tests our kids are taking and answer sample questions. The event will feature Dr. Greg Taranto (a PA middle school principal of the year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team!) speaking about the impact of high-stakes-testing on students. You might remember his op-ed piece that went viral last year. We will also hear from several teachers, including Yinzercation steering committee member Steve Singer. Keep your eyes peeled for more information.

Seriously, you don’t want to miss these opportunities to be a part of the conversation. Now, want to hear what some other folks are saying?

Start with three courageous principals from Canon-McMillan School District, right here outside of Pittsburgh, who recently published an article publicly explaining why evaluating teachers using high-stakes-testing is hurting students and schools. Critiquing the use of Value Added Measurement (VAM) statistical models, Dr. Greg Taranto, Mr. Kenneth Schrag, and Dr. Mark Abbondanza said, “school leaders must take action by ‘pulling the curtain’ back on VAMs to understand the detrimental impact they can have on their educational community. As school leaders, we cannot let the effectiveness of our teachers and the culture of our schools be determined by a ‘magical’ mathematical formula that does not calculate humanity in the equation!” Read the whole article for an excellent rundown on the research literature warning against the use of VAM for teacher evaluation. [PA Administrator, Feb. 2015]

A brand new report released yesterday supports their conclusion. A detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet, “standardized tests measure just part of the expectations we hold for students and schools.” Even more problematically, “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors—raising questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” [Research for Action, March 2015 report]

In other words, SPP scores measure student poverty. Period. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, miserably fails to do so and instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report concludes, “our analyses suggest that Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profiles could be interpreted as a complex profile of student poverty.” That’s right: teachers and schools being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve. And rather than send resources to support those families, these systems punish schools and teachers, threatening them with closure, firing, and more disruptive “reforms.”

Over 2,000 education researchers sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress last month saying the same thing. Citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new Policy Memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.” [NEPC, “Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time to Move Beyond Test-Focused Policies,” Feb. 2015]

OK, so we have local principals, Pennsylvania policy analysts, and national education researchers all pointing to the evidence that high-stakes-testing is not working. What about those most affected: the students? They’re not being quiet either.

Last week, thousands of students in New Jersey refused to take the new high-stakes-tests in that state. In one district alone, a full 30% of the students refused to take the PARCC test, which is being used by several states to align with the new Common Core standards. [WABC-TV7, 3-2-15] One student who did take the test, wrote about the experience in a widely shared piece for the Washington Post: 10th grader Marina Ford explained how much class time she has lost to test-prep, how confusing and error-riddled the tests are, even for honors students like herself, and how these high-stakes-accountability-tests have prevented her from getting ready for the ones that really matter to her, such as the AP exams. [Washington Post, 3-7-15]

And it’s not just in New Jersey. Last year, over 60,000 students refused to take similar tests in New York, and the numbers are expected to be even larger this year when students in that state are scheduled to begin testing next month. [New York State Allies for Public Education] In New Mexico last week, thousands of students refused to take the tests and many hundreds protested by walking out of their high schools. [Daily Caller, 3-2-15] Similarly, last fall over 5,000 seniors in Colorado refused new state tests and hundreds participated in mass walk-outs. [Colorado Public Radio, 11-14-14] I could go on and on.

There are more teachers and principals speaking out and putting their jobs on the line, too. In a piece shared over 10,000 times on Facebook in the past few days, one teacher wrote an open letter to her students called, “I am Sorry for What I am About To Do To You.” Carol Burris, a highly regarded educator who was New York state’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year, is now calling on parents to refuse testing. A few weeks ago she wrote:

“It has become increasingly clear that Congress does not have the will to move away from annual high-stakes testing. The bizarre notion that subjecting 9-year-olds to hours of high-stakes tests is a “civil right,” is embedded in the thinking of both parties. Conservatives no longer believe in the local, democratic control of our schools. Progressives refuse to address the effects of poverty, segregation and the destruction of the middle class on student learning. The unimaginative strategy to improve achievement is to make standardized tests longer and harder. …

“The only remedy left to parents is to refuse to have their children take the tests. Testing is the rock on which the policies that are destroying our local public schools are built. If our politicians do not have the courage to reverse high-stakes testing, then those who care must step in.

“I am a rule follower by nature. … But there comes a time when rules must be broken — when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply. That time is now. The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed. The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes. The time to Opt Out is now.” [Washington Post, 2-19-15]

While test refusal is one of several strategies to combat high-stakes-testing – and we will be talking about those at our events next week – it is clearly growing across the country, and with good reason. I leave you here with the words of New Jersey parents who made this powerful video, and look forward to continuing the conversation on March 18th and March 21st.

The Words We Have Waited For

We have waited four long years to hear these words. There’s no better way to start this morning than to quote Gov. Wolf himself, who put public education at the very top of his budget speech yesterday:

Let’s start with schools.
Our commitment to education is historic.
We are starting with education because, in many ways, education is at the core of everything else that we want to achieve. …
A great public education system will help Pennsylvania attract new businesses, retain talent, and grow the middle class. …
Over the past four years, Pennsylvania took a step in the wrong direction by trying to balance our state budget on the backs of our schools.
It left us with 25,000 educators out of work.
It forced 75 percent of school districts to cut academic programs.
It forced 70 percent of our school districts to increase class sizes.
It left 56 percent of Pennsylvania students with no access to a full-time librarian.
And it forced too many schools to cut art and band to pay for reading and math.
My fellow Pennsylvanians: this is not a formula for success.
We can do a lot better.
It’s just this simple: our state is never going to get stronger as long as we make our schools weaker.
And that is why the very first thing my budget does is restore the $1 billion in cuts to public education that occurred under the previous administration. [Gov. Wolf’s 2015-16 Budget Speech]

I think I hear angels singing. Or maybe that’s choirs of public school children excited to get their music programs back. With that sweet soundtrack in mind, here are the education highlights from the governor’s proposed budget (summaries from EducationVoters PA and the Education Leadership and Policy Center):

  • INCREASE of $400 million for Basic Education Subsidy, the largest in Pennsylvania history according to EdVoters (up 6.98%). This combined line item includes what was for 2014-15 separate line items for Basic Subsidy, Accountability Block Grant, and Ready to Learn Block Grant.
  • INCREASE of $100 million for Special Education (up 9.55%).
  • INCREASE of $120 million for Early Education – Pre-K Counts and Supplemental Head Start (up 87.93%). This will increase the number of children in Pre-K Counts and state-funded Head Start Supplemental Assistance programs by 75% or more than 14,000 children!
  • INCREASE of $23 million for Career and Technical Education (up 37.10%).
  • INCREASE of $4.6 million for Adult and Family Literacy (up 38.10%).
  • INCREASE of $15 million for Community Colleges (up 6.98%).
  • INCREASE of $45.302 million to the State System of Higher Education (up 10.98% increase).
  • INCREASE of $82.138 million to State-Related Universities (up 15.76%). Locally, this would include restoring $14.9 million to the University of Pittsburgh.
  • INCREASE of $2 million for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) grants to arts organizations (up 23.3%).
  • $9 million for Dual Enrollment requested from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA)
  • An estimated $160 million in savings to school districts from Cyber Charter Reform, including a proposed 10% in charter reimbursement and a flat rate for cyber-charter schools.
  • Governor Wolf also called for a new education funding formula by June 30th (to start in the 2016-17 school year).

What do all these numbers mean for local school districts? Pittsburgh would see an increase of 8.06% with this budget, restoring $14.9 million in combined Basic Education Funding and Special Education Funding to our schools. (See PA Dept of Ed spreadsheet for all school districts.)

As I told the Post-Gazette, this is what parents have been waiting for. This budget puts us on track to get us back to where we were before the education cuts four years ago. [Post-Gazette, 3-4-15] It’s not the end-all, be-all … but it sure is sweet music to our ears. Gov. Wolf even made public education the headline of his widely shared budget info-graphic (below). Now the legislature needs to get to work with our new governor and make it happen!


More on School Push-Out

Over 80 people crowded into the Kingsley Center on Saturday morning to talk about school push-out! Organized by Pam Harbin (a Yinzercation steering committee member) and hosted by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, the Education Law Center, and the Center for Third World Organizing, the event also featured state Rep. Ed Gainey and University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work professors Jeff Shook and Sara Goodkind (another steering committee member).

WESA-FM covered the event, quoting Dr. Shook explaining research that demonstrates the danger of placing disciplinary labels on young children: “This study finds that there’s an internalization of this label that’s related to subsequent behavior, but more importantly it also finds that authority figures, school figures and other authority figures, they’re more apt to apply that label once it’s initially applied.” He also indicated that suspension does not necessarily correct student behavior, while sending young people into the juvenile court system leads to significant negative outcomes.

Nancy Potter, a lawyer with the Education Law Center, told the group that research confirms, “high levels of suspension and zero tolerance policies not only hurt the student disciplined but hurts all students who feel they aren’t in a safe and nurturing environment.” She led one of the breakout sessions that discussed recommended changes to Pittsburgh’s student code of conduct. [WESA, 3-1-15]

Want to help keep the work going? Join us this Wednesday at the Carnegie Library in East Liberty at 4:30PM to make the recommendations from the meeting into a reality. The school push-out committee will be a working group focused on making and promoting the solutions to end school push-out in our schools! Light snacks will be provided. More information and RSVP here.

Gov. Wolf Listens to Pittsburgh Students

Oh those kids! Remember the amazing Pittsburgh CAPA students who testified at the school board hearing in December about arts education? [“All They Want for Christmas … Is Art Education”] Not only did the Washington Post pick up their story, but now Governor Wolf is listening to them, too.

Here’s a report from Yinzercation steering committee member, Kathy Newman, who helped to organize the student testimony: On Thursday, February 26th five sleepy but excited CAPA students waited in the chilly dawn to get on the Education Justice bus to Harrisburg. United with a group of activists from One Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the PA Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), Action United, Yinzercation, SEIU and 32BJ, they were ready to bring a message about education funding and sustainable community schools to the state capital.

This CAPA group got its start when Margaret (Meggie) Booth, president of her National Arts Honor Society, and fellow CAPA student William Grim, decided that one of their projects this year would be using art to advocate for more state funding. They made over 100 watercolor postcards, and asked their classmates to write on the other side of the postcard about why the arts are important. For the action on Thursday the CAPA students fashioned these postcards into a festive mobile banner, and presented it to our new Governor, who seemed thrilled with their efforts – and tweeted it out under his own name!

Gov.Wolf Gives Pgh Students Thumbs Up!

On the bus back to Pittsburgh Margaret and Will reflected on their day in Harrisburg.

Meggie Booth – Advocate & Speaker:

As soon as we entered the rotunda of the capitol building, I was amazed by the breathtaking ornate beauty. An elegant marble staircase sat in the middle with gold, silver and glass twisting through every inch of the room. Fluid murals ascended towards the ceiling, directing our eyes upwards. And then, there was the most beautiful sight of them all. The beauty of ordinary faces glistened. The faces of workers, parents, students, constituents. Our voices blended together to form a harmony that demanded an effort to build healthier communities. Our beauty decorated the capital, emulating the words “Wise And Just,” scripted on the ceiling.

Fellow CAPA students and I were there to represent the arts. We wanted to emphasize the importance of arts when talking about a quality education. I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to speak during the rally. This opportunity was both frightening and empowering. The crowd was full of optimism as energy spilled from their smiles. People shouted and shook their heads in agreement. We chanted “Enough is enough,” “When we fight, we win,” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

For me, the most powerful thing about this rally was how it truly encapsulated the power of the people, not just experienced lobbyists and organizers. This rally spoke to the fact that problems in the world cannot be addressed without conversations and collaboration with those most directly affected. Today, it was the people who raised their voices. Today, the people were heard.

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Pittsburgh CAPA students, left to right: William Grimm, Andrew Lowery, Sarah Hudson, Meggie Booth, and Maya Bingham. [Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Pittsburgh CAPA students, left to right: William Grimm, Andrew Lowery, Sarah Hudson, Meggie Booth, and Maya Bingham. [Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Will Grimm – Advocate & Constituent:

The people were heard by representatives, politicians, and perhaps most importantly, Governor Tom Wolf himself. Meggie and I, along with other CAPA students, had each member of the student body state the importance of the arts in schools on a postcard. These cards were first presented to the Pittsburgh Public School Board in early December and then again today in Harrisburg.

The cards, each of which has a hand painted design, were strung in groups of ten and attached to two poles. This was an airy yet influential visual that shared student voices. We had originally planned to display this with the other visuals at the rally but arrived to the news that it would be gifted directly to the Governor.

The CAPA group, along with organizers from OnePittsburgh, headed to the official chambers anticipating the Governor. We were instead greeted with his advisors who assured us that it would go to the right place. To our surprise, it did. A few hours later, Tom Wolf shared an image of himself with our project, thanking us for sharing our voices. Our group hooted and hollered—we had been heard.

Having political leaders that listen to their people is the first step in creating change. When everyone—the students, teachers, workers, organizers, parents—stood together, it was evident we are following this path. Citizens are rising and this generation is acting for the benefit of the next. Being in a room packed with fellow activists was an honestly moving experience. We united as one and as a result, the students of CAPA were heard. Our opinions were shared, our work was validated, and our vision unmasked.


Thank you, Will, Andrew, Sarah, Meggie, and Maya! Finally, I leave you with more pictures from Yinzercation steering committee member Pam Harbin, who went to Harrisburg with the students, to fight for fair and adequate education funding for all our schools. Thank you, Pam!

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Look at that Great Public Schools Pittsburgh banner!

Look at that Great Public Schools Pittsburgh banner!


Our Amicus Brief in the State Funding Lawsuit

Did you know that there is a current lawsuit against the state to fund our schools? The Education Law Center (ELC) and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia brought the suit last fall on behalf of six school districts, seven parents, and two statewide associations accusing the state of failing to uphold Pennsylvania’s constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. The state is arguing that the case should be thrown out and there is a key court date coming up on March 11th.

Yinzercation has joined with other grassroots organizations to submit an amicus (meaning “friend of the court”) brief demonstrating the reasons this case ought to move forward. I will include the full Statement of Harm we were asked to file in support of the brief below. (Click here for the full amicus brief, which was delivered on Tuesday.) For more information about the lawsuit, including an easy-to-read FAQ, visit the Pennsylvania School Funding Litigation website.

If you would like to attend the oral arguments in the case, you are invited to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg (601 Commonwealth Avenue, Courtroom 5001) on Wednesday, March 11th at 9:30AM. As the ELC explains, “this is a historic case challenging the legislature’s failure to adequately support and maintain Pennsylvania’s public school system.” The suit “asks the Court to ensure that all students — including those living in low-wealth districts — have the basic resources they need to meet state academic standards. We ask the court to hear this case and enforce the rights of our children to a “thorough and efficient” system of public education as guaranteed to them by our state constitution.” If you plan to attend or have questions, please contact Spencer Malloy at

Here is the information Yinzercation submitted to support the arguments in this important case:

Statement of Harm

Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom five of all states in the proportion of funding provided by the state to public schools. This under-funding, combined with four years of de-funding in the 2011-2015 fiscal budgets, has pushed responsibility for supporting public education down on local municipalities, which have been forced to cut programs and staff. In its most recent survey of the state’s 500 school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) found that:[i]

  • 90% of school districts have cut staff, and more than 40% of districts have already, or plan to, cut more teachers.
  • 64% of districts have increased class size since the historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest.
  • Over half the districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. The most frequently cited cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%).
  • Students will lose extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee, in over a third of the districts.
  • The vast majority of school districts report that their costs are going up because of un-funded state mandates (such as the administration of high-stakes testing).
  • In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenues (property taxes) to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over 75% of school districts will increase property taxes next year (that’s more than any in the past five years).

The over-reliance on local resources such as property taxes to support education exacerbates inequity in school funding as poor districts struggle to meet basic needs. In addition, because the state’s budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts, Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children have been harmed the most. For example, class sizes have increased more in high poverty districts while reading and math scores have declined the most for students living in poverty.[ii]


[Source: PSEA analysis, 8-25-14]

Yinzercation’s analysis of data for Allegheny County supports the finding that on a per-student basis, the poorest school districts have been impacted the most by state budget cuts. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a list of nine other high-poverty school districts. Race is a crucial factor, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Those districts harmed the least by state budgets cuts in the county include those in the wealthiest suburban areas, including Upper St. Clair, which actually gained $4 on a per-student basis during this time period.



In order to deal with the under-funding of their schools, poor districts have been forced to slash line items directly affecting students and their classrooms. For example, in 2012, Pittsburgh furloughed 285 teachers and educators. To put this in context, in total between 2008 and 2013, Pittsburgh students lost:

  • 17 percent of their teachers,
  • 45 percent of their librarians,
  • 35 percent of their paraprofessionals and support staff, and
  • 20 percent of their guidance counselors and psychological personnel.[iii]

Similarly, this school year, Wilkinsburg – a predominantly low-income, African-American school district adjacent to Pittsburgh – eliminated 18 teachers, amounting to a full 14% of its faculty. This was in addition to the 13 teachers and staff members who were furloughed last year.[iv]

Students in these districts are some of the poorest in the county, yet have lost critical education programs. Some examples illustrate the actual impact on kids:

  • Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, a Title I school with one of the largest achievement gaps in the city, eliminated its after school and Saturday tutoring program.
  • Some classes grew to 39 or more students.
  • This school also cut its middle level choral program and baseball team, and delayed instruction for instrumental students at the elementary level.
  • Pittsburgh Manchester, a Title I school with 94% students of color, has a brand new library built by the community but students cannot check out books because there is no regular librarian.
  • Parents and teachers at Pittsburgh Linden K-5 provide paper for photocopies and other basic supplies.
  • Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, a magnet school for creative and performing arts, eliminated sculpture classes for visual art students and solo lessons for instrumental students (a cornerstone of instruction in those fields).
  • There aren’t enough math textbooks for the students at Pittsburgh Allderdice high school.
  • The historic marching band at Pittsburgh Westinghouse high school was not able to purchase drumsticks or replace 15-year-old uniforms.
  • The district eliminated its Parent Engagement Specialists who worked with the most marginalized students and their families: this position had been especially effective at schools serving children bussed from distant communities (the result of a long pattern of school closures in poor neighborhoods and communities of color).
  • In 2014, Pittsburgh announced plans to cut additional world language classes, with schools eliminating language offerings entirely or seriously reducing courses.
  • The graphic on the following page offers additional impact statements from parents, students, teachers, and community members about the effect of cuts in Pittsburgh’s schools due to inadequate state funding.[v]

Inadequate state funding for school districts also leads to inequities within poorer districts, as some individual schools have access to community resources while others do not. For instance, one school on Pittsburgh’s East End has an active parent organization that annually raises over $60,000 to support educational field trips, student activities, classroom technology, and basic supplies – items that wealthier school districts are able to provide without relying on volunteer donations. Yet parents at other city schools struggle to raise similar donations leading to wide variation in the availability of crucial educational programs and enrichment opportunities for students within the same district. Adequate and equitable state funding for public education is crucial to address such inequities within and between school districts and to eliminate the harmful impacts on our most vulnerable children.


[i] PASA-PASBO report, “Continued Cuts: The Fourth Annual Report on School District Budgets,” June 2014. []

[ii] PSEA report, “Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence,” August 2014. []

[iii] Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, “Financial Statements, Final Budget,” August 2013.

[iv] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 5, 2014. []

[v] Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report, “Creating a District of Last Resort,” October 2013. []