Sunshine and Happiness

The end of the school year is almost here and all we want to think about is sunshine and happy things. Fortunately, there is much good news to report! So in the spirit of summer vacation and all things wonderful, here is our top six list of public education goodness:

Good Stuff #1: Election Results!

I am still on a high from the primary election last week. As our very own Kathy Newman wrote on Diane Ravitch’s national blog, Pittsburgh voters:

“delivered a resounding message that they support the broad platform of education justice for the Pittsburgh Public schools. This platform includes: Community Schools—schools which provide wrap-around, nutrition and psychological services to needy children during the school day and beyond, restorative justice rather than discipline and punish, more resources for nurses, librarians and counselors, a push back against over-testing, and a district budget that is determined by what students need to succeed rather than austerity, closing schools, and right-sizing. … Each of the four school board candidates who ran on this platform won the Democratic primary nomination, and they are all but assured to win in the fall, and to begin serving on the school board in late 2015.”

The winning candidates are the District 2 incumbent, Regina Holley, a former Pittsburgh principal and strong advocate for our students and schools. I have great respect for Dr. Holley and it has been an honor working with and getting to know her these past few years. In the hotly contested District 4 race, Lynda Wrenn won in a landslide victory, demonstrating the power of grassroots coalition building, with parents, teachers, and community members providing an army of “boots on the ground” to get out the word. Ms. Wrenn is the mother of two PPS graduates and two current students, has served as a PTO president, worked with the district on numerous task forces, has a master’s in teaching from Chatham, and is deeply involved in the community.

In District 6 the city gains a new champion for education justice with Moira Kaleida, a community leader who is active with Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh and mother of two young children just starting in the public schools. District 8 also endorsed a candidate running on a strong equity platform: Kevin Carter, the founder and CEO of the Adonai Center for Black Males, a nonprofit that helps young men transition from high school to college or trade school, and from higher education to the workplace. In debates this spring and in public statements and personal conversations, I’ve been very impressed with both Ms. Kaleida’s and Mr. Carter’s understanding of the issues facing public education.

These four candidates will join four other school board members elected in 2013 who were also backed by the education justice movement. That makes Pittsburgh’s board a rarity among large U.S. cities: democratically elected and supportive of evidence-backed policies to make all our schools the places all of our children deserve.

A final note about the elections: congratulations to our colleague Helen Gym, who won a huge primary victory for Philadelphia City Council running on a public education platform! This is absolutely amazing news for Philly and for all of us in Pennsylvania.

Good Stuff #2: Testing Resistance!

Mary King made big waves here and nationally when she refused to give high-stakes-tests to her students this spring. [Post-Gazette, 5-23-15] Ms. King teaches English language learners at Pittsburgh Colfax and decided that she had to take a stand as a conscientious objector after witnessing the harm done to her students. [See our “Brave Teachers Speak Out About Testing”] The Post-Gazette article about her was the #1 most shared story in last Saturday’s paper, and was also hilariously featured in Gary Rotstein’s Morning File on Monday. [Post-Gazette, 5-25-15] Diane Ravitch even named Mary King to her national honor roll!

As Pittsburgh teacher Kipp Dawson points out in a letter to the editor today, Mary King is in good company (despite the paper’s characterization of her taking a “lone stand”):

“Indeed, Mary King’s action in refusing to administer the state tests to her ESL students is unique, courageous and pioneering. However, far from standing alone, she is part of a growing movement of parents, teachers and students who are standing up against the egregious testing mania which is part of the current attacks on public schools. As a middle-school teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, it is my experience that it would be hard to find a teacher who does not have similar stories about how the testing frenzy has hurt individual students, let alone how it has been a central part of the destruction of real teaching and learning in our schools.

“Just last week Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, sent a letter to parents in which he says, among other things, “… we are asking our students to do something that’s entirely unfair: To spend weeks and weeks filling in bubbles, taking standardized tests and having their entire educational ambition directed toward passing them. This is not what public education was intended to do, nor should do. … I believe in very high standards for our students. I believe in accountability. I do believe that tests can be a good thing. But not the way we are being forced, by the government, to give them.”

“Many of us would welcome such leadership from Pittsburgh Public Schools, but we are not waiting for it. Saluting Mary King, and working alongside her, many of us teachers, parents and students keep working to help people stand up against the testing mania, along with all of the other undermining that the “reformers” are attempting to do to our public schools.” [Post-Gazette, 5-29-15]

Indeed, the movement against the overuse and misuse of high-stakes-testing is growing exponentially here in Southwest Pennsylvania. As one simple measure of interest in this issue, my piece last month on “The Religious Reasons My Kids Won’t Be Taking the Test” has become our second most read post of all time; was shared by readers from this blog over 2,000 times; reached over 26,000 people from our Facebook page; and was re-published by the Washington Post and AlterNet.org.

Good Stuff #3: Listen to Teachers!

If Mary King’s courageous stand against high-stakes-testing tells us anything it’s that we should be listening to teachers. Scholastic recently surveyed all of the State Teacher of the Year winners. These top educators have been recognized by each state as the very best in the nation, and not surprisingly, they tend to agree on how we should be approaching education reform: the report noted, “Teachers see issues like poverty, family stress and other out-of-school barriers to learning greatly affecting student academic success, and they prioritize things like anti-poverty initiatives, early learning and other community supports and services for funding.”

Not a mention in here of testing students more, or more “rigor,” or “standards,” or “firing bad teachers.” Nope. Listen to their recommendations about what actually works for students: “If these teachers could choose where to focus education funding in order to have the highest impact on student learning, their top priorities would be: Anti-poverty initiatives, early learning, reducing barriers to learning (access to wrap-around services, healthcare, etc.), and professional development/learning.” [Scholastic 2015 Survey] Sounds like our education justice platform, no?

Good Stuff #4: Governor Wolf!

Oh, this Governor. He wants to put more money into the public education budget! He’s going around the state lobbying for early childhood education rather than more prisons. [Post-Gazette, 5-26-15] He even sent a sharply worded letter to the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which opposes restoring the budget cuts to public schools, accusing business leaders of putting “oil and gas special interests” before the interests of our children. [Post-Gazette, 5-19-15] What is he thinking? Happily, he is doing exactly what we asked him to do when we elected him with a clear mandate to support public education. We still have plenty of work to do with legislators who do not think schools and kids should come first. But what a refreshing change of leadership from the very top. And we did this!

Good Stuff #5: Lobbying to End School Push-Out!

On Tuesday, our coalition Great Public Schools Pittsburgh held a rally before the school board meeting to highlight school push-out. Students of color and students with special education needs are disproportionately impacted by school suspensions and other practices that push kids out of school and, too often, into the prison pipeline. For example, last year African-American students, who comprise 54% of the Pittsburgh student body, received over three-quarters (77%) of the district’s suspensions.

Our very own Pam Harbin has been leading a GPS working group aimed at developing recommendations to address this inequity that has life-long consequences for affected students. This week, we called on the district to commit to the following:

  • Adopt support-­based, district-wide disciplinary policies that move away from exclusionary discipline practices in favor of a comprehensive restorative justice approach.
  • Revise the Student Code of Conduct to divide the levels of infractions for misbehavior into five (5) levels. Out­-of-­school suspensions are not an option for the first two levels and expulsion is only an option for the fifth level. Remove option of permanent expulsion.
  • Further revise the Student Code of Conduct to include a glossary/index that defines every misconduct offense, guidance approach and possible disciplinary responses in student/caregiver friendly language. The Student Code of Conduct must be translated for non­-English speaking families.
  • Place a moratorium on out-­of-­school suspensions/expulsions for our youngest students, preK­5th grade, with nonviolent misconduct.
  • Assign, in every school, at least one full­time counselor or social worker whose primary job is to coordinate appropriate interventions and support for students.
  • Provide PPS police officers and security with the proper and necessary training on topics to meet the varying needs of officers working with youth.
  • Publicly report suspension and expulsion data at monthly School Board Legislative meetings broken down by grade, race, and disability category.

The effort received considerable press coverage from WESA, KDKA Radio and KDKA TV, KQV, WTAE TV, WPXI TV, the Post-Gazette, and the Courier. That’s pretty incredible! Here are some photos from the event:

Post-Gazette, print edition, 5-27-15

Post-Gazette, print edition, 5-27-15

Good Stuff #6: More Equity Work!

I am delighted to announce that starting Monday, I have a new job. I will be the inaugural Director of the new Women’s Institute at Chatham University. I also have a faculty appointment and will continue teaching. I will be leading efforts to focus on gender equity through education, research, and outreach – both on campus and in the larger community. I am thrilled that Chatham is continuing its commitment to gender equity and women’s leadership and am excited to be a part of this crucial work. I don’t know how much time I will have for blogging as I settle into the new position, but will certainly remain engaged in our education justice movement. As feminism has taught us, systems of power and oppression overlap; our fight for justice and equity in public education is intimately connected to the fight against racism, poverty, homophobia, sexism, and gender discrimination. I can’t wait to get to work!

Hurting the Poor

I don’t know how Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, can keep a straight face when he talks to reporters. Again and again he declares that Governor Corbett “has increased state funding for public schools by $1.5 billion” over the past four years. [Post-Gazette, 8-28-14]

Anyone with half a brain or with a school age child can tell you that’s a load of hogwash. Sometimes having school age children makes us parents operate with only half a brain, but we can still tell you that Pennsylvania kids are sitting in larger classes, with fewer of their teachers, and missing critical books, supplies, academic courses, and programs.

Of course, what Mr. Eller means is that Gov. Corbett collapsed a bunch of line items into the Basic Education Funding portion of the budget, so that he could say that this single line item increased. Meanwhile, he decimated overall state funding for public schools. Gov. Corbett also likes to tout the additional dollars he put into pension payments (as required by state law) when he calculates that $1.5 billion figure, but will not account for the fact that he slashed charter school tuition reimbursements for districts, Accountability Block Grants, School Improvement Grants, or other programs such as the Education Assistance and High School Reform programs.

As the following graph clearly illustrates, even allowing for increased state contributions to pension payments, our schools are still not receiving the level of preK-12 funding that they were back in 2008-09! (In this chart the federal stimulus dollars are in yellow and pension dollars in light blue: check out the dark blue columns to see how our schools have been set back more than six years in budget cuts.)

PAbudget_w_pensions

But this is more than a rhetorical debate over which line items to count. Four years into this mess it is now clear that these historic budget cuts have hurt our poorest students the most. A new report out this week analyzes state funding per child and finds that budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts. What’s more, using the state’s own data, the report demonstrates that class sizes increased more in high poverty districts and that reading and math scores declined the most for students living in poverty. [Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence, PSEA August 2014] Look at the disparity in chart form:

Graph-AverageFundingChangePerStudent201011-201415

[Source: PSEA, 8-25-14]

What does that look like here in Southwest Pennsylvania? Just look at the following table of the ten biggest losers in Allegheny County on a per-student basis. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed by budget cuts with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a parade of high-poverty school districts. It’s worth noting the story of race here, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Compare these numbers to Fox Chapel, which has “only” lost $36 per student (no students should be losing money for their education), or Mt. Lebanon ($9), or my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, which has actually gained $4 on a per-student basis.

MostHarmedDistricts

 LeastHarmedDistricts

Perhaps Gov. Corbett should spend more time explaining why his policies are hurting poor kids than trying to convince us that he has increased spending on public education. We parents just aren’t that gullible.

Still Black and White After Brown

A diverse group of parents, students, teachers, community leaders, and elected officials rallied at Freedom Corner in the Hill District yesterday to mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Under a surprisingly scorching sun, one speaker after the next noted that we have yet to see the full promise of that historic Supreme Court case.

Rev. Freeman of the Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock and President of the PA Interfaith Impact Network, talked about the impact of the 1954 Brown decision on his fourth grade classroom in highly segregated Georgia. He reminded the crowd of about 50 that we are part of a much larger movement for equity and educational justice.

The Post-Gazette featured the rally on the front page of the Local section this morning with a big color photograph. [Post-Gazette, 4-14-14] Here are some more photos from the afternoon:

"Remember the Promise"

“Remember the Promise”

Debra Srogi, a Whittier parent, and Irene Habermann, chair of the PIIN Education Task Force

Debra Srogi, a Whittier parent, and Irene Habermann, chair of the PIIN Education Task Force

No More "Gated Communites of Education"

No More “Gated Communities of Education”

"Education Justice NOW"

“Education Justice NOW”

Rev. Freeman talks about racial segregation in Georgia in 1954

Rev. Freeman talks about racial segregation in Georgia in 1954

Perry graduate, Allegheny K-5 parent, and Westinghouse teacher Regina Hutson

Perry graduate, Allegheny K-5 parent, and Westinghouse teacher Regina Hutson

La'Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh speaks about the meaning of equity and justice

La’Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh speaks about the meaning of equity and justice

City Council members Natalia Rudiak (center) and Dan Gilman (right)

City Council members Natalia Rudiak (center) and Dan Gilman (right)

After the rally, groups fanned out to go door-to-door, talking to people about becoming an “education justice voter.” The aim is to encourage folks to get out and vote and to consider candidates on the basis of their support for public schools. Here’s a video from the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia, documenting the kick off of a similar education-voter drive there:

 

Also this week, the National School Board Association released this video featuring the legacy of the Brown decision in Pittsburgh. The filmmakers visited Pittsburgh Milliones/U.Prep and interviewed me, Dr. Lane, and others about persistent racial segregation in our city:

 

And another release this week in recognition of the Brown anniversary: the national Journey for Justice alliance just published, “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage.” (Journey for Justice is a national coalition of 36 grassroots groups working for education justice. The local partner here is Action United.) This devastating report is heavily documented and also features the results of a “listening tour” conducted in 13 cities earlier this year, including Pittsburgh. It’s worth a close read as we remember the disproportionate impact budget cuts, school closures, and educational policies continue to have on communities of color.

The Unfulfilled Promise of Brown

Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision desegregating schools. To be sure, much has changed since 1954 here in Pittsburgh and across the country. The Steel City now regularly tops the list of “best” cities to live in, raise a family, buy a house, and see public art. We have the best views, most dramatic entry to the city, and even the best tree canopy! [Post-Gazette, 4-28-14] But “best” for whom?

Despite our many successes, Pittsburgh remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States with trenchant social, economic, health, and educational disparities. Consider this:

  • Pittsburgh has the third-highest poverty rate among working-age (18-64) African Americans in the country (31% in 2011). [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • Nearly half (45%) of black children under the age of 18 live in poverty; and a whopping 53% of black children under the age of 5 live in poverty. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • Compared to other cities, “African-American babies are much more likely to die here.” Pittsburgh has the largest disparity in infant deaths in the nation: the infant mortality rate for African-American babies (14.5 per 1000) is twice that for white babies (5.7), and 25% higher than the national average (11.6). [Post-Gazette, 7-7-13]
  • Pittsburgh has the highest black teen pregnancy rate in the country. [Post-Gazette, 7-7-13]
  • One recent study found that 12.1% of Allegheny County students have asthma and the black asthma rate is especially high: overall “17 percent of blacks in the county had asthma, while 9 percent of whites had the disease.” [Post-Gazette, 1-21-14]
  • Compared to all major metropolitan areas, African Americans here have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country (19% in 2011), and it’s been this way for years. That’s 1 out of every 5 African Americans who wants to work and can’t find a job, and 2.6 times the unemployment rate for whites. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • African Americans in Pittsburgh earn significantly less than their white counterparts: “In 2011, the average African-American man with a full-time job earned $39,132 in the Pittsburgh region,” which was more than 40% less than white men. Black women earned even less (an average of $37,138). And these numbers are worse than other African-American workers nationally. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • African Americans are stuck in low-paying occupations: “Only 23 percent of African-Americans in Pittsburgh work in management, business, science and arts occupations, the second-lowest percentage among the top 40 regions, whereas 34 percent work in service occupations, the highest percentage among major regions.” [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]
  • Pittsburgh has become the least diverse city in the country: only 12% of the population is nonwhite, while the average among major metropolitan areas is 32%, and the country as a whole is 24% – still twice as high as Pittsburgh. [Post-Gazette, 5-5-13]

These statistics are reflected in outcomes for Pittsburgh students, with a “racial gap” in graduation rates, attendance rates, disciplinary action rates (that feed the school-to-prison pipeline), and test scores. Black students here are disproportionately in schools with the fewest resources and live in communities that have been impacted the most by multiple waves of school closures. In short, Pittsburgh has yet to fulfill the promise of the historic Brown decision as this “racial gap” illustrates a persistent opportunity gap.

That is why Yinzercation is co-sponsoring a rally on Tuesday, May 13th, at 4PM at Freedom Corner in the Hill District. As the flyer below states, “We are determined to reclaim the promise of a just nation that lives by the principles articulated in the Brown v. Board decision: equity in public decision-making, and policies that advance the hopes and dreams of all Americans, without regard to their social or economic status.” Please bring the kids over after school – we will have food and snacks, thanks to our 10 national sponsors, and 10 local sponsors, including the coalition partners of Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-Pep), the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, and the Women’s Walk for Peace Committee.

Brown v. Board of Education was a historic decision. Come be a part of more history in the making.

Brown.v.BoardFlyer

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.

PghStrugglingStudentAssocBrunch

Eight Reasons Why Scoring Schools Doesn’t Work

Pennsylvania has just released its new School Performance Profiles, or SPP. As I’ve said before, that acronym probably ought to stand for Stupid Public Policy. These profiles are essentially scores assigned to schools based on the results of student testing and replace the previous Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) rankings. [See “From AYP to SPP”] It’s very trendy right now among corporate-style reformers to grade schools like this. But the whole idea should receive an “F” and here’s why:

1.  The stakes are too high. Assigning scores to schools adds the “high stakes” to high-stakes-testing. When student test data is being used to determine resource allocation and to shape public perceptions of schools, the system creates a perverse incentive for adults to cheat. [See “A Plague of Cheating”] Recall Florida’s state superintendent, Tony Bennett, who was forced to resign this summer after reporters discovered that he had helped increase the grades of several schools. In one case, he increased a C to an A grade for a charter school run by and named after one of his campaign donors. [Politico, 8-1-13]

And don’t forget the Atlanta superintendent who was indicted this spring along with 34 others, including teachers and principals, for widespread cheating on the state’s standardized state tests. Investigators found 178 Atlanta educators had worked to change student answers, among other things, to increase the district’s performance. Eighty-two people have already confessed and the superintendent now faces up to 45 years in jail. [Washington Post, 3-30-13] This year we have confirmed cases of test score manipulations in at least 37 states plus the District of Columbia. [FairTest, 3-27-13]

Of course adult cheating is just one consequence of high-stakes-testing. Teachers are being demoralized by this system. Pittsburgh superintendent Dr. Linda Lane reports that when teachers received the results of the high-stakes-testing that formed the SPP scores “some were in tears.” [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] But students suffer the most. The over-emphasis on testing results in lost class time, a school year spent on test preparation, the narrowing of curriculum, and the perpetuation of abusive practices that undermine actual learning. [See our piece “Testing Madness,” which was just republished in the Washington Post.]

2.  Scores actually reflect bad state policy making. The SPP scores are largely based on PSSA and Keystone test results, which are down for many students as the result of state decisions. Dr. Lane suggested the drop in Pittsburgh test scores resulted from, among other things, budget cuts, the elimination of modified testing for special education students, and the new Common Core standards, which are being taught in the classroom but not measured on the tests. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] With increased class sizes, school closings, and the loss of hundreds of educators again this year in Pittsburgh alone, our student test scores say more about poor state educational policy making than about actual teaching or learning.

3.  A single number is insufficient. The Pennsylvania Department of Education calls its new SPP system “comprehensive” and boasts it “brings together multiple academic indicators that are proven to provide a full overview of academic growth and achievement in our public schools.” [PDE, 10-4-13] I don’t know what evidence there is that these indicators “prove” academic growth in schools, but the idea of using multiple academic indicators sounds like a good idea. Too bad, then, that 26 of the 31 indicators listed for each school are actually based on high-stakes-test scores. [PA School Performance Profiles] While factors such as attendance and promotion rates are now being considered, these SPP scores are little more than a re-packaging of high-stakes-testing. Test scores don’t tell us much about what is actually happening at a school: the after-school mentoring program that parents started, the new playground or garden built and paid for by the local community, or all of the programs teachers volunteer to make happen, from directing the school chorus and plays, to coaching sports teams and the math club, mentoring student government, and collaborating with local artists. Where are those things on the profile?

What’s more, nearly everyone is fixated on the single “academic score” calculation – the grade – assigned to each school. The PDE can claim all it wants that these are robust profiles, but the media in every corner of the state has already demonstrated the way in which these profiles will be reported as single scores. For instance, the Post-Gazette reported, “Of those [Pittsburgh schools] that have academic scores, the highest is 82.6 at Pittsburgh Liberty K-5.” [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13; see also Post-Gazette 10-5-13 graphic.] Yay, Liberty! But honestly, what does that mean? The SPP scores effectively rank and sort schools.

4.  These systems are prone to error. The state has already bungled the release of SPP data. More than 600 schools (out of 3,000) do not have complete scores because of problems with relying on students to correctly fill in bubbles on the tests indicating if they were “end of course” exams. Rather than hold up the promised roll-out of the new profiles, the PA Department of Education instead released only partial data on Friday, leading to more confusion. For instance, no Pittsburgh high school or any school containing eighth grade currently has a score. The state is also delaying the release of the 2013 PSSA and Keystone results. West Mifflin Area Superintendent Daniel Castagna summed it up, saying, “This is a mess, an absolute mess.” [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13]

5.  Scores actually just measure poverty. It’s great that my former elementary school (Eisenhower in Upper St. Clair) got the highest score reported so far in the county, with a whopping 97.9. Not surprisingly, there’s my middle school, Fort Couch, at 96.8. And all of Mt. Lebanon’s reported schools so far are over 90. But did we need all these tests and this elaborate new system to tell us that upper-middle-class kids in predominantly white suburbs are doing better than those in the struggling Duquesne school district, which weighed in at 49.3, the lowest in the county? What standardized test scores are really good at showing is family income. For an excellent visualization of the correlation between test scores and poverty, take a look at last year’s SAT:

6.  Scores don’t measure what matters. The Pittsburgh school district has conducted research on its own graduates and concluded that, “the most important predictors of post-secondary education success are grade point average and attendance, not state test scores.” [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] If that’s the case, why are we spending so much time giving these high-stakes-tests to our students? Why are we giving 21, even 30, standardized tests each year to our kids? [PPS Assessment Calendar] Why aren’t we focusing on providing a rich, engaging curriculum with music, art, languages, and activities so that students want to be in school? We can’t even discuss these important questions because the School Performance Profile system forces districts to continue playing the game of ever-more-testing in the name of accountability. But if we really care about what matters – such as actual student learning or college success – policy makers must move away from systems that simply reinforce testing by assigning grades to our schools.

7.  Scoring schools wastes valuable resources. The SPP system cost us taxpayers $2.7 million to develop over the past three years. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] That’s $2.7 million at the exact same time that Governor Corbett and our legislature were telling us we did not have money to pay for our public schools. And it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. That’s a lot of drumsticks for the Westinghouse Bulldogs Marching Band or library books for Pittsburgh Manchester K-8. Beyond the ridiculous price tag, grading our schools costs valuable staff time and wastes the attention of the public, media, and policy makers by forcing them to focus on the wrong thing.

8.  School scores don’t help students. SPP scores don’t give students what they really need: adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for their public schools. Public policies that support, rather than vilify, their teachers. Quality early childhood education. Pre-natal care. Healthcare. The stability of their community school remaining open. Smaller class sizes. It’s would be funny, if it weren’t so cruel, to hear the PA Department of Education proudly explaining that under the new SPP system, the lowest scoring Title I schools (those that serve a large proportion of low-income students) are now eligible for “access to intervention and support services.” [PDE, 10-4-13] How about access to their laid-off teachers and state funding they desperately need?

Even worse, the highest performing Title I schools will now be rewarded by becoming “eligible to compete for collaboration and/or innovation grants.” Are you kidding me? This is right out of the Race-to-the-Top playbook, making schools compete for the resources they desperately need. Races and grant programs by definition have winners and losers. No student at a Title I school deserves to be a loser in this game invented by policy makers. Our kids don’t need “technical assistance,” they need state legislators to restore the budget cuts and reinstate a modern, fair funding formula. These SPP scores are only going to hurt our poorest students and communities of color more.

What about Women?

We just wrapped up women’s history month in March. You might not think there is much connection to public education, but I spent a good portion of the month giving talks on our grassroots movement. I spoke at a women’s history conference at Sarah Lawrence College in New York; gave the keynote for a women’s history month symposium at Bowling Green State University in Ohio; and participated in a panel on our state budget sponsored by the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest PA. So what was I talking about?

First, we don’t have to look far to see that women really matter in the movement for public education: they make up the solid majority of activists and scholars, both locally and nationally. Second, over three-quarters of all public school teachers are women. [National Center for Education Statistics, 2011] For this reason alone, we might view current attacks on teachers and their unions as particularly anti-women. This is especially a concern given the persistent wage gap in this country, with women still earning only 77 cents on every dollar earned by men. In fact, just this week we “celebrated” Pay Equity Day, the day that represents how far into 2013 women had to work to reach what men earned in 2012.

Third, we have talked a lot about the ways in which race and class impact our public schools and students’ access to education – but gender also matters. (Want a big word to impress your friends? In women’s studies we call this intersectionality.) The crucial issue here is the feminization of poverty – the way that women are disproportionately represented among the poor. This is particularly important when you are talking about school-aged children because of the prevalence of poverty among single mothers.

And here is where gender intersects with race and class: compared to the top 40 largest metropolitan areas in the country, the Pittsburgh region has among the highest poverty rates for working-age African Americans. In 2008 we were actually #1, with over 28% of African Americans aged 18-64 in Southwest PA living in poverty. That same year we also ranked first in the nation for the poverty rate of black children under the age of five. These are horrific statistics and they only get bleaker when you factor in gender. Women comprise almost two-thirds (64%) of poor African Americans in our region. [Post-Gazette, 7-4-10]

So poverty is both feminized and racialized in our area. And we know that poverty has a great deal to do with student performance. What is often called a “racial achievement gap” is really an income gap. Kids who are growing up without enough to eat, without warm clothes to wear, sleeping on the floor, with instability in their lives and violence in their neighborhoods are often the ones having trouble learning in school. Yet corporate-style reforms – privatization, school closure, high-stakes-testing – are having negative impacts on these very kids and their families.

Finally, I’ve been talking about my own disciplinary fields of women’s history and women’s studies, which were founded on the tradition of activism. In fact, I’ve been describing my work lately as “scholactivism,” combining scholarship and activism. And our movement for public education has solid feminist roots. Some of my students think feminism is the “f-word,” but you can see feminist theories and methods at work in the way we strive to be inclusive, in our efforts to educate ourselves and learn from each other, and in our focus on equity (as opposed to equality). Ours is a progressive vision for the future of public education that challenges the status quo, while invoking a very old notion of the common good. And it turns out that women and questions of gender are central to that vision.