Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Pathetic State of the Pittsburgh Public School District

Policy Brief
An electronic publication of
The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy

January 6, 2009 Volume 9, Number 1

Problems for the Pittsburgh Public School District continue to mount. For the current school year enrollment is 26,649, declining more than 1,600 students from the previous year. Moreover, the District recently issued a forecast indicating that its high school enrollment would drop from just over 8,000 to about 6,000 by 2014, a further decline of 25 percent. Compounding the District’s problems is a report of higher than normal absenteeism among its faculty.

Instead of instituting meaningful reforms that have a chance of turning the Pittsburgh Public Schools around, the District plans to launch a recruitment campaign for younger students. The District apparently believes parents of young children can be impressed with what Pittsburgh Schools have to offer and believe a recruitment campaign targeting the parents of children in kindergarten and pre-school will be the remedy. The problem might be that these parents are all too aware of what the District has to offer—poor academic performance.

The president of the school board is confident the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program will help reverse the sliding enrollment figures. To help spread the word of the Promise, the District has sent out mailers to families whose children do not attend Pittsburgh Public Schools touting the benefits of the program. As we wrote in an earlier Policy Brief (Vol., 8, No.69), the Promise, now two years old and having issued its first scholarships, has yet to deliver on the assertions it would reverse the enrollment trend or lead to improved academic performance. In fact, since the program was launched in late 2006, enrollment has dropped by more than 4,000 students.

Furthermore, as we pointed out, the Promise has also not raised academic achievement among its students. Latest scores on the state achievement test revealed that only 53 percent of 11th grade students scored at the proficient level on state reading levels and only 44 percent scored at grade level in math. At many of the District’s high schools the fraction of 11th grade students reaching proficiency struggles to reach 20 percent—hardly the material the District will put on recruitment posters, but certainly information that will scare off parents of prospective students.

The District claims it is losing students to charter schools and to suburban districts. To combat this problem, they will also work on making the schools more customer friendly by sending clerical employees to customer-service training seminars and creating a welcoming environment for visitors in District buildings. They haven’t released a cost projection for these projects, but this is an unnecessary expense for the cash-strapped District. It’s very doubtful that many parents of school-aged children would be willing to look past poor academic performance to improved customer service as a reason to enroll their children in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The District is concerned that the drop in enrollment will cause overstaffing as a falling student count will leave them with excess teachers. That is a problem because getting rid of teachers even with declining enrollment is very difficult. And the state will not reduce its funding just because enrollment is down. That policy epitomizes all that is wrong with government financed and managed education.

Adding to the public relations woes of the District is a recent report showing that 6.5 percent of teachers call in sick on Fridays. By contrast, the national average call out sick rate for Fridays was only 2.3 percent in 2007 making Pittsburgh Public School teachers nearly three times as likely to call in sick as the national rate. Worse still, the absenteeism report revealed the highest rate to be on a Tuesday after a Monday night Steelers’ game. State and local taxpayers are shelling out $5 million for the abuse of sick leave policy. What kind of example are these teachers setting for their students?

To compound the negative image the call out rate creates, the union defends the heavy absenteeism by noting the teachers don’t get vacation days. This defense qualifies for the award as the most pathetic rationale ever dreamed up. Teachers work 190 days a year compared to the 240 or more that most people put in. Moreover, they are eligible for twelve sick days and two personal days during the year. Sick days not taken accumulate and are paid out in a lump sum at retirement. Teachers do not work most holidays when school is not in session. Then of course they are off much of June, July and most of August. And they get pay and fringe benefits as if they were full time, 250 day-a-year workers.

This absenteeism behavior and the defense offered for it, along with the right to strike, the work rules and the virtual impossibility of firing a teacher for inadequate performance combine to create a workplace disaster from a management and taxpayer point of view.

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s school board is equally complicit in the dysfunctional situation. One school board member offered the excuse that some teachers might be “burned out” or “frustrated” or alternatively the absentee problem could reflect an administration problem. Board member excuses for excessive teacher absenteeism reflects a District that is probably beyond repair let alone improvement—all this for a mere $20,000 in annual expenditures per student.

Dramatically falling enrollment and chronic high teacher absenteeism are just two of the hallmarks of a district in dire straits. Parents who care about their children’s education can see very clearly what the true picture is and they will want better for their children. Taxpayers should demand better returns for their expenditures. The problem is that the situation in Pittsburgh schools has been bad for so long that the Board and the teachers are not even embarrassed by these latest revelations and others regarding poor test scores.

On the other hand, Mayoral and Council candidates who are serious about changes that will slow the outflow of people and tax base from the City should address the awful condition of the school district. The people of Pittsburgh deserve better.

Frank Gamrat, Ph.D., Sr. Research Assoc. Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President

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Thank you for your support.
My reactions are pending. Much to do today.


science1 said...

WOW. There is much to discuss and this needs to be spread around.

Anonymous said...

As a former Pittsburgh Public School teacher, I have much to say on the conditions that teachers must endure. I am a white, middle aged professional who entered education late in life. My first offer was at Oliver High School in the North Side. On a daily basis, gangs of african american teenage boys would roam the halls, being extremely disruptive and would charge into classrooms and oftentimes start fights with students. Our classroom doors could not be locked from the inside so there was no way of keeping these kids out. On one occasion, a student had a pool ball enclosed in a sock and knocked another student out in the head. I could go on and on about the violence which is occurring inside of these buildings.

My second post was at Carrick High School. When I was personally assaulted by a teenage boy, the african american principal asked me what I did to provoke his behavior. I then was threatened to have an unsatisfactory recommendation from her due to my "lack of classroom discipline". In our court hearing for the assault, I found out that this student was facing multiple charges of which I was never made aware by our principal.

The second time I was assaulted by a young teen woman, she was merely slapped on the hand and transferred to another school.

I was shocked at the language in the halls. You will hear the N word loudly combined with the F, B, C and other profanities. I never saw a principal or administrator even comment about the language used by the students. In their minds, it was a war not worth fighting. When a student was shot after school at Carrick, the incident was never addressed. Rather, at a staff meeting, the principal merely commented "Thank God it never made the press."

Teachers at Pittsburgh Public Schools have a harrowing job. Security guards have been cut from the staff, in fact, last year, while working at the Student Achievement Center (for students kicked out of their home schools or in transition to and/or from jail or Shuman Center), I watched as strangers entered the building in Homewood and no one was there to check them. We heard gun shots ringing out from the streets and during one firedrill, the entire school had to run back into the building because of gun shots in the next block.

So, I would have to blame the administration of PPS for ignoring violence in the schools and for not giving teachers the training, support and security that they deserve. Luckily, I no longer have to enter into that world and my health, stress level and quality of life has greatly improved. I am still amazed that I survived three years entrenched in one of the worst districts I could ever imagine. I wasted approximately $4,000.00 in union dues and fees to get nothing in return. If I could sue the Pgh Teachers Union, I would. They were completely corrupt and do not function to support the teachers.

It is sad to say, but many teachers need a day off to get away from daily abuse that they receive from students. I remember one unfortunate substitute who had a huge text book thrown at her head. I remember being spit upon by a student. One teacher had her door barricaded by students and could not get out of her classroom. If you think you could handle this, then you should try and spend a week in a Pittsburgh Public School. I would recommend going to Oliver, Carrick or Student Achievement Center to see and experience what teachers endure.

Anonymous said...

PPS District spends 1.9 million dollars of our tax money on athletic coaches. Take a look at some of the pathetic athletic teams and the coaches doing minimal work for the paycheck. Then add Mike Gavlik, head of athletics, and his salary into the mix and ask, "Are we getting the max for our money?" No, we are not. There is no accountability in athletics and the student-athletes are the losers.