"While we anticipate the appointment of a new superintendent to head the Pittsburgh Public Schools, it is an apropos time to take an unvarnished look at the education reforms of the last decade; “A People’s History” of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, in the tradition of the progressive author and activist, Howard Zinn.
Big Philanthropy first introduced their education “reforms” to Pittsburgh in 2005. The Bill and Melinda Gates and Broad Foundations chose the Pittsburgh Public School district as one of the testing grounds for their agenda, which includes privatizing public schools, using “non-traditional” educators and busting teachers’ unions. Over the next ten years, our district implemented Big Philanthropy's reforms, including closing schools, using unproven school structure reform, creating a controversial teacher evaluation, and hiring expensive consultants, none of which addressed the primary cause of low academic achievement; the effects of poverty. The biggest winner is the “educational industrial complex” (charter and testing companies, educational consultants) that reaps millions in profits.
To cut spending in 2006, the district closed 24 schools through the administration’s “Right-Sizing Plan”. However, many experts hold that school closings result in education deserts in the affected (mostly low-income) communities, disenfranchise families and cost more in the long run. Much of the savings are lost when PPS families leave the district and enroll in the charter school that inevitably opens in the void, taking PPS funding with them. In addition, as repeatedly reported, charter schools, on average, have the same success and failure rates as traditional public schools.
During the same period, the district embraced the Gates promoted “small schools” movement and, despite it operating at capacity, closed Schenley High School, using false claims of asbestos danger and inflated construction costs. Further testing in 2010 proved that there was never any asbestos danger. But these students were needed for three newly created small high schools. Sports and other extracurricular activities were decimated. Minority students landed in an inadequate middle school building, where they continue to languish. The students at Sci-Tech and Obama are doing well, but they were doing well at Schenley. Before the school even closed, Gates abandoned his own reform, stating that small schools do not improve academic outcomes.
The next reform promoted by the Gates Foundation, teacher effectiveness, came in 2009 with a whopping $80M price tag. “Empowering Effective Teachers” has, as its core principals, the controversial and unproven practices of merit pay and using test scores for teacher evaluations. Six years later, the PPS reports that 97% of teachers are rated proficient or advanced, a 1% increase from 2005. Some ineffective teachers were dismissed, but at what cost? Keep in mind that the PPS already had an adequate but underutilized process for eliminating low performing teachers. Social workers, psychologists, paraprofessionals, and librarians were eliminated (in 2012, PPS employed one social worker/1200 students); class sizes increased and teachers’ morale plummeted. And recently the Rand corporation reported that parents are 4-5 times more important than effective teaching in increasing student achievement.
Westinghouse High School closed in 2012 and reopened as two single-gender academies (another education policy interest of Mr. and Mrs. Gates), despite that the data on the benefits of single gender education in non-charter, non-magnet public schools are inconclusive at best. In addition, the ACLU warned that the academies would trigger a lawsuit stating, “Our findings demonstrate that single-sex education programs in coeducational, public schools are widely out of compliance with the stringent legal requirements of Title IX”. The result was a disaster by anyone’s account. The program was scrapped.
In 2013, the district hired consultants FSG and Bellwether Education, whose founders hold the same privatization philosophy of Big Philanthropy, in an effort to address budget shortfalls (largely created by PPS’s fiscal mismanagement and continued enrollment decline of the previous five years). $2.4M of foundation money produced "Envisioning Educational Excellence: A Plan for All of Pittsburgh's Children" and its recommendations of closing more schools, creating larger classes and slashing student services."