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Perspectives: We must make the Pittsburgh Public Schools another city champion

Monday, April 02, 2001

By Thomas J. Murrin

Elsie Hillman's March 4 Forum commentary, "The Region's No. 1 Priority: the Pittsburgh Public Schools," explained the tremendous importance of our city public schools and called on all of us to make them the best in the nation. In her comments, she referred to some of the recommendations developed by the 1998 study "Grading the Graders: Evaluating the Pittsburgh Public School System," which I chaired. These recommendations are very timely and very important -- and therefore are summarized here.

In the report's introduction, our assessment panel -- 10 civic leaders, public officials, college educators and business representatives -- judged that "the district is at the edge. It cannot expect to maintain the status quo; it must either move forward or it will fail."

The panel's overall recommendations are grouped in five categories:

1) "The school board should assume a clear role as a policy-making body. The day-to-day operation of the district should be in the hands of the superintendent."

Thomas J. Murrin is Distinguished Service Professor at Duquesne University, where he served as dean of the business school from 1991. He is a former Westinghouse Electric executive and a former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

This was highlighted because of the concerns voiced by many that the Pittsburgh board may be the most dysfunctional group of its kind in the country, and the most difficult to work with.

The district's new top team of Superintendent John Thompson, Deputy Superintendent Paula Butterfield and Chief of Staff Phil Parr -- plus our many excellent administrators, principals and teachers and competent union leadership -- are able to lead a "City of Champions" schools commitment. But they must be vigorously supported and encouraged by all involved, including the school board.

2) Regarding finances : "The district has a built-in recurring deficit. The district's tax base has not kept up with inflation -- as the last tax increase came in 1993. The district has few major cost reduction options left."

A recent relevant report observes that "the district had 91 schools as counted by the Department of Education. If the district had the state-wide median utilization rate, the district would need only 72 schools". This suggests that we should have about 19 fewer school buildings to match the typical pupils-per-building levels across Pennsylvania.

Proven business principles require that the district proceed with the current plans to close some schools and to increase school taxes -- even though, understandably, these actions are painful and unpopular. To not do this now will put the entire district at risk.

Public schools are getting much more like businesses with increasing demands on them for improved performance and reduced costs -- along with challenging competition from cyber-schools, home schooling, charter schools and vouchers.

3) In regard to professional development: "Invest in training all staff in the use of technology and in training teachers on incorporating technology into curricula."

The district now has an extraordinary opportunity to use proven advanced technology to greatly improve the skill-sets of most of the 40,000 students; many of whom are not being prepared adequately to participate in the competitive new global economy.

Specific examples of such new teaching-learning techniques are being demonstrated in a few district installations -- being coordinated by Pittsburgh's own Communities-in-Schools at the Academy School in the Century III Mall and at the Letsche School -- and by Carnegie Learning at several other schools, including Langley, Oliver, South, Peabody and Schenley. Their "cognitive tutor" technique is the result of many years of world-class, leading-edge research and development by Carnegie Mellon University.

4) Regarding a community compact: "The corporate community can provide hands-on assistance in helping the district with rebuilding the infrastructure and training."

In this regard, many organizations will soon be making valuable contributions of the talents and time of their people -- and the outstanding leaders of our corporations and economic development groups are pondering how best to help, by involving the tremendous resources of their member organizations. Such help can, as examples, include the loan of carefully selected experts to help solve specific district problems -- and advocating action in Harrisburg to provide more state funding for the district's increasingly expensive special education needs, which are mandated by the federal government.

5) The audit of educational effectiveness --conducted by nationally recognized School Match experts -- recommended that "the district focus on instructional effectiveness with particular emphasis on the teaching and learning of reading: Implement a technology plan to provide equity for all students, with priority actions identified to address the learning needs of the poorest achieving students."

For example, many of our district's graduates cannot meet State reading standards -- and such limitations are tremendous barriers to their becoming productive, law-abiding citizens.

As has been wisely observed, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Our report stated: "It would be unrealistic for the district to expect community support for additional special education funding, for the professional development of principals, and for services in schools unless the board commits itself to managing the district in a professional fashion."

To help assure that the board manages the district in a professional fashion, as Elsie Hillman wrote, "we should commit to better educate ourselves on the school board candidates and the views they have of their roles as important leaders for the community. We should evaluate the performances of current board members and become acquainted with the newer candidates and their perception of the office they seek to serve.

"And, as voters on May 15, it is our duty to cast an informed ballot for the school board member in our district."

The board and all our citizens should join in a commitment to really make our Pittsburgh Public Schools first class -- as a top priority and with a sense of urgency.

Finally, as stated in the "Grading the Graders" report:

"The increasing disparity between haves and have-nots may be our nation's most serious problem -- and improved education may be its most promising solution."

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