Academic Achievement




The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Low Expectations

DECEMBER 19, 2014

Is it true that schools with high concentrations of low-income students face unique challenges? Yes. Should poverty, along with several other social problems, be understood as a factor that influences academic achievement? Of course. Should we thus expect students from low-income families to persistently underperform on state tests and be forever relegated to a second-rate education? Absolutely not.

A fine line exists between recognizing poverty as a factor in academic performance and using it as crutch to excuse dismally performing schools. Nowhere is this more apparent than the York City school district.

A recent article on York’s potential conversion to charter schools explains that none of the district’s eight schools are meeting state testing goals. The piece quotes Wythe Keever, assistant communications director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), who is undeterred by the test scores:

Wythe said York performs just as well as schools that have similar populations of disadvantaged and special needs children. “The school district is right about where you’d expect it to be when you have an urban school district serving an impoverished population that’s already been decimated by Corbett’s budget cuts," Wythe said.

The comment (emphasis mine) is noteworthy for several reasons. Not only is Keever factually inaccurate about the district’s performance and finances—more on that in a moment—but he also seems to subscribe to the view that urban, low-income students are condemned to bad test scores and substandard learning gains.

A recent CF Policy Points explains that even when compared to other economically disadvantaged students in Pennsylvania, York City students lag behind state averages.

York City PSSA Results 2012 (Percentage)
York City SD Statewide Economically Disadvantaged, State
Advanced or Proficient, Math 53.1 75.6 61.6
Advanced or Proficient, Reading 41.5 72.0 55.4
Below Basic, Math 25.7 11.1 19.0
Below Basic, Reading 35.8 13.7 24.3

Keever is also off base when he claims the district was decimated by state level budget cuts. State revenue per student was steady throughout the previous five years, including a substantial increase in 2012-13. Overall revenue levels did modestly fall in the 2011-12 budget, but the chart below clearly demonstrates that this was due to a sharp decline in federal revenue (read: stimulus dollars).

YorkCitySpending

Additionally, out of the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, York is consistently within the top quintile of state revenue per student:

York City Revenue Rank, by Source

State Local

Federal

2008-2009 74 398 8
2009-2010 59 422 7
2010-2011 49 401 6
2011-2012 105 416 49
2012-2013 62 405 49

Factual errors aside, the most disheartening component of Keever’s remarks is that low-income students should be expected to lag behind their peers in academic performance. Setting such low standards does not serve the best interests of students and parents in York City.

It is not entirely surprising, however, that a spokesman from the largest teachers' union in the state has succumbed to the self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations. After all, the PSEA is a consistent opponent to many reforms—expanded school choice, seniority reform, merit pay—that would improve the quality of education in the commonwealth.

Each student has unique circumstances, needs and abilities—but no student should be resigned to failure.

posted by JAMES PAUL, LINDSEY WANNER | 09:00 AM | Comments

Audio: Could Charter Conversion be in York City's Future?

DECEMBER 10, 2014

York City School District—financially distressed and second-to-last in the state in student achievement—may be in for some much-needed change in the coming weeks. After two years of obstruction from the local school board and teachers’ union on more modest measures, the state has finally petitioned for receivership of the troubled district.

Tomorrow, there will be a hearing in York to help inform a judge’s decision to grant the state’s receivership petition. If granted, all of York's district schools will be converted into to charters—one of only a few districts in the country to take such a step.

Today, CF's James Paul joined The Gary Sutton Show on WSBA 910 to provide background on how we got here, who has been blocking other attempts at reform, and what this all could mean for York city students and families.

Listen to a portion of the show below and read James’ recent op-ed “Is Second Worst Good Enough for York Students?” for more.

The Gary Sutton Show airs daily on WSBA 910AM in the York area.

Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.

And for mobile listening, get the SoundCloud iPhone and Android apps.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 03:30 PM | Comments

More Choice on the way to Philadelphia?

DECEMBER 9, 2014

Tens of thousands of Philadelphia students languishing on charter waiting lists have reason to hope. For the first time in seven years, the School District of Philadelphia will consider applications from new charter schools.

This week the district is receiving presentations from 40 applicants who will make the case for additional educational options. A second set of hearings are scheduled in January where applicants will be reviewed and questioned by district officials. Ten of the 40 proposed schools have an explicit focus on the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

What prompted Philadelphia to break its seven-year charter lock-out? Tucked away in the recent cigarette tax legislation was a provision requiring the district to accept annual applications from new charter schools.

Seemingly endless wait lists—combined with the 62,500 students currently enrolled in brick and mortar charter schools—are evidence of the sector’s popularity in Philadelphia. Enrollment in district-run schools has sharply declined over the last decade as more families opt for schools of choice.

On the whole, Philadelphia charter schools are performing well. The average city charter school outperformed the average city district school in 2012-13. What’s more, an analysis by Philadelphia School Partnership reveals that the charter sector is succeeding in serving low-income students: Of the 17 city schools with passing State Performance Profile scores and enrollment of least 80 percent economically disadvantaged students, 12 are run by charter operators.

Given their immense popularity, long waitlists, and encouraging performance, it’s a shame that new charter schools have been locked out of the application process for so long—but it's no surprise. Granting school districts the power to authorize a new charter school is like asking McDonalds to green-light the construction of a new Wendy’s next door. Establishing a high quality statewide authorizer in the commonwealth would be a marked improvement over the current policy. 

It remains to be seen whether any new charters will be approved, but at least there's a chance for more children to find better, safer schools.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

A Shoddy Attack on Charters

NOVEMBER 11, 2014

Charter Schools

My letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News takes issue with the paper's recent characterization of charter schools as "fiscal monsters." 

The Daily News editorial on charter schools ("Frankencharters") includes scary Halloween analogies but does a disservice to genuine efforts to improve education in Philadelphia. Referring to charter schools as "fiscal monsters" flatly ignores that charters spend and receive fewer dollars per student than district schools.

Despite significantly less funding, Philadelphia charters outperformed district schools on the 2012-13 State Performance Profile. Charters actually operate with maximum accountability, since poor academic performance or financial mismanagement will result in closure - a fate that rarely, if ever, befalls district schools. Will the Daily News similarly refer to failing district-run schools as "monsters" that need to be "reined in" when the next cheating scandal occurs?

It should come as no surprise that charters receive their funding from school districts, since charters are public schools, too. That so many families have opted for charters reflect their success - it illustrates the overwhelming demand for expanding school choice.

Continued oversight and transparency is an appropriate policy goal for charter and district-run schools alike - especially in light of the closure of Walter Palmer, which is indeed devastating to the students and families involved. But the unique circumstances surrounding Walter Palmer do not justify demonizing largely successful charters citywide.

The 34,000 students currently languishing on charter waiting lists illustrate the urgent nature of school reform. Denying them more educational options - just to prop up the failing status quo - does not serve the best interests of Philadelphia.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 06:24 PM | Comments

How the PFT Fails Philadelphia

OCTOBER 16, 2014

By standing in the way of tens of millions of new dollars for Philadelphia classrooms, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) has revealed its true identity—a self-interested, self-serving interest group that fails teachers, fails students, and fails the poor.

Today, the Commonwealth Foundation launched PFTfails.com to inform the city of Philadelphia—as well as all Pennsylvanians across the state—about the failed track record of PFT leadership. Instead of working to improve the broken status quo, PFT executives use children and teachers as pawns to protect their political influence.

And make no mistake: the status quo has demonstrably failed in Philadelphia public schools. More than 80 percent of students did not achieve proficiency in both reading and math in 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card. Violence remains a major problem in city schools, with 2,485 violent incidents reported during 2013-14. Despite the abysmal performance and violent conditions, PFT leaders oppose charter schools and tax credit scholarship programs for low-income families seeking better, safer education opportunities.

Construct a broken system, defend a broken system, and trap low-income families in the broken system. That’s the PFT playbook. 

But it’s not just students and low-income families who are failed by union executives. PFT fails hard-working, high-performing Philadelphia teachers by clinging to rigid seniority mandates that can result in the best teachers being fired. What’s more, PFT refuses to embrace merit pay.

Why does PFT leadership stand in the way of higher salaries for excellent educators? Instead of encouraging and developing their best talent, PFT leaders oppose common sense reforms that would reward the most effective teachers and keep them in the classroom.

To make matters worse, the same teachers hurt by the PFT are forced to subsidize the PFT’s political agenda—whether the teachers agree with it or not. Philadelphia teachers are required to pay union dues or fair share fees—with an average annual cost exceeding $800—to various union affiliates just to keep their jobs.

Union executives take full advantage of their unique political privilege by spending dues at the astounding rate of $70,000 per minute on political television advertisements. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—the Washington D.C. based mothership of PFT—is primed to spend more on elections than ever before. This includes a recent gift of $500,000  financed by teachers' dues, and used for political attack ads via a ‘SuperPAC.’

All told, the PFT fails the entire city of Philadelphia by refusing to agree to health care concessions that would distribute an additional $54 million for classroom instruction in the current school year. Former Governor Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, and the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board all agree that this money belongs in the classrooms.

But the PFT refuses to compromise. Add it to the list of PFT failures. They fail us all when they put personal political scores ahead of what’s best for teachers, students, and the poor. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:45 AM | Comments

York Schools Can Send a Lifeline to Kids

OCTOBER 15, 2014

School Choice Pennsylvania

The York City school board is considering an intriguing proposal to turn over some of its schools to a charter operator to compete with the remaining city schools (if the district can come to a new collective bargaining agreement). Why is this transformation needed?

York City schools are among the worst performing schools in Pennsylvania. On the state's "School Performance Profile," the district ranked 499th out of 500 districts.  And preliminary results show that most schools in the district declined in 2013-14.

Interstingly, commenters on a Fox 43 story about our analysis claim the district can't be expected to do better—that its performance is driven by bad parents and poor students. Certainly, poverty does play a role in academic performance, but high performing schools across Pennsylvania and the nation succeed even with low-income students.

We can, and must, do a better job to help our poorest students. And it is clear that despite the challenges, York can do better.

Not only do York schools score worse than the state average, but they perform worse than the average among all low-income students in Pennsylvania. That is, the dreadful test scores aren't driven by poverty alone. Nor is the problem in underfunding. York City schools saw a 33 percent increase—adjusted for inflation—in spending per student over the past decade. The $15,256 the district spends per student exceeds the statewide average.

Consider this: New Hope Academy Charter School was shut down after 2013 for a poor performance record—yet it performed better than most of the schools in the district.

The status quo simply isn't good enough. To send a lifeline to York children, major change is needed. Choice and competition, along with accountability measures via a performance contract, would better serve students and families.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 11:30 AM | Comments

Unions Leaders Put Politics Before Health Care

OCTOBER 7, 2014

The recent decision by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) to cancel the school district's contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)—and require teachers to pay up to 13 percent of their health care premium—has been met with stunning hyperbole from both state and national union leaders.

According to the SRC, this will save $54 million this school year alone—money that can go back into the schools—and upwards of $70 million each year thereafter. Yet PFT President Jerry Jordan compared the SRC action to treating teachers like "indentured servants."

With an average teacher salary of nearly $71,000, though, it would be hard to mistake a Philadelphia teacher for a forced laborer—especially when the average household income is $37,000 in the city. Indeed, average Philly teacher salaries are higher than their counterparts in Chester ($63,600) and Delaware ($68,600) counties, and are not far behind those in Montgomery ($76,600) and Bucks ($80,900).

Keep in mind that the only change the SRC is making is asking teachers to pay part of their health care costs. The decision to impose modest premium sharing comes after years of deadlocked negotiations with the PFT leaders, who refused to budge one inch when it comes to health care payments.

Philadelphia teachers currently do not pay for their health benefits, and even under the new plan would pay far less than the average working Pennsylvanian, who pays 20 percent for individual or 23 percent for family coverage.

Is the PFT really concerned with protecting teachers, or maintaining its slush fund (the PFT "Health and Welfare Fund") which currently administers the health care plans?

Randi Weingarten, President of American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—the Washington, DC-based mother-ship of the PFT— had an equally alarmist response to the SRC, calling their decision "the most egregiously political action I’ve seen in a school district."

Weingarten would know. Given her union's heavy involvement in Pennsylvania politics, she is an experienced political activist.

Both the AFT and PFT have taken full advantage of their unique political privileges to spend massive sums of money canvassing and cheerleading for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf. In early September, the PFT spent $70,000 for one minute of television advertising attacking Gov. Tom Corbett during an Eagles football game.

Surely $70,000 per minute could go a long way toward health care premiums—if the PFT were more interested in promoting the interests of its members than using forced dues to influence elections.

Furthermore, the AFT gave $500,000—directly from union dues—to the PA Families First 'Super PAC,' which has been on the air further promoting the lie that Gov. Corbett cut state education funding. All told, AFT is poised to spend more in 2014 than in any other election cycle.

Years of mismanagement, lagging academic performance, and declining enrollment have left Philadelphia in the unenviable position of making difficult choices to keep its schools financially viable. Union leaders are pretending to defend teachers with their rhetoric, but their actions demonstrate how they are exploiting teachers for political gain.

High-performing educators—and the children they teach—deserve better from union leadership. Given the PFT's refusal to negotiate in good faith for nearly two years, the SRC's action is a reasonable, necessary step for the School District of Philadelphia—despite the loaded rhetoric from hyper-political union bosses.

posted by MATTHEW BROUILLETTE | 02:19 PM | Comments

Rendell's Legacy Handcuffs Schools

SEPTEMBER 12, 2014

Former Governor Ed Rendell wrote to the Philadelphia Inquirer and took issue with our policy points on Philadelphia school trends. The Inquirer printed a portion of our response.

Here is the full version:

Ed Rendell appears more interested in defending his tenure as governor than actually discussing the facts about Philadelphia. The Commonwealth Foundation’s analysis of school spending, enrollment, and staffing trends spanned several administrations. We present the facts—most notably that spending has dramatically increased—regardless of who resides in the governor’s mansion.

Despite that increased investment—more than $1 billion since 2002—Philadelphia public schools continue to leave children unprepared. Four in five students failed to meet proficiency in reading and math in 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card.

These results shouldn’t be surprising, however. A study conducted by the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education found “either no or very weak association between levels of education expenditures and student achievement” in Pennsylvania.

Rendell goes on to blame Republicans for slashing state education funding. This claim is false. The loss of funding was due to the expiration of temporary federal stimulus money Rendell used to balance the state budget. Today, state education funding in Pennsylvania is at a record high.

The reality facing Philadelphia, though, is that pension costs are consuming more and more of the increase in spending—the result of legislation signed by Rendell and backed by teachers’ union lobbyists to underfund pensions and delay those cost increases until after he left office.

In Philadelphia alone, contributions to the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) increased by $133 million over the last 5 years, which is equivalent to the salary of 2,000 school teachers.

The pension crisis is real, and its impact is handcuffing Philadelphia and school districts across the state. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 09:08 AM | Comments

Lies from PSEA Leadership

AUGUST 29, 2014

Repeating the same lie over and over does not make it magically come true. Yet this hasn’t stopped the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) leadership from an endless campaign of deception regarding education funding in the commonwealth.

A recent release from the PSEA claims that state funding cuts are causing disproportionately poor test scores for low-income students.

Unfortunately for the “research division” of the PSEA, the truth is state education spending has increased since 2010-2011 and is currently at a record high. What’s more, there is considerable evidence that increased spending has no relationship with improved academic performance.

When calculating education spending, the PSEA refuses to acknowledge rising pension costs, which are an enormous cost driver for districts across the state. You can’t have an honest discussion about education policy without talking about pension reform—unless you’ve buried your head in the sand. In fact, every governor since Milton Shapp in the early 1970s has included pension costs as funding for public schools. 

Growing pension costs are directly responsible for layoffs and program cuts. By standing in the way of responsible pension reform, the PSEA holds much of the blame for the current pension crisis.

Since 2009, the state has seen a $1.9 billion increase in Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) payments. To put that increase in perspective: $1.9 billion is equivalent to the salary of 33,400 public school teachers.  

The PSEA claims that Pennsylvania should “just let Act 120 work”—referring to legislation passed in 2010 that slightly reduced benefits for new employees and relied on unrealistic projections of future investment returns. But letting Act 120 "work" will result in pension costs continuing to skyrocket in coming years. School districts will thus have less money to spend in the classroom, and property taxes will sharply increase to keep pace with pensions.

Of course, higher property taxes are a desirable outcome for PSEA leaders. “Let Act 120 work” essentially means “let higher property taxes fund our retirement.” Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, the average Pennsylvania household will pay nearly $900 in new taxes as a result of pension obligations.

The PSEA doubles down on faulty arguments by pointing the finger at imaginary spending cuts for low scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). A study conducted by The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, however, found “either no or very weak association between levels of education expenditures and student achievement.”

This is just another piece of the growing evidence that throwing more money at struggling schools will not improve student performance, but it will hurt property owners—particularly seniors on fixed incomes.

The PSEA is entitled to its own opinions, but not its own facts. Government union bosses should stop deliberately confusing Pennsylvanians with false and misleading claims.  

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:13 AM | Comments

Seniority Reform is Pro-Child, not Anti-Teacher

AUGUST 6, 2014

It seems clear that there is widespread agreement—across party lines and ideological barriers—that we must address school seniority rules and tenure reform.

Check out this stunning video from MSNBC's Morning Joe and take note of who is sitting around the table: liberals, conservatives, moderates, and independents. Everyone seems to agree that all children deserve access to the highest quality teachers.

Everyone, that is, except the teacher union leaders—who fight tooth and nail to retain inflexible seniority rules and status quo tenure policies.

As mentioned in the clip, teachers are not interchangeable parts. They should be treated, evaluated, and compensated like any other professionals, which is based on performance. Seniority rules mandate that teachers be placed and furloughed simply according to their years in the system, not how effective they are at instructing students. This results in the best teachers being left out in the cold, while those who are less effective, but longer tenured, are protected.

There is a solution to this problem in the commonwealth. HB 1722, sponsored by Rep. Tim Krieger, would ensure that furlough decisions are based on actual job-performance, as well as increase the benchmark for tenure from three to five years.

This important legislation would dramatically improve the quality of education throughout Pennsylvania.

Who could possibly stand in the way of such sensible reforms?

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:44 AM | Comments

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