Still Walking in Circles Pittsburgh Must Rededicate Itself to Closing the Black/white Achievement/opportunity Gap

By Stewart, James B | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 16, 2014 | Go to article overview

Still Walking in Circles Pittsburgh Must Rededicate Itself to Closing the Black/white Achievement/opportunity Gap


Stewart, James B, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Four years ago I wrote an op-ed for the Post-Gazette entitled "Let's Stop Walking in Circles: It's Time to Close the Achievement Gap between Black and White Students." That essay described both historical and then-contemporary efforts to reduce the racial achievement/opportunity gap in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The late Barbara Sizemore's path-breaking study, "Walking in Circles: The Black Struggle for School Reform," served as my starting point.

Four years later I revisit this issue because there has been limited success in achieving educational equity.

In 2010 the primary driver for disparity-reduction efforts was a September 2006 conciliation agreement among the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Advocates for African-American Students, prompted by a lawsuit the advocates brought in the early 1990s. The district pledged to remedy 94 problems over a five-year period.

A volunteer Equity Advisory Panel was empaneled to monitor compliance and recommend strategies, methods and programs to address disparities. The relationship between the EAP and the PPS was often uneasy, in part because the EAP continually highlighted shortcomings in the district's initiatives.

At the end of the agreement, minimal progress in reducing the gap had occurred. Consequently, a second agreement was reached extending the human rights commission's oversight through the 2013- 2014 school year.

The EAP/PPS relationship has improved markedly under the leadership of Superintendent Linda Lane. Previously limited coordination of equity initiatives has been remedied by the creation of an Equity Office. In addition, the PPS board of directors has reaffirmed the district's commitment to educational equity.

There are a variety of other promising developments.

The recent report, "Whole Child, Whole Community," recognizes the centrality of educational equity as the district moves forward. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to fund development of a new teacher evaluation system eventually may lead to improvements in the quality of instruction in the lowest-performing schools.

However, that outcome is not guaranteed, as the recent controversy regarding teacher evaluation metrics illustrates. Many teachers have participated in "Courageous Conversations" workshops that cultivate enhanced understanding of racial issues impacting the school environment. The "We Promise" program is working to increase the number of black male students eligible to benefit from the Pittsburgh Promise. This program is notable because it partners community mentors directly with students. It should be noted, however, that African-American female students are experiencing increasing difficulties in the schools which warrant similar targeted interventions.

Unfortunately, these and other initiatives have not yet made significant headway in reducing racial disparities. The reasons are complex.

The negative effects of school closures and grade reconfigurations, for instance, have been borne disproportionately by predominantly black neighborhoods. This unequal burden reflects the limited political influence of these communities' residents relative to more affluent communities. …

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