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District Clears Record on Accusations Related to Technology Investments That Improve Equitable Access to Digital Resources
PITTSBURGH, PA May 20, 2019 – A recent media report called into question the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ investments in so-called “Ed Tech” programs. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet released the following information in order to create transparency and inform the public of the District’s procedures for selecting services aimed to ensure students are prepared to enter a rapidly evolving workforce largely based on technology, with a longer-term focus of improving educational outcomes.
I’m squarely focused on implementing our five-year strategic plan called ‘Expect Great Things’ in order to improve outcomes for all Pittsburgh Public School students. This plan, developed with input from more than 3,500 stakeholders and key recommendations from an objective institution [Council of the Great City Schools] that analyzes urban school districts, included key recommendations related to enhancing the District’s information technology capabilities and integrating technology into instructional delivery systems. Some of these recommendations include:
- Aligning the curriculum to PA Core Standards
- Expanding the data warehouse
- Cultivating a data-driven culture
- Addressing technical infrastructure for assessments
- Using multiple data sources when drawing conclusions
It is unfortunate that a salacious news story by KDKA reporter Andy Sheehan purposely misled the public. You may be interested to know that this story was promoted and released during television’s ‘May Sweeps’. May Sweeps ratings greatly impact a station’s financial position. The story purposely uses misleading terms such as “it seems” or “it appears” instead of information based in fact as ethical reporting should. Let’s look beyond the story’s catchy, clickbait headlines.
First and foremost, state law prohibits any public-school superintendent from personally benefitting from district contracts. This station’s commercial teasers -- “no bid – no process” -- misleads the public to believe that the procurement process was inappropriate in nature. The procurement process used for contract approval is aligned with PA state code and federal grants guidance. Regardless of whether a contract is procured via a competitive or non-competitive process, factors are used to evaluate the effectiveness or appropriateness of a service prior to being presented to the Board for approval.
The Board hired me based on my expertise with school transformation and my desire to seek out evidence and research-based best practices. Just as it is critical for me to be in the schools meeting with principals, teachers and students, so too is it critical for me to collaborate with education leaders beyond Pittsburgh’s borders. This is how we grow. To reach our goals for students, it was vital that we shift the way we do our work. These shifts ensure that as an organization we are student-focused, teachers have the tools, resources, and time they need to advance student learning, and all staff are engaging in our model for continuous improvement in their day-to-day work.
While we are unable to confirm the 50 contracts Mr. Sheehan calls “Ed Tech” or costs referenced in his report, we know that technology has the potential to become the great equalizer in bridging the achievement gap among students from underserved populations. Through the use of technology, we are able to engage students in their learning, provide much need intervention and enrichment, assess academic progress, and provide teachers valuable data to identify areas of need and stimulate innovative ways to improve teaching and learning.
One of the tools referenced in the KDKA report is ReadyGen, the District’s new English Language Arts curriculum, for students in grades 1-5. While I would not use the term “Ed Tech” to describe a reading curriculum, ReadyGen does provide both print and digital components designed to meet PA Core standards.
Although we are making progress in most areas, let me be clear, I am not satisfied with the overall current performance levels of students. I am encouraged by the growth we have seen following our first year (2017-2018) of implementation of ReadyGen, particularly at the 3rd-grade level, which is cited as the most critical year where students either stay ahead of the curve or fall behind. In 2018, 56.1 percent of the District’s 3rd graders tested proficient or advanced, up from 47.9 percent in 2016. We also saw decreases in the percentage of students reading at the lowest level, Below Basic, dropping from 19.2 percent in 2016 to 11.7 percent in 2018. Proficiency among the District’s African American 3rd graders also grew to 45.5 percent – meaning more of the District’s 3rd graders are arriving in 4th grade prepared to read to learn.
Another tool referenced in the KDKA report, Naviance, offers college and career planning for middle and high school students. Pittsburgh joins a growing number of large public school systems across the country, including some of the largest urban districts -- Los Angeles, Calif.; Chicago, Ill.; Houston, Texas; and Broward County, Fla. -- as well as some prominent suburban Pittsburgh districts who are embracing Naviance as their district-wide college and career readiness platform. More than one-third of the 300 largest school districts now use Naviance.
The implementation of Naviance will help the District increase graduation and financial aid application rates, as well as accurately track college applications, acceptances, and scholarships. The District is also better equipped to guide students through the process of identifying their strengths and interests and exploring careers and colleges to create personalized plans for life beyond high school.
We still have much work to do, but distractions designed to attract ratings do not help what should be a common goal for everyone: getting the best results for students. I am committed to continuing the work I have begun together with our Board through our strategic plan. In fact, together, we have taken significant strides to spur measurable change in our schools. Beyond improvements in reading proficiency, some of these changes include :
- Bolstered our standards of supports for schools to meet the holistic needs of students by increasing library services, hiring four new regional attendance officers, and expanding nursing services to ensure a nurse on every campus;
- Implemented a K-2 suspension ban for non-violent offenses and rolled out new codes of conduct to differentiate between PreK-5 and 6-12 age groups;
- Launched a districtwide student advisory council, giving students a voice at the table
- Designated eight community schools for the first time in the District’s history
- Developed a plan to provide up-to-date technology in every PreK-8 English Language Arts classroom and increase the district’s bandwidth.
- Launched a Public Dashboard (pghschools.org/dashboards) to increase transparency on District and school progress, with regular updates to the Board at its Agenda Review meetings.
Other highlights have been shared via the District website here. These efforts are just a sampling of the work underway to change student performance in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I am confident we are on the right path, but please know we are committed to continuous improvement. We all know change is not a straight arrow, but a winding road, ever moving forward. Our continuous improvement model includes checks to ensure the changes we make lead us to the results we seek for our students. I want to commend our teachers, principals, and staff for their tireless efforts to improve student achievement.