PPS: Reducing the achievement gap between Black and White students is crucial

Three students want to watch a baseball game, but a fence is blocking their view.

Each student then stands on a box in an effort to see over the fence.

Student 1 can see over the fence, student 2 can also see over the fence, but student 3 still cannot see over the fence.

While students 1 and 2 are standing on one box that was placed on a level part of the ground, student 3 is standing on one box that was placed on a much lower slope of the ground. Therefore, even with the one box, because student 3 is on a lower plane than the other students, that student still cannot see over the fence and enjoy the game.

This is precisely the example outlined in Pittsburgh Public Schools’ new student equity plan, dubbed “On Track to Equity: Integrating Equity Throughout PPS.”

Many African American students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system are not starting on the same level playing field as their White counterparts. Thus, what a school district may provide as support to a White student may not be enough for a Black student. There may need to be additional efforts and supports in place to give many Black students a better chance of academic success.

In the aforementioned example, for student 3, the African American or underserved student, to see over the fence like the other students, the student will need three boxes on which to stand. The boxes represent access and function to provide students equal opportunity. Seeing over the fence represents the barriers finally being removed for a student to eye a successful path in life.

PPS says that with the “On Track to Equity” plan, they are committed to reducing racial disparities throughout the district and elevating the achievement levels of Black students.

“Recognizing that all students are deserving of a quality, culturally relevant public education, this plan represents the next milestone in our efforts to improve outcomes for all students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools,” PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, EdD, said in a Nov. 6 release provided to the New Pittsburgh Courier. “We began this journey with the implementation of our strategic plan, ‘Expect Great Things.’ But that was only the beginning—a gap that has been gradually widening across generations cannot be closed without a deliberate, research-based strategic approach. With the finalization of this implementation plan, we have set forth a road map for how we intend to continue on this journey, and we double down on our commitment to ensuring the best possible education for all children.”

That road map is 97 jam-packed pages of information that details 27 key action steps to reach the district’s goals; those 27 steps placed in an umbrella of seven primary categories: Board support; Instructional support; Equity in discipline; Reducing the achievement gap; Equity in Special Education and Special Program access; Monitoring; and Administrative support.

The action steps are to be instilled over a three-year period, “to ensure sufficient staff capacity, strong implementation planning and continuous monitoring,” according to the equity plan.

One of the action steps inside the “Instructional support” category is to provide “culturally responsive instructional materials.” PPS will continue to offer Ethnic Studies under the Social Studies curriculum, along with continuing its two college-level courses dedicated to examining African American history. One of the courses, labeled African American Literature, is a one-credit twelfth-grade course available to PPS students as an alternative to English 4.

“Fifty-three percent of the students who attend Pittsburgh Public Schools are African American and another 14 percent identify as non-White, but some curricular resources are still outdated and do not consistently reflect the aforementioned representation making it difficult to engage all groups in equitable learning experiences. The Social Studies curriculum is one specific resource that must be updated to ensure people of African, Latin, Asian and Native descent are represented, yielding a timely opportunity to build a course of studies that meaningfully engages and centers voices from the margins,” the equity plan read.

Inside the “Equity in discipline” category, PPS reinforces its commitment to lessening student suspensions—more specifically, reducing the suspension rate gap between Black and White students. While suspension rates among Black students have decreased from 22.8 percent in 2015-16 to 15.9 percent in 2017-18, the number is more than three times as high as the White student suspension rate in 2017-18 (4.8 percent).

The “Reducing the achievement gap” category, well, speaks for itself. The district wants to raise Black student proficiency levels in ELA (English, Language, Arts), Algebra and Math. As an example, the district’s target proficiency level for Math for Black students by the end of the 2020-21 school year is 27. But district data shows that in 2017-18, the Math proficiency level for Black males in grades 3-8 was just 16.3, and for Black females in grades 3-8, just 16.4.

The district also wants both African American graduation rates to improve from 77.4 percent to 80.3 percent and Black student participation in advanced classes to increase from 38.2 percent to 46 percent by the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Inside the “Equity in Special Education and Special Program access” category, the district wants to place an even stronger emphasis on early childhood education, of which the district’s Early Childhood Program is 69 percent African American.

The equity plan states that while there’s no achievement gap at the end of preschool, there is an achievement gap that increases between Black and White students from Kindergarten to third grade.

“Pittsburgh Public Schools is committed to providing students (birth through 8 years of age) with the social, emotional and academic foundational skills that are necessary for success throughout their educational career and life,” the equity plan read.

The equity plan is part of an objective to achieve items listed in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between PPS and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, with the goal of reaching the MOU’s desired outcomes for students.

“This Equity Plan illustrates our commitment to the continued monitoring of our progress in eliminating these disparities,” Dr. Hamlet said in a signed letter on page four of the “On Track to Equity” plan.

“Education lays the groundwork that will guide our city toward an equitable future,” Dr. Hamlet added in a Nov. 6 statement provided to the Courier. “It is our greatest weapon in the fight against poverty, discrimination, ignorance, and other root causes of these disparities. Closing these gaps will not be an easy undertaking—but it is one that we are committed to achieving. Our city’s future depends on it.”

PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet (Featured Image)

by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer

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