The Gates grant: City schools have an opportunity and a challenge

Written by Susan Mannella on .

A $40 million teacher-effectiveness grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is more than a feather in the cap of the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. It is the Webster's New World Dictionary definition of a challenge, "a demanding task that calls for special effort or dedication."

Self-congratulation is warranted, and the district and its teachers union should be proud that they met the standards imposed by the foundation, but now the really hard work begins. The focus of the long-term effort will be improving the district's teaching staff to trigger gains in student achievement that exceed the state average. Study after study has shown that the most significant variable in a school is the quality of the individual teacher.

The district has a long and complicated to-do list.

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and his team must find the district's share of funding for the $85 million campaign, from both public and private sources. The endorsement from the Gates Foundation is expected to ease the district's attempt to win millions in federal dollars, and Pittsburgh foundations have committed funds. The district will have to keep its promise of finding savings by closing some buildings, increasing overall pupil-teacher ratios from the current 14-to-1, and being more efficient in providing transportation and other services.

The school board already has prepared contracts designed to help it attract and evaluate new teachers. Gallup Consulting of Omaha, Neb., will provide an online screening program for evaluating teacher applicants, The New Teacher Project nonprofit organization may be hired to help recruit teachers for difficult-to-fill positions in the sciences and special education, and Mathematica Policy Research Inc. of Princeton, N.J., has a five-year, $1.8 million deal to design a pay-for-performance system for the district.

That's where the PFT will play a large role. The union and the district have had labor peace, with no strikes in 30 years, but implementing a system that ties teacher pay to performance will represent a tidal shift in negotiated contracts.

Nothing less important than the future of the students -- in graduation rates, preparation for college and a reduction in the racial achievement gap -- hangs in the balance.


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