Expert: PPS Racial Disparities Are Bad — And They’re Getting Worse

Pittsburgh Public Schools logo | Photo credit: Pittsburgh Public Schools

Pittsburgh Public Schools logo | Photo credit: Pittsburgh Public Schools

Jonah Woolley, Politics Writer

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In recent years, Pittsburgh Public Schools has been marred by criticism from advocates and community leaders regarding its racial disparities; in PPS, as in the country as a whole, there are massively disproportionate outcomes in the education system that are disadvantaging students of color.

PPS has taken a very aggressive approach to tackling the problem. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet has made addressing disparities a major part of his agenda, and a variety of projects have been undertaken to help restore racial equality, such as the establishment of the Equity Advisory Panel.

The battle is still ongoing, however, and many feel that the district isn’t doing enough. One of those people is Dr. Ted Dwyer, who recently gave a presentation to the Obama PTSA regarding racial disparities.

Dr. Dwyer is the Chief of Data, Research, Evaluation and Assessment for PPS. He has been a major part of the district’s push to maximize transparency. In recent years, the district has begun publishing its data online on things like suspensions and test scores to allow for more public accountability, and Dwyer is in charge of collecting and analyzing that data.

Dwyer discussed with the PTSA many of the major data points he’s been looking at — in particular, what the gap is between different racial groups.

What his data revealed is that, despite our best efforts, the gap between white and minority students in virtually every category is still quite large, and in many cases, it’s expanding.

The first major point Dwyer looked at was suspensions. Studies have shown that higher rates of suspensions lead to lower grades and lower attendance, so PPS has made decreasing its number of suspensions a priority — so far to no avail.

According to Dwyer, the number of students suspended has gone up over the last three years, from 1,217 in the 2017–18 school year to 1,392 this year. The number of suspension days, or how many days all students combined have been suspended, has also gone up, from 4,235 to 4,380.

Dwyer also showed how racial disparities have increased. In 2017, 7.8% of black students, 4.3% of multiracial students, and 2.7% of Latino students were suspended, versus 2.1% of white students. Now, that’s 9.7% of black students, 5.3% of multiracial students, 1% of Latino students, and 2.4% of white students.

The disparities have worsened, except in the case of Latino students, although Dwyer also stated that the sample size of Latino students is quite small, so it’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion from it.

Dwyer also examined attendance and the racial disparities there. PPS officials have expressed that student attendance is important, and their desire to close the racial gap there, writing in their Code of Student Conduct, “Class attendance and participation are imperative for ensuring a school environment of engagement, academic achievement and necessary for the accomplishment of curriculum objectives.”

In attendance rates, Dwyer said, racial disparities are not as severe, with all groups in the 90-95% range. The only major difference that Dwyer pointed out was chronic absence rates, which is defined as students absent for more than 10% of the school year. Here, black students have a 34.7% chronic absence rate, with multiracial students at 28.8% and Latino students at 25.7%. White students have a much lower rate, at 20.4%.

Disparities here have grown as well, with the absence rate for white students stagnant over the last few years, while for minorities the number has been growing.

Aside from these major points, Dwyer briefly covered a few other key instances of racial disparities in the district.

With testing, he stated that there are severe racial differences, with white students passing the Keystone algebra exam 40% more often than black students, 33% more often than Latino students and 22% more often than multiracial students.

The same goes with the Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship for PPS students to go to college that prides itself on its “[commitment] to educational, economic, racial, social, and cultural equity and inclusion.” Dwyer said, however, that the Promise hasn’t been able to accomplish that.

The requirements for eligibility to receive the Promise are a 2.5 GPA and a 90% attendance rate, and currently there are vast disparities in who is eligible for it.

Dwyer discussed that, for white students, a strong 79.6% will be able to receive the scholarship in some form, followed closely 79.1% of Asian students. However, only 59.1% of multiracial students qualify, followed by 55.7% of Latino students and a mere 39.1% of black students.

The gap between races is startling, Dwyer remarked, and it’s leaving white students ahead in the area that matters the most. The Promise is a vital tool for many families, as while the scholarship isn’t very large, it still helps pay for college, and can sometimes be the difference-maker in whether or not a student has enough money to pay for it.

Ultimately, Dr. Dwyer conveyed that the situation in the district is a lot more dire than we may realize. While many parents and community members acknowledge, in an abstract sense, that the district has racial disparities, actually seeing the numbers makes it a whole lot more concrete and undeniable.

Dwyer summed up his talk by stating that he believes the district has been very inactive in addressing racial disparities, and has allowed them to grow out of control.

“Look at the data,” he said, “I don’t know what [the district] has been doing for the last 25 years.”