High-stakes test

Mark Roosevelt has gone from policymaker to practitioner. After preaching the mantra of accountability in education, the superintendent of Pittsburgh public schools is now the one on the hook.

Passage of the state’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act was a rare moment in politics when consensus was forged around a truly big idea that shook up the status quo. For Mark Roosevelt, the chairman of the House education committee and a co-author of the law, it capped months of hard work and was the crowning achievement of eight years in the Massachusetts Legislature. But it may be child’s play compared with the challenge he now faces. Trading on his years as a leader in education policy, in 2005 Roosevelt became superintendent of the Pittsburgh public schools.

If ever there were a big-city school district in need of a leader committed to bold reform, it would be the 30,000-student Pittsburgh system. An antiquated management structure, factionalism among members of its elected school board, middle-class flight, and a school department where decision making was driven by political agendas rather than educational mission were the defining characteristics of the city’s schools, a toxic mix that festered while student achievement levels sank woefully low.

By 2002, the schools were in such shambles, and there was so little confidence in the willingness of school leaders to embrace needed reforms, that the city’s three leading foundations announced that they were suspending all funding to the schools. Leaders of the Heinz Endowments, the Grable Foundation, and the Pittsburgh Foundation said any further investment in the city’s schools would be “put at risk by the bickering, distrust, and chaotic decision making that now seem endemic to the top echelons of the Pittsburgh Public School System.”

In response, then-mayor Tom Murphy formed a blue-ribbon commission, which issued a report in 2003 calling for major reform of the school system. That same year, Roosevelt attended a Broad Foundation training academy for aspiring urban school superintendents. With his nontraditional background outside the education system, Roosevelt was the type of leader the foundation was seeking. Two years later, Pittsburgh turned to Roosevelt as well, naming him its new school superintendent.

Roosevelt has been a man in motion ever since. In 2006, he set out a broad plan for improving Pittsburgh’s schools, calling for rigorous alignment of curriculum with state standards; clearly defined roles for the board, superintendent, and schools; and intensive use of assessment results to inform teaching and learning. He negotiated a new contract that puts all principals on a performance-based system for raises. He closed one-quarter of the district’s schools to help streamline financing in the face of a dwindling school population, and he has put a handful of schools on a longer school day and longer school year to test whether that model can boost achievement.

“He’s really trying to entirely change the culture of the district,” says Carey Harris, the executive director of A+ Schools, a nonprofit that was established to monitor the pace of reform following the report from the mayoral commission.

That sounds like just the job for the reformer who pushed for bold moves in education as a member of the Massachusetts Legislature, as the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994, and in a later stint as director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, the business group that drove the education reform effort. But Roosevelt is also now facing all the realities on the ground that can reduce big ideas into small steps.

That tension emerges at one point when Roosevelt almost seems to be debating himself, as he recalls that it was 25 years ago that a seminal national report sounded a call to action on the state of public education in the United States. He says the handful of Pittsburgh schools now operating with longer school days represents an incremental move that is likely to bring only marginal improvements. “But I think it is the kind of incremental step you need to take,” he says. In the next breath, however, he expresses impatience with such talk. “The problem, of course, is A Nation at Risk came out in 1983, so we’ve been taking 25 years of steps, and where are we? Not much further along,” he says.

The city’s foundations have sounded a vote of confidence by resuming funding of initiatives in the city’s schools. And that support has been augmented by a pledge from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center of $100 million over the next 10 years to help pay college costs of any graduate of the Pittsburgh schools.

Three years into the job, Roosevelt still sounds passionate about life in the ed reform trenches, even as he acknowledges some of the scars that come with it. With a new three-year contract under his belt, Roosevelt will now own, for better or for worse, what happens in Pittsburgh’s schools. It seems only fitting that the sort of performance-based accountability Roosevelt has fought for in public education for nearly two decades will now be how he is judged as well.

I spoke with Roosevelt by telephone in late March from his office in Pittsburgh. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.


COMMONWEALTH: You have a unique vantage point on educational reform efforts. You were a principal architect of the Massachusetts ed reform law passed 15 years ago, and now you’re running a large urban district. What has the transition from theory or policymaking to practice been like for you?

ROOSEVELT: Interesting question. It certainly provides you with a different lens to view the same problems. The challenges faced by any urban district in terms of overcoming the various deficits that poor urban children without significant family and community structural support face — it’s just far more daunting on the ground no matter how aware I think I was as a policymaker.

CW: There is no statewide, high-stakes graduation exam in Pennsylvania to set a bar indicating a basic level of proficiency. With Massachusetts 15 years into this, it sounds like Pennsylvania is, if not in the Dark Ages, at least in the 1980s.

ROOSEVELT: Yes. And I think that the managerial reforms of the ’93 law go a long way to explain why Massachusetts has made so much ground on Pennsylvania during the last 15 years. But I certainly couldn’t claim that Pittsburgh is bleeding or hemorrhaging, because we spend a significant number of dollars per pupil, somewhere north of $18,000 [per year].

CW: But there’s certainly bleeding or hemorrhaging in the sense of how dire the situation is with regard to achievement and things like that.

ROOSEVELT: I think if one were to look at the achievement levels of urban kids, especially African-American and Latino kids across the country, you could say that all of us are bleeding. But in Massachusetts in ’92, it was very, very hard to refute the fact that districts with challenging kids to educate did not have the resources to do so. That claim cannot be made in Massachusetts now in the same way that it could then, nor can I make it in Pittsburgh. But since nobody is educating the majority of urban kids to a high standard we don’t know what it takes. We just know that we don’t do it.

CW: Earlier this week you spoke at a panel discussion here in Boston marking the 15th anniversary of the Education Reform Act. You cited all the attributes of the Pittsburgh schools that might be expected to lead to high student achievement, including the fact that your per-pupil spending is, as you say, somewhere above $18,000 a year, which really is a phenomenal figure.

ROOSEVELT: It’s Cambridge-like.

CW: And that teachers are the fourth highest paid in the country of any urban district, and that you have among the smallest class sizes of any large urban district.

ROOSEVELT: And we have a significant and very well-run and well-established early childhood program.

CW: That was all a way of leading to your conclusion, which was, with achievement still badly lagging in Pittsburgh in spite of all these factors, it’s clear that these things alone don’t do it when it comes to improving schools. The question then is, what does do it?

ROOSEVELT: We know an awful lot of things that are arguably necessary to get urban kids to a high standard. One is an appropriately rigorous curriculum and properly trained teachers and principals who can deliver that curriculum. Two, decent management systems to put accountability in place for the professionals tagged with educating our kids. Now that needs a few years to run, but I think everybody believes, as I do, that this will improve our results, especially given the nice attributes of small class sizes, well-paid teachers, good early childhood, etc. I think that when you add aggressive management to that, you’ll get improvement. But I don’t have any belief myself, nor do I think the folks here do, that we’ll get the kind of performance we want. I think that we know what the missing area looks like: providing some systemic delivery of alternative scaffolding to kids who just lack the scaffolding in their own lives, meaning family support and community support. I think that is going to be a large part of our work. We’ve been tremendously lucky in that we’ve gotten this huge gift to establish a guaranteed scholarship program [the Pittsburgh Promise, funded by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center] so that every Pittsburgh public school graduate will be guaranteed money for college. It’s huge.

CW: I’ve read about that.

ROOSEVELT: What we’re going to try to do is create what we call pathways to the Promise. We’re really making a huge effort to try to get all of our kids to be proficient in reading by the end of the third grade. Just as an educational delivery issue, [initially] you’re learning to read, but after that you’re reading to learn. So if you haven’t got your literacy skills down by fourth grade, you’re just on the wrong path. Secondly, and what is the newest of the pieces of work we would be imagining, is that we would want to do, in sixth grade, basically an individual wellness plan for each of our children — sort of asking whether they are on a trajectory to be what we’re calling Promise-ready by the 12th grade. And if not, we’re going to try to orchestrate resources, including mental health resources, mentoring resources, physical health resources around nutrition, and other things.

CW: It really sounds a lot like some of the qualities you see in what are often touted as the “high-performing high-poverty” schools, many of which are charter schools or other alternate models.

ROOSEVELT: We know of many small schools that deliver the goods. So we have lots of evidence it can be done. That evidence, I think, is what keeps all of us going. Most of these schools are partly based on what we call the heroic principal model, which is they have an unbelievable school leader. That is an incredibly important piece. And two, they are able to build their school from scratch. If you told me, for instance, that my [base] school spending in Pittsburgh is 12 grand per pupil, and then gave me an additional six grand to be creative on top of it, I could do a lot more than I’m doing now with my 18 grand per pupil because I’d be using that to build these personalized support systems. We know this about poor kids and poor kids without great family support systems: They need deep relationships with adults. They need teachers that care about them, and they have some sort of barometer that indicates to them whether people care or not. If that barometer isn’t met, the content delivery can’t follow.

CW: Right.

ROOSEVELT: And many schools like that will be able to cherry-pick teachers who want to work in the kind of environment where they know their colleagues will have that attitude, too. So how do you do that systemically? That’s where the challenge comes in. All the research tells us that optimism is essential to get kids to work hard in school. Because if you don’t understand that working hard is going to lead to something, there’s a problem. And what we know about these kids is they don’t have the middle-class ladder that you and I both grew up having in our DNA, which is you go to school, you work hard, you get into a good college, you get a good job, and you work your way up and you get a good life. I think we’re beginning to realize that schools, whether we like it or not, are going to need to communicate and get buy-in on that middle-class ladder idea.

CW: At the panel discussion earlier this week, you said we need to stop bemoaning the range of social ills that schools are asked to deal with and just start figuring out what needs to be done. You said you think before long we’ll have urban boarding schools. There are a couple of urban charter boarding schools already that come to mind, one in Washington, DC. It seems like that is the ultimate expression of some of these efforts now — say, for longer school days. They’re all on the same continuum.

ROOSEVELT: That’s exactly right.

CW: You have opened eight schools that you call “accelerated learning academies,” which have a slightly longer day and a 10-day-longer school year. But is that going to be only a “light touch” approach to what’s really needed?

ROOSEVELT: I think it’s an incremental step toward what’s really needed, and I think it’s going to yield incremental results. To claim more for it would be wrong. But it is the kind of incremental step that you need to take. The problem, of course, is that A Nation at Risk came out in 1983, so we’ve been taking 25 years of steps, and where are we? Not much further along. How much longer can we afford to keep taking these small, incremental steps? Before standards-based reform, there was really not even the verbal rhetoric around educating poor kids, urban kids, kids of color to a high standard. Now we’re saying that is a goal. Another thing we need to be talking about is that kids need to work a lot harder. In the suburban world now, the privileged world, the conversation is, “Well, the kids are doing too much homework. There’s too much pressure on them, blah, blah.” Well, that is such a different reality. A lot of my kids [in Pittsburgh] admit to me that they do hardly any, if any, homework. And if that is the case, ain’t nothing going to work. A lot of people balk at even admitting that parents and students are part of the issue. But I believe they are, and I believe a lot of our younger parents, especially, had a very adversarial relationship with education themselves. So not only do they not understand and communicate to their children the middle-class ladder that we were talking about, they probably communicate to their children their own frustrations and animosity toward schooling.

CW: Which makes me wonder how you feel things are going with your reform effort. Carey Harris, the director of Pittsburgh’s A+ Schools organization, told me the reforms so far have a great deal of support and buy-in from the civic leadership class in Pittsburgh, with the friction point being with the groups affected most directly — principals, teachers, and parents.

ROOSEVELT: What you were told is pretty accurate. Nevertheless, we’ve been very successful at putting in place some managerial reforms that will result in higher performance. We’re changing our entire K-12 curriculum over time. Probably our biggest and, I think, most successful change is we’ve got all of our principals now on incentive pay contracts. No one will receive any kind of raise except for improved student achievement. Our old method was: We teach it and if they get it, they get it, and if they don’t, they don’t. But good, productive urban school reform means we teach it, we assess whether kids have gotten it, and we get help very quickly to kids who didn’t. That sounds so simple using those words, but putting in place the systems to support that is what we’ve been all about for 2 1/2 years. I would say we’re halfway there. Half of our principals are really super at it, half to one degree or another are still struggling. Some of those principals are going to be demoted, and that’s a new thing for Pittsburgh. This is the first year we’ve done aggressive principal evaluations. It’s tough. We’ve got a huge grant from the federal government to do this and we have another grant from the Broad Foundation to start a principal training program, which we have seven people in this year.

CW: You got the buy-in from the city’s board of education on these management reforms. You remarked at the forum in Boston that the superintendent previously needed board approval to give a secretary a raise, and when you arrived in Pittsburgh the board was basically making the hiring decisions about school principals.

ROOSEVELT: The board has changed.

CW: Was that wrenching or difficult?

ROOSEVELT: It’s ongoing. It’s constant.

CW: Do you bear some scars from that?

ROOSEVELT: It’s tough. But remember, the first thing I had to do when I got here was close 22 schools. We will never have to do anything that horrible. I don’t know of any school system that has ever closed a higher percentage of their schools than we did when I got here. We had 88 schools, so we closed 25 percent of all our schools in one year. It doesn’t mean the scars aren’t still there. They are. For a parent who’s used to walking their kid to their elementary school, now they’re putting them on a bus, and there was nothing fun about that. But I think what getting it done, and getting it done quickly and cleanly, won for us was the idea of, “OK, these folks deserve a chance to show what they can now deliver on.” And that window — how long it stays open is the question. We’re bringing so much change in such a short period of time. We really want to make the point that though we believe very strongly in these management reforms, it won’t get us to where we need to go without working on the other pieces that are outside of what is traditionally seen as “school.” That is a huge extra challenge because we only have so many people, so much staff, and so many resources. Luckily, we’ve had a ton of support from the foundation community and other communities in Pittsburgh, including this magnificent gift from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center of $100 million for [college] scholarships.

CW: The money is going be available regardless of financial need and income. Certainly in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and some other places that have similar programs, it was, in part, an effort to convince middle-class families to stay. Is that part of the goal here as well?

ROOSEVELT: Definitely, it is part of the goal.

CW: Why is that so important?

ROOSEVELT: Because we’ve been bleeding children for 25 years.

CW: Disproportionately middle-class families?

ROOSEVELT: Correct. If that trend continues, it makes things very difficult. So the Promise has two key goals, neither of which is more important than the other. One is to convince people to move to or stay in the city of Pittsburgh and have their kids in the public schools. Two is to raise the life trajectories of the kids we already serve. They’re two very different things, but luckily a program such as this can have a very positive effect on both.

CW: Is there any part of the program that’s paying attention to success in college? There’s been increasing attention paid to this here in Massachusetts. We’re now alarmed to find kids coming out of Massachusetts high schools, having passed the MCAS, who are not doing very well when they go on to higher education.

ROOSEVELT: I totally buy it. When we looked at Kalamazoo, which I laud as having been the forerunners of this, what we saw missing was what you’re asking about. Now the Pittsburgh Promise is just up and running. This is the first year. But I am a member of the Promise board, and one of the things we will be charged with is developing the kind of networks and support services for kids once they’re in college, because Pittsburgh actually has a very high rate of kids that attend college from our schools, but we do not have a great rate on kids who graduate from college. So you’re totally right. The Promise will be a relatively unsuccessful program, in my view, if it doesn’t also serve over time to dramatically increase the college graduation rate as well as college attendance rates.

CW: You set out pretty ambitious four-year goals for benchmarking improvements in student achievement. By the end of next school year, you said, you hope to see an almost doubling of third-grade reading proficiency, from 49 percent to 80 percent, an increase in the proportion of eighth-graders who are proficient in reading from 49 percent to 69 percent, similar improvements in math, increases in the number of students taking AP courses, and so forth. How are things looking?

ROOSEVELT: Well, when we announced those goals, which we are still committed to, we said, “Look, these are very, very ambitious goals, which would make us the fastest-moving district in the country.” We expect to be judged on the extent to which we reach these goals. I think what’s important in goal-setting is they have to be a mix of aspirations and realism. Will we reach 80 percent [in third-grade reading proficiency]? Probably not. Will we get close? I hope so. And that’s really where we are with those goals. Now we do have some very good early indicators of success from making the AP courses more diverse, getting more kids into them, etc. But will that result in a large series of passing grades on AP tests? That’s probably the harder hurdle. But I’m not in any way shy about saying that we have very aggressive goals and that we will do everything in our power to attempt to reach them.

CW: I wonder how the whole experience has been for you on a more personal level. When I called the A+ Schools organization and said I was trying to see how things are going there with the schools under your leadership, the woman who answered the phone said, “The poor man,” before quickly catching herself. What do you think she meant by that?

ROOSEVELT: Well, um [laughter].

CW: Is there a sense that you’re in the crosshairs?

ROOSEVELT: There certainly is that. You look at a guy like [former Boston superintendent] Tom Payzant, who seemed to have been given some sort of almost unfair, Zen-like ability to never take anything personally, to rise above squabbling. I don’t have that. I don’t have Tom’s quality of that, so I probably —

CW: You squabble?

ROOSEVELT: I squabble, and I get hurt by some things that are said. And in a context like this, one of the things that’s tough is that the race card is played a lot. In our attempts to change things for better results for African-American children, some people characterize it as experimenting with African-American children. That hurts. I don’t like that. It makes it even more important, obviously, that we deliver the goods. But there is a level of rhetorical toughness to urban schooling that I think is unfortunate. I hope I don’t whine about it, but the work is inherently tough. I love the work. The part I do bridle a little bit at is the vitriol that sometimes gets into the discourse, the lack of civility. I look back on events in my political career and I sometimes regret the partisanship that I showed. I wouldn’t now, at 52, show that same partisanship that I did at 36. So I don’t know, maybe that’s because some of this is scarring, and what you learn from that is maybe people who are trying deserve the benefit of the doubt.

CW: You recently had your contract renewed for three years, through 2011. Are you settling in for the long haul, or at least the longer haul?

ROOSEVELT: What I have said here, and I really mean it, is that as long as I’m allowed to do the work I was hired to do, I would like to do it. If, at some point, I’m not allowed to do the work due to conflicts with my board or other things, that would be what would give me pause. I bought into the work. I embraced the work and I try to spread the gospel of the work, and so that’s terrific.

CW: Are you surprised to hear people expressing concern that the Massachusetts ed reform effort has stalled or fallen off the public agenda? It seems that one overriding remaining challenge here, and it certainly dovetails with your work in Pittsburgh, is to improve achievement among poorest students and the poorer districts in the state. That’s something that will require a commitment of resources and will that might be lacking right now.

ROOSEVELT: The problem when you’re first in the nation in so many categories is, how do you create the climate to put more resources into something that it looks like you’re doing very well on? And that is a thoroughly political task. In 1993 the stars were aligned. One, you had an aggressive Boston Globe making this a huge issue. Two, you had a governor who was a Republican [William Weld], who I think understood that he needed to do something in this area for political reasons. You had a Senate president [William Bulger] who had a protégé, Tom Birmingham, whom he wanted to help and support, who was chair of education. You had a Speaker of the House, Charlie Flaherty, who was in some difficulty and wanted to leave his mark. And you had this court process hanging out there that may have ordered something if it didn’t happen. You had the stars aligned as they so seldom are. When we look back at ’93 — wow, how often do all of those pieces get in place? So maybe the rhetoric this time and maybe the plan has to be more modest, more targeted.

CW: Are you struck by the fact that in the national campaign, education has not figured prominently?

ROOSEVELT: Despite this aggressively funded “Ed in ’08,” run by my friend Roy Romer [a national initiative to make education a central issue in the presidential campaign, directed by the former governor of Colorado]. I agree with you, it’s hardly on the radar screen at all.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

CW: Is that distressing?

ROOSEVELT: Very. And I think it’s an indication of what I fear most, which is this nation’s inability to really grapple with the serious problems we face in a serious way. We get distracted by a lot of phony issues, a lot of backbiting, a lot of personality stuff, a lot of issues—I don’t mean to denigrate them—like gay marriage and things that take your eyes off the prize. And the eyes on the prize here is that we’re getting our clock cleaned by our economic competitors. It’s much worse now than it was 20 years ago or 15 years ago because there are far more nations who are doing better than us in education.