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Black student study in Pinellas won't happen after all



After a long, slow demise, a proposed - and some said promising - research study into low black student achievement in Pinellas is finally being taken off life support.

Interim Pinellas superintendent John Stewart told The Gradebook this week that he's "not going to breathe any life into it," but said whether it was totally dead depended on the Lastinger Center for Learning at the University of Florida, a proposed partner. Lastinger director Don Pemberton told The Gradebook the center is ready to help, but suggested it's up to the district to move forward. The proposed researcher, Northwestern University economist David Figlio, said the district told him it was moving in a different direction.

Translation: It's over.

What started out as a well-intended effort to find out why black students in Pinellas, as a whole, do worse than black students in every other big district in Florida got tripped up by one unexpected hurdle after another: rising tension over former superintendent Julie Janssen's tenure, opposition from a community group that advocates for black students, and ties to Lastinger, which quickly lost favor in the district after Janssen was fired.

Janssen initially proposed hiring Figlio last spring, after a St. Petersburg Times analysis found black students in Pinellas were not only behind their peers in other big districts, but falling further behind. She wanted him to look closer at the data and offer explanations. But the proposal met with resistance from leaders of the Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, a group that strongly supported Janssen. And because of other issues flaring around her, Janssen said she had to put the idea on the back burner.

In August, a new proposal emerged: Use Figlio to identify which teachers or teams of teachers were seeing the biggest gains among black students. Use another researcher to find out what they're doing to get those gains. Use professional development to share those methods or practices with other teachers. Use Lastinger to secure the funds.

Some national teacher quality experts said the project was potentially groundbreaking. But it was doomed. Janssen was fired in August. COQEBS leaders continued to object. Stewart quickly curtailed the district's relationship with Lastinger.

It was never clear how much the effort might have cost, but Stewart said money was "not the driving force" in the project's demise.

He said the district is pursuing other means of gathering similar information. For example, he pointed to a recent effort by regional superintendent Barbara Hires to identify and take a closer look at high-poverty schools where black students met federal standards in reading. He also said the district can get other higher education partners besides UF to help, including the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College.

Stewart had high praise for Figlio, but said ultimately it doesn't matter who does the work.

"Our goal isn't to have Figlio do it," he said. "Our goal is to close the achievement gap."

[Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 6:58pm]


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