The Pinellas County School District is considering hiring a top-notch education researcher to help it solve a troubling mystery: why black students in Pinellas lag behind black students elsewhere in Florida.
At the request of superintendent Julie Janssen, School Board attorney Jim Robinson made a pitch to David Figlio, a Northwestern University economist who has conducted studies on everything from vouchers to school grades.
Figlio, who will meet with Janssen and Robinson on May 4, said he is "highly likely to take this on." He investigated black student achievement in Pinellas several years ago.
Robinson told School Board members in an e-mail last week that he will talk to Janssen about bringing them a contract for consideration at Tuesday's board meeting. "The urgency of this problem compels prompt action," Robinson wrote.
The call to Figlio, who has worked at the University of Florida, followed an April 17 St. Petersburg Times story about the slow pace of progress for black students in Pinellas.
Between 2005 and 2010, the paper found, the divide between black students in Pinellas and black students statewide increased in every grade on the reading and math portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. In every grade on both tests, black students in Pinellas score lower than black students in Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Duval and the other 11 big districts.
"The more eyes you can have on our situation, that are objective, the better," said board member Terry Krassner, referring to an outside researcher. "We're very serious about it. We don't want to be in this kind of limelight."
Figlio "could be a very valuable resource," said board chairwoman Carol Cook, who was asked about the growing disparity with black students during her appearance Thursday at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.
It's not clear how much the research will cost, or where the money will come from. Janssen did not respond to requests for comment. District spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said the funding source is yet to be determined.
Figlio was a star economist at UF before becoming a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern in 2008. His education research has covered everything from whether school grades affect housing values (he found they do) to whether children with Afrocentric names trigger subconscious bias in educators (he found they do) to whether students using vouchers in Florida perform better than similar students in public schools (he found they do not).
Figlio is familiar with black student achievement in Pinellas.
In 2006, he and another researcher concluded the achievement gap between black and nonblack students in Pinellas (as opposed to black and white students) was similar in size to gaps in other Florida districts. They also said they could find no evidence that "these gaps are due to systematic exposure to the Pinellas County schools."
That study was commissioned by the School Board in response to a lawsuit that charged the district with failing to properly educate black children.
Since the April 17 story, the Times has taken a closer look at FCAT scores, this time going back to 2001, the first year the test was required in Grades 3-10. Between then and 2010, the trend lines show white students in Pinellas falling slightly in reading, relative to the state average for white students, and rising ever-so-slightly in math. Meanwhile, the trend lines for black students in Pinellas show them tumbling, in both subjects, compared to black students elsewhere.
The apparent disparity drew more scrutiny last week.
School Board member Linda Lerner referenced the numbers during a board discussion about proposed charter schools that would cater to black students.
"We have a large achievement gap, which is all around the country, but the statistics came out — there's more of a gap in Pinellas," she said. The charters "would be a wonderful opportunity for us to learn what can be done in a small setting."
The story drew a mixed response elsewhere.
The figures call for a "state of emergency," said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. He blamed the district's "intellectual arrogance."
"They will never question themselves," he said. "Instead, they will blame the victim."
Asked if he was troubled by the numbers, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said they were improving and he wasn't going to be "hypercritical" of the School Board.
"I just want to see improvement," he said. "I'm only going to compare St. Pete schools to St. Pete schools. … Hopefully we'll see the data from 2011 is better than 2010, and 2012 will be better than 2011. That's my goal."
Figlio, the researcher, said he still needs to talk with district officials about the specific task ahead. But he added via e-mail that he was "impressed with their openness."
"My previous experience with Pinellas schools has led me to believe that the school district leadership is serious about this issue and wants to learn the truth," he wrote.
Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.