Education Secretary Rivera talks learning, funding in Dover

Alyssa Pressler
  • Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera visited Dover Area High School on Thursday to speak with educators.
  • A discussion was held with administrators, board members, teachers and students.
  • Rivera talked about the future of school performance scores, the pension system and education as a whole.

State Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera visited Dover Area High School on Thursday morning to take a tour and meet with educators on a wide range of subjects, including funding and standards.

A discussion was held with administrators, board members, teachers and students about the future of education. State Reps. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, and Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, also joined the conversation, as did state Sen.-elect Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg.

Flanked by state Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, left, and state Sen.-elect Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg, right, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera visits Dover Area High School, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Rivera started the morning by giving an update about what the Pennsylvania Department of Education has been working on the last few months. The first thing he mentioned was the new Basic Education Funding formula, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in June. The formula aims to more equitably distribute state money to schools.

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He also spoke of the suspension of the Keystone exams at the high school level as a requirement for graduation. Signed into law in February after a high number of students failed to demonstrate proficiency on exams, it delays the requirement for at least two years. Rivera said the department is exploring other options that would show college or career readiness among graduating students.

New performance scores: Finally, Rivera spoke of changes to the School Performance Profile  scores, which are given to each school district based on a variety of indicators but rely heavily on standardized testing. Department officials met with educators throughout the state to get feedback on the SPP scores before unveiling their recommendations, which were made public on Monday.

Rivera and the department have recommended the creation of a new measure called the Future Ready PA Index, which includes a number of new measures in its calculations and doesn't rely as heavily on standardized test scores. Instead, the index would look at different aspects that show students are college- or career-ready, regardless of how well they test.

The recommendations include calculations for English language learners that don't rely  on English language arts  standards; incentivizing career awareness; and giving more weight to courses such as advanced-placement courses or dual enrollments. Rivera also stressed that schools focusing on vocational or other career training would get extra credit in their scores.

Rivera said the current SPP scores force educators to teach to the test and not explore other areas of learning.

"We know as human beings ... if you have one measure you're being judged on, that's all you focus on," he said.

In the coming weeks, Rivera will meet with leaders in the House and Senate to discuss the recommendations, gather more feedback and build support for the Future Ready PA Index.

PSERS: After updating the group, there was an opportunity for educators to ask questions. Dover Area business manager Jennifer Benko updated Rivera on the district's finances and asked about the future of the Public School Employees' Retirement System. School districts and their employees pay into PSERS, but over the past several years the districts' share of the contributions has grown.

On Thursday morning, the PSERS Board of Trustees approved an employer contribution rate of 30.03 percent for the 2016-17 fiscal year. School districts are reimbursed for their contributions, but only a portion. Since the 2010-11 school year, the total percentage of employer contributions into PSERS has increased from 5.64 percent to the 30.03 percent this year, according to documents on the PSERS website.

Rivera acknowledged pension reform is a major ongoing topic in the governor's office, but careful work needs to be done to ensure current and old debt in the PSERS system is met somehow.

"I can't say anything promising, but the governor's office has this conversation every day," Rivera said.

Phillips-Hill said school districts such as Dover have done an "exceptional job financially" to cut other costs in order to afford the pension increases.

Rivera and the educators went on to discuss the future of education in general, including how technology will continue to be implemented in classes and a push to not only make students college-ready but to also focus on other paths to success, such as vocational training.

Before going on his tour of the school, Rivera thanked everyone in the room for  having an open discussion.

"My goal was to make everyone feel better about education," he said.