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The MoCoEdBlog 2014 Candidate Forum

This year, four Board of Education seats are up for election: one at large and districts 1, 3, and 5.  The MoCoEdBlog is inviting all candidates for these seats to post on our blog in response to some questions the editors believe are important issues the board may need to address in coming years.  There is no set word limit in responding to these questions, but a few short paragraphs should be enough for readers unless the candidate believes the issue is so complex that it deserves more depth.

  1. Evaluating Educators. MCPS has gone its own way in Maryland on teacher evaluation.  It did not participate in the Race to the Top (RttT) grant that would have given MCPS funds in exchange for implementing a test-based teacher evaluation system.  Now, the state superintendent may require MCPS to adopt MSDE’s requirement that 50% of a teachers’ evaluation be determined by test scores. Would you support MCPS standing its ground or should it become more aligned with the state’s approach?  Would you support the new proposal in MCPS to have student, teacher and principal feedback as part of teacher, principal and associate superintendent evaluation, respectively?
  2. Common Core Standards.  The MCPS web site does not say much about “Common Core” standards but instead focuses on its own “Curriculum 2.0” and has teachers and students learning new standards through the county’s developing curriculum and teacher training.  Do you support the Common Core?  Is MCPS doing a good job of navigating the new standards?  And, how would you direct them to do it differently?
  3. Diverse Populations/Achievement Gap. Given that MCPS is becoming even more economically and racially divided, and the implications for a growing achievement gap, do you support school assignment/boundary policies to create more economically and racially integrated schools?  What other measures to address achievement gaps do you support?
  4. Management/Union Collaboration.  MCPS has a collaborative relationship with its three employee unions. What kind of labor/management collaboration do you support in areas usually reserved as “management prerogatives?” What would you change in this regard and how does your answer reflect your view of the Board of Education’s oversight and management role?

The MoCoEdBlog is non-political and will not endorse any candidate.  As responses from candidates come in we will post them.  We request that responses not attack others and that if anyone quoted in a post have an opportunity to see and comment on the quote prior to it being sent in for posting.

The Lesson DC Schools Could Teach Montgomery County: A Response to Chris Barclay on School Integration

As Montgomery County schools consider ways to reduce the achievement and opportunity gaps by race and income, it might take a page from the Washington, D.C. public schools — not often thought of as a model for Montgomery.

Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has approved a new school boundary policy that includes an important equity provision to give at-risk students a chance to attend more affluent schools.  As the Washington Post noted in an article Friday:

“The plan sets aside at least 10 percent of seats in every elementary school for out-of-boundary students, along with 15 percent of middle school seats and 20 percent of high school seats.  The plan says that at risk students should have a preference in the lottery for 25 percent of all out-of-boundary seats in any given year in more affluent schools.”

“At risk” students are defined as those who are “in foster care, homeless, in families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), in families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), or are high school students who are more than one year over-age for their grade.”

(D.C. Mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser says she has concerns that the overall plan does not do enough to promote educational equality and reform.  In an article outlining her concerns, there was no mention of the set aside plan).

As I argued in an earlier blog post, there is compelling evidence that policies of socioeconomic integration can produce better outcomes for low-income students, and that middle-class students can benefit as well from being in a diverse environment.

Longtime Montgomery County School Board member Chris Barclay, in a thoughtful response to my post, suggested, with important caveats, that he agrees with the thrust of the objective.  “Economic diversity is a laudable goal for our schools, and eliminating economic isolation will be good for all students,” he writes.  He later notes that there is “evidence that low-income students in lower-poverty schools do better than low-income students in high-poverty schools.  No arguments there.”

But Mr. Barclay emphatically suggests that socioeconomic integration programs, and education policies in general, must recognize “the impact of race on ourselves and the way we see the world.”  He suggests, “Racism is a factor in education that cannot be eradicated by a silver bullet or putting our heads in the sands.”  When we talk about the results of a  2010 Century Foundation study of Montgomery County schools by Heather Schwartz on the benefits of economically disadvantaged students attending affluent schools, he says, we must recognize that “the high-poverty students in low-poverty schools are almost definitely Black and Hispanic going to predominantly White and Asian schools.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Barclay on the continuing significance race in American society.   One need look no farther than housing patterns.  Researchers find that even middle-income African Americans live in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than low-income whites.   As a result, minority students are much more likely to attend high-poverty schools than white students, as the Economic Policy Institute’s Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss find.  While only 5 percent of white kindergartners attend high-poverty elementary schools, 57% of black kindergartners do.  Likewise, in Heather Schwartz’s Century Foundation study of Montgomery County schools, 72% of students from families in public housing were African American.

I also agree with Mr. Barclay that we need to focus on “changing behaviors and actions of the adults.”  Integration doesn’t work just by plunking kids of different backgrounds together.  Adults need professional development to help them capitalize on racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in the classroom to allow all children to reach their potential.

So why do I nevertheless emphasize integration by socioeconomic status?  First, the social science evidence suggests that a socioeconomic mix is the key to raising academic achievement.  Evidence suggests that a school that is beautifully integrated by race but is 100% poor is likely to struggle.  Second, as a matter of constitutional law, integration plans that emphasize socioeconomic are far less legally vulnerable than plans assigning students by race.

Mr. Barclay concludes by arguing that poverty concentrations should be addressed through housing policy rather than schooling.  “Changing the dynamic of the geographic concentrations of poverty in Montgomery County is not a function that the school system can address,” he argues.  I agree that housing policies – like Montgomery’s inclusionary zoning plans – are critical.  But today one-quarter of students attend schools other than the closest public school, so there is a great deal school districts can do to promote integration through public school choice.

Montgomery County prides itself on having the best schools in in the Washington D.C. area.  To preserve that place, however, the County must grapple with rising economic segregation, as Mayor Gray is beginning to in D.C.  The achievement gap by race and class is not inevitable; it is the product of inequalities of opportunity.  And a part of the solution involves giving more low-income students a chance to attend high-quality, middle-class schools.

Responding to Rick Kahlenberg on Integration

Rick Kahlenberg’s commentary on the Montgomery County school boundaries debate highlights an issue of critical importance to all of us who care about improving disadvantaged children’s odds of success, and of ensuring a thriving democracy. With a student body that is increasingly diverse, not only at the County but at the national level, we have both a moral imperative and self-interest in ensuring all students an enriching, equitable education. As Rick and I wrote recently for the Huffington Post, we also have an opportunity to expose our children to the diversity that is the reality across the globe, and to prepare them to thrive in that world.

Unfortunately, as my colleague Emma Garcia and I report in a paper we co-authored for the Economic Policy Institute and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, intense segregation in our schools is preventing us from fulfilling that promise. Looking at US 5-year-olds who entered kindergarten in 2010-2011, we find that white students tend to begin school in classes with students who look like them, while the inverse is true for Hispanic and black students; they are surrounded mostly by minority peers. This might not, in itself, pose problems. Very problematic, however, is the associated finding that most of the former group of students also share classrooms with non-poor students, while the majority of children of color have peers who live in poverty. As Rick cogently points out, it isn’t racial concentration that poses the real problem, but rather the concentrated poverty that it masks, but that tends to come with it. Minority children, even those whose parents earn above poverty-line wages, are thus more likely than their white counterparts to be surrounded both in school and at home by adults who are unemployed, not married, and lack social capital and connections, and by students whose parents have on experience navigating the college-going system, fewer resources, and less capacity to navigate and influence their schools.

I join Rick in urging MCPS to complement its other poverty-alleviating policies by using school boundary decisions to attend to issues of racial and income segregation. As a district at the forefront of other policies that may be controversial but are wise, I hope it will lead the way on this one as well.

Tackling Poverty the Right Way: A Reply to Elaine Weiss by Joe Hawkins

In her well stated piece, Tackling Poverty the Right Way, Elaine Weiss wrote, “As our poverty rate rises, then, and as achievement gaps rise in tandem, we must protect what has helped to alleviate poverty’s effects, even as we improve our analysis of what families need and deepen our commitment to providing that support.”

What jumps out here is the need to improve analyses. Specifically, I believe Elaine is suggesting that we make a commitment to better understand poverty in Montgomery County and how poverty impacts students, families, communities, and our schools.

I would like to share two suggestions for improving our understanding of poverty. And my suggestions assume that the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and the Montgomery County government would work together.

Suggestion #1: Make a long-term commitment to following and documenting the lives of the poor in Montgomery County.

As a district, MCPS has never undertaken a thorough analysis and understanding of what it means to be poor. Traditionally, MCPS only views being “poor” through the lense of the federal FARMS program. FARMS stands for free and reduced meals. Schools use FARMS as a stand-in indicator for poverty. Students eligible for FARMS are labeled “poor.”

I have always viewed FARMS as a simple “sign post,” and only that. Sure, it tells us which students and families are poor—economically challenged, but it tells us very little about those families and their needs. We need to improve our analysis of what challenged means.

I would like to see MCPS and the county government commit to periodically following and documenting the lives of the poor. And there are proven ways to do this. For example, without reinventing anything, we could commit to using the federal government’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) program, which is designed to examine child development, school readiness, and early school experiences. Click here to learn more about ECLS: For decades, ECLS has provided researchers and policy makers with a wealth of data. We need such insights and it is time we commit to such activities.

Suggestion #2: Pick a specific poor Montgomery County neighborhood or community and commit to understanding every aspect of life in that community.

Now, on one level, MCPS and the county government are doing this via The Kennedy Cluster Project. Click here to learn more about the project:

However, to date, the Kennedy Cluster Project has failed to produce a single informative public report on the status of the project. I’m not even sure officials could describe, with details, life in the Kennedy Cluster. There have been a number of public hearings on the project, but at these hearings, officials mostly have stated that little is known yet.

Perhaps, the Kennedy Cluster Project staff should take a short drive over to Langley Park and quiz Casa de Maryland staff about how they’ve accomplished what they’ve accomplished with “Langley Park” Project.

If you have not paid attention to what Casa de Maryland is doing in Langley Park, you are missing out on what I would call a great example of how a poor and challenged community is being thoroughly studied and then supported with a wide variety of new programs and initiatives. Click here to read Casa’s Cradle to Career report:

Click here to learn more about what Casa is doing in Langley Park:

At the end of the day, because it has done its homework, including thoroughly analyzing the students and families it plans to serve, Casa is positioned for success. Because it has not done its homework, MCPS and the county government are at best positioned to continue saying to the public that it knows little about the lives of the poor living in the Kennedy Cluster. We can and must do better.