Category Archives: Schools as Neighborhood/Democratic Institutions

Cultural Competency: Responsibility, Research, and Results (plus Ron Edmonds still relevant after all these years)

Today, the MCPS Board of Education will be discussing efforts MCPS is making to address cultural challenges (ex, race, language, home settings) the system faces with implications for reducing the stubborn achievement gap the system finds itself challenged by.  Some of the editorial team members of the MoCoEdBlog have looked at this issue and some of the briefing documents MCPS is using and have a few comments to add to the discussion.  This post is a synthesis of email conversations among some members of the MoCoEdBlog, specifically Joe Hawkins, Mike Petrilli, and Phil Piety who authors this post.


There is general agreement that this is an important issue for MCPS.  How well schools serve the needs of all students is a critical issue and the role of educators’ attitudes and school culture have long been known to be keys to addressing these issues.  One of the documents shared with BOE to prepare them for this discussion focused on helping educators to not blame children and their parents for school failures, but to look for what they can do to take responsibility. This reminds me of an educational equity scholar, Ron Edmonds, who in 1982 made a famous declaration about effective schools:

“It seems to me, therefore, that what is left of this discussion are three declarative statements: (a) We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; (b) We already know more than we need to do that; and (c) Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

Edmonds was not saying poverty and home circumstances do not matter.  How could he or anyone suggest that?  What he was saying was that the solution lie not in focusing on those issues as determinants of results, but adults taking the responsibility for success in spite of those realities. Edmonds went on to provide six core recommendations for schools in achieving these ends.

  1. Strong administrative leadership.
  2. High expectations.
  3. An orderly atmosphere.
  4. Basic skills acquisition as the school’s primary purpose.
  5. Capacity to divert school energy and resources from other activities to advance the school’s basic purpose.
  6. Frequent monitoring of pupil progress.

In Edmonds framing, the culture is evidenced by actions, by deliberate things that include high expectations and strong instructionally focused school leaders.


Several readers of the MCPS briefing document noted the powerful rhetoric including this statement:

“In building upon the cultural synchronicity, demographic parity, and humanistic commitment dispositions, OHRD increased its recruitment effort with an emphasis on colleges and universities as the major recruitment source for new teachers.”

This kind of statement is rich with intention and inference.  For the general public and for those intending to carry out this mission, what does it mean?  MoCoEdBlog is not sure.

These kinds of statements are a reminder that it is all too easy to use the language of equity, but that this may not be the same as the actions.  While a teacher or a school leadership team may profess commitments to universal success, this isn’t the same as actually doing it.  Despite the many problems with accountability and oversight, the unfortunate truth is it is needed in many cases as not all educators do the right things on their own.


Part of the plan MCPS is previewing involves finding teachers (ex: African American males) who are more like the kinds of students that are traditionally harder for school systems to reach.  What does the research say about the selection of culturally connected teachers?  Mike Petrilli points to a piece in EducationNext from 2004 that suggests that this is an area that can make a difference. This important paper highlights the many challenges to studying these populations, including student mobility.  Incidentally, student mobility is much higher in higher needs populations and this complicates efforts to evaluate educators serving these students as well.  The paper also provides a caution by saying:

“[The] results clearly support the conventional assumption that recruiting minority teachers can generate important achievement gains among minority students. However, they also suggest that a typically overlooked cost of such efforts may be a meaningful reduction in the achievement of nonminority students.”


A challenge for MCPS going forward is how will it know whether these efforts are actually yielding results.  How will the system’s leadership know that workshops are leading to actual changes in schools or just more opportunities for school leaders to find a new set of jargon to use while still treating students the same?  As the MCPS Chief Community Engagement Officer has noted, communities with greater needs are also ones where family participation is difficult for many reasons.  If a privileged family believes there is an educational problem in their school they are more likely to advocate within the system and raise red flags for school system leadership. In disadvantaged communities there are both practical issues to parent advocacy as many parents are working hard at survival and even more cultural barriers that make family advocacy not assured.

In raising a few questions about these efforts, MoCoEdBlog recognizes this is not a trivial exercise.  It is not a trivial issue.  MCPS’ efforts are not trivial and deserve attention and discussion.  We invite additional commentary from MCPS and from others in the community to address these important challenges.

Race Matters. A Response to Rick Kahlenberg on Integration

Why did I tell the Washington Post reporter Bill Turque that I do not believe in white supremacy when asked about school boundaries and integration as a strategy for addressing the achievement gap?  Because, I strongly believe that until we all confront the impact of race on ourselves and the way we see the world, children of color will not benefit honestly and equally from any so-called educational reforms.

I am sure that many things that I will write will make some people uncomfortable, but that is okay.  I hope that our discomfort will lead to honest, meaningful dialogue and growth ― for us all.  Economic diversity is a laudable goal for our schools, and eliminating economic isolation will be good for all students; but before we can get to that, we cannot ignore the real impact that race plays.  Just look at the issue of dis-proportionality in suspensions and special education.  Racism is a factor in education that cannot be eradicated by a silver bullet or putting our heads in the sand.

While Mr. Kahlenberg recognizes my very real concerns with the issue of school integration, he simply substitutes class for race.  Racial integration is replaced by economic integration.  Unfortunately, Mr. Kahlenberg still misses the fundamental issue that must be addressed and the issue I deal with daily both as a parent of three Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) graduates and a school board member ― Race matters.   We still live in a country, state, and county where all children are not equally valued.  In the discussion to look at school boundaries as a way to address the achievement gap, the assumption is that by lowering poverty levels in some schools there could be room to increase achievement for lower-income students.  In my eyes that construct is the subtle foundation of the problem.

I agree with Mr. Kahlenberg when he states that “low income students of all races benefit from being in a middle class school setting – in which students are, on average, more academically engaged, parents are more likely to volunteer in class and participate in school affairs and stronger teachers are found.”  Here is my problem, two of those three factors that make for “good schools”  are fundamental to any school system, especially one as wealthy as MCPS.  Strengthening curriculum and constantly improving teacher quality will have a significant impact, but that is not enough. We have to address the issue of who are the children in our classrooms and what do we expect of them. Two things have happened that I believe Mr. Kahlenberg knows, but is not acknowledging.  The majority of our school enrollment is now Black and Hispanic, and our poverty rate (we use Free and Reduced-price Meals System services – FARMS as the proxy) has risen above 30 percent.  In my eyes, that means you cannot ignore the intersection of race and class or put them on the back burner.

Mr. Kahlenberg further supports his reform strategy by quoting from the 2010 Century Foundation study conducted by Heather Schwartz.  Again, more evidence that low-income students in lower- poverty schools do better than low-income students in high-poverty schools.  No arguments there. What I am not sure gets highlighted in the study is what is the racial compositions of the low-poverty schools.  If you are talking about high schools with FARMS rates below 10 percent, all of them have a combined White and Asian student enrollment between 69 and 82 percent.  The racial compositions of those schools helps define their academic culture.  In Montgomery County, no high school exists that could be considered low poverty (FARMS below 20 percent) where Black and Hispanic students are the majority of the enrollment.  So again, it is hard for me to decouple race and class.  The high-poverty students in low-poverty schools are almost definitely Black or Hispanic going to predominately White and Asian schools.

When Mr. Kahlenberg mentioned choice programs as a tool for alleviating economic segregation, I shuttered because what I believe underlies that strategy is the expectation that middle class families will be involved and demand excellence from those schools.  What then happens in those situations where low income kids are in schools far outside of their home neighborhoods? How do families get and stay involved in the PTA?  How do they stay engaged with the school during the day?  While that model may work for parents with transportation, flexibility in their schedule and means, it may not be as simple for those without.

Looking at the numbers and the economic geography of the county, there is no way to avoid the need to move large numbers of high- and low-poverty students far distances to create the economic diversity Mr. Kahlenberg wants to promote. Changing the dynamic of the geographic concentrations of poverty in Montgomery County is not a function that the school system can address.  We can work with the County Council and the Planning Board, but housing decisions are not in our wheelhouse, nor should they be.

In this formula based on my read of Mr. Kahlenbergs arguments, low-income children will benefit from being in lower-poverty schools because those schools will have students who are more engaged, parents who are more involved, and better teachers.  (For arguments’ sake, I have reduced his argument to these three main points.)  My argument is, if you want to see those three factors strengthened in our schools, you have to tackle the biggest elephant in the room and that is RACE and RACISM.

Karin Chenoweth wrote eloquently about high-performing, high-poverty schools in her book, Getting It Done.  In writing about principals and school leadership, Chenoweth says “…the role is the same or at least the responsibilities are, but that there are additional challenges and barriers about which the principal needs to take immediate and strategic action.”  Many of those challenges and barriers in fact are critical to students feeling a sense of empowerment or agency.

I cannot emphasize enough the need to address the issue of race with the staff in our schools.  That work gets to the root cause of so many important issues from teacher expectations to student discipline.

Until we understand who is in our classrooms and learn to value them equally, changes in the demographics of schools based on socio-economics will not bare the academic achievement fruit we all want.

So, how does all of this relate to the issue of the achievement gap?  When we talk about gaps we speak in terms of how students are performing instead of looking at how we, the adults, are doing at providing the skills students need to be successful.  Over and over students tell me that they hear the message that Black and Latino students, low-income students, and students receiving Special Education services are less able than their White and Asian peers.  By discussing academic achievement from that construct, it is easier to address changing the “under-performing” students instead of changing behaviors and actions of the adults.  And there we have the subtle inference of white supremacy.

From my vantage point as a parent and a member of the Board of Education, I want to put the majority of the burden back on the adults in both the school houses and central office to do more and do better by all of our children.

Race continues to be a fundamental part of the political landscape, therefore, a part of the educational landscape.  Look, I don’t have a visceral disagreement with Mr. Kahlenberg’s theory, I just think it is out of sync with the work that needs to go on in this county.

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.

An Exciting Opportunity to Integrate Montgomery County Schools by Richard Kahlenberg

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, the issue of school integration is once again back on the agenda for Montgomery County public schools.

In April, the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight issued a disturbing report showing that racial and economic achievement gaps are growing and segregation is rising.  But tucked into the report was the hopeful finding that low-income students in lower-poverty schools perform better than low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools.

Earlier this month, County Council members, pointing to the report, met with school officials to ask about ways to promote greater diversity in the public schools.  More than 80 school districts across the country, educating some 4 million students, are taking affirmative steps to reduce concentrations of school poverty.  Montgomery County itself has a policy on the books that says factors like the socioeconomic status (as measured by eligibility for subsidized meals) should be a factor in the drawing of school boundaries and the construction of school choice programs.


According to a recent article in the Washington Post, superintendent Joshua Starr said the school system plans to evaluate its school choice programs and might address as part of that review the issue of integration.  But one school board member, Christopher Barclay was reportedly hostile to the idea (see editor’s note below).

Barclay was, in reporter Bill Turque’s words, “offended by the notion that students of color could thrive only if surrounded by more middle-class and affluent whites.”  Barclay told the reporter, “I don’t believe in white supremacy.”  Boundary changes to achieve greater integration would simply hide “pockets of need” within diverse schools.  “I don’t want kids shipped all over the world,” Barclay said.

These concerns are not those of a white right-wing segregationist from Mississippi but rather a thoughtful African American Montgomery County school board member who has in the past served as president of the board.  These issues deserve respectful consideration.  Take each in turn:


  • Underlying the idea of school integration are notions of white supremacy:  that black children will do better if they sit next to white students in class.

School board member Barclay is right to suggest it is highly insulting to think that black and Latino students somehow benefit academically from being around children whose skin happens to be white.  But that is not why most people advocate school integration.  First, schools are about more than boosting test scores.  A big part of the reason to want racial integration is that we want children to learn to get along with students of all different backgrounds and to reduce racial and ethnic prejudice.  White students benefit, just as black and Latino students do, from this interaction.

Second, on the narrower question of academic achievement, the evidence has suggested not that black students benefit from being around white students but rather that low-income students of all races benefit from being in a middle-class school setting – in which students are, on average, more academically engaged, parents are more likely to volunteer in class and participate in school affairs, and stronger teachers typically are found. As UCLA professor Gary Orfield noted long ago, “educational research suggests that the basic damage inflicted by segregated education comes not from racial concentration but the concentration of children from poor families.”

  • Integration will simply serve to hide the needs of underachieving students.

Barclay is correct that in the past, when schools reported average student test scores, the lower scores of disadvantaged students were often hidden, to their detriment.  But one of the important advances in federal educational policy is the “disaggregation” of test scores by race and economic status.  Now, if a school as a whole is doing well but certain racial, ethnic, or economic subgroups are not, the inequality will be in plain sight for everyone to see.

Moreover, powerful evidence suggests that low-income students will perform much better, on average, in middle-class schools.  A 2010 Century Foundation study conducted by Heather Schwartz of RAND Corporation found that students from families randomly assigned to public housing units in Montgomery County performed much better in math when they lived in lower-poverty neighborhoods and attended lower-poverty schools, even though higher poverty schools in Montgomery spend more per pupil. About two-thirds of the positive effect was associated with attending a low-poverty school and one-third with living in a low-poverty neighborhood.

  • We shouldn’t “ship” kids “all over the world.”

In the early days of desegregation, some programs did “ship” kids around, as Barclay suggests, giving their families no say in the matter.  Today, however, intelligently designed integration programs try to achieve their goal through parental choice.  In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, a socioeconomic integration program avoids compulsory busing.  Instead, parents choose among a variety of schools, each with a different pedagogical approach or theme, and 90% of parents get one of their first three choices.  Montgomery County should explore expanding magnet programs and using choice to bring about greater diversity in its schools.

Likewise, in Montgomery County, it is possible to achieve greater levels of socioeconomic integration by adjusting boundaries of nearby schools.  For example, as Joe Hawkins points out in his recent blog post for Bethesda Now, the County already plans to build a new elementary school in the White Flint area.  Thinking strategically about the placement of the school and the drawing of boundaries could promote economic integration in a way that would not inconvenience children or ship them anywhere.

School board member Christopher Barclay’s concerns are important and legitimate but today, there are ways to shape integration programs – by emphasizing socioeconomic status over race, and choice over compulsory busing — to gain the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Barclay has been invited to respond to this post and plans to provide another post to appear in this blog shortly.  MoCoEdBlog invites other perspectives to this and other topics of interest.