Monthly Archives: July 2014

Common Core – coming soon

The blogging/editorial team at MoCoEdBlog are working on a series of posts about the Common Core State Standards, including a basic overview of what they are, why they are important, and how they relate to MCPS curriculum and state testing.

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.

New MCPS Report Cards –Good Ideas, Sign of the Times, Room for Improvement by Phil Piety

Sometimes education seems like the place where good ideas do not come to die, but rather to find out how complex the problems they are trying to solve really are.  One they run into the difficult realities of educational practice they rarely die quickly even if their authors hope they do.  The new Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) report cards featuring  the letters I for “in progress”, P for “proficient,” and ES for “exceeds standards” is another great idea that is based on a sound logic, but that has run into difficult implementation. I actually don’t think the new MCPS report cards should die, but neither do I think they should live on in their current form.

The design of these new report cards is based on what is called standards-based grading (SBG) where the information delivered to parents is about what the students know or don’t know based on the standards they are to be taught to. Historically letter grades have been considered too broad to be useful in diagnosing problems with learning.  A student receives a B, but what is it that he or she needs to learn to make an A?  Traditional grades are also known to be subjective.  A student may have mastered the content, but didn’t look like they were learning or have the attitude the teacher wanted could get a B while another student who didn’t show as much achievement but made tremendous efforts could get an A.  Research has shown that traditional grading practices vary from teacher to teacher.  Many teachers communicate much more than achievement through traditional grades and SBG is an effort to standardize grading around what students should be learning.

I think SBG is a good idea and MCPS’s use of it admirable.  As a parent of kids in MCPS, however, I have found the results less than useful.  I find what Washington Post Education Writer Donna St. George called the Plethora of Ps difficult to use.  I have found it difficult to match the proficiency mark in one area difficult to reconcile with other parts of the report card and what we see coming home.   After two years of experience with this new SBG report card and hearing many stories of frustration from other parents, I can see four issues that are worth considering.

  1. Producing proficiency (Ps) is now considered a primary responsibility of a teacher.  This focus on standards proficiency is the result of the standards-based accountability that has been going on since before No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  While many educators think this is over emphasized in comparison to other areas of social and emotional development, the reality today is that proficiency counts.  In the past many teachers felt that grades should be distributed across the different letters with a certain percentage getting As and another percentage Bs, etc.  Many teachers then distributed grades accordingly and sometimes the reason a student got one grade versus another seemed arbitrary yo fit that pattern.  In today’s climate there is belief that a teacher’s job is to get all kids to academic proficiency and so for many a report card that has many Ps in it shows teachers did their job. This means in the world of educators and teachers there is a built-in implicit incentive to produce Ps.
  2. There are disconnected data points.  One of the biggest problems with the MCPS SBG approach is that standards in the report card are presented without some important context.  In the area of elementary math, for example, there are many many standards shown and each is given an individual evaluation.  However, the way the new CCSS math standards are designed is around what are called “learning trajectories” that string different standards together into these sequences of proficiency.  These areas, such as “Number and Operations in Base Ten” have many individual standards across multiple grades.  The MCPS report cards read like an inventory of the standards that are intended to be taught at a given grade (ex: grade 3) and don’t show the larger trajectories with related standards at lower/higher grades.  In reality many students can perform in areas outside of their assigned grades.  Including this multi-grade context (with a meaningful graphic representation) will probably help everyone make sense out of the data points.  Without some better information organization, parents see an ocean of P’s, I’s, and rarely ES’s, but the overall picture of learning is lost.In addition, most of the standards in the MCPS report cards are summary standards that are actually composed of many more detailed sub-standards.  For example, a fourth grade standard to “understand place value” is defined as three different kinds of understandings and to know whether a student actually has mastered one of these sub-standards would usually require multiple tasks.  So each I on a report card should be represented by Is, Ps, and/or ESs on the sub-standards.
  3. The new report cards dropped important information that was valuable for parents and students.  The shift from traditional to SBG seems to have been abrupt and important teacher comments and other information that would help parents understand the classroom environment and how they child is doing omitted.  Even if that “legacy” information can be replaced in the future, phasing it out slowly and giving parents a chance to learn how to use the new report cards is probably a good idea.
  4. SBG reports can still be subjective.  While the shift from traditional letter grades to SBG is intended to put the focus on what students have actually learned as opposed to teacher perceptions, the reality is that the much of this assessment of achievement is still largely subjective.  The tools MCPS uses such as MAP-R and MAP-M do not produce detailed analysis by standard of what students know or don’t know.  Until we reach a point where every score from I to P to ES (or whatever other coding system is used) can be backed up by examples of student work and where students can achieve a P or ES by multiple means then these report cards are not much better than traditional letter grades, although they can give the impression that they are.  Because there is no mark for “uncertain” there may be cases where when teachers are in doubt they assign a P or an I rather than indicate the true assessment of not sure, which adds to the confusion parents are experiencing.

In summary, the new MCPS report cards are based on a good idea of SBG or standards-based grading that is intended to shift the focus on what students have learned rather than a subjective evaluation of the teacher. In reality, they don’t quite achieve that goal yet. They are like many ideas to improve education—including evaluating teachers based on how much students learn (value added modeling) or holding school accountable for making sure that no child is left behind—that seem quite reasonable at first, but are much more complex and difficult to do well in practice.    MCPS intentions should be commended for being out in front of this effort and trying SBG well before the rest of the country.  At the same time, being on the bleeding edge when there is so little research and a big learning curve for parents and educators alike is risky.  Focusing on how to improve this area should be a priority for both the school system and parents who should make their information needs known. Without some advocacy for better information in the future, the next several years may see parents continuing to struggle to make good use of the reports that come home.

Montgomery County and MCPS: Tackling Poverty the Right Way by Elaine Weiss

Achievement gaps, which had been narrowing in Montgomery County, are on the rise again in recent years. Parents, City Council members, and others are understandably frustrated, and demand answers. Unfortunately, that uptick is not uncommon; districts in virtually every state have experienced surges in both child and concentrated poverty and, with them, growing achievement gaps.

Now may thus be an opportune time to explore how the county’s proactive approach to addressing poverty has helped shrink achievement gaps in recent decades, and what more it could do. This approach includes both school district and County-based initiatives; together, they tackle many of the poverty-related impediments to learning that scholars have identified, resulting in achievement gaps that, while still too large, are far smaller than in most other districts, and that demonstrate the real opportunities Montgomery County affords low-income and minority students.

As the mother of two daughters who attend Red Zone elementary schools, one of them among the County’s largest, poorest, and most non-English speaking, I see the benefits of these choices every day.

Red and Green Zones. Former Superintendent Jerry Weast took a controversial step to address poverty in the district’s schools when he decided, in 2000, to classify those in less-affluent areas as Red Zone Schools, and to allocate them an additional $2,000 per student. This redistribution of funds supports smaller class sizes and extended learning time in Red Zone schools, where teachers also receive specialized professional development targeted at alleviating the effects of student disadvantage. Heather Schwartz’s rigorous study for the RAND Corporation demonstrates substantial benefits: the third grade reading gap shrank from 35 percentage points in 2003 to 19 points in 2008 for African Americans, and from 43 points to 17 points for Hispanics. As three researchers note in their 2009 book, “Improvements of this magnitude in a district of this size in so little time are rare in public education.”

Housing. However, that same study finds that mixed-use housing policy gives disadvantaged students an even bigger boost. Since the 1970s, Montgomery County has required developers of large subdivisions to set aside 12-to-15 percent of units for low-income and working-class families. As a result, some of the county’s lowest-income students are dispersed across schools, including in some of our wealthiest ones. Low-income students who live in those more affluent neighborhoods and attend Green Zone schools saw greater improvements in achievement than their Red Zone peers. In other words, “peer effects,” both in and out-of-school—living near and going to school with students with bigger vocabularies, higher expectations, and more connected parents – had a greater impact than smaller classes, extra teacher training, and other within-school advantages for students in higher-poverty schools.

Early Childhood Education. My younger daughter’s school, Rolling Terrace Elementary, is home to a Head Start and two pre-kindergartens – fulfilling the County’s guarantee of early education for all low-income 4-year-olds – and a Judy Center, a state-supported resource center where low-income parents can access a range of public and private supports and learn parenting and other skills. Our children also benefit from a state pre-k program that supplements federal Head Start funds and provides high-quality early childhood education to over one third of all 4-year-olds.

Health and Nutrition. Rolling Terrace opened a school-based health clinic last year, the latest in high-poverty schools over the past two decades. We have taken advantage of its convenience to check for pink eye, lice, and a banged-up knee. More important to the school, however, such clinics substantially reduce students’ absence due to preventable and easily treatable problems like strep throat, monitor and control asthma, and make sure kids who need glasses have them. Rolling Terrace is also one of eighteen schools that began serving breakfast to all students as a way to boost take-up of the “most important meal of the day,” reducing children’s loss of focus due to hunger or feeling stigmatized, and the school’s administrative burden.

Following the evidentiary trail. What is perhaps most remarkable about the County’s policy priorities is how closely they align with researchers’ findings regarding what works to narrow achievement gaps. Pre-kindergarten, increased access to meals and health services, housing policies that promote integration, smaller class sizes, and targeted academic support for disadvantaged students, are all found to substantially boost disadvantaged students’ success in school. Most states and districts, in contrast, have focused on using student test scores to evaluate teachers and principals, and to identify “low-performing” schools for interventions from “F” grades to conversion to charter schools or outright closure. These strategies, less or not at all aligned with the evidence, haven’t worked.

Former Superintendent Weast’s and current Superintendent Joshua Starr’s refusal to follow this path is largely responsible for Montgomery County’s success in boosting low-income students’ achievement, from test scores and AP class placement to high school graduation and college acceptance rates. 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.

Peer Assistance and Review by Mark Simon

Teacher, administrator, and support staff evaluation is not a one-size-fits-all system in MCPS. When problems are identified, intensive support and intervention are provided through “peer assistance and review.” The system was designed and implemented starting in 2000 by MCPS and the employee organizations representing teachers, principals, and support staff. The theory is that the work of teaching and making schools effective is complex. When there are problems, intensive work with under-performing educators is needed to bring about substantial improvement or removal. In general, teachers and others seem to feel the Peer Assistance and Review system is fair and helpful. Thousands have improved their practice, and after almost 15 years, hundreds of teachers are no longer teaching because it wasn’t a good fit. It seems to be working. It’s admired nationally. But with anything this ambitious, there are bound to be problems and room for improvement. We’re going to be looking for the skinny on how its working, 15 years later.

Labor/Management Collaboration by Mark Simon

Montgomery County Public Schools is well known nationally for the collaborative relationship between the administration and the three unions representing teachers, principals and other administrators, and support staff employees, respectively. All three sit on the Leadership Team at the superintendent’s monthly leadership meetings and all three participate in the budget development process. This has led, among other things, to voluntary sacrifices by employees when the budget was particularly tight. It has meant less posturing and miscommunication, compared with what unfolds in most other school districts. The workforce seems much more bought-in to the program. There’s more trust. However, transparency and collaboration have not made all conflict or disagreement disappear. And the Washington Post is constantly editorializing that the relationship is too cozy. Really? We’re going to be interested in getting at what difference any of this makes at the school and classroom level. Does it help or hurt problem-solving generally? Does “collaboration” necessarily make the administration more responsive? In the end, does it improve the experience of students and families?