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

Written by: MoCoEdBlog Editors

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.

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

  1. crunchymama says:

    It’s great that Rolling Terrace has these things; there wasn’t yet a Judy Center there back in the day when I taught instrumental music there as a long-term substitute.

    At my younger daughter’s elementary school there are also Head Start and pre-K programs, and in the back are offices that offer some wraparound services and help connect families with resources. However, this is not the norm at MCPS elementary schools, to the best of my knowledge; I’ve taught all over the county and have only taught at 2 lower-income schools that had Judy Centers, although many of my schools were what was then Red Zone schools (along with a number of Green Zone ones). Where Head Start is available, it only serves a fraction of the families who would benefit from it; there simply isn’t the funding, or the space, to have enough Head Start classes to reach all families, so its reach is not universal by any means. Right now 2 classrooms are dedicated in our neighborhood school for Head Start, and another for pre-K; there is literally no more room to squeeze in another class, not without displacing other teachers and classes or bringing in another “Learning Cottage” (or whatever MCPS is calling portables these days).

    The bare bones of addressing poverty are there in some places, but poverty is on the rise. More people need these services which are being cut at a time when low-income families can least afford such cutbacks, and MCPS – and the country – will be paying the price for this for years to come. We either pay now or we pay later.

    I see that a response has already been written to this piece, and there are some useful suggestions there if MCPS would care to follow them, or perhaps Maryland at a larger level.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *