Wednesday, September 6, 2006

valerie ervin vs. lucy v. barnsley

Now that we're less than a week away from the primary, I wanted to talk about Valerie Ervin. Though she hasn't brought it up in more recent interviews, she has gone on the record as saying that Montgomery County Public Schools' Gifted and Talented Program is racist, barring students of color from higher-level classes. She proposes that we dismantle the GT program and make its advanced curriculum available to everyone, regardless of ability.

Over ten years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Gifted and Talented Program at Barnsley Elementary School in Rockville for fourth and fifth grade. I remember how excited I was to be there; back home at Woodlin Elementary, I was the smartest kid in class - and now, I would be among my peers.

And I was wrong. My classmates came from wealthy families in Bethesda and Rockville and were ruthlessly competitive. A kid from a then-blighted Downtown Silver Spring who had only a vague idea of tutoring sessions and summer camp, I found myself slipping behind. My teachers were unsympathetic and condescending; one of them taped my mouth shut for talking too much. There were fifty-four students in the program, and I was one of only three students of color.

I failed the test to get into the magnet at Takoma Park Middle School, went back to my local middle school, and never looked back. Over ten years later, I found out some of my classmates had entered the Intel Science Talent Search - and won. They had good things to say about Barnsley. After all, it probably got them where they are today. Can I say the same about Barnsley? No.

But do I think the system is racist? No. The Gifted and Talented programs are designed for students who can handle advanced curricula. Forcing minority students who aren't qualified into the program would only make it worse for the students who are, and dumbing the curriculum down so anyone could take it would defeat the purpose of the program. Valerie Ervin's plan is political correctness gone awry and it's wrong.

Right now, the only way you could get into a school like Barnsley and succeed is if you came from a place like Potomac or Bethesda where the schools are good enough to prepare you for it. We should set all Montgomery County schools to a standard where willing and able students can go to a Gifted and Talented school and do well. I loved Woodlin, but it didn't get me where I needed to be for higher-level material. And that's where the problem lies.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you on this point. In fact, I will probably vote against Valerie Ervin simply because of her stance on the magnet programs. I attended the magnets in both elementary school and middle school (Takoma Park), and for what it’s worth I grew up in neither Potomac nor Bethesda. Basing entry into the program on racial quotas would simply reduce the quality of what is such a great program. When I was in the magnet program, there were kids of all races. They were there because they were smart, not because they had to fill a quota.

One thing that I always remember about the magnet program is that within the program the kids were VERY elitist. They would KNOW if you got in after being on a waitlist, and you became a second-class citizen because of this. I was told by other magnet kids that I was stupid because I was initially on the waitlist. The same is true for kids that were in the “lower” math class. There was almost a caste system where they geometry kids wouldn’t associate with those in algebra because they were “beneath” them. The reason I bring this up is if there is a perception (whether fair or not) that you were only admitted to the program because of the color of your skin, you may be looked down upon by your classmates.

Also, are they going to tell Asian parents that their race is overrepresented and their kids can’t attend the magnet because their spots need to be filled by black or Hispanic kids who wouldn’t normally qualify? Now THAT is racist.

Finally, I don’t think that going to a particular school has such a great effect on whether you get into the magnet or not. A lot of the test that they give you (“Raven” – at least it used to be) is about finding patterns in shapes, etc. That’s not something you necessarily learn in elementary school.

Maryam Balbed said...
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Maryam Balbed said...
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Anonymous said...

I wonder if some of those kids from the magnet program in that picture would have made it if Valerie's proposals were implemented. Maybe they would have been bumped because their complexion was not correct.

thecourtyard said...

Maryam: None of what you just said makes any sense, which is why it is all the more offensive. Valerie said what she said and I'm simply going off of that. Why hasn't she mentioned her qualms about the Gifted and Talented program recently? Because she knows it's not right.

Anonymous said...

Interesting observations on the magnets. The odd thing about the magnets, to me, is their status as a scarce resource - scarce enough that a student can only get in by lottery. even if he/she qualifies. So chance dictates whether you get in.

Now, I see two interesting dichotomies at work here. First, either the magnets/G-T programs work (they provide a better education for students who qualify, and there's evidence to this), or they don't work (there's no evidence that they are any better than regular ed). Second, either the magnets/G-T programs cost the same as regular education, or they cost more (I'll assume they don't cost less; they probably cost less than special ed).

Now, presumably the reason they are scarce is because they cost more - better teachers, better programs, better facilities, whatever. If they could be reproduced without additional investment, one imagines that they would be. Let's resolve dichotomy #2 - they cost more and represent a redirection of resources.

So, then we're left with two unpalatable conclusions: (1) the county is directing scarce resources towards magnet/G-T programs. These programs are effective, but fairly large numbers of students who would benefit from these programs can't get in. Should the effectiveness and quality of public education be a lottery?

Alternatively (2) the county is directing resources to magnet/G-T programs, but there's no evidence that they are effective. That's just depressing.

If a goal of these programs is really to resegregate the schools - to create exclusivity - to do racist tracking - or maintain white engagement in diverse schools - then I suppose that is another measure of "effectiveness" - and I think what Ervin has been pointing at.

On the other hand, I draw a different, though not opposite, conclusion. If these programs are effective at providing a better education for students, then they should be available for everyone who qualifies in the county. The MCPS magnet program has no coherent purpose that I can see - the goal definitely does not appear to be to provide the best education for all who qualify. As opposed to the way it works for special ed - the American With Disabilities Act has special clarity in its direction that doesn't allow for the obfuscation of G-T programs.

Anonymous said...

Since when was the magnet a lottery in MoCo? At least when I was a kid it was based on grades and standardized test scores. You made it in on merit, not the luck of the draw. I know this is different in some places, but unless it has changed, it isn’t that way here.

Maryam Balbed said...
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Anonymous said...

The U.S. spent a lot of money to "improve" Iraq. Is it better to live there now?

It isn't the money, its the admission policy that is the issue here.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you. I am a junior at Springbrook and I just started the rigorous IB program. I was blown away by the amount we are being given. And this from a guy who went to the Takoma Magnet Program and took two years of the Pre-IB program in 9th and 10th grade. Let me say this: If you are not prepared for the IB, you will not suceed in it.
I also have one other thing to say: of the 40 kids in my IB class only about 15 of them are white.

Maryam Balbed said...
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Anonymous said...

Wow the janitors and lunch ladies endorsed her. What's their position on maintaining the quality of the magnet programs?

Anonymous said...

"Montgomery Teachers To Support Mfume and Duncan"

They sure know how to pick the wrong horses.

Maryam Balbed said...
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Keith Berner - Takoma Park said...

Statement by Valerie Ervin on Educational Equity

I believe that every child in Montgomery County deserves a high quality education. I believe further that equity and excellence must go hand in hand as educational priorities in MCPS. We must reach for the stars for every child – that’s how we will close the achievement gap and prepare every child for a future of reaching their dreams.

Before and after being elected to the Board of Education, I have been there for all children in Montgomery County.

• Before being elected to the Board, I served as PTSA president at Montgomery Blair High School - the largest and most diverse school in the county.
• I served on the ongoing Deputy Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on gifted and talented concerns and worked toward improving quality, access, and reliability of Accelerated and Enriched Instruction (AEI) programs.
• During my tenure, the Board of Education approved new AEI programs, magnet schools and highly gifted centers – all of which I enthusiastically supported – to the tune of
o $342,511 in fiscal year ‘06
o $531,766 in fiscal year ‘07
• As a Board of Education member, I have consistently pushed MCPS to use an asset-based as opposed to a deficit-based model in its work to close the achievement gap.
o All children must be valued for their unique “gifts and talents”
o All children must be challenged and supported exactly where they need to be
o All children must be working in Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.”
• I have worked toward this goal by helping to bring some of the most cutting edge educational voices to Montgomery County to meet with parents, teachers, and administrators.
• I have worked with MCPS administrators toward a school system that highlights services over labels.

Every child in Montgomery County deserves the best that the school system has to offer. I have never favored eliminating services for one group of students to better serve another group.

thecourtyard said...

I don't hate seeing anything, Maryam. You're being nasty and attacking me and it just isn't right. Would Valerie Ervin approve of this?

Anonymous said...


Isn't it the school board's job to handle issues on education. Funny, I thought Hans Riemer was running for County Council.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if in China and India they are making their gifted and talented programs "more inclusive" and letting people with lower test scores and worse grades in. She is trying to legislate mediocrity. Perhaps we should eliminate scoring in high school athletics, as well. Then everyone can be a "winner".

Maryam Balbed said...
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Maryam Balbed said...
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thecourtyard said...

I enjoy how you take one meeting with Hans Riemer and make it sound like I'm in cahoots with him. I mean, it's not like I'm his web designer or something. It's not like I have a blog called "I Heart Hans Riemer." Not at all. So you can't call me his patsy any sooner than I can call you a whore for the Ervin campaign . . . because that's what you are, and you're doing yourself, Valerie Ervin, and the entire County blogging community a disservice with all of the spiteful attacks and bullshit you've been peddling today.

If you comment on this blog again, it will be deleted. Take my word for it, Maryam Balbed: You are not welcome here.

Anonymous said...


I live in the district which Valerie Ervin is running in, and based on your comments and attitude, I have decided to place my vote for Hans Riemer. I will be advising my wife and all my neighbors to do the same.

Parent said...

Val Ervin stands for the proposition, "Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself."

Anonymous said...

Whoa. There's some serious nasty flying around here.

As a parent of two kids, one just starting MS and the other just starting ES, and as a political activist, let me say this:

I think the original post was interesting from a personal perspective, but ultimately wrong (respectfully) from a policy angle.

I think some of Maryam's comments, while well-intentioned, I suppose, were also pretty annoying.

As a parent, I have seen the impact of GT programs up close. My older child was assessed as GT in 2nd grade, but also has some learning issues. We applied for the GT program at Pine Crest (mostly as an assessment tool) and the scores were right on the cusp. I know enough about MCPS that if I pushed on appeal, I would have prevailed, but that wouldn't have been the right decision.

But here's the point that I think everyone is missing. My child stayed in the regular elementary school, but some of the brightest students (with the most motivated parents) were GONE, and that has a huge impact on the elementary school.

This year, heading into middle school, it happened again. Many students head off to Eastern or Takoma Park Middle School, or one of the lottery programs, and although my child continues in a GT track, a big chunk of the brighter students (of ALL races and ethnicities, thank you very much) are gone.

And we wonder why our middle schools are not performing up to standards? Well, you go to any large company, pull out the brightest and most motivated employees twice in three years, and then see how the remainder of the employees perform.

And what do these programs do? As Dan says, they foster elitism and snobbery. Great. And what do they do for the kids educationally? Do they teach different stuff?

No, they don't. What they do is to load up the kids with more and more and more and more of the SAME WORK that is done in the regular schools, there's just MORE of it. For kids like mine who have problems with work production (not quality), it's impossible. And I submit that it doesn't do anything to help the kids learn more, it's just an excuse for the kids to be snobs and the parents to indulge their superiority.

Despite all this, yes, I think there ought to be GT programs, but they should be in the home schools, where the students stay involved with their peers, and where the motivated parents can stay involved with their kids' schools. And they should be qualitatively different, not quantitatively.

So I think Valerie Ervin has a point about magnet programs. They impair local schools by sucking the best students and most motivated parents out of the local schools, and they foster obnoxious behavior on the part of both students and parents. They need, at a minimum, to be changed dramatically.

And Dan, Dan, Dan, don't tell Maryam that you're going to delete her comments. Just because she disagrees with you, even in an imperious sort of way, doesn't make that kind of response appropriate. If you're going to talk about controversial issues, you're going to get heated and sometimes rancorous discussion. Deal with it.

Anonymous said...

Previous comment: excellent point. If the GT/Magnet programs work, they should be available for all. Home school would be better.

I made the original lottery comment - I know that my kids' home school (Woodlin) nominates more students for Pine Crest than end up going. Perhaps there isn't actually a lottery - students are ranked and then the top is admitted to the program - this has never beeen explained very well. TP Grade 1-2 program is definitely a lottery, though.

In any case, I doubt that the assessment instruments are sensitive enough to provide a cutoff that is distinguishable from a lottery for the students on the cusp; and even if it were precise, we're still looking at a scarce resource. If home elem schools do a good job of providing instruction for students who are on the cusp, then we have an overlapping set of resources that meet needs. Sort of like public higher education, where the "best" public university is a scarce resource, but the other schools are effective across the range of abilities.

I'm not sure this is the case in MCPS. There's some good things going on - notably in math (Woodlin, for instance, accelerates math instruction and has a new math resource teacher whose sole job, I think, is to teach advanced math for 4th & 5th grades) - but that's not the case across the entire curriculum.

Depressing commentary on elitism and exclusivity.

thecourtyard said...

anonymous 9:11 - maybe you're right. Maryam and her comments are representative of Valerie Ervin, meaning I might want to allow her back if it'll show what Ervin's really about.

On the other hand, though, I think there has to be some level of decorum even in an online forum. People are quick to say things online that they wouldn't say in real life, and that can be a dangerous thing.

Banned from the Pike said...

Dan, I deleted my comments because re-reading the conversation, my comments and yours...the whole thing was just silly.

And you don't need to let me back in. It feels kind of cool being banned ;-)

Anonymous said...

Nice backtracking. Did Valerie give you an earful?

banned from the pike said...

Not at all. Have never talked to her about you, or heard from her about you.

I speak when I want to, and I delete when I choose.

Anonymous said...

You are proably right i used to go to Lucy V Barnsley and it is a very compettive school.I think that other schools should teach kids on higher standards. So they can succed in life.