Thursday, June 27, 2013

northeast consortium an example of school choice gone wrong

Second in a series on segregation and academic equity in MCPS. Check out part ONE | part THREE | part FOUR

Each fall, thousands of 8th graders in Montgomery County participate in Maryland's oldest experiment in school choice, the Northeast and Downcounty consortia. Intended to prevent the school system's growing segregation, the consortia's 8 schools are not only more isolated than before, but academic performance has suffered.

NEC + Sherwood SAT
SAT scores have fallen at the Northeast Consortium high schools, while remaining steady at neighboring Sherwood and in MCPS as a whole.

Since the 1970's, MCPS has struggled to close the "achievement gap" between white and minority students and create more integrated schools. While officials had some success with magnet schools, in the 1990's, they sought a new approach with James Hubert Blake High School, which was being built near Olney.

Instead of redrawing the catchment boundaries, a long and controversial process, the Board of Education decided to let students integrate themselves by letting them choose among the new school and 3 nearby schools, Sherwood, Paint Branch and Springbrook. In 1998, the US Department of Education gave MCPS a $2.9 million grant to set up the Northeast Consortium.
From "controlled choice" to "preferred choice"

Each school in the consortium had a unique "signature program": Blake had fine arts and humanities, Paint Branch had science and media, and Springbrook had information technology. The schools would compete for students, making each program stronger and more distinct and hopefully discouraging them from leaving for private school. If the schools failed to integrate, a "controlled choice" program would take over, assigning students based on race and ethnicity.

Northeast Consortium Board at Briggs Chaney MS
A bulletin board at Briggs Chaney Middle School showing Northeast Consortium high school choices.

But Sherwood never made it into the consortium, due to parent complaints about the uncertainty of a new school and long bus rides. But there were unspoken concerns about mixing students from Sherwood, which was predominantly-white and affluent, with Springbrook and Paint Branch, which were poorer and majority-minority.

"Sherwood parents [were] afraid of their kids going to Springbrook," said Pat Ryan, a civic activist who helped plan the consortium, during a 2008 interview. "I talked to a lot of parents who said they moved to Olney because it's a predominantly-white area and they wanted their kids to go to school with white kids."

While some neighborhoods in Olney were still redistricted into the consortium, MCPS created "base areas" for each school as a concession, guaranteeing that those residents could attend Blake. Officials called this "preferred choice."

The problem repeated itself with the Downcounty Consortium, which MCPS started in 2004 with Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Wheaton and Northwood high schools. While the Board of Education originally considered including adjacent Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, parent outcry led them to drop it.

Schools unsuccessfully compete for middle-class students

Some Sherwood students resisted being redistricted, but school officials quickly noticed that Blake, the emerging top choice, was siphoning white and affluent students from Springbrook and Paint Branch.

NEC + Sherwood white students
The percentage of white students at the Northeast Consortium high schools, Sherwood and MCPS.

To encourage a similar demographic mix at each school, in 2006 the Board of Education gave extra weight to the choices of students on free and reduced lunch (FARMS). A federal appeals court had declared the system's prior use of race in school assignments unconstitutional.

Immediately, the number of students who received their first choice fell. In 2002, every single kid in the consortium got their first choice, but only 85% did in 2006. Not surprisingly, parents and students were livid.

NEC + Sherwood FARMS students
The percentage of students now or ever on FARMS at the Northeast Consortium high schools, Sherwood and MCPS.

But instead of becoming more integrated, the Northeast Consortium schools lost white and higher-income students, even as Sherwood's racial and socioeconomic mix remained steady. SAT scores plummeted in the consortium, but stayed the same at Sherwood.

To compete for a dwindling pool of middle-class students, each school began copying the others' signature programs. Here's what they offer today:

  • Blake: The arts, humanities and public service, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, business and consumer services
  • Paint Branch: Science and media, finance, engineering technology, child development and education, NJROTC, and restaurant management
  • Springbrook: International Baccalaureate, International studies, technology

  • Blake Jazz Band Close Up
    Blake's jazz band, shown in 2009, is part of their signature program.

    Today, 97% of Northeast Consortium students get their first choice. With a new building that opened last fall, Paint Branch is now tied with Blake for first choice. But given very similar choices, students seem to end up at their base school, whether by choice or default. In 2008, 73% of students at Paint Branch came from that school's base area, compared to 59% at Blake and 58% at Springbrook.

    Were the consortia worth it?

    In recent years, county officials have questioned the value of the Northeast and Downcounty consortia, which have neither improved academic performance nor provided socioeconomic and racial balance. That may have been less of an issue if Sherwood and B-CC had been involved, or if the "base areas" hadn't been added.

    I was in one of the first classes to participate in the Northeast Consortium, and I chose Blake, where I graduated in 2005. I had a great experience, and certainly a different one that had I been sent to my neighborhood school, Paint Branch. But it appears that less than 10 years later, East County students have very different choices.

    In 2009, the County Council's Office of Legislative Oversight asked if the consortia, which cost over $3 million to run each year, were a good use of public funds. When she ran for office, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, whose district includes both consortia, said she's open to making them neighborhood schools again.

    But school administrators say that regardless of the consortia schools' demographics or configuration, they can be fixed. Next, we'll talk to MCPS superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr about his thoughts on integration, school choice, and his plans to turn around Wheaton and Springbrook.


    Landru said...

    Okay. Paint Branch damns the entire consortium system.

    I'm not going to ignore these data, but seriously? You're making some pretty sloppy overgeneralizations here. Especially for a guy who exercised his choice to go to the jewel of the Northeast consortium (and not that I condemn your choice or your right to it, in any way).

    One of several filters through which I view these data is that I think it's unsurprising, the amount of weight that people give to choosing their local school. We faced a similar choice for our older son, who was fortunate enough to get into a (non-consortium) magnet program, even though we live about 500 yards from a perfectly fine (non-consortium) county high school. It's not a trivial or easy call to send your kid to a school a half hour away when there's a school much closer. I do recognize that a half hour is probably the outside edge, and that for a lot of people on the east side, the geography is better (Blake, Paint Branch, and Springbrook are 15 minutes from each other except on the worst of traffic days).

    The study isn't insignificant, but I believe that you're trying to run harder and farther with the data than appears to be warranted.

    My interest disclosed: wife used to teach at Einstein. Given other personal circumstances (primarily geography/distance and where our kids go to school), I think she wouldn't mind teaching there again sometime, and part of that decision would definitely be motivated by Einstein's place in the downcounty consortium.

    I will look forward to your talk with Joshie. Thanks.

    Dan Reed said...


    If you're going to call me sloppy, I expect that you have either an argument or some data to back it up. Everything I've said here, from the history of the consortium to the data I presented, is corroborated by the OLO report.

    I don't fault blame parents for picking a school close to home, but the consortium was supposed to eliminate some of the negative effects of that (namely socioeconomic and racial isolation). If nobody was guaranteed a specific school, and everyone had to pick, that would change the decision process. Families may go for the school with the best program rather than the one that's closest. And schools would work harder to distinguish their signature program, because they know that more kids will choose them for it as opposed to other factors.

    Besides, school catchments aren't always drawn for geographic convenience. Kids in the Town of Kensington get bused to Walter Johnson even though Einstein is much closer. There are kids who live in the Blake base area and are closer to Sherwood, and vice versa.

    Anonymous said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Dan Reed said...

    @Learn Every Day

    I admit that I mixed up "between" and "among," and thanks for catching that. But I deleted your post because it violates our commenting policy: make a thoughtful argument, no personal attacks, no anonymous comments. If you've got something else to say, I hope you can find a better way to say it.

    Landru said...

    My objection, and the basis of "sloppy," was your extension of the Northeast consortium data to the consortium system at large. The Downcounty consortium's performance is much closer to the county baseline (to the extent that's a valid baseline) than the Northeast consortium's, for the data that are broken out. There's no real basis to conclude that any differences owe to the nature of the consortium system itself (as opposed to the demographics of the two areas, the number of schools in each consortium, the quality of the faculty at each of the eight schools, or for that matter the weather or anything else).

    I apologize for two things: first, I should've made the context of that word choice far more clear. And second, I should've reviewed the OLO report more closely before I commented. There's a word to describe the second: sloppy. I apologize.

    It doesn't invalidate my disagreement with you on the extent of your conclusions.

    All of the numbers that you cite pertain to the Northeast Consortium. Where similar numbers are broken out for the Downcounty consortium, the trends are much less pronounced (see FARMS, for instance). Your conclusion is far more sweeping than the available data support. The one finding in the OLO report that supports your argument is that the consortium system didn't reduce racial isolation. I absolutely agree that's a problem, but there's no reason to conclude that the consortium system worsened racial isolation. The report does not support a conclusion that the downcounty consortium (actually, either consortium) somehow harmed academic performance.

    My point isn't that one consortium is superior to the other. There aren't any data to support that. And I don't fault you for citing so heavily to a 5-year-old report; it's what's available. My point is that your conclusion isn't supported by the available data--even though I presume that you've chosen the data that best support your case.

    There are other issues here that are harder to address--or impossible to address. Would bad schools suck less if the consortium system weren't in place? Would the consortium schools' performance be better or worse in the overall county context? And there's the issue I alluded to earlier--I think that comparing the consortium schools to overall MCPS performance (and using that comparison to damn consortium schools, rather than damning MCPS) is pretty weak sauce, given the socioeconomic differences across areas of the county.

    How much socioeconomic and racial isolation is school choice supposed to eliminate? 35 percent sounds pretty good to me, as a start. I'm way open to the possibility that that sounds good to me because I'm a privileged upcounty dumbass. Seriously.

    You are absolutely right about schools needing to work harder to distinguish their signature programs. You're also absolutely correct about catchment; one of my favorite relatively recent MCPS grads was a Kensington kid who was deprived of my wife's teaching at Einstein because she ended up at WJ.

    I'm not calling you a liar. We agree on a number of core issues. You have the added benefits of being a consortium graduate, and being a more recent graduate than I am (Gaithersburg 1977, for the record). I respect all of that. I hope you understand that my primary objection is that I don't think that the data you've presented support a conclusion (one way or another, really) on the consortium system's success.

    Thanks for responding, and thanks for allowing my comment in the first place. Comparing it to your commenting policy, I recognize and appreciate your tolerance.

    Amy said...

    I appreciate your digging into the data and its presentation, but I have a few questions:

    1. Are all these figures statistically significant?

    a)Your first graph, for example shows schoolwide variations of +/- 50 points on SAT averages. At first, the schools look like they're all in slow decline, but across a sizeable student body, the variations seem pretty stable. (At least from where I'm sitting, I confess I'm not too skilled at data interpretation.)

    b)Are the differences among Blake, Paint Branch, and Springbrook significant from each other? Were they pre-consortium? If I understand the history correctly, that question could only be answered with pre-1998 data.

    c) As the MCPS-wide percentage of students on FARMS has increased, are the changes in the Northeast Consortium significant?

    2. Do you have demographic data not only more relevant Northeast consortium, but also the demographic changes surrounding the number and composition of students who would be eligible to attend these consortium schools?

    a) If there is "middle-class flight," where is the "flight" going to?

    3. In looking at school data I'm always sensitive to some of the lurking issues that these numbers present. For example, if there was an increase in ELL's in the school district, then one would expect the SAT averages to plummet and the number of non-white students to fall even if there was no "flight response." The percentage of white students also doesn't capture the other changes racial composition across the school districts.

    I admire your efforts here, but, like the commenter before me, I'm not convinced that this data tells any kind of story yet.

    Dan Reed said...


    Thanks for your kind and thoughtful response! I used the OLO as a jumping-off point in my research and used MCPS data (from Schools at a Glance) to see if any of the trends they talked about continued. For the most part, they have.

    My focus is on the Northeast Consortium in this post, but if you look at my last post, the same trends happening here have also happened in Downcounty Consortium and notably in the Upcounty. Gaithersburg, Watkins Mill and Seneca Valley are dealing with many of the same issues we're facing here.

    This doesn't meant the schools or the consortium idea are inherently bad, and it's my fault if I made it sound that way. In fact, I think they may have prevented things from getting even worse.

    But my beef, and I should have made this clearer, is that the consortium idea was poorly executed because MCPS made choices that compromised their intended goals from the start. Like caving in to parents who didn't want Sherwood in the NEC (and later B-CC in the DCC), because it meant a less diverse pool of students, which in turn made it harder to create the socioeconomic and racial balance school officials wanted.

    And the schools responded the best way they could, but only because they were dealt a bad hand by MCPS and larger demographic trends they can't control.

    I hope that helps explain where I'm coming from. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what I heard from Dr. Starr, and later on some of my proposals for the future of MCPS. I'm glad

    Dan Reed said...


    A lot of your questions about the wider trends in MCPS, and how the Northeast and Downcounty consortia relate to them, can be answered in my first post. The Northeast Consortium has experienced more demographic change than other schools in the county. In fact, Blake and Paint Branch had the largest increases in "ever-FARMS" students (now or ever have been on free and reduced lunch) and the largest decreases in white students of any school in the county.

    As for flight, it's hard to measure where it's going to. There are schools in the county that have experienced less demographic change than the MCPS average, like Sherwood, which suggests that families may be moving from one part of the county to another. Many of my neighbors have done exactly that.

    As for what the consortia schools were like before 1998: the OLO study begins in 1998, and Blake didn't exist before then, so I don't have a lot of detail about that. But this 2006 CalTech paper and this landmark 1994 study of MCPS suggest that the trends I'm discussing aren't new.

    I hope that helps!

    Landru said...

    Thanks, Dan. Yeah, I read your last two MCPS posts after my most recent comment. There's absolutely no question that MCPS has a lot to do to address the needs of our changing county population. And of course more kids should have the opportunity to choose to attend different schools, and the schools should be able to do more to make those choices meaningful and attractive. And of course that's difficult in the county budget environment, which is driven by voters who mostly buy in to this conceptually, but are in turn driven by base impulses and cheap political hackery (charter amendment on property taxes) that seriously hampers both the BoE and the Council.

    I look forward to your post on your conversation with the superintendent. Obviously, I'll have some biases and preconceptions, since my family is pretty heavily dependent on MCPS in various ways. But I'll do my best to be a responsible grownup.

    Thomas Hardman said...

    Looking back to the 1970s, and subsequent years as we as a society tried to reduce segregation in all areas of society, from schools to the workplace to the residential neighborhoods and the recreational offerings, how have we done, here in Montgomery?

    Given equivalent educations/skill-sets, I'd say we've done best in the workplace. Yet as increasing numbers of "minorities" take advantage of opportunities to move from traditionally segregated communities into more mixed communities, it looks like even larger numbers are consolidating segregation in their communities. For example, East County doesn't get less Black, it gets more Black. It doesn't get less "hispanic", it gets moreso. It doesn't get more wealthy, it gets less so. Why would people seemingly voluntarily segregate themselves, especially when it is to the point of effectively forcing poverty?

    Is it just subculture which doesn't care much about higher education, perpetuating that lack of high goals? Well, people should be free to choose to be on public assistance, don't you think? Cannot we as taxpayers find it in our hearts to fork over ever-larger chunks of our paychecks to support an expanding underclass that will always be a net consumer rather than contributor to the tax base?

    If it's the culture that blunts the minds of children and young adults to the point of flunking or dropping out of school, shouldn't we do our best to change that culture? I would suggest that bussing should be considered. Taking a promising kid out of a crap neighborhood and putting them in a school mostly full of kids who see education as a ladder to the good life, that might be the best thing all around if you want to acculturate a drive to succeed and the attitude to get the necessary skills.

    The Consortia seemed like a good idea, but as you point out, sometimes you have to scrap "good" ideas that just don't work. Especially when they actually make things worse.

    E said...

    Great post. I think the respondents here are naive or worse, discrediting the findings because of how the statistics were presented rather than acknowledge the existence of valid empirical evidence. (Almost reminds me of how the SCOTUS dismissed the need for VRA to continue based on looking at data and ignoring empirical knowledge!) When I first moved to this area I was disgusted to look at what "enlightened" parents were saying on a local site like DC Urban Mom. There are endless threads "dissing" all of the MoCo schools east of Rockville HS. Calling them gang havens, drug dens, etc. That hysteria is consistent with what I've seen in the Real Estate market. Houses are overpriced in West neighborhoods yet are getting multiple offers; better houses in East areas take much longer. I'm not suggesting every trend has a single contributing factor but please quit lying that "white flight" isn't a BIG factor.

    Thomas Hardman said...

    I live in "East County" and frankly staying here is increasingly difficult as the vast majority of these "new Americans" are not the least hesitant in letting me know that they don't want my kind in "their" neighborhood.

    BTW as of next Wednesday, I will have lived at this address for 50 years.

    I think I'm about the only person left on my block who speaks English at home, and I spend most of my speech muttering "I gotta get out of here".

    I think I'll just rent this house like I rent out the other one, and go live someplace where people both remember and are proud that they live in the USA.

    I predict that MoCo will go down in history in the same breath as Detroit in terms of being a sign and a caution, a decaying urban area full of second-rate schools, a greater than 50-percent dropout rate, and with industry in full flight away, away, forever away.