Tuesday, July 2, 2013

integrated schools will keep MCPS competitive

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

Over the past week, we've looked at how demographic changes and flight are making Montgomery County Public Schools a segregated system. Today, let's talk about ways to fix it.

Kid Falls Off Board, Everyone Laughs
Montgomery County's schools should look Montgomery County's residents. Photo by the author.

I started working on this series last year, when my brother began looking at Northeast Consortium high schools to attend this fall. I'm a proud product of MCPS and Blake High School, but it's clear to me that both the school system and the county need to change if they want to remain competitive regionally, nationally and globally.

The de facto segregation of MCPS has been an issue for decades. But school and county officials have often ignored it or responded with weak or ineffective solutions. We can't keep isolating our low-income and minority students in the system's worst-ranked schools. And we must ensure that middle- and upper-middle class families see every school, not just a privileged handful of campuses, as a valid choice for their children.

Integration is good for students and economic development

Education researcher Richard Kahlenberg has found that students of all backgrounds do better in mixed-income schools, while middle-class parents are 4 times more likely to participate in parent-teacher associations, making the school community stronger. Not surprisingly, teachers and administrators in high-poverty schools are more stressed out, making it hard to attract good faculty, which further reduces performance.

In a 2010 study of Montgomery County, policy researcher Heather Schwartz found that low-income students living in subsidized housing in high-income neighborhoods did better in school than students living elsewhere. It found that throwing more money at high-poverty schools, which is the policy of superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr and his predecessors, can only go so far.

Strong schools make strong neighborhoods, and vice versa. That's why Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker took over the school system this year. He knows the county needs good schools to draw middle-class families and businesses.

A 2006 Caltech study found that the magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School helped prevent or even reverse "white flight" from surrounding neighborhoods, and may have even played a role in the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring. If Montgomery County wants to revitalize communities like Glenmont or White Oak, schools like Kennedy and Springbrook must become attractive to higher-income families again.

So, how do we get there? Here are 10 things MCPS and Montgomery County can do.

Things MCPS can do

Embrace each school's differences. With 149,000 students and 202 campuses, no 2 MCPS schools are alike. Let's run with it.

Some schools offer special programs, though they're hard to tell apart, and many are limited to students in a school's catchment. Instead, let's make each special program the school for that subject or interest, like engineering at Wheaton or arts at Blake, and open them to students from around the county. This gives families a real reason to pick schools outside their neighborhood, while giving those programs the critical mass they need to support specialization.

Northeast Consortium Board at Briggs Chaney MS
Giving students distinct school choices means they won't automatically default to their neighborhood school. 

Empower principals and teachers. Starr says more oversight from the central office can turn around the district's lowest-ranked schools. Let's give principals and teachers more support and more autonomy as well.

Principals should have the power to shape their school's programs to compete for students. They should also be able to weed out poor teachers and nurture good ones. Great principals and teachers in struggling schools should get performance bonuses, so they're not lured away to higher-ranked schools.

Give students and families real choices. MCPS officials say they get thousands of transfer requests each year but approve very few, insisting that parents prove a "unique hardship" first.

This helps prevent middle-class flight, but it also keeps low-income students in high-poverty, low-performing schools while denying the reality that a neighborhood school may not be best for all families. Allowing students to attend public school anywhere in the system will give low-income students a way out while encouraging schools to specialize.

Change school boundaries to improve balance. Today, students living in the affluent town of Kensington attend Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, which is 4 miles away and gaining students. Why not send them to Albert Einstein High School one mile away, which has more low-income students, is expected to shrink in the coming years, and is becoming a sought-after school?

This would undoubtedly be an unpopular decision, but it would reduce the cost of transportation and improve socioeconomic balance. And there are other cases like this around the county. There's no real reason why this shouldn't happen.

Bring back "controlled choice." The Northeast and Downcounty consortia were supposed to encourage integration, but when affluent families in the Sherwood and Bethesda-Chevy Chase clusters balked, MCPS took those schools out, defeating the consortia's entire purpose. It's time to bring them back, as well as eliminate the "base areas" that force most consortia students to attend their neighborhood school, whether or not they want to.

Know your competition. Springbrook High principal Sam Rivera once met with private school families to talk about why they chose their schools. Why? Because it helped him learn things that his school could do better or differently, while exposing parents to a public school they may not have considered otherwise. MCPS has a good reputation, but a little self-awareness wouldn't hurt.

Things Montgomery County can do

Encourage economic development in East County. When young families move to Montgomery County, they seek areas with shopping, jobs and transit in close reach. Bringing those amenities to areas like White Oak that currently lack them may draw more middle-class families to local schools.

Quad, LifeSci Village
Projects like LifeSci Village can draw more middle-class families back to East County.

Build more affordable housing on the county's affluent west side. Montgomery County's vaunted Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program doesn't just provide affordable housing, it gives low-income students a chance to attend the county's best schools. We need to make it easier to build MPDUs in places like White Flint, which feeds into top-rated Walter Johnson High School and will gain thousands of new homes in the coming decades.

Build more market-rate homes. Red tape and neighborhood opposition makes it hard to build new homes in Montgomery County's close-in neighborhoods, meaning middle-income families are often priced out too. We need to make it easier to build, whether it's a new townhouse development in downtown Silver Spring or accessory apartments that can help cover the mortgage.

Montgomery County budget
How Montgomery County's yearly budget breaks down. Image from the county.

Push MCPS to make changes using power of the pocketbook. The school system takes up nearly half of Montgomery County's $4.8 billion yearly budget. If MCPS isn't getting the results that county leaders and residents want, the Board of Education and Superintendent Starr should hear about it, or they shouldn't get extra funding.

None of these changes will be easy to implement, but they at least deserve serious consideration. The quality of our schools affects everything from student performance to economic development. We've given MCPS a free pass for being a "great school system" for too long. It's time that parents, students and community leaders ask them to deliver.


Thomas Hardman said...

Dan, these are all good ideas, particularly the ones leaning in the direction of getting more lower-income people housed in areas with higher income and educational levels, to say nothing of lower crime rates. In my humble opinion there is nothing more important to the future of Montgomery County -- to the USA itself and possibly to the whole planet -- than utterly smashing with irresistible force, if not with relentless brutality, the culture of poverty and crime as celebrated in gangsta rap. (I happen to like Go Go. I do not happen to like guys singing about beating women and shooting people because their bad education and criminal attitude left them without alternatives.) But as this is not likely to happen, all we can try to do is to put more lower-income kids in better environments. Studies of all kinds show that very few kids raised in higher-income and academically enriched environments will choose a life of ghetto violence and criminality.

Do not expect any such programs to be instituted on any scale or across any scope that could have any actual beneficial effect remotely worth the expense.

I once read a strange science-fiction story about a future state where politicians used the architecture and color schemes of subdivisions to attract specific psychological types, such as Oral fixation, Anal or Infantile or even Paranoid types, simply because it made it easier to stack candidate selections so as to perpetuate the party's lock on power. Oral subdivisions would vote for a fat man offering a chicken in every pot, the paranoids would vote for the candidate offering tax breaks on fences. Etc etc.

In the same way, it's politically expedient to have South Aspen Hill almost totally centralamerican because they are predicted to vote entirely on racial basis. Comparably downcounty east Silver Spring is predicted to vote only for black congresswomen. Leisure World will cheerfully vote for a nice "young" candidate in their 60s and probably without much regard to race although for now whites are the most likely candidates to succeed.

Only in the truly affluent communities are voters likely to totally ignore ethnicity and vote the issues and candidates' competencies.

My point after all of this digression? The schools reflect the nature of their communities and until the politicians work against segregation rather than preferring segregation for political expedient ends, the neighborhoods will remain segregated and so will the schools.

And you will not see any changes at all until at least 4 voting cycles have proven to the party and elections planners that promoting segregation for political expediency doesn't work on the voters.

When the neighborhoods are desegregated, so will be the schools. And always remember, if the rich don't like it, they can always move... which explains why they concentrate in West County, rather than East County.

Landru said...

Nothing to argue with here, Dan, really. I will point out that in addition to the controversy surrounding school catchment area decisions, not all weird boundaries are bad. Gaithersburg's incredibly large (and funny-shaped) catchment area, for instance, dramatically reduces the segregating effects of decades of socioeconomic changes in and around the city (and did so 40 years ago, when I graduated from GHS, too). This certainly doesn't challenge your entirely valid point about Kensington, and there's no reason not to look at school boundaries or other potential consortia (with, as you note, no mercy for schools with affluent catchment areas).

I don't have an objection to your empowerment concept, either. But any teacher (or principal, I reckon) will ask you this: What's a good teacher? What's a bad one?

Which is not to ask you for an answer here, because whatever answer you give will provoke legitimate--and contentious--debate. And of course, that's not a reason to avoid the debate entirely.

Good series. Thank you.

Dan Reed said...


Thanks for the kind words.

That's a good question. I can tell you about bad teachers I've had, but I bet if you asked someone else about that teacher, they'd have a different answer. But I'd guess that in the aggregate, a bad teacher looks like a bad employee anywhere else: doesn't get along with coworkers, treats clients (i.e., kids) poorly, doesn't improve over time, etc.

The bigger part of that recommendation is giving the good/tenured teachers a reason not to go shopping around for different schools.

Landru said...

I personally think that your answer is fine, and I understand that my question was out of your context. Remaining out of your context, I think that your answer would be controversial to people who insist that test scores are the most reasonable way to measure teacher quality.

RoseAG said...

We sent our kids to Einstein before Einstein was cool because we wanted to lived in Silver Spring. When I looked up the performance for kids that attended the schools in that cluster I was struck that White kids were in the same league as kids most other places in MCPS. It was a different story for minorities. I sent my kids off knowing that they were likely to do about as well there as they would anyplace else. They've both graduated from college and I think I was right.

My friends sent their kids to Kennedy and all three have done quite well. It wasn't about Kennedy, it was about the kids and the support and models their family provided.

You can do what you can to get minority kids sprinkled throughout better schools, but that doesn't absolve their families from supporting and encouraging their children.

A great deal of student success comes from a stable home life. That is the place to focus. Montgomery County lags behind Northern Virginia in job creation. Instead of rearranging the chairs on a shrinking pie in MC, let's see the County do more to encourage job growth and opportunity for the parents who live here. Success begets success.

anonimus said...

Economics 101. If my house costs $150,000 more because of the schools my kids can attend. Imagine how happy I will be when you tell me that you are going to change the school boundary ! High minded and idealistic approaches to education are all fine and good. But you mess with the boundary then you can pay up ...I did.

Jonathan Bernstein said...

Dan, for what it's worth, wanted to relate my daughter's recent message about her high school experience. She graduated from Montgomery Blair in 2007 and is now 23 and working and living in Madrid, Spain. In a Skype conversation she thanked us for sending her to a high school as diverse at Blair, explaining that she was able to deal with people of different cultures and places far better than some of her other U.S. colleagues who came from more homogenous school backgrounds. She views this exposure as a life skill that she feels fortunate to have now that she's exposed to many young people who don't.

Gene said...

Dan - interesting piece on how MCPS should/could improve. No major disagreement with what you've proposed but, one aspect that you and many others who have written such sentiments seem to omit as part of the experience of growing up is the 'bond' that is formed by people who grow up together, including going to the same schools from elementary to middle to high school.

I am a product of Springbrook during its heyday when it was the powerhouse of MD football, academically only behind Churchill and Wooten and overall amongst the best in the DC metro area. In other words, a long time ago.

To this day, out of my graduating class from Springbrook, there are approximately 200 of us (out of a class of nearly 700) who remain friends and stay in touch with one another. We get together occasionally as small groups or as part of a 'class reunion' sometimes "just for the hell of it" to see one another.

Part of it is that many of us have known each other as far back as elementary school, most from White Oak JHS. People form a bond from having grown up together that I can honestly say for myself and many of my old classmates that I trust them more than anyone I've met during my "adult" life.

In some sense, they are my extended family as I knew their parents, siblings and hung out together just like families do.

Where I'm going with all this, is that your goals of improving MCPS is good (and I agree with), but, a cost is it's unlikely that kids who never experience "growing up" with friends from elementary through high school, hanging with each other's families, visiting each other's houses, going on vacations together, etc., will never form the 'bond' that kids like my generation did by growing up together into adults.

Woody Brosnan said...

woody brosnan wrote,

Bravo for these series. We have to focus more on the achievement gap. But I hope now you will show more sympathy to those of us who want to preserve single family neighborhoods in Silver Spring. They are important to a diverse mix too.

L said...

Dan, I have to say - as a very recent (2013) graduate of Blair and a very avid longtime reader, I was curious to see what solutions you would offer. I have two small reactions off the bat, but I'll also be discussing this post with some former classmates and teachers in the coming weeks to see what other people think.

1.) I had no idea that B-CC was originally slated to be a part of the downcounty consortium. Knowing the current culture of Blair, and excluding the Magnet/some CAP students from this observation, students treat Bethesda (and that more affluent part of the county) with a certain level of animosity. Some of it is completely unfair, as mine was, until I started playing music with people that went to schools like B-CC, WJ, and Whitman. I still won't forgive the B-CC students that yelled the n-word at my marching band at our first football game this year, but for the most part, I am of the view - and this is a rare one for people my age, I think - that we are intrinsically the same as downcounty residents. Perhaps it was playing music with the people from the other side that did it for me. But we all live here and that isn't changing. Can't we get along better? Maybe this will be construed as ideological posturing, but an artistic connection, Paul Carr's Jazz Academy of Music, made a difference for me. It could for others, too. (Carr has once or twice come under criticism for sacrificing the tradition of jazz to serve white kids from the suburbs, but I don't think there's any tradition at stake - it was the most unbelievably great music education I ever received. But that's for another discussion, or no discussion at all.)

2.) While I love pretty much every point that you make in this post, and wish they could be possible, I am, to a certain degree, pessimistic. I don't share Mr. Hardman's view (above) that effects will not be beneficial enough to be worth the effects. ANY effects would be beneficial. But the reason I'm not optimistic is because I know how cripplingly bureaucratic MCPS is. You probably know too, but the wounds are still raw for me as a very recent graduate. Trying to get anything on this list done in ANY capacity would be an accomplishment.

Notwithstanding those reactions, I think that this post is a very comprehensive list of solutions, which nobody else really seems to have. As usual, well done.

Dan Reed said...


One of the trends I've noticed is that kids in the consortia tend to stay in their base areas - in other words, with their friends from elementary and middle school. Most of my friends at White Oak went to either Springbrook or Blake, though I admit I kept in better touch (including now, 8 years after graduation) with my friends from Blake. I don't think that choice means that everyone will be split up - in fact, most kids and parents choose the opposite - but those who don't fit in at their neighborhood school will have other options.


Thanks for your kind words. In high school there was always a bit of animosity towards the kids in Bethesda/Rockville/wherever, but also a friendly sort of competition. Like Gene at Springbrook, we saw ourselves as academic equals. Actually getting to know those kids in college helped a little bit. At the end of the day, we're more alike than not. (The real enemy, as we all know, is Howard County.)

Josie said...

Dan-As a Blair student, rising senior, and former member of the Communication Arts Program at Blair, I agree with everything in this article save one point. You mention that it would be a smart move to expand special programs until they become the school - engineering at Wheaton, etc etc. I couldn't disagree more - while I think it would be great if these programs would pull in more kids from across the county, I value a diversity of interest within a learning environment as much as I value a diversity of faces and backgrounds. Focusing schools unanimously on one area of study would have several adverse affects. What if a high school student A goes into ninth grade thinking she is interested in engineering, but realizes in eleventh grade that she is actually interested in political science? It would be difficult for such a student to change course that late in the game. I had an experience similar to student A. I went into the Communication Arts Program thinking I was interested in history. After one year I realized the program was just not for me. I was able to leave the program and continue my education on an accelerated track because CAP is a program within a school, not a school its' self. Leaving was no big deal - I didn't have to switch schools, and I just transfered into honors and AP regular classes.

What I do think needs to happen is that special programs at schools need to be a lot more open. My experience with CAP was that it was 95% white, wealthy, and from Silver Spring. So no more closing down county magnet and IB programs to the up county consortium. Educators need to be actively going into minority-heavy and/or lower income schools and encouraging kids to apply to these special programs. Many of the programs are difficult, if not impossible to apply to for low-income kids because the process requires a lot of parental involvement that is not always available. That really needs to change - the application process needs to become easier for an eighth grader to complete, and we need more counselors at middle schools helping eighth graders write and fill out applications.