A Blueprint for Keeping Public Schools Competitive In Montgomery County

Editor’s Note: Last month, Joshua Starr ended his tenure as superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). The reason for Starr’s surprising departure from the nationally-recognized district are murky, though astute observers note adminstrative misteps on school start times and a percieved lack of urgency on the achievement gap and inequity. Dan Reed is an urban planner and co-founder of community group One Montgomery. He writes about public education and urban development in Montgomery County at www.justupthepike.com. This article reflects his views on how to promote equity and excellence in Montgomery County, and previously appeared in a longform series on the achievement gap on his blog.

Photo Credit: Bruce Lashan/WUSA

Photo Credit: Bruce Lashan/WUSA

By Dan Reed

Six things MCPS can do

1) Embrace each school’s differences.

With 154,000 students and 202 campuses, no two 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. We should double down on special programs, like the existing engineering program at Wheaton High School or Blake High School’s fine arts and humanities signature program, 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.

2) 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. MCPS’ “Career Lattice” program does give teachers additional support to take on “special programs” at high-needs schools, which is a good start. But teachers deserve incentives for what they do during the school day at high-needs schools, not just after school.

3) 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.

4) Change school boundaries to improve socioeconomic 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.

5) 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.

6) 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.


Four ways that county and state government can help

1) 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.

2) 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, which research shows can improve student performance. The county has plans for new development in several west side neighborhoods that feed into top-ranked schools, including White Flint, downtown Bethesda, Westbard, and Chevy Chase Lake. We should reduce the barriers to building affordable housing in those areas.

3) 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, entire new neighborhoods like Poplar Run, or small additions like accessory apartments.

4) Give boards of education real decision-making tools. Board of Education members have no personal staff members to help them with correspondence or advising, making it hard for them to respond to constituent concerns or even make informed decisions about major issues effecting the school system. In addition, board members’ $18,000 annual salary is considerably less than other elected positions in the county and state, meaning they have to take on additional jobs that divide their attention. If we want a board that can make tough decisions, they need the support to do so.