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Is Montgomery County Public Schools facing a burgeoning gap?

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The largest public school system in Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), is well known for claiming to have raised the bar and closed the gap. The reigning superintendent of the school system Joshua Starr is fond of saying “we’re the first district to get to the moon. Now we have to get to Mars, and we’re going to have to do different things to get there.”

However, this column has been adamant in asserting (see also here) that the claim of closing the gap is not supported by the data released by the school system. Despite the publicly available evidence that seemed to contradict the claims of the school system, little if any effort was made by the local media to investigate the assertion that the academic achievement gap had been closed, let alone significantly narrowed. There was little evidence that this column could discover that supported the belief that the district had gone beyond earth orbit – and now an independent report seems to corroborate that conclusion.

On April 29, 2014, the Board of Education overseeing the school system discussed the scathing report issued by the County Council Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO). The authors of the report found “an increase in the stratification of MCPS high schools by income, race, and ethnicity,” adding “that the achievement gap between high- and low-poverty high schools has widened among a majority of measures considered.” The report also concluded that “data points suggest a flight of middle-class students” from high schools with large concentrations of high poverty students. Adding fuel to the fire, students staged the first ever “March to Close the Gap.” The gap, it seems, is alive and well.

In its response to the OLO report, the school system contradicts its previous claims of closing the gap by insisting “we have a longstanding and persistent achievement gap.” However, the MCPS response takes exception to the conclusion of middleclass flight from high poverty high schools. Publicly available data shows that white enrollment has been declining over the years.

Not too long ago the district unveiled another “gap closing” initiative labeled the “Seven Keys to College Readiness”. With glossy brochures and a dedicated webpage, the Seven Keys were enthusiastically promoted by the then superintendent, Jerry D. Weast. The romance with the Seven Keys didn’t last. Weast’s successor, Starr, vowed to give the Seven Keys the beauty treatment with a makeover. That was more than a year ago. Today, the Seven Keys webpage is nothing more than a nonexistent link.

The latest initiative that is a panacea for all that ails public education is “hope.” It turns out that “hope” comes with a hefty price tag--$900, 000 to be exact. The reality is that there is little in the form of robust, peer reviewed research to support the “hope” initiative. It seems to be poised to suffer the same fate as all those colorful initiatives supported by the long suffering taxpayers of Montgomery County, Maryland and enthusiastically promoted by MCPS administrators all over the United States.

There are indications now that the public may be tiring of the MCPS penchant for self-promotion. The middleclass flight from high poverty high schools may be a symptom of a disease that is taking hold of the system. Whatever the case, the public isn’t falling for the usual hype. Montgomery County Public Schools, it seems, is facing a burgeoning gap—a credibility gap.

Meanwhile, the taxpayers and parents of Montgomery County can only “hope” that Alexander Pope’s words ring true:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

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