Joshua Starr is the new superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). He leads the largest school system in Maryland, which is also the 17th largest in the United States. Yesterday, he made a blog posting on the making of great schools.
According to MCPS, 13.3% of students participate in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and 33.2% participate in Free and Reduced-price Meals System (FARMS). Over recent years, the system has seen a continuing decline in the enrollment of white students. Since 2000, MCPS enrollment has grown by 14,743 students, while White, non-Hispanic enrollment declined by 16,776 students. The growth has been attributable to Asians, African Americans and Hispanics. Less publicized is school system data that indicates that the number of African American, Asian, and white “focus” student populations have also been declining. MCPS “focus” elementary schools are “where high levels of students participating in the FARMS program are found and elementary school class-size reduction initiatives have been put in place.” In fact, data that the school system used to make available on its website indicates that the only group that has seen an increase in enrollment are Hispanics, both in the “focus” and non-focus categories.
The new superintendent is fond of stating that the system has “been to the Moon,” and it is his intention to take it to Mars. In the blog posting Starr argued that “the keys to success for any school are "strong leaders that empower a great staff; innovation in the classroom; high expectations and quick interventions; collaboration and accountability among the staff; and true engagement with parents and the community.”
Starr went on to cite Gaithersburg Elementary School, which eliminated homework, achieved fifteen-minutes of fame, and earned a write up in the Winter 2012 edition of the Harvard Graduate School of Education magazine. Coincidentally, Starr is an alumnus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HUGSE).
According to news reports, in September 2012, the school eliminated homework after the principal discovered that the work being sent home with the kids didn’t match what was being taught in the class. Rather than ensuring homework correlated with the schoolwork, the principal eliminated homework and encouraged reading 30-minutes a night.
According the superintendent’s blog post, “reading proficiency is up,” and “students are better prepared to learn” because of the focus that the principal “and her community put on reading and comprehension.” In less than six-months, the school has seen observable changes.
Just as the school was kicking homework to the curb, MCPS released a report on reading proficiencies in its elementary schools. According to the report, Kindergartners at Gaithersburg who met the reading benchmark went from 85.8% in 2010, to 72.3% in 2011, and rose back a little to 77.2% in 2012. The corresponding figures for first grade were 69.8%, 82.2%, and 61.8%. How could the school system determine that any changes in the fluctuating proficiency levels were due to the elimination of homework?
Homework in reasonable amounts, properly tied to classwork, with teachers willing to provide feedback can have positive effects. Furthermore, eliminating homework carte blanche has the potential to hurt the struggling student and exacerbate the achievement gap. After all, wealthier parents can rely on tutors and prep-programs to assist their children.
MCPS has not made public any research studies conducted to stringent standards that have evaluated the homework effect. Nor are there published reports evaluating the effect of assigning homework correlated with schoolwork. It seems too premature to claim success.
To make good schools, leaders must have the capability to separate the wheat from the chaff of educational interventions.