Recently, an out-of-town newspaper reporter contacted me and wanted to discuss why the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) had been so successful in closing the achievement gaps. It seems everyone believes MCPS conquered the gaps.
Unfortunately, I told the reporter that everyone was dead wrong—the gaps were not closed. But not taking no for answer, the reporter then asked if I thought any specific MCPS programs worked well in eliminating achievement gaps. I told the reporter he should review MCPS’s published accountability reports, and that they could easily be found at the district’s Office of Shared Accountability’s website. At that website, one could find a number of papers that review program impacts.
But then I went on to say to the reporter that no MCPS program to my knowledge had ever been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse for an exterior review. Without reviews, I’m not willing to say anything works. The Clearinghouse was established by the federal government to help educators decide if specific programs actually do what they claim they do.
And then after several additional email exchanges with this reporter, I had one of those magical moments when you finally figure something out that has bothered you for years.
What did I figure out?
People confuse and misinterpret MCPS’s long tradition of being a high-performing school district with closing achievement gaps. That is wrong—they are not the same thing.
But regardless of what I think, outsiders seem extremely interested in replicating the high-performing parts of MCPS. I’m not sure that is possible. But let’s assume it is possible. What then are the key conditions needed to replicate the high-performing parts of MCPS?
I think there are at least five key conditions. But as you read through the conditions below, note that for the most part the conditions are really environmental “things” that are not MCPS programs or “things” they actually control.
Destructive politics must be missing. Montgomery County has no real history of destructive politics. We’re mostly one big happy Democratic family without any Republican opposition. This is a pretty clear and firm tradition. The absence of destructive politics means there are no pushes and pulls on MCPS. Now you can have an all-Democratic jurisdiction and have a history of destructive politics. The District of Columbia is a good example of this. And their destructive politics, in my opinion, harm the public schools. But this type of harm is absence in Montgomery County.
(Note to readers: Frequently, when I make this point about Montgomery County politics, people say, “But you don’t see what goes on behind closed doors—there’s lots of discussing and arguing.” And these people are right—we don’t see the private battles. But frankly, these private battles don’t matter. What the public sees is harmony, and that harmony is reflected in votes and outcomes.)
There must be lots of money. Compared to most U.S. jurisdictions, Montgomery County is rich. Sure, we face changing demographics—more people of color, more people with fewer financial resources, but those changes thus far have not eroded the basic reality that there is lots of money. And our changing demographics have not altered the way our elected officials behave when it comes to funding our public schools. Our elected officials still throw lots of money into our schools. Even through bad economies, this tradition holds firm. And I do not see this tradition changing.
(Note to readers: Any jurisdiction that can debate if it should build a biker’s tunnel for $50 million or a biker’s overpass bridge for $3 million is rich.)
Public safety must be universal. Montgomery County is just a nice safe place to live. There are no urban ghettos or projects. Sure, someone from a Kansas dirt farm might view the Langley Park area as “urban” and “different,” and that might cause them to jump to the conclusion that it is dangerous, but I think that is more stereotyping than reality. And yes, we have active gangs. But folks, compared to some of the nation’s more infamous ghettos— drive-by shootings and high murder rates, we all mostly live in safety. That safety matters, and frankly, it helps MCPS.
(Note to readers: My job gets me out in the world of schools. I will not name the city, but once when spending a week visiting schools in this city I was scheduled to spend the day in a middle school in one of the city’s more dangerous sections. I was driving and arrived at the school fairly early—prior to the first bell. The school’s parking lot was gated and locked. Not a good sign. I walk into the school and asked if I could park on the school’s lot. Not possible because all the spaces were taken. So, I ask if it is okay to park on the street. Answer: “Park at your own risk.” I literally parked between two freshly stripped cars. Fortunately, at the end of the day, my car was untouched. Nothing like this happens in Montgomery County.)
Affluent whites must stick with the public schools. Okay, the total county’s white population is declining. But there remains a significant sizable population of well-educated white people and their children who have not abandoned MCPS (the same is true for affluent Asian parents and their children). The “W” schools (e.g., Walt Whitman, Winston Churchill, and Walter Johnson) are still stable and strong academic institutions. Of course this could change, but it hasn’t. And frankly, there’s no evidence that significant numbers of affluent white parents are abandoning MCPS or even plan to do so. Now, one could say here that this is one of those classic chicken and egg things. White people stick with MCPS because MCPS is high-performing. Okay, that’s a reasonable argument. But then again I would argue that because we are such a stable jurisdiction—with money pouring into our schools—these affluent white parents feel that the conditions for good things to happen—high performance—remains strong and solid.
(Note to readers: Sorry to bring race to the table here, but I believe MCPS remains high-performing because a sizable chunk of affluent families—all highly educated with tons of degrees—stays 100 percent committed to the county and to its public schools.)
Labor unions must be in sync with everything. Regardless of what one thinks about labor unions—I support them, if the public schools are going to work, and work well, the labor unions have to be in complete sync with everything. In short, there is no labor union strife in Montgomery County. There is complete and total harmony. Now, I know that former MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast claims he was responsible for the establishing the harmony between MCPS and the teachers union—the Montgomery County Teachers Association (MCEA). But I have written elsewhere that this is not true, and the harmony between MCPS and MCEA existed years before Weast came to town. Regardless, it is nearly impossible to review the past 30 years in this county and find a time when things were not civil. You simply cannot find this type of tradition every place; however, without it, the hopes of high-performing anything is impossible.
(Note to readers: A review of the history of MCEA reform efforts prior to the Weast years is available online.)
So, is it possible to replicate these environment conditions? Maybe replicating a few conditions is possible—public safety is an achievable goal, but I’m not sure about all of them. For example, if you aren’t rich already, I’m not sure you can become rich (no matter how many gambling casinos you open). If your teachers union and elected politicians hate each other and have always hated each other, I’m not sure flying in consultants changes that overnight.
And so for those looking to MCPS and Montgomery County for hope—and for ideas to eliminate their achievement gaps—do your homework first before jumping onboard some magic bullet program or sinking a ton of cash into consultants who whisper into your ears that you too can become MCPS. Most of what is possible here in this grand county is possible not because of any tried-and-true programming or teaching, but rather because of environment conditions that may simply not be possible to replicate ever.
Of course we have great teachers and great teaching here. But frankly, we can find great teachers and great teaching pretty much across the nation. The difference here is our environment allows for and supports a tradition of prolonged stability and productivity. That matters! That matters a lot.