Student Achievement

When ‘Unequal’ Is Fair Treatment

By Lynn Olson — February 19, 2008 11 min read
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When Jerry D. Weast became the superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., public schools in 1999, he spent the summer poring over student-achievement results and demographic trends. Then he created a map to illustrate what he’d found.

The map divided the suburban district, just outside the nation’s capital, into two distinct areas, which he dubbed the “red zone” and the “green zone.” Most poor, minority, and English-language learners lived in the red zone, an urbanized core that was attracting a growing immigrant population. The green zone was predominantly white, affluent, and English-speaking. Academic performance closely mirrored the demographic trends, with the lowest-performing schools overwhelmingly concentrated in the red zone.

Montgomery County Public Schools at a Glance

  • Elementary schools: 130
  • Middle schools: 38
  • High schools: 25
  • Special or alternative schools: 7
  • Free- and reduced-price meals: 26%
  • Teachers: 11,486
  • Pre-K-12 students: 137,745
  • White: 40%
  • African-American: 23%
  • Hispanic: 22%
  • Asian-American: 15%
  • American Indian: 0.3%
  • Fiscal 2009 operating budget: $1.98 billion
  • Funding source: 73.4% Montgomery County

    SOURCE: Montgomery County Public Schools

    Without swift and deliberate action, the district faced the prospect of becoming split in two, divided by opportunity. To Mr. Weast, the solution was obvious. Montgomery County needed a differentiated strategy that funneled extra attention and resources to schools in the red zone, while increasing academic rigor for everyone.

    “There’s this American thing about treating everybody equal,” he explained recently. “Our theory was, the most unequal treatment is equal treatment.”

    Since then, Montgomery County’s leaders have maintained a delicate balance between “raising the bar and closing the gap” that has enabled the nation’s 16th-largest school district to narrow achievement gaps while retaining the support of wealthier, highly educated parents. But as the district moves onto the much tougher shoals of middle school reform, that balance could be sorely tested. “Montgomery County’s red-zone schools look like urban schools all over the country,” said Stacey Childress, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and the co-editor of School Districts for High Performance: Cases in Public Education Leadership, which includes a case study of the district. The school system, she said, has shown “it is possible to have a unified strategy for improving performance across a district and then adapt it, differentiate it, to particular parts of the district in a way that encourages experimentation and learning.”

    With nearly 138,000 students, Montgomery County is the largest school district in Maryland. Its student population, majority white in the mid-1980s, today reflects a global melting pot, drawing students from 163 countries, speaking 134 different languages.

    Mr. Weast arrived just as the school board was starting to grapple with the demographic shifts.

    “He was willing to make it very public—how we were not meeting the needs of all students,” said Bonnie L. Cullison, the president of the Montgomery County Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “No one had been willing to do it that starkly before.”

    Cindy Cherichel, 9, a 3rd grader in Meg Cadieux- Salzman’s class at Viers Mill Elementary School, does a reading exercise on a classroom computer. Students first had a whole-class lesson on poetry, then practiced guided reading in small groups.

    “There was some controversy over the red zone/green zone,” recalled Patricia B. O’Neill, a school board member from Bethesda, in the more prosperous part of the county. “People somewhat bristled. But when you looked at the map that showed poverty, English-as-a-second-language, there was a clear pattern.”

    In November 1999, Mr. Weast and the school board outlined their strategy in “Our Call to Action,” a 34-page report that included supportive quotes from key members of the community who had been recruited to help draft the document, ranging from the teachers’ union to the local chapter of the NAACP.

    At the high school level, the district focused on opening access to advanced coursework, with a strong emphasis on Advanced Placement. “We chose the only thing that was out there at the time that would put students on a trajectory to college and that wasn’t tied to socioeconomics,” said Mr. Weast, “and in our higher, more affluent area of the county, it’s a trajectory they would embrace.”

    Mapping backward, the district set benchmarks for achievement starting in kindergarten that would prepare youngsters to succeed in AP English and mathematics classes in high school. The initial wave of reforms focused on elementary schools, and included a more uniform and challenging curriculum, assessments to track students’ progress throughout the year, and intensive professional development for educators.

    Parts of the plan were put in place in all 125 elementary schools. But other components, such as full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes, were targeted at schools with the highest poverty levels, beginning with 60 “focus schools” in the red zone. While all elementary schools had a staff-development specialist whose primary role was to hone teachers’ instructional skills, for example, the district required Title I schools to use some of their federal dollars to hire a math-content coach and a gifted-and-talented specialist.

    On average, the district spends about $2,000 more per pupil annually in red-zone than in green-zone elementary schools.

    The impact of those investments is apparent at Viers Mill Elementary School, a Title I school located in Silver Spring, nestled among small, single-family homes. Nearly four in 10 of its approximately 500 students are English-language learners, and more than six in 10 qualify for subsidized school meals. Yet, the school has been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, based on its achievement across all student subgroups.

    Class sizes at Viers Mill are 20 students or fewer per grade. Grade-level teams meet weekly to plan instruction and share progress. Children who need extra help participate in before- and after-school programs five days a week. Some teachers also serve as mentors who work one-on-one with struggling readers, while others are “organizational” buddies for students with disabilities or those learning English.

    A Changing Population

    Enrollment by Racial and Ethnic Group
    The demographics of the Montgomery County, Md., public school system have changed in the past 30 years. Today, a majority of its students are members of racial and ethnic minority groups.


    Earning a 3 or Higher on Advanced Placement Exams
    The number of AP exams taken by minority students who earned a 3 or higher has shot up since the district opened access to the classes.


    Reading by the End of Kindergarten
    The county has narrowed the achievement gaps among kindergarten pupils able to read simple text by the end of the school year.


    SOURCE: Montgomery County Public Schools

    Jennifer Peters, the school’s math-content and gifted-and-talented specialist, says, “The resources that we have are more tailored to our specific needs, whereas before we had resources in the building but it wasn’t focused.”

    She and others point to the addition of the staff-development teacher as the biggest change, supporting teams of teachers as they come together to look at data, develop content maps for what students should learn each quarter, and allocate resources to fit their strategies.

    “There may be new initiatives, but everything ties together,” Ms. Peters said of the district’s efforts. “It’s really full-force, with the goal of student success. You don’t feel like you’re trying one thing one week, and another thing another week.”

    Data suggest the changes have had a significant effect in raising overall performance while narrowing achievement gaps, particularly in the elementary grades. In 1999, Jody Leleck was a first-year principal at Broad Acres Elementary School, the highest-poverty school in the district and one on the verge of being “reconstituted” by the state for low performance.

    “When I started at Broad Acres, there were 17 Title I schools, and 10 of us were in school improvement,” said Ms. Leleck, who is now the district’s chief academic officer. “Today, we don’t have one Title I school in school improvement. So we know that this focused effort works.”

    An analysis by The Washington Post also found that in 2006, only black students in the 1.1 million-student New York City school system passed more AP exams than those in Montgomery County, although the latter has many fewer black students.

    Opening up access to more-rigorous courses, in particular, has reaped benefits across the county, said Ms. O’Neill. The number of AP exams taken by all Montgomery County students has increased 43 percent over five years. When her eldest daughter graduated from high school in 1999, Ms. O’Neill recalled, students didn’t take AP courses routinely until 11th grade, and there were as many gates to keep students out as to let them in. Now, she said, the vision is for as many students as possible to take accelerated math, starting in elementary school, and multiple sections of algebra and geometry are provided in middle school.

    “That is an absolute, total benefit to green-zone kids that wasn’t there,” said Ms. O’Neill, who has been on the school board since 1998 and was part of the group that selected Mr. Weast with a goal of addressing achievement gaps. “Allowing every kid to reach their maximum potential is what we should be all about. I think that’s important for maintaining the confidence of Bethesda and Potomac [another affluent community] parents that their children are getting a quality education, that they’re not shortchanged, that those aspirations and opportunities are there.”

    Yet, as the school district moves into the next phase of its initiatives, that broad coalition will be firmly tested.

    A report released Jan. 22 by the Montgomery County Council’s office of legislative oversight examined 43 measures of student performance. It found the greatest progress in closing gaps in elementary school and on grade-level expectations, but slower progress in middle and high schools and on some above-grade-level measures, such as enrollment in advanced math courses. It also found that from 2000 to 2007, gaps widened in school suspension, graduation, and dropout rates by race and ethnicity.

    The county, which helps fund the school system, now faces a projected $401 million shortfall in its approximately $4.2 billion budget for fiscal 2009, just as the district hopes to gear up its strategy for strengthening curriculum, teaching, and learning in its middle schools. As is true nationally, county residents say it’s not as clear what will work in middle schools.

    Advanced Math, Sooner

    8th graders completing Algebra 1 or higher
    While the proportion of minority students completing algebra has grown substantially, large gaps remain by race and ethnicity.


    5th Graders Enrolled in Advanced Math
    The push for rigorous coursework is shown in the proportion of 5th graders taking above-grade-level math.


    5th Graders in Advanced Math by Racial and Ethnic Group
    Though more 5th graders were taking advanced math in the 2006-07 school year, the proportion of Hispanic and African-American students doing so was far lower than for Asian- American and white children.


    SOURCE: Montgomery County Public Schools

    This year, five middle schools—some of them in the red zone—are participating in a pilot program to introduce curricula that are more demanding and engaging. That initiative builds on what was learned in elementary schools, including funding for new literacy coaches and math-content specialists, expanded professional development, and time for teachers to work collaboratively. The initiative, which is supposed to roll out over three years, is slated to expand to 10 more middle schools in fiscal 2009.

    As with the elementary reforms, the middle school initiative will have a special focus on closing achievement gaps. Eleven of the district’s 38 middle schools did not make adequate yearly progress last year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

    The district’s proposed $2.1 billion operating budget includes $5.3 million for middle school improvement. In addition to expanding the pilot program to 10 more schools, the money would develop 21 innovative courses in other middle schools and support the continuation of a Middle School Magnet Consortium. The consortium is designed to raise achievement and encourage socioeconomic integration in a group of three middle schools, and to spread some of its theme-based curricula to other schools. For the past three years, it has been supported with a $7.2 million federal grant.

    “There’s been a feeling for a decade, at least, that middle school is sort of a lost time,” said Jane De Winter, the president of the 52,000-member Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, “so there’s really quite a keen interest in moving forward with middle school reform as quickly as possible. But it’s hard to say where that money is going to come from.”

    One school interested in applying for the pilot program has already forged ahead: the 850-student Francis Scott Key Middle School. When Eric L. Minus became its principal four years ago, nearly seven in 10 of its graduates were not proficient in math by the end of 8th grade, and only about 55 students were taking algebra.

    Teachers at the school agreed to overhaul the schedule so that all students would receive 85 minutes of math instruction daily. They worked collaboratively to redesign their teaching strategies and to get consistency in content and expectations across classrooms. And they developed so-called formative assessments to monitor students’ progress throughout the year. The school also put in place extra help for struggling students and “talent spotting” to identify students who could be accelerated.

    This year, 60 percent of the school’s 8th graders are taking algebra. The passing rate on the Maryland algebra test is 96 percent, and some seven in 10 students are at least proficient in math by the time they go on to high school.

    Staff members credit much of the improvement at the school, at which nine in 10 students are of color and nearly half qualify for subsidized meals, to teamwork.

    “Over the past several years, the teachers have really started to embrace and use time for collaboration, to really share their knowledge, and support each other, and put together a really cohesive, coherent program for students,” said Helen Webster, the staff-development specialist at the school.

    But participation in the pilot program would provide extra resources for planning, as well as additional content-area specialists, and new interactive technologies.

    “We can’t quit now,” said Mr. Weast, the superintendent. “If you have an outcome, and that outcome is getting kids college-ready, you have to create a supply chain to enable that to happen, and then build the capacity to execute that plan along the entire length of your supply chain.”

    “My high schools are screaming, ‘Send me more prepared students,’ ” he added, “and my elementary schools are saying, ‘We’ve got them,’ and so the middle school becomes the bridge.”

    Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
    A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week as When ‘Unequal’ Is Fair Treatment


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