Often it's hard as a writer to know if you are having any impact, in fact to know if anyone is even reading your stuff. Most weeks that I author a piece in the Gadfly I don't hear a peep, and I just hope for the best.Not this week! My article about the Montgomery County, Maryland schools under the leadership of superintendent Jerry Weast (and based on my reading of Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools) led to the bombardment of my email box by angry local parents, teachers, and activists. To whom I am very grateful. Let the debate begin!
I am seeking permission from several of these folks to post their comments on this blog; one of the most incisive is below.
But before that, a thought. I'm struck at how the Montgomery County activists are so like many of the New York City activists. They both get steamed when the national education policy community holds their local districts up as exemplars, when they know the underbelly of those systems up close and personal. Maybe there's a rule for reformers: The more you know about any particular district, the less you like it. (I'll admit to knowing very little about Montgomery County, even though I live there--in the "Red Zone" no less!)
Now here's another side to the Montgomery County story, thanks to Joseph Hawkins:
I don't know your colleague Mike, but I would like to share a few observations about his pieces, "For progressive school reform, look South." Basically, the piece praised the Montgomery County Public Schools and its superintendent Jerry Weast. Since I worked for this district for nearly 20 years in its Accountability Office I have a few opinions. I also have some pretty unfriendly opinions about Weast based on my experience of trying to open a charter school in this county. Where does one start!
- Let me start with my charter school experience. As you know, from 1999 through 2004, I was the president of the Jaime Escalante Public Charter School, Inc. This group spent 4 and half years on two failed charter school applications. What did I learn from this experience? Weast will say one thing in private meetings behind closed doors and then in public he will actually lie to your face about what was said. I wouldn't walk in front of him down any dark alley ways. If there is reform going on in Montgomery County, charter schools are not part of the agenda at all. (By the way, we ended our charter school with a legal action. We settled that dispute with a promise from Weast that he would open a KIPP Academy in Silver Spring. Well, that went over like a lead balloon in progressive Montgomery County. No KIPP.)
- Nothing that has occurred during Weast's tenure in Montgomery County is supported by any real empirical data. And here I'm talking about controlled studies. And this unfortunate because the school district is rich enough and well-staffed to the point that it can actually afford to engage in good science. Okay, even if you discount controlled studies, one still cannot get out of the school district public use data-sets and files for secondary data analysis. So there are no independent checks and balances on any claims and the new Harvard book is void of secondary data analysis. I dare anyone to walk up to Weast and ask for a public data set - you will be laughed out of the room.
- I disagree that Montgomery County actually engaged in "taking" from the rich to give to the poor. This implies a serious zero-sum game. I don't think this is what really occurred (or still occurs). In life luck is really important. Or as my parents use to say, "Being in the right place at the right time never hurts." Weast not only landed in one of the richest school districts in the world but it did so at a time when the county was busting with money from the over-heated real estate market. What happened in Montgomery County was tax-payers grew the pie making it possible to push lots of extra cash and resources into the schools that were in the poorer sections of the county. The county gets credit for sharing the wealth but people in my Burning Tree neighborhood (I live the green section of the county) aren't suffering.
- Finally, there are lots of test score gaps that remain unclosed. My favorite one is the SAT gap (I'll get to the numbers in a moment). And this is interesting one because it shows how liberals will talk out of both sides of their mouths. Frequently, you will hear liberals in this county say that at the lower grades they have refused to accept income and race as an excuse for performance. With that said you will find Weast claiming that he's closed the reading achievement gap in the early grades (end of kindergarten and 1st grade). (By the way, again I will point out that there is no independent testing or data analyses of these claims.) However, at the other end of grade span, you will hear the same liberals still offering excuses for why poor kids of color score poorly on the SAT. You know the excuses - the SAT correlates with income, and on and on. Anyway, take a look at the attached chart. When Weast arrived the black-white SAT score gap was 228 points. It now stands at 274. You can drive a truck through this gap.
Black SAT Mean
White SAT Mean
1999 Weast arrives
* Percent participating