Montgomery County Public Schools open in August with a record budget to improve students’ reading and math proficiency in 210 schools. Taxpayers will be looking for a return on our record investment made possible by a recent property tax increases and a generous appropriation by county officials of $198 million above the minimum spending level designated by the state for Maintenance of Effort. 

This is the right time for MCPS to remove barriers that prevent it from delivering a first-class education to all 161,000 students. The Montgomery County Education Association’s union contracts have work rules that are largely uniform for all schools, and do not address challenges of “high needs” schools with 35% or more students living in poverty (definition in question A). Black and Latino/Hispanic students suffer the most from poor reading and math instruction and limited parent communication.

But, this year’s aggregate proficiency targets for academic excellence set forth in the MCPS strategic plan (Academic Excellence, Improve student achievement in literacy and mathematics: 73.9% literacy and 72.% math) do not target proficiency improvements for Black and Latino/Hispanic students, and will leave too many of them behind.

The Kennedy High School example

A good example of the challenge is Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. Last year Kennedy experienced an 50% absentee rate and is a high-needs school with 84% of its students low-income (> 35%have now or in the past received free and reduced meals), 90% Latino/Hispanic and Black, and a very high dropout rate of 9% in the 2022 school year (Schools at a Glance).

Kennedy students are struggling academically. This could be a cause of the high absentee rate.  The most recent public dashboard data for the school year that ended in 2022 shows Kennedy’s 11th grade Hispanic/Latino students had 59.7% literacy proficiency and 36.1% math proficiency, while the smaller cohort of Black students had 76.2% literacy proficiency and 47.6% math proficiency. This performance did not meet the strategic plan’s District wide targets for literacy (65.9%) and math (64.1%) for that school year. Performance for grades 9, 10 and 12 are not disclosed to the public, and may have been worse since Kennedy’s 11th graders were only 14.3% of its students (Schools at a Glance).

Fifty three percent of Kennedy teachers have more than 15 years of experience (per Schools at a Glance), but are they effective?  MCPS doesn’t disclose how many Kennedy students received help from teacher-managed tutoring and teacher interventions, or the percentage of Kennedy parents who were contacted by teachers and told about tutoring and intervention opportunities. Does MCPS collect data on these strategies, and does it guide them with details in its budget, policies or strategic plan?


Effective teachers and high needs school strategies

The superintendent’s recommended budget for this school year emphasizes strategies called “accelerators,” and specifically says more resources are needed for tutoring (pg. 6, third bullet). Two older but equally critical strategies are interventions by teachers before, during, and after school (cited in a Feb.13 briefing to Council’s Education and Culture Committee, pgs. 14, 17 and 22), and  the teacher/parent communications policy (new Policy – note absence any explicit reference to teachers, and Student Well-Being Teams in central office – when parents do not respond to “initial school-based staff member outreach efforts”). 

A Feb. 16 presentation (pg. 27) to the County Council’s Education and Culture Committee does not detail results by school but shows MCPS had execution problems delivering needed tutoring and interventions in the first half of the 2022/2023 school year, reaching fewer than 20% (just 15,700 students) of the 80,000 students we estimate needed help (40% FARMS plus 10%). Execution problems aren’t surprising because there are gaps in the district’s strategic plan for the number of Black and Latino/Hispanic students to be helped with tutoring and interventions.

The superintendent’s recommended budget public doesn’t say how many high-needs schools have the same problems as Kennedy does getting extra help to struggling students. The MCPS strategic plan does not include performance targets for tutoring, interventions and parent communications. What about the teacher’s union contract, performance evaluation criteria and transfer policies?


Three contract barriers to teacher effectiveness

Effective teachers in high needs schools should be responsible for delivering instruction to improve proficiency, and principals should manage them guided by district-wide strategies specific to tutoring, interventions and parent communications in high needs schools. MCEA’s new union contract terms for compensation (pgs. 35-40), retaining highly qualified educators (pg. 21) and transfers (pg. 41), made public this spring don’t address the unique challenges of high-needs schools. Three barriers to teacher effectiveness need to be changed to increase reading and math proficiency, and parent communications in high-needs schools: 

  1. Absence of Extra Duty Compensation Incentives – There is no compensation (pgs. 45-52) that high-needs school teachers deserve for spending extra time managing tutoring, performing interventions, and communicating with parents of struggling kids.
  • Missing Effectiveness Evaluation Criteria Teachers have no evaluation criteria specifically tied to improving proficiency in math and reading, or reaching all parents whose kids need tutoring and intervention help (pg. 12 of 65 for teachers refers to parent communications in passing). Stronger criteria would provide an objective way to assure high-needs schools get effective teachers, help rotate out teachers who don’t measure up and target incentives to recruit and retain the best. Put plainly, effective principals need MCPS to back them up when recruiting and retaining high quality teachers in high-needs schools.
  • Unrestricted Free Agency – Teachers are free to move out of high-needs schools if they are tenured or after two years through job fairs. Who can blame them? They may be seeking shorter work days, fewer classroom disruptions and easier parent communications in a higher income school.  But this undermines principals’ efforts to attract and retain quality teachers.

These barriers are cheating kids in over half our schools out of a better future (123 high needs schools out of 210 total schools, our analysis from Schools at a Glance FARMS data).  Significantly reducing the achievement gap next year requires immediate action to strengthen the effectiveness of high-needs school principals and teachers. The clock is ticking, and parents are watching. 

Gordie Brenne is Treasurer of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League and a member of its Education Committee.  He served as PTA Vice President for school improvement planning, and Booster Club President when his daughters attended Albert Einstein HS.


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