Back in September 2011, Thomas Dagley, who had served as the Montgomery County’s inspector general from 2005 through the early months of 2011, asserted in writing to the Washington Post that “…Montgomery County would benefit from a cultural change that encourages residents and employees to ask tough questions on difficult issues — and forces leaders to answer.” Now, approximately four years later, other than cosmetic changes, there is little evidence that the cultural change has occurred. Moreover, one could argue, there is no greater need for change than now.
If not a cultural change, Maryland’s largest county has been in the throes of a major demographic change. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the demographic composition of the public school system, which by its own accounts is the 17th largest in the nation. The once predominantly white school system that catered to wealthy families now plays host to a student population of whom 13.9% require English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) courses, and 35.2% receive free & reduced-price meals (FARMS). According to a district publication, there were 65,849 students identifying as non-Hispanic white in 2000, while the number has dropped to 47, 768 in 2014. Simultaneously, the number of Hispanic students had more than doubled, going from 21,731 to 43,888 over the same period. African American enrollment went from 28,426 to 33,123. According to the same report, the county school system has one of the lowest white (non-Hispanic) populations among Washington metro area school districts. Consequently, the demands on the school system have changed.
In its heyday, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) participated in the TIMSS 1999 Benchmarking Study. The results allowed the district to claim that “A large percentage of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) eighth graders attained world-class standing on mathematics and science tests administered in 1999 to students in 38 countries, 13 states and 14 school districts. Forty percent of the eighth grade students in science and 27 percent of the students in mathematics scored in the range of the top five nations.”
But that was in 1999.
For comparison, in 2002-2003, the district was 46.1% white, with just 21.4% identifying as African-American and 17.9% classified as Hispanic. In 2014-2015, the white population had dropped to 31.0%, with the African-American population almost holding steady at 21.5%, and the Hispanic population rising to 28.4%.
In those heady days, the district was not only willing to compare itself to the world; it was willing to benchmark itself with other large school districts. One such example is the year 2000 SAT report. The black-white SAT score gap stood at 238 points, while the white-Hispanic gap was 190.
It was a harbinger of things to come.
As larger numbers of students in lower performing groups contributed to the district averages, the district performance on educational metrics plummeted. The ubiquitous gap that was hidden behind the gossamer curtains of “world-class” and “high-performing” began to cast its malevolent eyes on the district’s reputation.
Into the district rode Jerry D. Weast, with all the panache of a new sheriff in Dodge City. The Washington Post would fawn on him as a “farm boy wunderkind from Kansas,” who “transforms staff meetings into hand-holding motivational sermons, spinning stories with a Midwestern twang and evangelical zeal.”
With “evangelical zeal” Weast successfully lulled the district into believing that it had “raised the bar and closed the gap.” Harvard helped with a lullaby titled “Leading for Equity.” No one challenged the basic premise of the book, let alone the conspicuous absence of serious, peer-reviewed research to support its claims. Notwithstanding its deficiencies, veteran Post columnist reviewed the book and extolled Weast as “the Indiana Jones of this wild suburban adventure.”
In a county with a penchant for the hyperbole, the Trumpification of public education in Montgomery County was in full swing.
Very few questioned the accuracy of Leading for Equity, let alone demanded answers for the book’s reliance on anonymous sources and questionable research. However, there were voices in the wilderness challenging the Weast narrative, the most effective on educational matters being that of the late Wayne Goldstein. Wayne pulled no punches in expressing his disdain for the Weast juggernaut, writing that “Weast’s MCPS PR machine is as relentless as it is deceptive.”
Behind the scenes, the district pursued awards for excellence with the same evangelical zeal. In the fall of 2000, immediately after Weast’s arrival MCPS also participated in a Baldrige self-assessment, “to help determine the direction for the school system.” In 2004, MCPS applied for The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, and would be named the 2004 U.S. Senate Productivity Award Winner.
Baldrige, however, proved elusive. Not for long. With consultants leading the charge the district snagged the Baldrige award in 2010.
However, beneath this veil of success lurked the stark reality of a district that had done little to improve the lot for its disadvantaged students.
In the next column we will peer behind the veil of success in greater detail.