New data released by the U.S. Department of Education shows black and Hispanic students in Montgomery County schools are, on average, more than three grade levels behind white students academically, and more than twice as likely to be disciplined as white students.
Recently released data from the 2015-2016 school year compiled by ProPublica shows black students are 5.2 times more likely to be suspended than white students, while Hispanic students are 2.6 times as likely to be suspended.
Hispanic and black students are both, on average, three grade levels behind their white peers when it comes to academic performance.
In the 2015-2016 school year, 46 percent of Montgomery County Public Schools’ out-of-school suspensions were charged to black students and 31 percent were given to Hispanic students. White students accounted for 12 percent of out-of-school suspensions, with the remainder incurred by Asian students or students of two or more races.
Only Hispanic and black students were expelled, according to the data.
School officials don’t argue there is racial disparity in student discipline and achievement, but are quick to tout strategies implemented in recent years to improve.
Over the past two years, MCPS has emphasized districtwide staff training explaining cultural proficiency and implicit bias.
At a press conference earlier this month, MCPS Director of Equity Initiatives Troy Boddy outlined the training and said it will continue this year with a session aimed at “interrupting implicit bias.”
The goal, he said, is to hold staff accountable for creating an inclusive environment for students.
Additionally, this school year, MCPS has launched a newsletter called Equity Matters that highlights new topics about equity and inclusiveness each month, Boddy said.
“This is not a checklist. This is work that we are always working on because culture changes and evolves,” Boddy said. “Wherever you are, we’re here to meet you and help you grow.”
The training, MCPS spokesperson Derek Turner added Monday, helps staff become aware of “unconscious biases everyone is wired with” that could contribute to more minority student suspensions and expulsions.
Oftentimes, when a student of color is “difficult” or causes problems, instead of asking, “What is this child going through?” as they would with a white student, staff members might instinctively assume the child is acting out simply because “that’s how they are,” leading to more discipline, Turner said.
“We don’t even know what we’re doing sometimes, yet we’re impacting the outcomes of students,” Turner said. “There are plenty of research studies that say whatever expectations you have for students, that’s the level they’ll aspire to achieve, so a real focus of this administration at MCPS has been to increase those expectations for all students.”
The education department data doesn’t show initiatives put in place to offset academic achievement gaps since Jack Smith took over as superintendent of MCPS at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Turner said.
Turner hopes for more balanced statistics as fresh data is released.
And MCPS has already seen the rewards of its work, Smith said during a press conference earlier this month.
For example, in 2016 roughly 5,000 students successfully completed Algebra 1 by the end of eighth grade, and that number jumped to more than 8,000 in 2018, and more elementary students are being admitted to accelerated math programs, Smith said.
Additionally, since 2016, 10 schools have been tabbed as “equal opportunity school systems,” where teachers and students, especially those of color, who are not in accelerated or gifted programs meet to discuss why the students aren’t enrolled. Students often say they don’t feel they belong and teachers stress the heavy workload they feel some students can’t handle. Eight more schools are slated to join as equal opportunity school systems this year.
“When we get them to talk to each other, we’re seeing significant enrollment increases in these programs,” Smith said. “As we support students in elementary, middle and high school … we’re seeing some good results all the way, and we’re going to continue those efforts. If we don’t create a sense in kids that, ‘I can do this, I belong here, I’m part of this and this matters in my life,’ they’re never going to take advantage of it.”
Further data for the school years since Smith was hired is not yet available, but Turner said school officials are confident the achievement gap will shrink as newer data is released. And if marked progress isn’t made, MCPS will change its approach, Turner said.
“It’s not OK to look at a group of students who may or may not be the minority and say that just because they’re a small group you don’t have to worry about their success because, say, 90 percent of other students are doing well,” he said. “All students means all students.”