My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.
Dear soon-to-be MCPS Superintendent:
Recently, when cleaning out my office, I found a 1983 article I co-wrote about test score differences between black and white Montgomery County students. It might be one of the first published academic articles written about the MCPS achievement gap.
Since 1983, I’ve probably written more about MCPS achievement gaps than any other individual in the nation. I’ve penned letters to editors, countless newspaper columns, a book chapter and endless blog pieces. And so writing what I’m about to write is difficult and a little painful, but it needs saying — and you need to hear it before you buy a home in Montgomery County (maybe you should rent):
During your tenure, you will not close the achievement gap between our racial groups and between students from our wealthiest and poorest income groups.
There are many data points to support my claim; however, here are two quick data points to demonstrate why I’m saying this, and why I feel the way I feel.
Black-white SAT score gap. In 1999, when former MCPS superintendent Jerry Weast took over MCPS, his first graduating class of black seniors — the Class of 2000 — scored, on average, 915 points on their SATs (math plus verbal or reading).
White students in the Class of 2000 scored, on average, 1,153 points. The gap was 238 points. Fifteen years later, under former MCPS superintendent Joshua Starr, the graduating class of black seniors — the class of 2014 — scored, on average, 938 points on the math and reading sections of their SATs. White 2014 seniors scored, on average, 1,186 points. The gap widened to 248 points.
Affluent-non-affluent Advanced Placement (AP) score gap. MCPS doesn’t really share mean AP scores (can you make that happen on your watch?) but it is, nonetheless, possible to contrast the performance of affluent and non-affluent MCPS students.
I usually do these contrasts by comparing the AP performance of Walt Whitman High School AP exam takers to Wheaton High School AP exam takers. I like contrasting these two high schools because Whitman has such a low number of students on FARMS — less than 5 percent — while Wheaton has a high number of kids on FARMS–almost 60 percent. FARMS, or Free and Reduced Meals, is an indicator of students from low-income backgrounds.
Regardless of which AP exam one picks, the majority of Whitman exam takers consistently score 3, 4 or 5 out of a 5-point scale (3 is usually good for college credit) while the majority of Wheaton exam takers consistently score 1 or 2.
But while I feel it’s unrealistic to expect a superintendent to close our gaps, doing so will apparently be one of the reasons you are hired, and it will be next to mission impossible.
You’ll find the Board of Education never stops talking about gaps. They love to talk and talk and talk some more. You should learn quickly that closing gaps is your job and yours alone.
After decades of thinking and writing about MCPS gaps, I’ve actually come down to one potential solution to close gaps. I’ve offered the solution openly in the past (it was even the focus of a public charter school application — you need to call me to hear about that history), but whenever I repeat it, the idea is generally treated like radioactive waste.
Put black or hispanic or low-income students on a single, focused academic track for an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, meaning they all must be required to earn the diploma. Yes, all these students would do is eat and sleep IB. And one now can commit to such a track from the early elementary grades. It would help them catch up to our better performing students from wealthier backgrounds.
You probably won’t want to undertake my IB challenge.
But are you brave enough to even put something like it on the table? Bold enough to think radically straight out the gate? Toss out the IB idea, but what else do you have up your sleeve?
You’ll need to have something that will radically and drastically alter the education landscape for our kids of color, especially the ones who are poor. Ideas that simply floor people when you introduce them. You’ll have to come out of the gate swinging.
I intentionally used the words brave, bold and radical because if I’ve learned nothing else about MCPS and gaps after 31 years, it’s the simple reality that we, as a county, have been unable and unwilling to be sufficiently brave, bold and radical enough when it comes to closing gaps.
And so Dr., I hope you’re here for the long haul. I hope you realize quickly that you won’t be eliminating gaps in the short term.
You’re going to need to immediately talk down all of the MCPS do-gooders, Board of Education included, who believe you can eliminate a longstanding and deeply entrenched achievement gap in a few years. Talking sense into people is why we’re paying you the big bucks.
Good luck! And remember — think rental.
Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.