New School Superintendent Focusing on ‘Opportunity Gap’

Jack Smith targeting test scores for all students, groups

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Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith, right, visits an automotive theory class at the Thomas Edison High School of Technology. At left is school principal Pete Cahall.

Douglas Tallman

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith—on the job just since July 1—said Monday he knows one thing he already wants to change about county schools: that certain students and certain groups of students are still struggling to learn.

“There’s a very large number of students who have achieved at the very highest levels in this county, [but] not all students,” Smith said. “So I look at the student learning data, I see there are disparities for both individual students and groups of students. And the groups that are most heavily impacted are the African-American students, Hispanic-Latino students and students who live in poverty of all races.”

Smith started the first day of school at the school system’s Clarksburg Bus Depot, then visited four other schools across the county. More than 159,000 students—about 2,500 more than last year — started the 2016-2017 school year Monday.

In an interview at Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Wheaton, Smith spoke at length on closing the divide of test scores among racial and ethnic groups, but he avoided using the term of art that has been in place since at least Paul Vance ran the school system 25 years ago. “Achievement gap” doesn’t seem to be in Smith’s vocabulary. To him, it is instead an “opportunity gap.”

Despite the attention of Smith’s predecessors, and the high-profile solutions they created[B1] , whites and Asians continue to outscore black and Hispanic students in student assessments. In 2014, a report from the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight found student performance at 11 county “high-poverty” high schools lagged behind student performance at 14 “low-poverty” high schools, a list that included Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Walter Johnson and Walt Whitman in Bethesda and Winston Churchill in Potomac.

“We can’t just design programs and put them in schools. We have to create the attitudes and the urgency and the will to do it,” Smith said.

Smith said he expects to put learning data in front of principals. He expects his schools to use cultural understanding and competencies to reach all students. He expects them to use the best instructional strategies.

“And part is making sure that people keep the focus on the high-level achievement while moving students that are not achieving as well higher,” he said.

He expects it to happen student by student and classroom by classroom.

“You can put out banners and put out leaflets and you can do all those things, and that doesn’t change anything,” Smith said. “What changes is principals, teachers, all the other people engaged in learning coming together, saying ‘In our school we have 23 percent of our students who are not going to be on grade level, what are we going to do about it?’ ” he said.

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