September-October 2016 | Featured Article

Are Montgomery County Public Schools Still the Best?

Overcrowding and competing priorities pose serious challenges for school system

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Smith is optimistic that he can pull off what will clearly be a political balancing act. “Montgomery County is a great school system, and for a large number of students it works very well,” he says. “What we have to do is to keep it working for those students while increasing opportunities for other students.”

Navarro says that means acknowledging who Montgomery County is today. “We can’t continue to pursue models and initiatives that worked 30 years ago,” she says. “We’re a different county, and that’s OK. So let’s look at the best practices in jurisdictions that look like us, and put those in place.”


JoAnn Leleck Elementary School at Broad Acres is located in southeastern Montgomery County, in a Silver Spring neighborhood crowded with rental apartments not far from the borders of the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County. According to 2015-2016 enrollment figures, the school’s student population is more than 80 percent Latino, with a FARMS rate of 94.2 percent.

Nine miles away is Bethesda Elementary School, located on the northern edge of downtown Bethesda next to a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes. Its 2015-2016 enrollment was almost two-thirds white, with less than 8 percent of its student body reliant on FARMS. “I’m in the same school system in the same county, but I might as well be in a different world,” says Montgomery County Education Association President Chris Lloyd.

The county’s public school enrollment has not been majority-white since the start of the millennium—the tipping point coming during the 2000-2001 school year, nearly a decade before the 2010 Census showed the county population as a whole becoming majority-minority. The latest available breakdown shows an overall county school population that is approximately 30 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic-American, 21.5 percent black or African-American, and 14 percent Asian-American. The balance, about 5 percent, is comprised of students from other ethnicities or mixed heritage. By comparison, the teaching staff—despite efforts at diversity—is more than 75 percent white, 11.5 percent African-American and about 6 percent Latino.

Though the school system’s shift to majority-minority status is hardly new, several demographic trends have accelerated in the past few years, making the disparities typified by elementary schools such as Broad Acres and Bethesda even stronger. Today, more than 54,500 students—more than one-third of the approximately 157,000 students in the entire system—rely on free or reduced price meals, according to the MCPS Division of Long-Range Planning. Since the 2007-2008 school year, the FARMS student population has jumped by more than 50 percent, nearly four times the 13.5 percent rate in the growth of overall school enrollment.

During the same eight-year period, from 2007 to 2015, participation in the schools’ ESOL programs has jumped by nearly 40 percent, fueled largely by the mushrooming Latino population; the most recent figures, from the 2015-2016 school year, show that there were more than 22,250 students in ESOL programs, up from slightly more than 16,000 in 2007. School officials like to point out that there are native speakers of nearly 140 different languages now enrolled in the system. Still, in 2015, nearly two-thirds of the ESOL enrollment was comprised of those for whom Spanish was their primary language.

Although available data indicate that a significant majority of this group are students born in the United States to Spanish-speaking parents, a growing number of students in recent years have arrived after fleeing violence or other adverse conditions in their home countries in Central and South America, some with little more than an elementary school education. When they reach 21, the school system, by law, can no longer accept them.

Groups advocating for local immigrants say the support provided for ESOL students is, at best, uneven. “There might be a student who gets placed in Algebra II, but is still in an ESOL class, so hasn’t fully grasped the language,” says Maritza Solano of CASA de Maryland, which advocates on behalf of Latino immigrants. “[He or she] might still need language support, but might not get it, depending on what school they’re in.”

While high school graduation rates in the Montgomery County system have approached or exceeded 90 percent in recent years, the graduation rate for students with limited proficiency in English was 54 percent for the class of 2014. For reasons that remain unclear, the figure plunged to under 45 percent for the class of 2015, and MCPS recently moved to revamp a couple of programs aimed at providing opportunities for older students with limited English proficiency.

New superintendent Jack Smith says about the achievement gap: “I truly believe these disparities can be diminished and ultimately closed if we really pay attention to the art of really strong instruction, the science of using the information we have in the classroom and the school building, and if we have a heart.”  Photo by Laura Chase McGehee

During his tenure as Maryland’s chief academic officer, Smith convened a task force to explore ways to better serve the ESOL population. Advocates for the Latino population argue that greater individualized attention is a key element to this, in addition to making career and technical education services more widely accessible.

These programs are currently concentrated at Thomas Edison High School of Technology, which is next to Wheaton High School. “The challenge is: What do we do for the older ESOL students who are coming to us with life experiences that none of us have really had?” Mugge says. “And I think that’s a challenge the new superintendent has in closing the achievement gap.”

Like the shift in the makeup of the overall school population, the so-called achievement gap did not appear yesterday. But the urgency to close it has intensified with the recent demographic changes in the system.

This spring, the Stanford Graduate School of Education released a study that compared racial and ethnic achievement gaps in more than 2,200 school districts and metropolitan areas around the country. The study used the results of 200 million standardized reading and math tests administered to elementary and middle school students from 2009 to 2012.

It found that white students in Montgomery County were, on average, testing 2.6 grades above the grades they were actually in, while African-American and Latino students each tested 0.5 grades below where they were placed—for a total gap of more than three grades. According to Kenneth Shores, one of the authors of the study, the findings show that Montgomery County had the 131st widest achievement gap out of the 2,200 school districts studied—putting it in the top 6 percent nationwide.

A number of school officials frame the problem as an “opportunity gap,” rather than an “achievement gap,” a view Smith agrees with. In an interview just days before assuming his new post, Smith was passionate in discussing strong early childhood programs, which he feels are a priority in closing this gap.

“People like to say, ‘Well, we look at the research and we’re not sure by third grade there’s any effect’ [on student performance],” he says. “That’s a red herring, because what would be the effect if we didn’t have the [programs] that we have? The disparity would be greater.”

Smith continues: “We need to make sure that between the primary years and the end of middle school, that students learn the foundational skills. Students must walk out of these grades or higher being able to write coherent sentences and paragraphs and passages, and having good, strong, computational thinking. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to major in math—what it does mean is that students really need to understand how numbers work, both conceptually and procedurally.”