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ERS Stories: Striving for Equity and Achievement in Montgomery County Public Schools

“I have waited 20 years for this moment,” Nora Morales told the crowd. On a mid-October Tuesday at Gaithersburg High School, school leaders, students, and community members of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) came together to talk about education equity. Nora, an MCPS parent, former teacher, and advocate, was one of several speakers taking the stage to share the urgency of the fight for equity in the Maryland school district. This meeting, organized by the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence, highlighted in MCPS what we know to be true across the country: that students of color and low-income students face systemic barriers to success in education, and it is imperative that leaders work to reverse that reality.

In 2018, along with creating its “All In: Equity and Achievement Framework,” MCPS partnered with Education Resource Strategies (ERS) to dig deeper into how the district allocates and uses its resources to support equity and achievement for all students. Our goal was to establish a shared fact base around resource allocation, use, and equity across the district that would increase awareness of this work and spark collective action in the MCPS community. We studied where MCPS stood across what we call the “dimensions of equity” in order to identify places where the district could allocate or use resources differently to provide a universally high-quality student experience.

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When MCPS students and alumni shared stories at the Gaithersburg High School event, many expressed feeling that as low-income people of color, they experienced school differently than their peers. Some noted feeling under-supported by teachers and school leaders, while others expressed that they were not challenged enough academically despite high performance. “What about all those students who have so much talent, but don’t have the support from the school?” asked one alum, citing his own experience of being discouraged from pursuing a variety of college options.

When it comes to student performance, MCPS sees higher achievement than other Maryland districts with similar levels of students in poverty. However, using the student groupings from MCPS’ Equity Accountability Model, we see that white and Asian students who are not in poverty drive a greater share of this outperformance. Performance gaps still exist, particularly for low-income students and black and Hispanic students. As in most U.S. districts, high-poverty schools in MCPS have lower performance than more affluent schools—but unlike other districts, high-need students at more affluent schools in MCPS do not perform significantly better than their peers in schools with higher concentrations of poverty.

In terms of funding for poverty, our analysis revealed that MCPS invests more in its high-need students than many of its peer districts. Yet inequity in student experiences persists, suggesting that looking at funding alone isn’t enough to see the whole picture. Funding is critical to providing all students with the resources they need, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. It matters, too, how well that money is spent and how non-financial resources are allocated and used.

Looking across our other dimensions of equity, we found that while low-income black and Hispanic students have slightly smaller class sizes on average, they are more likely to attend classes with fewer high-performing peers and are less likely to be enrolled in advanced coursework. We also found that these student groups are more likely than their peers to be in classrooms with novice teachers and schools with novice principals. In our analysis, we looked at novice teachers as both teachers with less than three years of experience teaching in MCPS and less than three years of experience teaching overall. The data shown here uses the former.

It's worth noting, however, that there is no singular objective method to assess teaching and school leadership quality. We recognize that teacher experience, leadership, and certification measures are not direct measures of quality. Research doesn't indicate that novice teachers aren't effective—just that effectiveness tends to increase with experience, especially early on in a teacher's career. This is only one input into a broader conversation about teaching and school leadership quality in MPCS. As several speakers noted at the event, and as research has shown, high-quality leadership is imperative to student success.

“By hiring experienced and effective leaders in our schools, we are deliberately breaking cycles of obligatory silence,” said an MCPS student speaker. “We are saying to our students, ‘We see you.’”

Outside of these varied experiences across student groups, our analysis also identified opportunities to raise the bar for all students. For example, we looked at student access to advanced coursework across grade levels and student groups. We found that participation in the advanced math pathway decreases between 4th grade and middle school for all student groups, highlighting a potential need for better support across the board so that all students can succeed at their highest level.

After identifying these student experiences, we dug deeper into the causes of the disparities. Much like our results across the dimensions of equity, we found that there was no single answer. For example, in elementary and middle schools, differences happen at the system level—novice teachers tend to be concentrated at higher-need schools. Meanwhile, in high schools, there are differences in the way students and teachers are assigned to courses at the school level. These variations are true for other dimensions of equity, as well. The work to come will require MCPS leaders to think not just across types of resources, but also levels of resource allocation.

At a time when there’s a lot of talk about equity in education, MCPS can serve as an example of what it looks like to go beyond the rhetoric and use data and real student experiences to inform a path forward. The results of our work with the district show that funding alone isn’t enough to improve student outcomes—money must also be used well to make a difference. And the way the district and local equity advocates are using these findings shows that there is energy around change for MCPS’ highest-need students.

“I’ve never seen this concerted effort,” said Laura Stewart, a vice president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations. “Getting the data has spurred a call to action. Just to see the numbers in black and white, you can’t not take action.” (Washington Post)

At the close of the October session, members of the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence called for leaders to invest themselves in taking measurable actions toward equity. The county executive, county council, superintendent, school board, and union leaders all stood to show their commitment. And in the Gaithersburg High School auditorium, 800 audience members stood with them—to show their commitment to supporting school leaders and holding them accountable so that all students in Montgomery County, regardless of race or income, can succeed.

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