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MCPS superintendent responds to my Post op-ed

On Friday, Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent Joshua Starr responded to my Post op-ed about the inequities in the school system. But he didn't provide any real answers.

Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Last week, Dr. Starr spoke at the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, and chair Evan Glass asked him what he thought of my column. Dr. Starr said, "There's no shortage of self-professed experts on education because they went to school."

He later said he'd have a more thorough response to my column. On Friday, the Post published it:

To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, his report of our demise is greatly exaggerated.

Reed says that MCPS is "coasting on the system's good reputation" and is no longer "great," in essence because our schools have gotten more diverse and our students poorer . . .

Our focus is rightly on raising student achievement across the board, thereby narrowing achievement gaps and giving our students the best possible chance at success once they graduate. I believe one way to narrow those gaps is by working with every school community to focus on the needs of individual students, rather than simply putting more programs in place or trying to change housing patterns.
I'm glad that Dr. Starr decided to respond to my column. But between that and his comments on Monday night, it doesn't seem like he's taking my argument seriously.

While I did go to public school in Montgomery County, I don't claim to be an expert. Nearly all of the data I mentioned in the column, and wrote about in the preceding blog posts, comes from MCPS. Researchers from the school system, and from the County Council's Office of Legislative Oversight, have told me privately that the data is not only correct, but that the conclusions I drew from the data are valid.

On Monday, Dr. Starr told me he would respond to the "distortions" and "mischaracterizations" in my findings. But nowhere did he actually do that. In fact, he mischaracterized the core of my argument. MCPS isn't getting worse because it has more minorities and poor students, but because disadvantaged students are increasingly concentrated in East County and Upcounty schools. Closing the "achievement gap" becomes a lot harder when some schools bear the burden of giving disadvantaged students the help they need, while schools in the wealthier parts of the county are largely excused from it.

It's true that as the head of the school system, Dr. Starr doesn't have any control over land use or housing decisions. But he has to understand that inequities in the school system can create and perpetuate de facto segregation and hurt the county's economic development, as families opt out of schools, and in turn neighborhoods that they deem undesirable. Schools aren't the only reason why the median home price in the top-ranked Whitman cluster is as much as four times as high as it is lower-ranked catchments, but it is a major influence.

And if Dr. Starr wants to quote studies saying that "hopefulness" affects student achievement, he can't simultaneously ignore studies saying that integration does as well. He dismissed one of my recommendations to reduce segregration, making small changes to school boundaries. But there are many other things I propose that MCPS and the county can do to make every school great, and he didn't address any of them.

As I wrote in my column, Montgomery County has the resources to make every school great. But since I first wrote about de facto segregation in MCPS two months ago, I've heard from parents, community leaders, business leaders, school advocates, teachers, and even a couple of principals from all over the county who are frustrated with the current state of affairs, whether it's at specific schools or in the county as a whole.

They sound ready to engage Dr. Starr in a real conversation about the school system's future. Hopefully, he's ready too.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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dan, you really expected starr to give you a non bs answer? please. he is all lip service and no action.

by lilk on Sep 17, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

From your article Starr seems to think that the problem is not seggregation, but poverty. Isn't that addressing your argument (albeit not in a direct debate)?

Wherever a kid is struggling, there needs to be help. But IIRC, MoCo is already providing more resources to the East County for this express purpose.

Finally, I am sure that there are many in MCPS who agree with you, but that may reflect that MCPS central shares your politics. Starr is more directly responsible to the voters, and they are not in uniform agreement with MCPS on a lot of issues.

by SJE on Sep 17, 2013 2:25 pm • linkreport

MCPS provides more funding to the schools in the Viers Mill/University Boulevard corridor than it does to the western part of the county. They've been doing differentiated learning/ESOL programs since the early 1980's. I don't know how much more MCPS can do. They don't control the property values and socioeconomic segregation that is part and parcel of car-dependent land uses.

The feeling of inferior schooling stems from the fact that the schools in the Viers Mill/University Boulevard corridor have much, much higher concentrations of kids on free/reduced school lunches and other measures of poverty. MCPS doesn't control who they educate. They do a lot to address the particular needs of the different parts of the county. I'm sure there is plenty more to learn about how to do it better. There always is.

However, I think it's a step too far to blame MCPS for the inequality that they do their best to address. Blame car-dependent land uses, larger macro-economic factors, social trends etc. first because they have more to do with your criticisms than lack of caring by MCPS.

by Cavan on Sep 17, 2013 2:39 pm • linkreport

However, I think it's a step too far to blame MCPS for the inequality that they do their best to address.
Did you actually read Dan's original op-ed? If so, could you point me to the part where he blames MCPS for the inequality?

He didn't seem to me to be focusing on blame, but instead on some proposals to address the effects of that inequality. You can argue whether these measures are worth undertaking, but it seems unhelpful to argue that proposing anything is equivalent to placing blame on those who aren't responsible for the root causes.

by Gray on Sep 17, 2013 2:47 pm • linkreport

Look, white flight is the original sin of the DC (and other) suburbs. Trying to get people whose basic reasons for living in Montgomery County to admit that their moving "for the schools" away from minorities and the poor is problematic isn't likely to meet with success. And a leader accountable to those people isn't going to condemn intracounty white flight.

by annonymouss on Sep 17, 2013 3:28 pm • linkreport

I think SJE gets at the crux of the issue here:

Finally, I am sure that there are many in MCPS who agree with you, but that may reflect that MCPS central shares your politics. Starr is more directly responsible to the voters, and they are not in uniform agreement with MCPS on a lot of issues.

The voters - and particularly the highly active ones, who have the ability and means to be involved in elections, school debates, donating campaigns, etc. - do indeed tend to have different, broadly less progressive ideas than education professionals.

We need to understand that housing and school segregation are a feature, not a bug. They are the direct result of behaviors and policies that have been put into place to allow better-off families (previously exclusively white ones, but now income trumps race when the two diverse) to wall themselves off from their 'less fortunate' fellow citizens and the negative externalities that are perceived as being associated with them.

Dan is right: concentrating poorer and otherwise socially disadvantaged kids in certain schools is going to produce much worse outcomes for them, just as concentrating people writ large of that social stratum in public housing tracts and majority-poor neighborhoods is going to create much worse outcomes for those people. And "those people" need not be urban blacks - check out Oxyana County, WV to see the same thing with rural whites.

In the post with Dan's original op-ed, there was some back and forth discussion about whether you can blame middle class parents for not wanting to send their kids to schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged, poor, marginalized, etc. students, since such high concentrations are typically associated with dysfunctional or even dangerous school environments that aren't conducing to learning. This is true as far as it goes, but it fails to fully capture the collective action problem at hand, which can roughly be boiled down to: what is the cutoff?

For some white progressive families, the sort likely to be found in Takoma Park or otherwise stereotypically lefty, the 'bar' is fairly low: their commitment to public schools and social justice/equity, etc. is such that they will send their kids to a school where their kids are a small minority, so long as it meets baseline levels of safety and capacity.

Next up will be generally left-leaning families for whom the baseline is this mystical, hard-to-define boundary of 'over-saturation' of disadvantaged students. They would not feel comfortable sending their kids to a school where they are an uber-minority, because being white in America largely means never having to be a minority anywhere, so it is a singularly disconcerting experience, political liberalism aside (we're not talking about being at a Congressional Black Caucus cocktail party or the like). So they would never send their kid to a school like C.H. Flowers or Wheaton (10% white), but they can handle something like James Hubert Blake (30% white).

The next step are vaguely liberal/centrist/conservative MoCo denizens and probably the most common group. They're ok with having some disadvantaged students of color, but not too many. For them, the comfort level is when kids like theirs (upper-middle class and white or Asian) are a clear majority. This is the group that is fine with Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Richard Montgomery range (60+% range).

Then you have the folks who need affluent-ish whites and Asians to be the overwhelming majority, or they won't feel comfortable. Winston Churchill and Wootton, come on down!

Lastly, you have the people who don't want young Francis or Eleanor to have to associate with the 47%. They're going to Landon and Holton-Arms. (this group thrown in to bound one end of the spectrum, since they would never consider public school to begin with).

Each of these groups, and all the gradations in between, have a different standard for what they consider to be the saturation point at which a school has too many disadvantaged/marginalized students and can no longer adequately supply an orderly and salutary learning environment. And any measures, like the ones Dan proposes, that move the baseline level higher are going to alienate some segment of these parents and push them to leave the system. The problem is, their leaving only increases the percentage of disadvantaged students, which means that some additional number of families find the school to now be on the wrong side of their threshold, so they leave, and on it goes.

The exact mix of each of these groups among the population is unknown, but it is what keeps school officials and politicians up at night.

TL;DR version: affluent white people have different levels of tolerance for what percentage of brown children they're ok with in their children's schools (they generally won't phrase it that way, of course, but that's the bottom line and will continue to be so long as income inequality has such a strong racial component in our society). Push too hard to integrate evenly, and you risk running off too much of your system and polity's core constituency.

by Dizzy on Sep 17, 2013 3:59 pm • linkreport

@Dizzy - while I don't quite agree with the political labels you've attached to different cohorts of parents (since it's very clear that people who otherwise have liberal or progressive politics can be conservative or reactionary where their children's education is concerned; see, e.g., the parent roster at Sidwell)' otherwise I think you've nailed the issue. The fundamental flaw in Dan's analysis is that he treats MCPS as a closed system, whereas in reality public school parents in the county have other options, even if they effectively have to pay an exit fee to avail of them.

by Dano on Sep 17, 2013 9:21 pm • linkreport

@Dizzy: I generally agree. My concern with "deseggregating" is that you threated to drive the affluent out of the MCPS and out of MoCo. Howard Co and Fairfax are even whiter.

by SJE on Sep 17, 2013 9:45 pm • linkreport

Education is the lagging indicator of the loss of the middle class & increase in the rich poor gap. Starr is right he can't change a socio-economic norm that elites believe their kids should get the best, the rest of society be dammed.

by DC Parent on Sep 18, 2013 9:07 am • linkreport


I never said it's a closed system. In fact, I've written before about how families fleeing for private schools is actually a big problem, especially in East County. Take my parents' street for example. Of 13 houses and maybe 15-20 kids, all but 2 of them had kids in public school when I was growing up in the late 90's. Today, my brother is the only kid on our street in public school. Everyone else does private. And it's not an especially affluent neighborhood, either.

Desegregation doesn't automatically mean busing. In fact, I never said busing was the solution. In many neighborhoods, like my parents', it means bringing back the middle-class families who for a variety of reasons don't participate in their neighborhood schools, whether because they have chosen private school, or because they've gotten into an immersion or magnet program elsewhere in the county.

There are a lot of factors that go into why families choose the schools that they do. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's what they would pick in any circumstance. It's the same way that some people argue that suburban sprawl is an outcome of the market. No, it's just the only option that many people thought they had. And when urban neighborhoods became more attractive (whether due to increasing traffic, falling crime, cultural shifts, and in some cases, schools), people began to change their habits.

This isn't a new problem for MCPS; in fact, they've been dealing with waves of white/middle-class flight and de facto segregation for decades. The school system has done a lot of good work to promote integration. But there's always more they can do. And while middle- and upper-class families may feel like they have an out from underperforming schools, that may not be the case forever. Better to try and reverse the trend now before it gets even harder to solve in the future.

by dan reed! on Sep 18, 2013 9:50 am • linkreport

As a concerned middle-class (relatively) parent in the Northeast consortium, I have a big decision ahead of me when my child exits her great elementary school for a sub-par middle school.

There are things that could support my decision to either stay or leave for a better school district or private school. One would be more data/metrics on the school system. It seems that FARMS is the most popular (and abused) but what about drilled-down demographics of honors/AP students? What about information on what colleges/universities students were accepted into? I’m assuming this is being tracked, why not publish to alleviate concerned parents' skepticism of east county schools. I say this because most MoCo high schools have schools within the school. You have AP kids, honor kids, and everyone else. I was an honor kid (non-magnet) at Blair and 90% of my friends were honors/magnets/APs. All (I do mean 100%) of my friends in this category went to college. However, by looking at the demographics at a high level, maybe only 40% of students that year went to college. So as a parent if my child is honors and has the drive (with family support) to attend college, there WILL be like-minded individuals surrounding her that want the same thing. Only someone who is involved with or attended an east county high school would know this stratification.

Another idea to keep or even attract middle class families is create more true magnets. The consortium is a joke and watered down now that every school pretty much offers the same "special" curriculum. The county should set-up one-of-a-kind programs leveraging the local infrastructure. For example, it would make sense for Springbrook or Paint Branch to have some type of competitive healthcare program being that FDA is so close to go along with the future LifeSci Village. Most county kids thinking pre-med would apply and attend if accepted. Programs like this would make concerned parents like me think twice about leaving especially if I'm within the school’s boundary and the consortium no longer exists.

by Lane on Sep 19, 2013 4:53 pm • linkreport

REALLY... my experience is that whites and Asians want to do better at school. Certainly not all whites but I dare say most Asians. The problem is the massive influx of people from other countries many who have little education to begin with and the parents are working hard just to make a living. Also there is the disparity in not knowing or little knowledge of reading/speaking English. Then there are other minorities with only one parent (the mother) and many children with no father involvement at all. No body wants to talk about it because it is not PC. Bottom line with Parental involvement and hard work by the student anyone can do well. Yes it is hard if you are in tough circumstances and I feel for such individuals. But there has to be responcibility and hard work. No one can do it for your family but you. All schools provide the opportunity we must seize it.

by chris on Sep 16, 2014 9:47 pm • linkreport

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