Sunday, July 10, 2011

What's in a name

On May 5th 2011 I received my 3rd email invitation in three months. I was cordially invited to attend a celebration of 12 years of service for outgoing Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Jerry Weast. It was now a model of communication for which I had become all too accustomed- whether through pat-on-the-back celebratory emails or via holiday robo-calls reminding me of my dedication to the school district. The invitation was titled, “A Legacy of Excellence” and directed readers to the where ticket purchases could be made for $38. The invitation explained that one could also make a donation to the newly established Jerry Weast Book Project. This project would “enhance the book collections in all 131 MCPS elementary school media centers.” The books purchased would also include a bookplate indicating it was purchased by the Jerry Weast Book Project. It was a fitting end, and we could now say our “collective thank you” to the tenure of Jerry Weast. The invitation was signed, “Patricia O’Neill, Member Board of Education.”

In a vacuum, the invitation was unassuming. It was a pleasant send off for the leader of one of the largest school districts in the United States, and Dr. Weast would do it in class- establishing a small foundation as a way to say thank you to the students he served. It was an appropriate way to say good-bye.

However as a teacher who knew nothing but the Weastian way of doing business, I could not help but view the invitation an entirely different light. After ten years of teaching in Montgomery County, my mind had turned what appeared to be a simple charitable act into a self-serving marketing event. With a certain amount of guilt, I imagined thousands of book plates with the Jerry Weast name affixed- now circulating  ad finem through MCPS libraries. It had become the way things were done in Montgomery County. Of course, I was not surprised by the invitation- but my vision of the “Weast Legacy” was probably much different than what Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill imagined.

The invitation- to me- was a symbol of what had become of the Montgomery County school system; one that was more concerned with creating a perception and protecting a reputation than in instituting meaningful reforms. It was a county that meticulously gathered data about student performance. It paid special attention to those metrics that were gathered by outside organizations- Newsweek, AP Board, and Education Week to name a few. It then focused its instructional programs and decision-making on ways to move this data.

Consider for a moment- the release of the Montgomery County 2010 SAT scores. The MCPS press release read the following: “MCPS class of 2010 scores at record levels on the SAT.” When the local county Gazette picked up the results they explained “Montgomery County Public Schools students… achieved the highest average SAT score in the school system's history, while black and Hispanic students posted the biggest improvement in SAT scores.” And the Washington Post could not have been more favorable in their coverage, reporting that “Montgomery County public school students posted record-high scores of 1653, and the school system took steps to narrow the persistent achievement gap.” However, these headlines and articles often concealed facts that were less than flattering. But they were facts buried in raw data that few reporters or even educational experts had time to review. The headlines were simple and celebratory. It was news that made everyone feel good- so they were easy to accept as fact.

However when we deal with large organizations- the stakes of this type of misrepresentation- the type of misrepresentation that I will show occurred with the 2010 SAT results- are substantial.   They have large ramifications because school districts accepted as successful by their peers  serve as models for others.   When we read that Montgomery County closed the achievement gap- we conclude that the district has done something worthy of repetition.   But if these types of statements are merely window dressing- then what is copied is really of no social value.   In fact- it is a waste of valuable resources.  Unfortunately, I believe that Montgomery County Public schools has done much in the last ten years to increase their brand name- to increase their national and international reputation- but little to institute reforms worthy of the brand it created.

What may sound like an indictment of MCPS is really not.   MCPS plays by the rules and the incentives valued by our culture- they just happen to do it extremely well.   Under Weast, MCPS created a thesis and advanced it through what grew to be a ten million dollar communication and outreach budget.   And it was a thesis which united unions, parents, corporate leaders and academics behind it.    The thesis- however- that MCPS has systematically narrowed the achievement gap or in some other way improved the quality of teaching within the county is simply put- not supported by the data in any meaningful way.

The stakes are thus considerable.    If our models of reform have it wrong, then our educational system will not provide the human capital ready and able to compete in  (as Friedman puts it) a flattening global environment.     We must pick our models of reform well.     

My hope is to help us do just that.

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