Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How records are made

The MCPS press release was straight to the point.  The results were nothing short of miraculous:

Students in the Montgomery County Public Schools Class of 2010 produced the district’s highest-ever composite score on the SAT and dramatically outperformed their state and national peers, according to data released today by the College Board...

...African-American and Hispanic test-takers posted the strongest gains in MCPS, improving on last year’s average composite scores by 49 and 54 points, respectively. Those increases outpaced the growth in scores for Asian students (up 21 points) and White students (up 15 points), and further narrowed the district’s racial and ethnic gap in SAT performance.
It was an exclamation point on the tenure of Superintendent Jerry Weast.   What was at one time falling SAT scores, had turned on a dime, and turned hard.   The proof was in the preverbial pudding.   The accountability department published the remarkable data.   

The achievement gap was closing on perhaps the most educationally important data point there was, the SAT.   But what was the cause?

Was it excellent teaching?   Fierce Leadership?   I was skeptical.  My search started with the discovery of the  lowest participation rate in ten years, but that would just be the beginning.   It was even more important to figure out who did not participate.   The answer I found was unfortunately, not surprising.   In statistics circles it is well known that as participation increases, averages tend to fall, and vice versa.  

Fantastic rises in achievement were accompanied by equally fantastic decreases in SAT participation.   African American and Hispanic sub-groups led the decline in particpation.   The accountability office said it this way:

Examination of trends in SAT participation and performance provide evidence that MCPS is making progress toward the strategic plan of ensuring success for every student.
I suppose I saw it differently. What I saw as a problem, MCPS saw as evidence of success. Jerry Weast was no different

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast credits the record-breaking SAT results to talented teachers, committed staff, and motivated students as well as to the reform plan implemented 11 years ago.

“We believe in high standards, high expectations and high performance,” Weast said. “We’ve followed a clear path that works and produces exceptional results for our students at every level.  These SAT scores are extraordinary and are something that our entire community should take pride in."

 The participation data was even more disconcerting when disaggregated by service group.

Records were indeed set in 2010.   I'm just not sure they were the kind of records that should be making headlines.   And if this is how "records" were made in Montgomery County- we needed to do some real and honest soul-searching.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Stomach Churning Letter

My wife thought it was of little consequence.  

However, as I read congratulatory emails sent out to staff and watched videos celebrating Montgomery County Public Schools' record high SAT scores, my stomach churned.   "What do you expect them to do?" my wife chimed.  I suppose I took it personally.  Yes, the mean SAT in MCPS had risen to its highest level ever- but the conclusions circulated by MCPS were nothing short of complete misrepresentations.    I couldn't help but feel insulted as I read the email from Superintendent Weast to the staff:
The College Board released SAT scores for the Class of 2010 this morning and MCPS students set an all-time record. Our 2010 graduates scored an average of 1653, which is our district’s highest score since the “new SAT” was implemented in 2006 and represents a one-year increase of 38 points. MCPS graduates outscored their Maryland peers by 151 points and the nation’s 2010 graduates by 144 points. Students in all racial subgroups improved over last year, but African American and Hispanic students made the biggest gains, further narrowing the achievement gap. The best news of all is that 51% of our students scored a 1,650 or higher, meeting the 7th Key to College Readiness—again, an all-time record.

Of course, these results did not happen in one year, or even in four years. The students whose achievements are described in this report were second graders when we began working together in 1999 and made a firm commitment that we would give all students access to an outstanding education. From elementary school, through the middle grades, and into high school, you provided our students with the opportunities and support they needed to be successful. The SAT results released today are the culmination of all the work done by you and your colleagues since these students entered MCPS.
Yes, insulted.   MCPS had long told me about the importance of data.  It had long emphasized how to use that data to guide my instruction.   Yet now I was being told that the most recent "record" SAT scores were evidence of MCPS's unparalleled success.

I finally replied to my wife, "I expect them to be reflective practioners.  I expect them to have an honest dialogue about the progress of MCPS."     

I showed my wife the data that initiallly raised an eyebrow.

Math and Verbal combined SAT scores for MCPS (writing excluded)
My wife was unconvinced.

I would need to spend more time proving my point.   The achievement gap hadn't closed.  The mean SAT was no more a record than had I served as Superintendent and asked only the top 1% of students to take the SAT.   Yet Weast would tell Bethesda Magazine that this data point was one of his top ten accomplishments as Superintendent of MCPS.

It couldn't be.  It wasn't even an accomplishment.

I dangerously decided to see if I could make my wife see it my way.

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.