September 13, 2013

Dan Reed’s Sept. 8 Local Opinions commentary about Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) correctly describes a county and a school system that has undergone a significant demographic change over the past 20 years. But 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.

Since I arrived two years ago, I have persistently talked about our successes and our challenges. And I have stated that if we coast on our reputation, instead of embracing change, we will decline. Instead, we have openly discussed our gaps and our plans to make sure we have a school system that prepares every one of our more than 151,000 students to thrive. We certainly have a lot of hard work ahead of us as we rethink the way we deliver instruction to our students and how we work with the community to provide the supports and services our children and their families need.

In making the case for MCPS’s so-called descent, Reed discusses demographic shifts and housing and attendance patterns in the county, talks of segregation by race and class and suggestions of “middle-class flight” as potential reasons for further decline. I believe that every school can and should be great regardless of the demographic make-up of its classrooms. We have plenty of evidence that students from diverse backgrounds are achieving at high levels. I see it in visit after visit to our classrooms and in my regular review of our achievement data.

I inherited a great system, but it is also one that — like all large school districts — struggles with persistent achievement gaps. This is a problem that MCPS has been working on for decades, and we have done groundbreaking work in this area. But there is much more to be done.

Simply shifting school boundaries is not the best or only answer to improving education. First and foremost, we must make sure that every classroom in every school is strong. Similarly, Reed would like us to take more responsibility for economic development in the eastern part of the county. We do want to see strong economic growth across the county, but we will do what we do best: teach kids and make sure they are ready for the jobs of the future.

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. That’s why our 10 “Intervention Network” and 10 “Innovation Network” schools will spend this year focusing on how they can better provide customized instruction and support to students, especially to those who are struggling. They will share what they learn across all district schools. We have also put more teachers and support staff in schools that are showing the biggest gaps in reading and math.

Strong academic knowledge isn’t enough. In the 21st century, our students need the knowledge and skills to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace. They will need the creative problem-solving skills that allow them to analyze information, collaborate and develop solutions. They also will need the social and emotional skills that allow them to value diversity, persevere over adversity and understand the importance of service and citizenry.

That is why we have built our new strategic planning framework around these three competencies — academic excellence, creative problem-solving and social emotional learning — and why we will be monitoring our progress at five milestones in a student’s education. Yes, as Reed points out, we are measuring “hopefulness,” as well as several other performance points, including success in mathematics and literacy, eligibility for extracurricular activities, course completion and graduation rates.

And while Reed finds hopefulness to be a “squishy” measure, there is voluminous research that says otherwise. Instilling hope in our students is one of the most powerful things we can do to ensure success.

The Board of Education and I know we have many challenges ahead of us that will require our community to work together for our children. No one I know in MCPS is coasting. We won’t rest until every school, no matter where it is, is providing students with an education that develops the skills and knowledge they need for success. MCPS teachers and leaders are already great — and are working hard to get better.

The writer is superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools.