The Results, Warts and All, of Data-Driven Problem Solving

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

With the governor visiting, Montgomery County school officials might have been tempted to throw up some slides showing rising test scores or burgeoning Advanced Placement participation.

Instead, school leaders spoke candidly yesterday about the seemingly insoluble problem of getting students from some minority groups to succeed in advanced math courses.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) listened as school officials gave a PowerPoint presentation showing three schools, one each from affluent, middle-class and low-income neighborhoods, all with moribund math achievement among blacks and Hispanics.

"Trying to keep the pace and move the kids along has been very difficult," one school's principal said. He sat at a table of administrators at the school system's headquarters, in Rockville. School officials asked that none of the schools be identified as a condition of opening the session to visitors.

Montgomery school officials were showing off M-Stat, their version of a celebrated initiative that uses statistics and computers to identify and analyze problems. The school system is among the first in the nation to adopt a variant of CompStat, the New York City police program that analyzes crime trends. The "Stat" concept has drawn notice not only for its success but also for encouraging lively -- and occasionally sharp -- exchanges among top brass.

Baltimore's school system was the first to adapt the program to public education, in 2001, shortly after O'Malley, the city's mayor at the time, launched CitiStat in the city government. CitiStat tracked such things as how long it took city workers to fill potholes, how much overtime pay was going to sanitation workers and agencies' use of minority contractors. SchoolStat analyzes student and teacher attendance, discipline and other school-system concerns.

O'Malley is now applying the program to state agencies and using it to track the health of the Chesapeake Bay. He told reporters yesterday he could envision the state providing incentives and technical support for other counties to develop programs similar to Montgomery's.

Montgomery school officials held their first M-Stat meetings in September 2005. The full team meets for four hours once a month, with smaller groups convening at intervals to track specific issues. Work centers on eight "leverage points," all related to student achievement, with a particular focus on the racial achievement gap. Topics include SAT performance, Advanced Placement participation, statewide testing, early literacy and advanced math in middle schools.

"M-Stat is really designed to focus on, 'Where do we have achievement gaps, and what are we going to do about them?' " said Donald H. Kress, chief school performance officer for the Montgomery schools.

Ideally, the meetings stir revelations. Yesterday's session, for example, left participants with the disquieting fact that black and Hispanic students aren't reaping the benefits of attending high-performing schools in affluent communities.

One principal, representing a middle-class neighborhood, predicted that her minority math data would "flat-line" this year because the school is focusing on other reforms. In the often sugarcoated world of public education, that was a bold admission.

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this story.

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