Montgomery Public Schools Try New Ways to Close Achievement Gap

By Valerie Ervin
Silver Spring
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Anyone concerned with education issues must have noted the recent Post articles "Maryland Gains Continue on Reading, Math Tests" [Metro, July 22] and "Over 10 Years, Montgomery's Weast Aced Tough Tests" [front page, July 28]. These articles brought welcome news: Montgomery County is faring well, and average statewide scores on the Maryland School Assessment tests are improving in all categories.

However, as reporter Nelson Hernandez pointed out in the July 22 story, this information contradicts a federal study of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation's report card," which showed that despite higher scores for black and white students, the achievement gap between the two groups was largely unchanged in the county.

Regardless which measure you use, we still have an achievement gap -- even if it is narrowing. In Montgomery County, the Kennedy Cluster Project is a collaborative effort between county government, the public schools and community organizations to create a laboratory in which the rules that often divide governments can be suspended with the goal of identifying and addressing the causes of the achievement gap between African American students and their white peers.

As a result of the project's findings, this year Montgomery County expanded its free summer lunch program, preschool opportunities and transportation options for children living in the Kennedy cluster of schools. In addition, the county negotiated an agreement with the school system so that designated Department of Health and Human Services representatives can share information, when necessary, to benefit the welfare of a child. The county also is looking at innovative ways to provide Internet access to homes in this school cluster. All these efforts will help level the playing field for children in need.

A multitude of factors, both inside and outside schools, are blamed for the achievement gap, according to a Policy Information Center report released by the Educational Testing Service. According to this report, minority and low-income students tend to be taught less rigorous curricula by less-experienced and less-prepared teachers in larger classes and in lower-quality facilities than their white peers. The report found that minority students are more likely to frequently change schools, be born with low birth weight, be exposed to environmental hazards and watch too much television.

Since factors both inside and outside the classroom affect children, a multifaceted approach is needed to address the achievement gap. Although this upcoming budget cycle will be extremely challenging, I will call on my colleagues at the state and local levels to continue to work with me to close the achievement gap by funding access to quality preschool programs and expanding childhood nutrition programs such as summer lunch and universal breakfast programs. Investing in these early interventions will pay dividends for our children today and well into the future.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Kensington, Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Wheaton on the Montgomery County Council. She chairs the council's education committee.

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