A letter writer who asked to remain anonymous asked where to find the curriculum of Montgomery County public schools. One easy way to check on Montgomery County's curriculum is to look at the school system's Web site, www.mcps.k12.md.us. Click on the curriculum button and then look at the different departments, each of which has its own Web page.
Some of those pages are better maintained than others, though, and not all the curriculum documents are posted. So if someone wants to look at the full curriculum document, which is the size of a small library, it is housed in the professional library at the school headquarters, 850 Hungerford Dr., Rockville. Some parts of the curriculum are in some of the public libraries. Call ahead to be sure. The whole curriculum, as well as smaller parts of it, also can be purchased through the publication warehouse. To order, call 301-279-3348.
I have been wondering how MCPS rates itself as "world class" when the last nationally normed testing took place about 10 years ago. I know the students in the International Baccalaureate program are rated on world-class standards, but what about the rest?
About 10 years ago, "world class" became a popular phrase, and lots of school systems started using the term in reference to themselves. There is no national regulating body that restricts unprovable educational claims, so no one has to provide evidence of world class-ness. And, as in much of education, the term means pretty much what you want it to mean. In this case, it means "really, really good--really!"
You are right that the International Baccalaureate programs in the county--which follow a curriculum and standards set in Switzerland--have a claim to being world class, because the standards they meet are met by IB schools around the world. The IB people stopped ranking their member schools a few years ago because, they say, things were getting altogether too competitive. But at that point Montgomery County's Richard Montgomery IB program was one of the top-ranked public IB schools in the world.
In addition to the IB, there are a few serious attempts being made to define what is meant by "world class," but probably the most important comes from the international math and science comparisons that are done every 10 years.
The last was TIMSS--the Third International Mathematics and Science Study--which tested samples of fourth- and eighth-graders and students leaving secondary school (in the United States, that means 12th-graders) in 41 nations around the world on math and science. When you hear things like, "U.S. students do poorly in comparison to students in the rest of the world," the basis of those statements is TIMSS. (For information about TIMSS, go to the U.S. Department of Education's Web site, www.ed.gov/americacounts/timss.html.)
Actually, the United States did do pretty miserably on the first two international comparisons, and those results got a huge amount of publicity. The results of TIMSS, done during the 1995 school year, were more complex and got somewhat less publicity. Our fourth-graders actually did quite well in comparison with the rest of the world--well above average in both math and science. Our eighth-graders were above average for science and below average in math, and our 12th-graders did so poorly they were barely on the charts.
Such mixed results raises a number of questions. One is: Did the school reforms that began a decade ago in the early grades take hold and permanently improve student performance for the cohort of students who were in fourth grade in 1995? Or, possibly, do we know what we're doing in the early grades but then fall apart in the later grades?
To test those and other questions, the cohort of U.S. students who were in fourth grade for TIMSS were retested last spring when they were finishing up eighth grade. Those test results will be very interesting when they are released and will give real insight into what is happening in American schools.
To get back to Montgomery County, at least a couple of schools participated in TIMSS. I wasn't able to get results for all the schools, but at one elementary school--whose principal modestly asked that I not name it--the fourth-graders posted scores just behind first-place Korea in science and just below sixth-place Czech Republic in math.
More recently, the county as a whole volunteered to participate in the TIMSS retest, which gives some solidity to the county's claim to being part of the attempt to establish world-class standards. It is also a serious attempt to see how Montgomery County students are learning in relation to the rest of the world. As the county's secondary math coordinator, Nancy Metz, says: "If we do well, we have bragging rights. And if we don't do well, it will give us some important information about what we should do to improve."
So that is how Montgomery County can call itself world class. It may be a rather narrow claim, but it's actually a lot better than some school systems have.
Defense of Magnets
I am a student entering high school this fall, and I just completed the Humanities and Communications Magnet at Eastern Middle School. I disagree very strongly with some of your opinions about the magnet programs.
While I believe that many students (who may not be enrolled in the magnet) are still very capable of participating in it, it requires a lot of dedication. While the amount and difficulty of the work in the program is obviously far from impossible, it takes a great deal of effort to meet its requirements. This means being willing to give up a lot of time and even to struggle sometimes. I have had to make certain sacrifices to keep up with my schoolwork over the past three years, and not everyone may be willing to make those sacrifices.
Secondly, your saying that "we select and educate a few children . . . in such a way that they never again have to hang around children who aren't exactly like them" is simply not true. In my years at the magnet, I have made friends who are from all different races, religious backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. Sometimes the only thing we have in common is our classes. We make friends among non-magnet students, as well. In fact, I had four of my seven classes with them--it's not like we look down on them or consider ourselves better than they are, in any way. Overall, Eastern has been a great experience for me that I am grateful I had the chance to be a part of, and, if anything, I think that I will be more likely to contribute to our democratic society because of it.
I am an eighth-grade student in the Humanities and Communications Magnet Program at Eastern Middle School. As a magnet student, I recognize the importance of these magnet programs and where I would be without them.
I have been in gifted and talented and magnet programs since the third grade, and I would be at a great loss without them and feel that I would have not received an education that reflected my abilities as a student.
Currently, I am an A/B student and feel that I am challenged in the magnet program. If I were not in one of these magnets, I probably would not be challenged the way that I am now. I and my classmates in the magnet program all want to be there. No one cuts class, throws spitballs or mouths off at the teacher. I feel that we are taking school seriously and that we all deserve to learn things in special classes like algebra and honors courses. We all have worked to get into these magnet programs.
Eastern Middle School
I'm glad both of you are getting a good education and feel challenged. My wish is not to deprive you of that experience but to make sure all students in the county can say the same thing.
And as for throwing spitballs and students mouthing off at teachers, no student in any program should be permitted to disrupt another's education.
Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinion and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St. Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.