Friday, May 21, 2010

How many PhDs’ children go to your urban public schools?

When finalists were announced for the 2010 Broad Prize for Urban Education, I did not give much thought to the inclusion of Montgomery County, Md. I did not give much thought to any of the finalists, really. But today I saw the video on the Montgomery County Public Schools website—I covered MCPS for the Post years ago and check in there from time to time—that highlighted the Broad visit and couldn’t help but laugh when I saw the officials at Julius West Middle School. Julius West is a couple of miles from one of the most affluent communities on earth. Heard of Potomac? Not what I would call “urban.”

Yes, there are swaths of poverty in the county, and lots of new immigrants. But Montgomery County has the tenth-highest median household income—and by at least one measure the most educated citizens—in the entire country.

Broad is a prize for urban districts, and previous winners have had poverty levels well below MCPS’s (one-third for elementary schoolers). That poor kids in Montgomery County outscore poor kids in districts where nearly all the kids are poor is not surprising. Large districts in affluent counties are able to redistribute wealth from well-off taxpayers into the few schools with high poverty rates, reallocate from an excellent pool of teachers and make use of all of the systemwide resources inherent in being a really rich place. It is admirable that Montgomery County has chosen to do so (not every place does), and that it often does so effectively, but putting them on a Broad pedestal implies that their accomplishment is equivalent to turning around an impoverished urban district.

Not that I care about prizes, as you know.

What do you think? Am I being pedantic?


  1. You're right.


    (And I don't say that often.)

  2. You're right. Our urban district hired a superintendent who graduated from the Broad School. He acknowledged that his former district, Montgomery County, had per student expenditures of nearly 21/2 time our district. But he kept saying that Montgomery County had more poor students than our entire district. He never realized that the situation is different when more than 90% of students are poor, and the district has been poor for generations. Montgomery County, and other places, have an educational culture that may have taken more than a century to create. Our state has more than a century of anti-intellectualism, generational poverty, and oppression.

    I hope the analyses of the recent NAEP schools will be informed by your observation. Just the INCREASES in per student investments in places like NYC or places with a lot of foundation support, like many schools in D.C., are greater than our total per student spending.

    By the way, that superintendent had the talent to have been truely great, but he ignored warnings that he wasn't in Montgomery County anymore, continued to spend in the ways he'd been accustomed, and was gone in six months, but leaving discord that still paralyzes much of our deliberations.

  3. I will add to the chorus of "You're right." I teach in a high-poverty, high-mobility school. But I'm lucky enough to be in Fairfax County. I have just about everything I need to support my kids. And their families have good support from county services. This would not be nearly so true if I were in DC.

  4. From my position as a volunteer public school advocate, I often find myself explaining to people that schools that cope with a critical mass of high-need, at-risk, underprivileged children (and all the life problems those children bring to school with them) become overwhelmed. It seems fairly obvious that a school that's not overwhelmed will be able to educate high-need, at-risk children more effectively.

    From my position as a displaced newspaper journalist, I have a question for my ex-colleagues: Don't you think it's worth questioning the rationale for the Broad prize more vigorously? Linda does it here, but that's awfully rare.

  5. It was indeed news to me when I found out I teach in an urban district.

  6. Urban? Julius West MS is in the heart of suburbia, surrounded by homes with prices in the half-million-dollar range! On the weekends, their parking lot is choked with minivans full of soccer moms and kids who play on the soccer field there. Scholarship money is a good thing, but why is MCPS even in the running for an "urban district" prize? Or does "urban" mean whatever Broad/MCPS want it to mean?