Closing the Achievement Gap in Montgomery County Public Schools – Are we Getting what we Pay for?

This year the County wrote a check for $2.3 billion to the Montgomery County Public Schools. Yes, we did get some results – the good schools are doing better and the achievement gap is widening. To close the gap, the MCPS has a strategic plan which was approved by the Board of Education last June. Will this solve the problem?

As a preface to what follows, we would like to state that as a taxpayers league we are not experts on education but have talked with many principals, parents and education specialists whose ideas, views and opinions have guided our analysis and confirmed our findings.

Here are some facts: our teachers in lower performing schools are, on average, paid 4% less than teachers in higher performing schools because of a practice known as “free agency”. This practice encourages experienced teachers to leave “red zone” schools for the “green zone”. Once in the “green zone”, teachers enjoy shorter work days and fewer classroom interruptions. A stop gap proposal in the 2015 budget to reward 250 “exemplary” red zone school teachers works out to just a couple of teachers in each school, and leaves substandard teachers in place.

Another fact: there is no correlation between what teachers are paid and improvements in student performance. After a decade of increased spending to boost performance in math and reading in red zone elementary schools, test scores are still significantly lower than in green zone schools (-12% and -5%).  Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between elementary teacher salaries and test scores in either the red or green zones, and there is absolutely no correlation between green zone elementary school teacher salaries and math performance. So could it be that MCPS has reached the point of diminishing returns with higher salaries in the green zone?

Our teachers are paid 15-20% more than teachers at nearby school systems in Howard and Fairfax counties. Yet we have double their student drop-out rates. And because our teachers are so expensive, “red zone” schools increasingly rely on less expensive para-educators and assistants to help close the gap. There are 803 of these positions in the 2015 budget, including 51 new para educators and assistants.

So let’s look at the MCPS plan for closing the achievement gap. It doesn’t have cost estimates, academic performance targets, or dates for achieving goals. Just words. Without targets, results are left to the imagination. The 2015 budget only explains how 1% of the money will be spent on lowering the achievement gap. Commonsense dictates that it will take a much larger share of the budget. On an optimistic note, the superintendent has designated 20 innovation schools in the red zone with stepped up interventions. The remaining 80 red zone schools will have to wait until the results are in. However, the academic targets are unknown.

The Superintendent told the Council’s Education Committee during fiscal year 2014 budget hearings that it’s impossible to figure out how much will be spent on gap closing strategies. Really? If we don’t know the funding for each strategy, how will we know that spending made a difference and how will we discern as to which strategies are the most efficient. We could be wasting money on strategies that don’t work and not even know it.

This management gap is consistent with another gap in the plan. The school system stops measuring classes that at-risk kids take after the 9th grade, and does not assess their academic performance until they’re expected to graduate. Many at-risk kids will drop out between 9th and 12th grade, and the dirty secret is that drop-outs improve system-wide performance averages. While MCPS brags about its SAT score averages, most Black and Hispanic kids in red zone schools are counseled to take the ACT test instead, and have scores below 20 (not college ready).

Our recommendation: an independent review of MCPS gap closing plans. This review should answer 4 simple questions:

  1. Determine if the gap can be closed?
  2. What are the best strategies for closing the gap?
  3. How much will it cost?
  4. When will the gap be closed?

And here is the scope of such a review:

  1. Determine if the gap can be closed
    1. Review MCPS 8/12 and OLO 3/13 and 3/14 reports for common findings.  Review 3/21/13 management approach to interventions and 6/13 strategic plan update.
    2. Review evidence-based, gap closing best practices, based on nation-wide scan.
    3. Identify any new interventions and related performance measures by
      analyzing current interventions and related performance measures
    4. Determine if the current management approach with centralized planning, teacher compensation, work rules and incentives, and teacher evaluation
      methods are consistent with best practices
  2. Identify best strategies
    1. Evaluate the costs and benefits of strategic alternatives for key interventions and management approach
    2. Make recommendations tied to best performance measures and feasible gap
      reduction targets for the next budget
    3. Facilitate meetings among stakeholders to reach consensus on the next
      budget for gap closing efforts
    4. Prepare a report and presentation
  3. Determine incremental costs
    1. For selected strategic alternative, determine realistic gap closing targets by year
    2. Develop cost estimates for meeting targets
    3. Analyze current costs for efficiency and effectiveness by:
      1. Cross-walking operating costs to academic strategies, identifying funded gap-closing strategies, costs of older strategies that are no longer best practices, and non-strategic costs
      2. Benchmarking costs to other large, high performing school systems, including teacher salaries, health and pension benefits, and overhead costs
        1. Review OLO’s Maintenance of Effort report (10/2012), evaluate recurring and non-recurring costs, and determine if a waiver for any reductions should be filed, or if funds can be used to close the gap.
        2. Facilitate meetings among stakeholders to reach consensus on recommended incremental costs
  4. Develop implementation timetable and budget
    1. Develop detailed schedule for implementing selected strategic approach,
      performance targets and interventions at focus schools
    2. Develop budget projections based on agreed upon cost approach
    3. Prepare a report and presentation

Gordie Brenne, Vice President, Montgomery County Taxpayers League, 18 Nov. 2014.


  1. Joseph Hawkins on December 1, 2014 at 10:44 am

    I dislike using the word moratorium, but I’m going to use it. MCPS needs to impose a moratorium on any new gap-ending programs or initiatives. New programs, for example, those aimed at impacting gaps must undergo through testing before they receive permanent funding. And testing should include randomized control trials. These trials would produce findings that would be used to support permanent funding.

  2. anon on December 2, 2014 at 10:20 am

    You’re getting at a really important problem, which is that school budgets (in general, not just Mo Co) are not built to understand what things cost. They are built to try to prevent stealing and to enable audits. But they don’t give a clear idea of what, for example, a reading initiative costs per student and whether it is more effective than a different reading initiative.

    There’s a growing field of “cost effectiveness” that you might be interested in – two of the big folks in it are Hank Levin at Teacher’s College at Columbia University and David Monk at Penn State.

  3. Edward Amatetti on December 4, 2014 at 9:07 am

    In business, there is a distinction between line management and “”staff management.” A “line function” is one that directly advances an organization in its core work; a “staff function” provides support functions — e.g., human resources, legal, special programs. Every business knows that the top priority has to be to establish effective line functions. In education, the core work is teaching and learning; and line functions are managed by the teachers, the principals, and by the students and parents themselves. The reason MCPS continually fails to close the achievement gap, despite so many programs designed for just that purpose, is that these programs all address “support” functions — testing strategies and other programs tangential to what is actually happening in the classrooms, etc. They don’t address the “line” functions. What is needed are effective policies that improve the performance of the teacher, principals, parents, and students — the line managers — where these groups intersect. This would include: (a) policies that establish appropriate expectations for students and don’t let them off the hook no matter their circumstances (b) teacher training on classroom management (the greatest impediment to effective learning); (b) a policy that requires much greater interaction between parents and teachers, so that parental leverage can be used to improve student performance; (d) continuous evaluation of teacher performance by administrators (via unannounced classroom visits) and by the students and parents themselves — this is not happening now; (e) a policy for getting more students to the most effective teachers, even to the extent of giving those teacher extra students and classes, and rewarding them accordingly; and (f) having in-school tutoring programs for struggling students after hours and on Saturday. These policies target the line function. They would replace the expensive, ineffective, fancy programs that fail to close the achievement gap time and again.

    Regarding (b) above: if I was asked to evaluate a teacher and was given the opportunity to ask the teacher only one question, it would be “How many calls to parents, both positive and negative, have you made this year?”

  4. Deborah Toll on May 14, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Usually the achievement gap is a result of children of parents who have not been to college, and don’t
    know what to demand both from their children and their school. High performing “no excuses”
    charter schools are the usual remedy. Massachusetts and NYC use charters to clean up their scores in areas where the achievement gap is noticeable. Children are in school from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with orchestra, sports,
    tutoring, etc. until 5:30. Parents are asked to sign a pledge to make sure they are totally supportive. The idealistic, very smart teachers who like to work together at charters are rewarded, with master teaching levels and salary increases. The recent show down in Annapolis, which featured the chief lobbyist for the teachers union playing a major role, in the end kept the high achieving charters still unwilling to come to Maryland. Hopefully Governor Hogan will veto this bill. Why do
    the unions want to keep the charters out? These fine schools are clearly great for the children.

  5. Robert Jones on December 26, 2017 at 12:19 am

    As mentioned in the article, “This year the County wrote a check for $2.3 billion to the Montgomery County Public Schools. Yes, we did get some results – the good schools are doing better and the achievement gap is widening.” I hope that (at least) some readers will understand that these results are neither surprising nor unexpected. Why is this?

    To understand why we should not be surprised, we need to identify the primary cause of the lack of improvement by different minority groups such as blacks and Latinos. Across the country, most efforts to close the gap are based on the assumption that the primary cause of the educational problems of these minorities is environmental. That is, we can significantly narrow the gap by spending large amounts of money. If this was true, the gap would have virtually disappeared by now. However, if the primary cause is genetic, then money spent on improving the learning experiences of all students will have the effect of widening the gap. This is what we have with the MCPS.

    However, to be fair, there are changes to the environment, which will have the immediate effect of narrowing this gap. The environment to be changed is the environment of the whites and East Asians. That is, the schools would ensure that these students did not have any textbooks, classroom experiences, homework, and involvement in school projects, as well as similar activities. The intent would be to lower the achievement of these students. This would have the effect of narrowing the achievement gap.

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