What’s right with Montgomery County

Harold Kwalwasser
Harold Kwalwasser
When Harold Kwalwasser looks at Montgomery County, he sees something entirely different than does Checker Finn.

Checker Finn’s recent attack on Montgomery County superintendent Joshua Starr surprised me. In my new book Renewal: Remaking America’s Schools for the 21st Century, I profiled several dozen schools and school districts that were working for kids, and Montgomery County was not just one of them—it was one of the best.

In fact, as Mr. Finn acknowledges, in 2009, the district was a finalist for the Broad Award for the most improved urban district in America, and just two years ago, the district won the prestigious Baldrige Award for its excellent performance. The National Institutes of Science and Technology, which endows the award, cited various statistics that leave no doubt that the district is serving its students well: For example, in 2010, half of the district’s graduates received a college-readiness score of three or higher on at least one Advanced Placement (AP) exam while in high school. That is nearly twice the state rate∂ and three times the national rate, and the rate for minority students is among the highest in the nation. Also, an independent analysis by Education Week found that Montgomery County had the highest graduation rate of any large school district in the nation in 2008 and 2009.

Why, then, is Mr. Finn, who has an unquestionably deep commitment to quality education, carping about someone whose district has been repeatedly cited for the achievements of its large minority population?

Mr. Finn has a long record advocating a specific set of solutions to fix the schools. His assessment of Montgomery County is clearly based on the district’s refusal to embrace that agenda. That clearly troubles him; he characterizes the school district as yet to see real reform because it has resisted, among other things, charters and the requirements of the President’s Race to the Top program, two prominent elements of his vision for school improvement.

When I looked at Montgomery County, I saw something entirely different. I saw a district that had transitioned from the old-style mass production education system Mr. Finn deplores to a differentiated 21st-century instruction machine that meets reformers’ substantive goals for higher performance. The fact that it has done it without charters and without accepting all manner of state and federal mandates that Mr. Finn and his fellow advocates have promoted does not make it a district still in need of a makeover. Mr. Finn seems to dismiss Montgomery County’s laudable record simply because it is following a different path.

For example, Mr. Finn criticizes Montgomery County’s insistence on using its own teacher-evaluation system, which antedates any mandates about incorporating student test scores. The problem with this criticism is that nowhere does it suggest that the Montgomery County system has failed to achieve the kind of professional development and high standards that reformers like Mr. Finn say they value.

On the contrary, the system has worked well. There is a peer assistance and review committee composed of teachers and administrators that has provided tough-minded assessment for years. There is enough information in the extraordinarily robust data system (other than NCLB annual test scores) to give more than sufficient guidance to evaluators about how well the students are actually performing. And there is labor-management peace that has allowed all of this effort to function effectively for several years.

And I am mystified about Mr. Finn’s concern about a lack of transparency in the district’s performance results. I have no idea why he cannot get the information he wants. When I was doing my research, I found most of the information that Mr. Finn says he is looking for. In fact, I received much of it during an interview I conducted with Superintendent Jerry Weast (Starr’s predecessor), which effectively turned into a three-hour monologue complete with charts and graphs that contained most of the data Mr. Finn wants to see. Indeed, were this data not available, I doubt either the Baldrige selection committee (a group that may be fairly characterized as preoccupied by data) or the Broad selection committee (whose hunger for data is almost as great) would have short-listed Montgomery County.

The bottom line is that Montgomery County has done things differently from the way Mr. Finn would like. That does not make them bad or even “old fashioned.” On the contrary, I see Montgomery County as a useful point of comparison for many of the ideas currently on offer by our reformers. The real question is whether one is better than the other, or whether there are merits to both—depending on circumstances. That analysis would certainly further the debate about what to do with our schools. Simply running down ultimate success because it was achieved by means other than those one advocates does not seem to move the discussion forward in a useful way.

Harold Kwalwasser is a former general counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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