MoCo Education

News and information about education in Montgomery County

Category: Montgomery County Public Schools

Maryland Dream Act loophole increases costs for some Montgomery high schoolers

The Maryland Dream Act, which voters approved in November to increase undocumented immigrants’ access to college, will significantly raise tuition for a group of students who attend Montgomery College and could prevent some of them from starting class when doors open Monday.

Because of wording in the new law — which grants in-county or in-state tuition discounts to undocumented immigrants — Montgomery County students who are still in high school but want to take community college courses must pay nearly triple the rate their peers do.

The legislation grants the tuition discounts to undocumented immigrants who, among other conditions, have graduated from a Maryland high school. Because students taking dual or concurrent enrollment courses through Montgomery College are still in high school, they don’t qualify for the reduced rate.

For undocumented high school students, tuition and fees at Montgomery College will go from $445.20 for a three-credit course at the in-county rate to the out-of-state rate of $1,172.40.

The legal loophole has the most impact on programs such as the College Institute that Montgomery College offers in partnership with the county’s public schools.

The College Institute allows students to take classes — such as introduction to business, criminal justice, and introduction to Flash — taught by Montgomery College faculty and for college credit on the campuses of Gaithersburg, Thomas S. Wootton, John F. Kennedy and Seneca Valley high schools.

“We want all of our students to access all of the programs here at Gaithersburg,” Principal Christine Handy-Collins said. “To have some students not be able to do that doesn’t feel good as a principal.”

High school students often take dual or concurrent enrollment courses through community colleges to get a head start on college. The credits earned are generally cheaper and can transfer to other colleges and universities.

The programs also allow students to try courses to make sure college will be the right fit for them, Handy-Collins said.

“They get a taste of higher education outside of high school,” she said.

The wording in the new law will have an impact on Montgomery County students that it will not have on students in other counties and at other colleges because Montgomery College was the only school in the state offering in-county tuition rates to undocumented students prior to the Dream Act’s passage. To follow the letter of the law, Montgomery College will have to charge higher rates to students who have not yet earned a high school diploma.

Elizabeth Homan, a spokeswoman for the college, said about 550 high school students are taking classes through Montgomery College. The college doesn’t have an estimate of how many of those students have declined to sign up for classes this semester because of the increased costs. But in December, the college sent letters to 76 high schoolers who were enrolled last fall but didn’t file complete information relating to their citizenship or immigrant status.

“We understand the value of this program, and we want to make sure to provide this opportunity to students,” Homan said. “But we also understand that we need to work under and follow the law.”

She said the school is willing to work with state legislators on a fix, but in the short term the school has offered a special payment plan for undocumented students who will now have to pay the out-of-state rate. Along with limited need-based grants for students, Montgomery College also created a Dreamers Scholars Fund to help students who don’t qualify for the Maryland Dream Act.

But for some students, a payment plan and grants aren’t enough.

One Montgomery high school student who took a sociology course at Montgomery College last semester said he had to drop plans to take business through the College Institute this spring. He came to the United States from Bolivia when he was 5.

“It’s not really one of those things I can take lightly,” said the senior, who asked that he not be named because of his immigration status. “Being low-income, it puts me in a strain for funds.”

Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Mongomery) said she is drafting legislation to help such students.

“We have this unique situation of high school students who are so far advanced in their studies,” she said. “Any high school student on track to graduate on time should be able to take classes provided by a community college and get the same in-county rate as their classmates.”

Kaiser likely will find opposition from those who fought the Dream Act last year, such as Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland. Botwin said he and others would be opposed to allowing high school students in-state tuition benefits if they are not in the country legally.

“Every little bit costs the Maryland taxpayers money,” he said. “This opens us up for another possible referendum.”

State Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), who sponsored the Dream Act, says Montgomery College is misinterpreting the intent of the law and should extend the discounted tuition rate to undocumented high school students. Ramirez hopes there is an administrative fix to avoid further legislation.

“The intent [of the law] is that we want our students who live here and want to go to college and take these programs to get an education at the same cost as everyone else,” Ramirez said.

Laurie Augustino, a parent advocate in the Gaithersburg area, said she worries that avoiding a legislative solution would open Montgomery College up to a lawsuit, similar to one that challenged the school’s discounted tuition policies for undocumented students before the Dream Act passed. Augustino and others have been looking for ways to raise money that would help bridge the gap for students.

“We’re trying to keep these highly motivated students moving forward until there is a permanent plug for this hole,” Augustino said.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on B1 of The Washington Post on Jan. 27, 2013.

Maryland rejects Montgomery’s teacher evaluation plan and 8 others

The Maryland State Department of Education has rejected new teacher-evaluation proposals from nine of the state’s 24 county school systems, saying that the proposals do not align with state law, federal education reforms or, in some cases, either.

Among school systems that failed to meet the state’s criteria were Montgomery and Frederick, two of the top performing districts in Maryland and the only two counties in the state to reject Race to the Top funds. The school systems had hoped that rejecting those funds would grant them more autonomy in crafting their evaluation proposals.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said the state did not immediately provide a reason for rejecting the system’s proposal. He said a more detailed assessment will come next week.

Maryland education officials met with county superintendents Friday to discuss the assessments. The meeting came a day after the U.S. Department of Education released a report criticizing how Maryland has fallen behind in implementing key elements of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature education reform initiative.

Much of the tension over redesigning teacher-evaluation programs in Maryland reflects the ongoing national debate over how to best tie student learning, student improvement and standardized tests to the evaluation of teacher performance.

While counties that took Race to the Top money were required to make student achievement 50 percent of the measure of teacher performance, Montgomery and Frederick only had to comply with a new state law that made it a “significant” factor in a teacher’s rating.

Starr said he worries that the state and counties have different interpretations of what “significant” should be. In its proposal, Montgomery didn’t require the use of the state’s standardized test, the Maryland School Assessment, as part of its teacher evaluation proposal but allowed it to be one of many data options principals could use.

“I’m disappointed that the strengths of the Montgomery County Public Schools system are being compromised as a result of this decision,” Starr said. “We have clearly shown over the years that a collaborative approach to teacher evaluations and support that also uses student achievement data sets the stage for improvement of student achievement.”

State Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery said in a statement that officials were “working very hard to develop fair and meaningful evaluation programs, putting student work at the very heart of how they review educators.” She added that “while there are elements of the evaluations to resolve in some instances, in some of our school systems, we continue to work with system leadership.”

A. Duane Arbogast, the acting deputy superintendent for academics in Prince George’s County, said that school system worked with its teachers’ union to find a formula that both “felt comfortable with” to submit to the state.

Under its proposal, which was also rejected by the state, teacher evaluations would have consisted of student surveys, student learning objectives and state assessments. Arbogast said the state wanted the county to use the Maryland School Assessment as 20 percent of the rating measuring student growth — not the 15 percent that Prince George’s proposed.

“We felt we had submitted a strong proposal,” Arbogast said.

Starr and others have criticized the required use of the Maryland School Assessment in teacher evaluation because it will soon be replaced by a different test to comply with more rigorous education standards.

Frederick County had created a teacher evaluation model that makes student performance 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Stephen Hess, who retired Friday as Frederick County Public Schools director of research, development and accountability, said the district is still proud of its plan, but officials will continue working with the state.

Hess said that the state’s formula may not accurately measure the success that Frederick’s plan could achieve. “This is a matter of professional judgment,” he said.

St. Mary’s, Washington, Baltimore County, Carroll, Cecil and Charles also submitted teacher-evaluation systems deemed “not approvable.” Systems that didn’t get approval can continue to pilot evaluation programs and resubmit plans in May. Districts with plans that were approved will implement the new systems starting in July.

The Washington Post reporter Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on B1 of The Washington Post on Feb. 1, 2013.

Montgomery schools chief Starr sharp critic of national education reform


In his year and a half leading Montgomery County Public Schools, Superintendent Joshua P. Starr hasn’t been shy about using hisTwitter feed, countywide book clubs, education podcast and public appearances to talk about — and criticize — “big ideas” in national education policy.

He’s knocked the “overly simplistic notion that somehow you can boil education down to one standardized test.” And he’s panned “federal and state rules and laws that have narrowed curriculum, stifled creativity and relied too heavily on standardized tests . . . .”

But Starr’s voice has been amplified by his position at the helm of one of the country’s largest and best-performing school systems that also happens to sit in the back yard of the nation’s capital. And his sharp critiques come at a time of intense and often rancorous debate over the role of standardized testing in President Obama’s plans for improving instruction, closing the achievement gap, and holding students and teachers accountable.

Last week, Starr stepped into the national spotlight and offered his provocative views at a Washington Post Live education forum, where he said the country should “stop the insanity” of judging teacher performance based on student exam scores and start a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. His comments prompted applause from a room full of educators and caught fire with others across the country who share his frustration that federal education reforms are forcing school systems to do too many things at once.

“Part of my great frustration is that we’re not being intellectually honest about what we are doing to improve education, and we’re doing it in a way that is maddening to so many folks because we’re trying to do three things at once,” Starr said.

School districts, as he sees it, have been asked by federal or state governments to implement new national curriculum standards to create more consistent educational instruction for students, require student test scores to be a factor in measuring teacher performance, and implement waivers to free school systems from burdensome No Child Left Behind policies left over from the George W. Bush administration.

He speaks from a privileged bully pulpit few superintendents enjoy. He works for a Board of Education that supports his political views and outspokenness, and his relatively affluent student population over-performs. For the past four years, Education Week has ranked Maryland as the No. 1 state for public schools — with Montgomery County students contributing to much of the success.

But he doesn’t speak for everyone, particularly his counterparts in many large urban school districts, where academic achievement is lower, poverty is higher and the need for reform is urgent. A hold on standardized tests, some argue, could reduce the progress the reform movement has made holding schools accountable.

“I agree there is frustration, but I don’t necessarily think it is the reason to declare a universal moratorium on standardized tests,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s largest urban public school systems. “Before the standards movement came along in the mid-1990s, student achievement wasn’t terribly well-measured. People didn’t ask questions about achievement gaps or academic performance, or whether or not the country was being competitive.”

Starr said there is a place for standardized tests, but he worries that the reform movement focuses too much on data and not enough on what kids should know and do to prepare them for the workforce.

“You have to test in order to understand progress, but it shouldn’t be the goal,” Starr said. “When you talk to industry leaders, they say they are desperate for kids who can think on their own, who can solve problems, who are creative. Why don’t we build opportunities for that kind of learning?”

Starr’s high profile in Montgomery lends him a “credible, reasoned and pragmatic” voice as the country continues to debate education reform on a national level, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“I don’t think what he’s saying is new or unusual,” Henig said. But “he’s got extra armor that a lot of superintendents wouldn’t have.”

The success of his system helps, but Starr’s credibility as a critic is also built on the early part of his career working in urban systems as an accountability director in New Jersey and New York City. And although his system clearly benefits from the affluence of its residents, much of Montgomery is also ethnically and economically diverse. At least one-third of its students get free and reduced-price meals (a measure of poverty). And despite recent gains, the achievement gap, with white and Asian students outperforming black and Hispanic students, remains stubbornly difficult to close.

And then there’s money. While urban districts are scrambling for resources to improve their systems, the Montgomery school system was financially secure enough to reject $12 million in Race to the Top dollars that Maryland won from the federal government before Starr even arrived.

Starr’s predecessor, Jerry Weast, took what some in the county considered both a principled and political stand in refusing the money because school officials didn’t want to include the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations.

The county’s teacher evaluation system — with the union and the school system working together to provide consulting teachers for new or struggling educators — has been praised by the U.S. Department of Education and others.

The county’s stance against taking money from Race to the Top — Obama’s signature education initiative — was part of the reason Starr said he was “thrilled”to come work for Montgomery after being superintendent in Stamford, Conn.

Board of Education President Christopher Barclay said Starr’s willingness to boldly discuss how federal policies affect school systems on the ground level is “part of why we hired him.”

“You have this whole list of things you’re doing well . . . and then we’re asked to change it in ways that may not support student achievement,” Barclay said. “We have a responsibility for pushing the envelope as much as we can in really helping to have that dialogue publicly.”

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said Starr’s call to “stop the madness” of basing teacher evaluations on test scores resonated with other superintendents across the country, as did his call for a three-year testing moratorium. They say they are overwhelmed by the amount of reform overloading the education system.

Domenech, who leads an association that represents 13,000 school administrators nationwide, said local educators are frustrated because they’re teaching students based on old standards while simultaneously preparing to roll out curriculum under new Common Core standards and assessments designed to provide deeper and more difficult instruction to students. There’s a misalignment between what is being taught and what teachers will be evaluated on in the near future.

“So if you’re evaluating teachers based on student performance, you’re setting them up for failure, basically,” Domenech said.

Charles Barone, director of policy at Democrats for Education Reform, said assessments for Common Core are still under development and won’t be ready for a few years, and that standardized tests aren’t the sole factor in judging teachers. He said he worries about suspending standardized testing.

“You really risk losing some of the pressure on schools with lower achievement or kids with an achievement gap,” Barone said. “Standardized tests are imperfect, but they do provide a common yardstick to see where policies are working.”

Starr said he’s never had difficulty speaking his mind but isn’t looking to be a national spokesman against the standards-and-accountability movement. And he isn’t interested in launching an assault against the White House’s education policies.

In fact, Starr has tweeted that he admires and supports Obama: “I’m happy with election outcome, but not at the prospect of more RTTT-esque [Race to the Top] so-called reform. Let’s start talking about children, not tests.”

Starr said people have asked him about the consequences of being so vocal. He said that he’s not worried and that it’s important to confront big ideas in education because everyone has the same goal, which is to improve education for all students.

“The reason I love being superintendent of schools is I have deep beliefs about what I want kids to do and what I want adults to do to help kids do what they should be doing,” Starr said.

“I’ve got to be authentic, and I’ve got to do it in ways that feel right to me.”

Photo by Lynh Bui: Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr shadowed senior David Hayes for a day to understand the life of a high school student.

Audio: Starr discusses his views on standardizes tests.

Audio: Starr talks about the consequences of being a vocal critic of federal education policies.

Storify: A visual look at how Joshua Starr uses social media to share his thoughts on national education policy.

[View the story “@mcpssuper Joshua Starr tweets” on Storify]

When it comes to lunch trays, schools say it’s not easy to be green


The used lunch trays Emily Fox took home about four years ago from the loading dock outside her elementary school were gross, some still plastered with ketchup.

Emily stacked the trays in piles of 10. She wanted to know just how many polystyrene lunch trays Piney Branch Elementary School students went through in a day.

“Three hundred and twenty-five,” said Emily, now 12 and a middle school student. “And they all go into the incinerator and get burned and it’s very unenvironmental.”

For more than four years, Emily and other members of the Young Activist Club in Montgomery County have been asking the Board of Education for a dishwasher at Piney Branch. They want to phase out foam for something greener, but their lobbying and fundraising, which has netted more than $10,000, have yielded little success.

From Maryland to Illinois to California, environmentally minded students are pushing to remove polystyrene trays from cafeterias and replace them with compostable, reusable or recyclable alternatives. But change has been slow. School districts say that they want to go foam-free but that tight education budgets, infrastructure limitations and the relatively high prices of earth-friendly materials are often insurmountable hurdles in difficult economic times.

Even in Portland, Ore., known as one of the greenest cities in America, some schools still serve lunches on styrene-based, disposable trays.

“I hate serving on Styrofoam, but when push comes to shove, you have to decide where you’re going to spend the money,” said Gitta Grether-Sweeney, director of nutrition services for Portland Public Schools.

For decades, environmentalists have shunned polystyrene (better known by the name of Dow Chemical’s trademarked Styrofoam) because it is slow to biodegrade and litters oceans and landfills.

Corporations and municipalities have taken note. McDonald’s stopped using foam burger boxes about 20 years ago. Jamba Juice plans to replace foam cups with paper ones in its stores nationwide by the end of 2013. And hundreds of cities and towns have passed laws banning polystyrene food containers.

But reform has been spotty for the nation’s school systems.

“We tend to be very resistant to change,” said David Binkle, director of food services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “We’re very rigid.”

Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest public school district in the nation, switched to compostable paper trays in August. The change got national attention after middle school activists strung up a 30-foot tower of foam trays in a tree to spotlight the waste.

On Friday, the Hermosa Beach City School District in Southern California started replacing foam trays with recycled paper trays once a week, thanks in part to the advocacy of Max Riley, a fourth-grader at Hermosa Valley School, and his sister Reece, a second-grader.

“No Foam Friday” will run through the end of the school year, and the siblings say they’re pushing for permanent change.

Max said he worries about the health repercussions of littering Earth with foam.

Across the country, student activists have rallied to get foam lunch trays out of schools because “our young people care about the planet they’re going to have to inhabit,” said Dawn Undurraga, a nutritionist with the Environmental Working Group.

“You have 31.8 million children in the school lunch program each day, and multiply that by 180 school days and that comes out to quite a bit of trays if they’re all disposable,” Undurraga said.

But even young Max knows that there are economic realities to consider.

“Foam is very popular because it’s really cheap,” Max said. “And 3 cents extra per tray doesn’t sound like much, but in the big scheme, it is thousands of dollars, which I don’t really mind but a lot of people do.”

Grades of Green, a nonprofit group, seeks to empower students such as Max to make positive environmental changes, and it has helped more than 150 schools in 25 states implement policies that make campuses greener.

Said Kim Martin, the group’s founder: “It’s definitely a dollars- and-cents issue for a lot of schools, so it’s important to look at what makes sense for schools not just from an environmental benefit, but also from a cost standpoint.”

The Portland school system spends about 7 cents each for paper trays, compared with 3 cents for foam trays.

Montgomery County school officials estimate that converting to non-polystyrene products would add $1 million to the cost of the more than 5 million trays students use annually.

But making the switch doesn’t always cost more.

In 2010, the New York City Department of Education implemented “Trayless Tuesdays.” Officials estimated that the move diverted 2.4 million polystyrene trays from landfills each month and was cost-neutral.

Binkle said the Los Angeles district negotiated with suppliers when it moved away from foam, saving the school system at least $1 million on the 120 million lunch trays students use annually.

Trays made from recyclable materials can end up in landfills if composting facilities are not available on site, as is the case at some Portland and Los Angeles schools. And students have to be trained to clean trays, which can’t be recycled if contaminated with bits of food or grease.

That’s why the Young Activist Club at Piney Branch doesn’t want anything but reusable trays and a dishwasher.

“It’s pointless to have composted paper trays if you can’t compost them,” 11-year-old Anna Brookes said.

There are few, if any, facilities to compost paper trays at Montgomery schools.

In the Washington region, Loudoun County Public Schools and D.C. Public Schools use compostable or reusable trays. The D.C. school system also has dishwashers for reusable, plastic trays in 12 schools, and D.C. city contracting policies prohibit the use of foam.

Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said the county system has several other environmentally minded initiatives. But allowing Piney Branch to buy a dishwasher is a complicated decision in a system that has nearly 150,000 students.

“You can’t do something at one school without a plan to expand it,” Tofig said. “It becomes a fairness argument.”

Montgomery officials have estimated that it could cost more than $70,000 to install and operate a dishwasher at Piney Branch, far more than the $10,000 students have raised. The Young Activist Club, however, has estimated a one-year pilot program could cost as little as $11,000.

The Montgomery Board of Education heard Piney Branch students’ pleas again this summer, but members didn’t vote to authorize a pilot program. Instead, the board adopted a resolution aimed at reducing the school system’s overall carbon footprint.

“Board members felt very strongly if the system is going to do something like this, it needs to be replicated across the district,” said member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase).

Fairfax County, like Montgomery, sends polystyrene trash from public schools to an incinerator whose heat is used to generate electricity. Fairfax officials estimate the electricity powers 96,000 homes. Fairfax schools quit using dishwashers in the 1980s, saving millions of gallons of water annually, according to county officials.

“The issue with dishwashers is the waste water that is lost and the chemicals that go into the waste process are very harmful because you’re talking about sanitizers and detergents,” Binkle said.

Grether-Sweeney also said dishwashers, which require maintenance, may not always be practical. There are labor costs involved in operating the dishwashers, and schools built decades ago aren’t always equipped to handle the electrical demands of running a machine that will heat water enough to kill germs.

Nadine Bloch, one of the parent advisers to the Young Activist Club, said students often tell her that those answers aren’t good enough.

“There are some adults that get really stuck in the wrong place,” Bloch said she tells the students. “That’s why it’s good there are youthful activists who can tell people that things have changed and there’s a necessity for moving on and looking forward.”

Emily Fox, who counted the discarded trays at Piney Branch, said she, Anna Brookes and the rest of the Young Activist Club aren’t going to quit lobbying for a dishwasher.

“The students do care,” Emily said. “They should care, because we’re going to be the next generation, and we’re going to change things.”

Image: By Mike Licht, via Creative Commons.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on page C1 of The Washington Post on Dec. 9.

Montgomery parents decry “one-size-fits-all” math


Alison Friedman’s third-grade son spends his free time in math class in Gaithersburg playing with his pencil, waiting for his classmates to finish multiplication, addition and subtraction problems he mastered in earlier grades.Worried that her child is wasting time, Friedman is thinking about giving him additional math work at home. She can’t afford a tutor, but getting him some enrichment could keep him on track for Algebra I by sixth grade — three years ahead of the national standard and two years ahead of Montgomery County’s standard.

“I feel like I’ve hit a dead end,” said Friedman, whose two older sons skipped grades in math.

Friedman is one of hundreds of Montgomery parents concerned and upset that new education standards and curriculum will reduce the number of students who skip grades to accelerate in math. They have created a Facebook page called “MCPS Parents Support Math Acceleration.” And more than 1,000 have signed a petition called “No Time to Waste,” urging the Board of Education to reform what some have called “one size fits all” math programming.

“The pot is simmering on the stove and getting ready to boil over,” said Pat O’Neill, who, like other Board of Education members, has been hearing from parents worried that the new curriculum shortchanges gifted students.

The county’s recent rollout of Curriculum 2.0, aimed at meeting nationwide Common Core Standards, provides more rigorous math instruction, district officials have told parents. Fewer students will be accelerated in math because students are expected to do work that draws on material that used to be taught at higher grade levels. So what was once considered “accelerated” is now on grade level.

But parents have been pressing school system officials for details on how it will accelerate students who might be ready for algebra sooner than eighth grade.

Concerns about math aren’t new in Montgomery — where high-achieving schools come with competition and lofty expectations — but the latest debate comes as Montgomery aims to correct a system that over-accelerated students. The county is also in the middle of adopting the Common Core State Standards, designed to create more consistent educational instruction nationwide while giving students a more solid foundation in math.

In previous years, Montgomery schools had pushed for 80 percent of its students to take algebra by eighth grade, one year ahead of the national standard to prepare students for college. In 2001, about 43 percent of the county’s students finished Algebra by eighth grade, a rate that increased to about 68 percent in 2010, according to the county.

But many students were accelerated before they were ready, said Erick Lang, an assistant superintendent. The pressure had families hiring private tutors for students who were falling behind and high school math instructors wasting time reteaching basic material.

Under Curriculum 2.0, the goal is to develop a “deeper understanding” of math in elementary school to better prepare students for Algebra I by eighth grade, Lang said.

“We’re asking students to think about what’s behind the math,” Lang added.

That’s what Andrea Segovia was trying to do with her third-grade students one recent afternoon. The Ashburton Elementary School teacher was instructing the class about multiplying by factors of five. But she didn’t allow students like Diego Santiago to simply write down multiplication tables committed to memory. Diego had to solve a word problem about a child who read 10 minutes a day, five days a week. He had to diagram his thinking and verbally explain his work.

He drew a string of 10 circles across the page, then began to draw four more rows. Segovia stopped him. She broke down the problem with Diego until he understood that the 10 circles represented minutes and that he needed five rows to represent the days.

Developers of the Common Core decided U.S. students performed poorly in math compared with international peers because the American curriculum focused too much on rote learning and not enough on conceptual reasoning. Academics and experts said math instruction in America was a “mile wide and an inch deep,” with students getting shallow understanding of several concepts.

Skip Fennell, a mathematics education expert at McDaniel College in Maryland, said changes driven by Common Core represent a huge shift that requires parents to change their mind set about kids flying though math workbooks or skipping grades.

“Parents are used to seeing kids whiz through stuff, but done right, kids shouldn’t whiz through it,” Fennell said. “If you can mechanically do addition and subtraction and don’t know how the procedure works and can’t tell me whether your answer is correct or not, then we’ve lost.”

This change is also what frustrates parents in Montgomery. Even if the new curriculum is more difficult and requires more analytical thinking, there will still be students who can work beyond the already heightened expectations. There isn’t a clear path for those students, for whom a gifted program or magnet school might not be the right option.

Under previous curriculum standards, students learned many concepts in one grade and then often repeated them the next. With the new curriculum, this repetition has mostly been eliminated. Students spend much more time on fewer concepts in a single grade with just one opportunity to learn it, making it harder to skip ahead.

Instead of going down the hall to a more advanced math class, for the most part, students of all abilities now work in a single classroom in small groups.

In Segovia’s class, small groups rotated through workstations, doing a different activity every 10 minutes. all related to multiplying by five. They independently filled out math worksheets, sat at a computer or played a dice game.They also took turns sitting with Segovia, who created three different math lessons for the day. She designed each lesson to cater to different groups of students, based on their ability.

This 10-minute window with the teacher is when students can have their individual needs met, district officials say.

Friedman said she likes the new curriculum but worries that combining students of all abilities will stifle students going faster at math.

“The teacher is never going to pay attention to the kids who need more enrichment,” Friedman said. “They’re going to pay attention to the kids who can’t get [the material].”

Lang, the assistant superintendent, said the county is continuing to develop “enrichment” material for students who move faster than others. And for the students who can go even faster, the county intends to introduce a plan this winter that will show how students can take geometry — the next course after algebra — by eighth grade.Lang said he doesn’t know how many fewer students will fall into that category compared with the school system’s old curriculum.

“We have to make sure kids are getting their individual needs meet,” Lang said. “We’ve been trying to figure it out, and it’s on us.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Washington Post’s metro section on Dec. 3.

Photo: By atgeo via Creative Commons.

Montgomery County students continue to do well on AP exams

Nearly 75 percent of Montgomery County high school students’ Advanced Placement exams earned a college-ready score of 3 or higher in 2012, placing the county near the top of national achievement lists with scores that were nearly 18 percentage points higher than the national average.A record number of Montgomery high school students took the exams this year, and the county was one of 539 school districts out of more than 12,000 across the United States and Canada that boosted the number of students both taking AP exams and scoring passing grades.

The distinction landed Montgomery County on the Third Annual AP District Honor Roll and maintains the county’s reputation as having one of the top school systems in the nation for AP participation, access and performance.“It’s a remarkable achievement,” said Trevor Packer, senior vice president of the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program. “It’s not something that typically happens.”Prince William County also landed on the AP District Honor Roll this year, and Prince George’s County saw marked improvement over the past year, with a nearly 10 percent increase in the number of tests that received a passing score.

The tests, issued across a spectrum of academic subjects, help measure how well students are prepared for college and the workforce. High school students who score a 3 or higher on an AP exam’s five-point scale can earn course credits at most colleges and universities, potentially saving students time and tuition as they complete undergraduate degrees.

Nearly 16,800 Montgomery County students took more than 32,970 AP exams in 2012, an increase of 537 students and 1,240 exams over the previous year, according to data the school system released Wednesday. Exams that scored a 3 or higher increased about 3 points over 2011; Montgomery’s average passing rate of 75 percent is well above Maryland’s average of 61 percent and the national average of 57 percent.

Prince George’s County saw a huge boost in the number of Hispanic students taking and passing AP exams — with an increase of 18 percentage points in participation and an increase of 45 percentage points for those scoring a 3 or better. Both numbers far surpass national and Maryland figures for improvement.

Prince George’s schools spokesman Briant Coleman said the county’s rising Hispanic student population and the increasing rigor of the school system’s curriculum are responsible for the trend.

In Loudoun County, students took more than 14,000 AP exams, with 57 percent of the exams earning at least a 3. Alexandria’s high school, T.C. Williams, set school records with a total of 785 students taking 1,623 AP exams. As of Wednesday, D.C. public schools and Arlington and Fairfax counties did not have data available.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr attributed his school system’s improvement to the district’s focus on making sure students across racial and socioeconomic lines are pushed to prepare for college at all grade levels.

Montgomery has long encouraged students to take Advanced Placement courses, and the school system includes a passing score of 3 or higher on AP exams as one of its “Seven Keys to College Readiness.

There is still an achievement gap in Montgomery, with 81 percent of white students and 79 percent of Asian students earning passing scores; their black and Hispanic peers performed at least 20 percentage points lower. But Starr said it is compelling that participation and performance increased for black and Hispanic students.

“That is powerful because there are still people out there who say if you let too many kids in who aren’t prepared to take AP exams, scores are going to go down,” Starr said. “The data show otherwise: When you open up doors and you support kids, you get good results.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on page B1 of The Washington Post on Nov. 29 with reporter Donna St. George contributing to the report.

Downcounty Consortium enrollment surges

Enrollment surges in the Downcounty Consortium have prompted Montgomery County Public Schools officials to approve a school capacity study that would avoid future overcrowding.

Twelve schools will be involved in the study, but Montgomery County education officials project space shortages will be most severe at Arcola, Forest Knolls, Harmony Hills and Sargent Shriver elementary schools in the mid-section of the Downcounty Consortium.

The four schools combined are expected to exceed capacity by more than 660 students by the 2018-19 school year. The other schools that will be part of the study include, Brookhaven, Highland, Weller Road, Wheaton Woods, Georgian Forest, Glenallan, Glen Haven and Kemp Mill elementary schools.

The study, slated to begin in January, will determine if classroom additions or the construction of a new school would be the best way to address the space crunch.

The Board of Education approved the study earlier this month as part of the school system’s capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2013-2018.

“Resolving space shortages at elementary schools in the midsection of the [Downcounty Consortium] will be a complex undertaking,” according to a report to the board. “ It is evident that solutions to the space shortages at these schools could result in the need to adjust school boundaries when additional capacity becomes available.”

District officials, however, note that boundary changes would not occur until space opened up to accommodate moving students.

Read the report here.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Washington Post’s Maryland Schools Insider blog.

Montgomery County aims to increase college-going for minority, low-income students

Nadia Salazar Sandi’s parents made it clear to their daughter that she was going to go to college. But it wasn’t an easy road for Salazar Sandi, who came to the United States more than a decade ago from Bolivia.

Though both of her parents graduated from college, they earned their degrees in South America. So navigating financial-aid forms, college application letters and the university system in the United States was a challenge for the entire family as Salazar Sandi worked to graduate from Albert Einstein High School in Montgomery County.

“My parents didn’t know how to help,” Salazar Sandi said. “I pretty much had to do everything on my own.”

But soon, students like Salazar Sandi won’t have to navigate the path to college alone. Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College and the Universities at Shady Grove have teamed up for a program that works to shepherd students who typically don’t get into or graduate from college.

The Universities at Shady Grove is a “campus community” in Rockville where students can transfer after community college to finish undergraduate study and earn a bachelor’s degree from one of nine schools, including the University of Maryland, Bowie State, Towson State and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The three school systems are working together to launch the Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) program by the 2013-14 school year. The program will pair “academic coaches” from Montgomery College with juniors in eight county high schools. The program will help students navigate the college enrollment process, ensuring that they are on track academically and that their families are prepared financially. Students will also get mentors, tutors and guided tours of college campuses through the program.

Students who go through the program will attend Montgomery College after high school. After earning an associate degree from the college, they then transfer to the Universities at Shady Grove to earn a bachelor’s degree through the University System of Maryland. The coaches provide one-on-one support for students through the years, with mentoring, campus visits and tutoring help from start to finish.

The program is geared toward African American, Hispanic and low-income students — groups typically underrepresented on college campuses. The program also targets students aiming to be first-generation college graduates.

While the program is based on a model that has produced results in such places as Northern Virginia, the focus is new for Montgomery County Public Schools, reflecting changing demographics, Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard said.

“They are new immigrants,” Pollard said. “They are people who have experienced economic hardship. These are young people trying to find a place for themselves in higher education.”

In the early 1990s, more than 60 percent of the student population was white. Today, the demographics have largely reversed, with more than 66 percent of students reported as African American, Asian American, Hispanic or another ethnicity.

Stewart Edelstein, executive director of the Universities at Shady Grove, said he hopes the program will develop a workforce of students who will stay in the region once they graduate.

“This is not just a social justice issue we’re trying to deal with,” Edelstein said. “It’s an economic issue.”

ACES will start in eight high schools (Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, Gaithersburg, John F. Kennedy, Northwood, Rockville, Watkins Mill and Wheaton) with 240 students going through the program for each school.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr said the goal is to expand the program’s reach each year to support more students aiming to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Salazar Sandi, now 21, is a student at the Universities at Shady Grove working toward a bachelor’s in psychology with plans to apply for the master’s program at George Washington University.

“That extra push for students at risk of not completing college is the best thing you can give them,” Salazar Sandi said.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on page B2 of The Washington Post on Oct. 7.

Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua Starr becomes a student for a day

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr donned a black apron and snapped on rubber gloves, a hot-pink basket of goat parts — including a glassy brown eyeball — staring him in the face.

It was 10:20 a.m. on a recent Monday, and instead of working on schools policy or administrative tasks, Starr was standing in a Gaithersburg High School anatomy and physiology lab next to senior David Hayes. The two began identifying goat tongue and pieces of brain and other organs.

“I’m going to become a vegetarian,” Starr quipped as Hayes began picking up the pink goat pieces.

Starr’s foray into the lab was part of a full day that Starr spent with Hayes on Oct. 22. The top administrator for Montgomery County schools and 19 other top system officials followed high school students during that week, an idea that Starr developed over the summer to engage administrators in on-the-ground situations in the schools.

“It’s just so that we can remember who we’re serving and why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Starr, who graduated from high school in 1987.

While the idea was to get a taste of a high school student’s typical day, Hayes said it wasn’t exactly a normal day, what with the superintendent in tow.

Cameras followed Hayes and Starr everywhere they went. Starr toted his iPad, taking pictures and posting tweets. And teachers made sure to dress their best, knowing the superintendent would be on campus.

“My teachers planned better lectures than what they usually planned,” said Hayes, 18. “There was more interaction than usual.”

But for Starr, it was still a good glimpse into the life of a high school student and a reminder of how fast-paced a teenager’s life can be, bouncing from one class to another every 45 minutes.

“It just moves so quick,” Starr said. “When do you get time to let it sink in and reflect?”

Gaithersburg High School Principal Christine Handy-Collins said she and teachers selected Hayes for Starr to shadow because of the variety of his course work and activities.

Hayes takes Advanced Placement psychology and is in a child development course as part of the school’s career and technology education program. Hayes also is a running back and linebacker on the school’s football team; Starr joined the Trojans during lunch period as they watched videos to prepare for an upcoming game.

“Dr. Starr got a varied experience in just one student,” Handy-Collins said. “It’s just a snapshot, but it’s a valuable snaps


While Starr learned more about Hayes’s routine, Hayes said he also learned something about the man who runs a school system with nearly 150,000 students.

“I think he’s a cool dude,” Hayes said. “He’s down-to-earth and he understands what we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Starr has been superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools for a little more than a year. Starr is expected

to debrief other staff members who shadowed students soon to discuss what they learned.

Even though Hayes knows that the day Starr spent with him wasn’t completely routine, he still thinks it was good that the superintendent made the effort.

Other students “should be happy he took the time to learn what we go through,” Hayes said. “I hope he does something to make a change to anything negative he saw.”

Photo: Montgomery County Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr and Gaithersburg High School Senior David Hayes identify goat parts during an anatomy class. Photo by Lynh Bui.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on page B1 of The Washington Post on Nov. 4.

Project-based learning could expand throughout Montgomery County schools

The Wheaton High School classrooms buzzed. Teams of biomedical students searched for documents on the Internet to learn the causes of myopia. Groups huddled in civil engineering class, crafting model homes with wooden dowels, cardboard and hot glue. Aerospace engineering students sailed cars down a hallway, powering the vehicles with plastic bags and a box fan.

Instead of quiet classrooms with teachers lecturing rows of students, at Wheaton the students ran the show and the teachers stood aside.

This is project-based learning, where educational instruction moves away from a traditional academic setting to an active classroom that encourages collaboration and communication among students.

As the Montgomery County Public Schools system plans to replace the Wheaton High School building in Silver Spring, officials aren’t just aiming for physical classroom overhauls. They’re also planning to redesign the curriculum, expanding a project-based learning environment that will resemble adult work settings and real-life situations.

It is part of a larger quest to “redefine the school” and prepare students for “21st century education,” Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said.

“Critical competencies for workers now include skills and knowledge acquired beyond a high school education as well as the ability to apply learning, think critically about information, solve novel problems, collaborate, create new products and processes, and adapt to change,” Starr said.

While project-based learning has been successful in other parts of the country, Wheaton’s transformation would be a major programmatic change for Montgomery County. If it’s successful, Starr believes it could eventually ripple to several other county high schools in some form.

The new Wheaton building is slated to open in August 2015.

Classrooms would look different, with fewer rows of desks or lecture-style settings and more group meeting spaces where students can converse and coordinate projects. There could be fewer quizzes. And the role of the teacher would be redefined.

Marcus Lee teaches civil engineering through project-based learning at Wheaton. Lee said he thinks less like a traditional teacher and more like a project leader or facilitator. He supplies materials and supervises students on projects, such as building model homes to teach architectural styles.

And if students have questions, Lee isn’t the first one to the rescue. He asks students to teach each other or learn through “trial and error.”

Students sometimes call him out for being too hands-off.

Lee’s response: “You have to do this for your own good. This is real life. If you want to be more adult, this is it.”

School projects aren’t new. Students have long dissected frogs or built castles out of sugar cubes. But the style of project-based learning toward which Montgomery County is heading emphasizes cooperation.

Beazwit Yalewayker, an 18-year-old senior, said group-based lessons have helped her overcome some of her shyness.

“It’s much different, more interactive,” Yalewayker said during her biomedical innovation class. “It forces you to communicate because you have to work in groups.”

As Montgomery redesigns its programming for Wheaton and the rest of the system, officials will look to programs at schools such as High Tech High, which operates 11 schools in the San Diego area and has garnered national attention for its innovation. Since its inception in 2000, all of its graduates have been admitted to college. More than 30 percent of the school’s alumni choose math- or science-related jobs, according to High Tech High officials, greater than the national average of about 17 percent.

High Tech High began as a charter school developed through a partnership between business and education leaders. Struggling to fill high-tech jobs, the business community wanted to create a school where students could “acquire the basic skills of work and citizenship.”

School projects aren’t limited to science, technology, engineering or math. Along with building robots, students have published bilingual cookbooks and designed mock peaceful and sustainable societies in the Middle East after studying the region’s economy and politics.

As students produce such final projects, they’re observing, investigating, reflecting and documenting what they’ve learned, said Larry Rosenstock, High Tech High’s chief executive.

“You have to have great standardized test scores, but you want kids who aren’t afraid to get outside the bubble and invent things,” Rosenstock said.

More than 3,000 people visit High Tech High annually — some from China, New Zealand, Mexico and Brazil — to observe and perhaps replicate High Tech High’s model, Rosenstock said.

At High Tech High and Wheaton, there are still some traditional forms of teaching and assessment, with tests, lectures and homework. But the emphasis shifts to ensure students learn from the projects they design and deliver.

“It’s important to hold students accountable for the knowledge and learning that they’ve done,” said Heather Carias, coordinator for the academy programs at Wheaton that employ project-based learning.

Hands-on learning through meaningful activities and projects helps students retain information longer with a deeper understanding of skills, said Vanessa Vega, a research analyst at the George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia.

The nonprofit organization advocates project-based learning, saying students should leave school knowing how to find information, assess the credibility of information and use that information to achieve a goal.

“Project-based learning is more real than a textbook,” Vega said. “It makes the connection to real life more transparent.”

Vega said students from schools that have moved to project-based learning curricula do just as well on standardized tests as other students. Some of the project-based schools boast lower dropout rates than schools with traditional classrooms.

Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at Stanford University whose research focuses on school reform, curriculum and instruction, said that project-based learning can be a good addition to a teacher’s repertoire but that using it across the board can be problematic.

“It clearly benefits some students who like independence and like the cooperation, but a steady diet of project-based learning probably is not wise because there are so many differences in students’ motivations and abilities,” Cuban said.

Project-based learning doesn’t always work perfectly in real classroom situations, where teachers feel the pressure of meeting state standards and producing strong standardized test scores, he said.

“The practical realities in a climate of test-based accountability make it very difficult for teachers to spend time helping students work through a lot of these projects,” Cuban said.

Wheaton has adopted project-based learning in many of its math, science and engineering classes. As the new high school is built, the teaching approach would expand to most courses, including English, reading and social studies.

A group of parents and business and community leaders working with school officials will develop a vision for the new Wheaton by the end of the school year.

Wheaton Principal Kevin Lowndes said students are still learning material they need to know to prepare them for college and meet state instructional standards. They’re just doing it in a different way.

“They’re talking through problems and really trying to figure things out to better their understanding of the material,” Lowndes said.

Sol Leon, 18, said the lessons she learned from her biomedical and innovation class have already given her a taste of real life. Leon, a senior, got an internship in a physics lab at George Washington University and discovered the materials, technology and software she used at work were all tools she first used in her high school class.

“It helps me in ways to actually get the general idea of things I might face in the future,” she said.

Photo: Students work on a model home project to learn about architectural styles in a civil engineering class.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on page B1 of The Washington Post on Oct. 28.