According to the Nation’s Report Card released last week by the Department of Education, the achievement gap narrowed slightly in Pennsylvania over the last two years.
As Pittsburgh-area schools consider ways to shrink the gap further, they might look to Montgomery County, Maryland.
That Washington, D.C.-area school district has dramatically reduced the gap while posting the highest graduation rate for black males in the nation.
Montgomery County, Md., with a population of 1 million, has one school district. Allegheny County, with its 1.2 million people, has 42 school districts in addition to Pittsburgh Public Schools.
"There's something wrong with the structure that you can’t get but half of some racial groups across the (graduation) stage, and the ones you get across are not well prepared," said Jerry Weast, who became superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in 1999. "You can’t go on blaming the students."
When he got there, about half the students were in low-performing, high-minority, high-poverty schools, and the other half in high-performing, more affluent, predominantly white schools.
"We were able to prove that equal treatment is the most unfair treatment," Weast said. "We used to talk about this like the county was our front lawn. If green grass was what we wanted all over the lawn, and we had some big areas that the grass was brown, we wouldn’t run around killing the green grass, we would try to do something different to the brown grass to green it."
According to Weast, students need and deserve equal opportunity — not equal resources, but allocating more funding and services to high-minority, low-income schools met with some resistance.
"The people in the areas who are doing well sometimes have a hard time sharing," he said.
Weast insisted it was not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing.
"It was to the economic benefit of the whole county to do that. We would affect the property values and the brand of the whole county if we let the area that wasn't doing well continue to grow, and it was growing at a rapid pace," Weast said.
The County Council increased funding by $100 million every year for six years, which made it possible that additional resources could go to schools that were behind without taking away from those performing well. The first schools to get the extra resources were the lowest-achieving.
"If we were poor or we were mobile or we didn't speak English, we needed a lower class size and a better teacher," Weast said. "The training for the teachers had to be absolutely top notch and they had to have one of the best principals. The materials had to be high quality, just like they were in wealthy schools."
All-day kindergarten and other improvements were then implemented in the other under-performing schools and eventually all schools in the system. Community support grew as the achievement gap narrowed and test scores rose across the whole district.
The system set the goal that every student graduate ready for college or high wage work. Standards and expectations were high across the system. Curriculum was uniform and designed to produce specific results.
"We reverse engineered from college all the way down what correlated with college success," Weast said. "So if you could see that in kindergarten if you could read by second semester at level 6, that correlated to a very high percentage of children being able to hit the 2nd grade target, and that correlated to being able to hit the 5th grade target, and the 8th grade target, the 11th grade target, and that seemed to correlate that you could get out of college within six years. We went right to the college clearing house and found out our students did, and they did get out of college within six years. We could prove it."
Weast said the new academic culture was more common sense than revolutionary.
"When you start early with a persistent and consistent pattern of education and help the parents and the daycare providers understand what it takes to get ready for school, actually, our retired teachers volunteered to hand out packets and awareness brochures to newborns in the hospital," he said. "When you work that consistently with all segments of the community and make a persistent campaign, it works for all races and nationalities."
According to Weast, everyone stepped up: community organizations, healthcare companies, elected officials as well as all school employees, including the cooks, the custodians and the bus drivers, who started study halls on their buses.
"Our unions voted three years in a row not to get rid of these programs, and they took no raise or (pay) step or any increase for three years," Weast said.
The teachers union implemented a professional growth system according to Weast.
"It was really unusual for a union to take professional responsibility to not only create a system of helping us hire and induct into the workforce and the new culture, but also exit from the workforce poor-performing teachers without acrimony or the usual court cases that go with that kind of exit." He said they removed more than 500 poor performing teachers.
"People always say bad things about unions. [They tend to] push back if they're pushed on too hard, but they tend to pull if you sit down with them and say, 'Here’s the problem, let’s work out a solution to it.' We were smart enough as a Board of Education and an administration not to put teachers on the menu but bring them to the table."
Teacher training was paramount, according to Weast.
"How to differentiate instruction, how do you teach kids reading at this depth, how do you use solid materials without watering them down, how do children learn how to write, how do you make that fun, where the child is engaged where it's not just drill and kill," Weast said. "We wanted to both inspire and prepare; if you want to develop that grit, you’ve got to inspire that child to want to come everyday when they get up out of bed. We actually discussed race and its effect on achievement, tried to understand what cultural competence that we needed. So these are many things, but they work for not only African Americans, they work for all children."
When Weast retired in 2011, Montgomery County’s overall graduation rate was 85.7 percent, compared to a national rate of 74 percent. Three out of four African American males graduated in Montgomery County compared to only half nationally. All students had improved.
"We were moving from between 50 and 60 percent white to somewhere around 33 to 35 percent white," Weast said. "That’s a huge demographic shift. At the same time, to produce some of the highest scores in the history of the district — that’s pretty amazing. That just hasn’t been done in too many places in America — especially large systems that have more than 140,000 students. Even after 12 hard years of work, we still had much more work to do."
Over the past five years, the achievement gap in the Montgomery County Public Schools has shrunk by 38 percent in math and by 21 percent in reading.