The Widening Achievement Gap of MCPS Policy Paper
In the classroom, students from all different backgrounds come together to all learn the same curriculum. However, student backgrounds, such as socioeconomic status, family responsibilities, etc., can greatly impact student performance, which we have seen in the achievement gap. The achievement gap is caused by the multiple challenges that most minority students experience. In Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), one of the most racially diverse school systems in the nation, many students fall through the cracks of the widening achievement gap.
Over 80% of the MCPS student population are minorities, with 50% being Black and/or Hispanic. Many schools that have a predominantly minority population have students increasingly qualifying for Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS). FARMS is a government program that qualifies low-income families to reduce meal prices, or free meals throughout the school year. The county uses FARMS as a measure of poverty to assist with determining statistical data based on school demographics and achievement which has helped lead numerous studies to try to ensure equity.
It is not negative that students qualify for Free and Reduced Meals, but does the quality of education differ in schools with a high FARMS rate than schools with lower FARMS rates? Schools with the highest percentages of FARMS rates are mainly located in the North Eastern Consortium (NEC) and the Down County Consortium (DCC), which are areas with lower average incomes than the Upper County, where schools such as Richard Montgomery and Wootton High School are located. In 2018 it was shown that schools in the DCC had higher FARMS rates with lower graduation rates and the opposite was true in upper county, wealthier schools. A study in 2019 reported that, out of the 2,151 MCPS students that dropped out in 2019, three-fifths (1,335 students) were Hispanic and English Learners and 35% were other minorities that qualified for FARMS. As a whole, 2,087 out of the 2,151 dropouts were minority students.
In 2019, MCPS partnered with private contractors to perform a county wide boundary study to analyze the disparities across the county. Ultimately, advocates of this study were expecting redrawn school boundary lines to ensure that resources were allocated more equitably throughout the entire county. However, the proposal for redistricting was met with heavy opposition from MCPS parents, with parents from wealthier schools leading the resistance.
The analysis included input from parents through a survey that asked questions about the importance of diversity in schools and more. Of the 2,100 respondents, 64% of them were parents, and 54% of them were from the southwest of Montgomery County (Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Potomac). In comparison, only 16% of the parent responses were from the central part of the county (Rockville) and less from lower parts of the county such as Wheaton. This analysis ultimately concluded that a boundary plan to promote diversity would not have a significant impact. However, this analysis was conducted with majority input from parents in wealthier parts of the county who are not negatively impacted by the achievement gap. A popular concern and a weighting factor for many parents' opposition was the potential socioeconomic decline of schools if lower income students were to integrate into wealthier schools.
The achievement gap is caused by various factors, such as low income, student responsibilities (including jobs and babysitting), transportation, lack of resources, and much more. While many students face economic and social disadvantages it is important to intervene early in a students' time at school to narrow the achievement gap, and to not only have policies put in place to make sure students are succeeding in school, but to also offer family support. However, the solution is to ensure that when a student comes to school, the county can compensate for these disadvantages. The Board of Education should work on implementing changes such as after school programs that focus on educational along with social and cognitive development early on across the country to ensure overall development.
Funding is an important aspect to help schools offer different programs, class materials, and other resources, but funding alone will not ensure prompt actions to narrow the achievement gap. If schools are given money to implement more programs such as mentorship services, tutoring services, test prep, and aftercare services, it gives many students accessibility to resources that they wouldn’t usually get at home. For example, a student who has wealthier parents can afford to enroll their children in ACT and SAT prep programs, which are thousands of dollars, but are helpful for passing and getting into college. If MCPS implements free ACT and SAT prep programs on a county level, it would ensure an equal opportunity for success and work to narrow the achievement gap.
Some argue that the achievement gap cannot be solved without providing families with more money, and thus relieving students of some of their home responsibilities and other related factors. Although this is undoubtedly true in many cases, it is not plausible for the county to accommodate all students. Nevertheless, the county can still work on closing the gap from the time that students spend at school, which does not take away time from their other responsibilities.
As we progress into the 2021-2022 school year, following the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more students need the support of their schools. With the newly released findings of the boundary analysis and information from the FARMS program, we must ensure that where a person lives and their socioeconomic status does not determine the advancements, equity and quality of education that all students so rightfully deserve.
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Written by Shelton Fantroy & Hanna Wosenu