MCPS should lose the spin and face the facts


Feb. 13, 2003, midnight | By Stephen Wertheim | 17 years, 11 months ago

Department of Communications' misleading statements have no place in our school system


Upon announcing the county's latest SAT performance, MCPS cannot help but gloat. Montgomery's results are "the highest in Maryland," brags an Aug 27 press release. A "record-setting" participation rate is outshined only by "highest-ever" math scores.

But the facts, minus MCPS' thick layer of sugarcoating, reveal an appalling problem. The gap between whites' and African Americans' average scores grew again, reaching 253 points, a record high in a series of substantial increases from 215 points in 1997. Almost equally disturbing is that officials in MCPS' Department of Communications chose to present a version of the truth more fitting for partisan politics than school administration.

This is no isolated incident. On a host of issues, from the achievement gap to the budget, MCPS' spin doctors under Superintendent Jerry Weast continually mislead the public and fail to confront the unpleasant realities of county schools. And without at least identifying school problems, officials will never solve them.

The deception is worst on the achievement gap. After paragraphs of self-congratulatory quotes in the same SAT-related press release, Weast does mention the gap—but he uses every possible qualifier and diverts all responsibility from MCPS. "The lack of significant progress on average by African American and Hispanic students in last year's senior class is related, in part, to a combination of factors," Weast not-so-boldly proclaims before defending ongoing initiatives instead of seeking new solutions.

Let's get something straight. This isn't a "lack of significant progress." This is regression. Weast, rather than shrug off the problem, needs to reevaluate his policies.

Fittingly, in a Jan 8 interview, an MCPS spokesperson at first declined comment on whether the achievement gap has broadened or closed under Weast. She later offered, among other statements: "To say how much it may have been closed—that's a complicated question."

Here are some simple answers. In the entire county's 2002 graduating class, 4.3 percent of African Americans, or 75 students, had taken more than 24 honors courses by junior year, according to MCPS statistics underneath the spin of press releases. That percentage hasn't risen since 1998, the year before Weast came to Montgomery County. For Hispanics, a one-percentage-point rise since 1998 has brought the rate to a still-dismal 5.7 percent, or 64 students.

The percentage for whites, however, has increased almost six points to 23.0 percent.

Moreover, 72 percent of African Americans scored three or higher on 1998 AP tests; only 57 percent scored three or higher last year. (The number of whites, meanwhile, saw a far smaller decline, from 85 to 83 percent.)

Of course, when MCPS announced the AP data, the headline read, "AP Test Participation Doubles Since 1998," a true statement but one that glossed over the most important part. The precipitous drop in African Americans' scores was, apparently, not worth more than a three-sentence paragraph, which attempted to justify the disparity by mentioning the nationwide achievement gap.

"Still," the Jan 3 release reads, "MCPS racial/ethnic groups averaged at least 0.3 of a point higher than their counterparts nationally in 2002." But Montgomery County is one of America's wealthiest counties and outspends most school systems, many by thousands of dollars per pupil. The idea that we should excuse a well-funded county's achievement gap because a gap exists nationally is not only absurd. It attempts a shameful manipulation of the public to which MCPS is accountable.

The spin may be at its worst on the achievement gap, but the half-truths don't stop there. In the Dec 8 Washington Post, Weast inaccurately claimed MCPS has cut the budget during his tenure. "Even with this enrollment growth, in the past three years Montgomery has cut its school budget by $51.4 million," Weast wrote, echoing a Nov 18 memo.

The budget has, in fact, grown by $304.2 million, according to Board of Education President Pat O'Neill in the Dec 25 Gazette. Although MCPS' spokesperson said Weast's cuts came from administrative costs while more money was added elsewhere, the bottom line is that the overall budget increased. This makes Weast's statement highly deceptive if not completely false.

When it frequently misrepresents countywide problems, MCPS violates the trust of parents, particularly those with low incomes who lack time to crosscheck the county's spin but for whom issues such as the achievement gap are most critical. If officials want "success for every student," as MCPS' motto proclaims, then they will stop allowing themselves to speak like politicians and start facing the real inequities in this school system.

Current failure to do so raises a question: Is MCPS ignorant of such challenges as the achievement gap, or does MCPS want to cover them up? Either answer is unacceptable.

Tell MCPS to start telling the whole truth. Email the Department of Communications at Brian_Porter@fc.mcps.k12.md.us



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Stephen Wertheim. Co-editor-in-chief Stephen Wertheim is deeply committed to reporting, even when it conflicts with such essential life activities as food consumption, sleep and viewership of Seinfeld reruns. In addition to getting carried away with writing and playing violin, Stephen thoroughly enjoys visiting and photographing spots around … More »

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