Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

On Friday, Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent Joshua Starr responded to my Post op-ed about the inequities in the school system. But he didn’t provide any real answers.

Last week, Dr. Starr spoke at the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, and chair Evan Glass asked him what he thought of my column. Dr. Starr said, “There’s no shortage of self-professed experts on education because they went to school.”

He later said he’d have a more thorough response to my column. On Friday, the Post published it:

To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, his report of our demise is greatly exaggerated.

Reed says that MCPS is “coasting on the system’s good reputation” and is no longer “great,” in essence because our schools have gotten more diverse and our students poorer . . .

Our focus is rightly on raising student achievement across the board, thereby narrowing achievement gaps and giving our students the best possible chance at success once they graduate. I believe one way to narrow those gaps is by working with every school community to focus on the needs of individual students, rather than simply putting more programs in place or trying to change housing patterns.


I’m glad that Dr. Starr decided to respond to my column. But between that and his comments on Monday night, it doesn’t seem like he’s taking my argument seriously.

While I did go to public school in Montgomery County, I don’t claim to be an expert. Nearly all of the data I mentioned in the column, and wrote about in the preceding blog posts, comes from MCPS. Researchers from the school system, and from the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight, have told me privately that the data is not only correct, but that the conclusions I drew from the data are valid.

On Monday, Dr. Starr told me he would respond to the “distortions” and “mischaracterizations” in my findings. But nowhere did he actually do that. In fact, he mischaracterized the core of my argument. MCPS isn’t getting worse because it has more minorities and poor students, but because disadvantaged students are increasingly concentrated in East County and Upcounty schools. Closing the “achievement gap” becomes a lot harder when some schools bear the burden of giving disadvantaged students the help they need, while schools in the wealthier parts of the county are largely excused from it.

It’s true that as the head of the school system, Dr. Starr doesn’t have any control over land use or housing decisions. But he has to understand that inequities in the school system can create and perpetuate de facto segregation and hurt the county’s economic development, as families opt out of schools, and in turn neighborhoods that they deem undesirable. Schools aren’t the only reason why the median home price in the top-ranked Whitman cluster is as much as four times as high as it is lower-ranked catchments, but it is a major influence.

And if Dr. Starr wants to quote studies saying that “hopefulness” affects student achievement, he can’t simultaneously ignore studies saying that integration does as well. He dismissed one of my recommendations to reduce segregration, making small changes to school boundaries. But there are many other things I propose that MCPS and the county can do to make every school great, and he didn’t address any of them.

As I wrote in my column, Montgomery County has the resources to make every school great. But since I first wrote about de facto segregation in MCPS two months ago, I’ve heard from parents, community leaders, business leaders, school advocates, teachers, and even a couple of principals from all over the county who are frustrated with the current state of affairs, whether it’s at specific schools or in the county as a whole.

They sound ready to engage Dr. Starr in a real conversation about the school system’s future. Hopefully, he’s ready too.