ROCKVILLE – A consultant hired by Montgomery County Public Schools found that schools with elevated levels of poverty had fewer high-quality teachers despite spending more money per student than schools with low levels of poverty.
In a presentation in front of the Montgomery County Board of Education on “resource allocations analysis” June 11, the consultant – Education Resource Strategies Inc. (ERS) explained aspects of that equity gap.
During the presentation, ERS partner Johnathan Travers discussed teacher quality as well as “instructional time and attention,” both of which, he said, can be used to measure equity.
“What does access to high-teaching quality look like now, across the system?” asked Travers. “There are a lot of ways of being able to look at and measure this.”
MCPS hired Education Resource Strategies, Inc. to examine spending per student in all schools, which will be required next fiscal year under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This act replaced the No Child Left Behind Act a few years ago.
“In accordance with the new regulations set forth in the Every Student Succeeds Act, school districts will be required to publish per-pupil spending by individual schools,” according to the request for proposal released in June 2018. “MCPS must prepare for the technical changes needed to report spending by individual schools.”
In the fall, per-pupil spending in schools will become public.
MCPS also wants to be ready to speak with employees, students, parents and “other stakeholders” about the data on money spent per student, according to the request for proposal. MCPS paid ERS $310,000 for a one-year contract, according to MCPS contract awards and the request for proposal for the contract.
One way ERS measured teacher quality was the number of years they had been teaching, said Travers.
High-need schools, a term used in ESSA, may have larger staff compared to enrollment, and greater budgets per student. However, students in schools that were not high-need schools tended to have better experiences as measured by the number of quality teachers by which each student is taught.
Schools with more students qualifying for Free and Reduced-Price Meals (FARMs) were more likely to have teachers who had been teaching three years or less, which suggests lower quality, said Travers.
“Research shows that (…) generally teachers with less than three years of experience are less effective than those with more experience,” according to Travers’ presentation. “For this reason, we define ‘novice teachers’ as those with fewer than three years of experience in MCPS, and use novice teachers as a proxy for developing teachers.”
The consultants concluded that schools with little to no poverty were more likely to have teachers who were experienced and therefore, defined as high-quality. Some board members challenged that way of measuring teacher quality and said they knew from number of years working for MCPS that experience does not imply a great teacher.
Another indicator of quality teachers, according to ERS, was whether they held leadership positions, as MCPS tends to recruit high-quality teachers for those positions. Those teachers are paid more than non-leadership, position-holding teachers. Students at schools with lower-poverty levels were more likely to have teachers in leadership positions such as resource teachers – those who oversee academic departments within the school, for example – than their peers at high-poverty schools.
Even if one measured teacher quality in a different way from teacher experience, there was an equity gap in terms of how much exposure students had to quality teachers.
“(There are) lots of different ways of measuring teaching quality…” Travers said. But “sort of no matter which way we cut it, we saw this differential access,” he added.
In addition to teacher quality, Travers presented to the board another measure of equity called “instructional time and attention.”
Travers said that equity issues of teacher quality and instructional time and attention varied in degree between elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.
Schools with student populations experiencing high enough levels of poverty receive money from the federal government under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which has been modified by ESSA, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
According to MCPS data, class size for a core class in a Title 1 elementary school averages 18 students, while a core class in a non-Title 1 school is about 22 students. MCPS has 23 Title I schools, all of which are elementary schools.
Core classes do not mean all students may attend.
Smaller class sizes might not automatically put children at an advantage over their peers with normal class sizes, Travers said. Summarizing a presentation that he previously gave to the board this year, he said students who attended schools with additional staff still performed worse, as shown by scores on the required Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests.
In high-need elementary schools, there is “more spending and more staffing…but we’re seeing disparate outcomes (in student achievement),” Travers said.
Boardmember Brenda Wolff (District 5) asked MCPS staff if they were surprised by ERS’ findings as reported in the presentation. She said she was not surprised by the finding and Board President Shebra Evans said she agreed.
“I don’t think we were surprised,” Evans said.
“I think, Ms. Wolff, your question about being surprised was – is – a critical one,” Chief Financial Officer Nikki Diamond said. “(We were) surprised maybe not in terms of the ‘what’ but ‘how much’ and the aspects around the differences.”
Several board members told Travers and MCPS staff during the meeting that they were eager to start planning steps to reduce the gap in equity.
MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith told them that he wanted everybody to take things slowly and understand what the problems were, and how they vary compared with those of other school systems, and between schools within the county. Fixing equity problems will take more time than quickly making a change, he added.
“If it (solving equity issues) were easy, somebody would have already done it,” said Smith.
Travers said that his presentation to the board included a breakdown and analysis of equity problems, but did not include solutions; his company was not hired to give solutions.
Diamond said work by ERS was “part one” of what MCPS was doing, and considering solutions will come in a later part.
Some research of school systems elsewhere in the United States has shown that smaller class sizes helped student performance in certain schools, but only up to third grade. After grade three, the effects were slim to negligible.
“Focus schools have lower core-class sizes than non-focus schools, by three to four students on average,” according to Travers’ presentation. Core classes may include reading and language arts and mathematics.
He did not explain what a focus school was.
Self-identified parents of MCPS students testified prior to the ERS presentation during public comments, and gave various reactions to the findings.
Byron Johns, chairperson of the education committee and parents council of the Montgomery County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he found ERS’s findings informative.
“The deeper analysis of ‘How Much and How Well’ MCPS utilizes its resources compared to similar districts, between schools and within MCPS schools, and how that impacts the educational experiences of black, brown, and economically disadvantaged students has begun to unmask issues (…),” said Johns.