This article original appeared in Quillette, dated March 17th, 2020.
Montgomery County, Maryland, is one of the most racially diverse counties in the United States. Four different ethnic groups—white, black, Hispanic, and Asian—all comprise at least 15 percent of the population of the county, not to mention a vast mixed-race population as well. It is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation by average household income.
It also has a high “racial achievement gap.” The Stanford Educational Opportunity metric pegs the black/white achievement gap score at 3.09, and the black-Hispanic/white-Asian gap even higher, which means that the average white or Asian eighth-grader in Montgomery County scores more than three grade-levels higher on standardized performance exams than the average black or Hispanic student.
Apparently, by the standards of the Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) system, the racial achievement gap is nothing short of an educational crisis or profligate systemic failure. Current MCPS superintendent Jack R. Smith wrote in the Washington Post, “For 50 years, the achievement gap in Montgomery County has grown in the shadows while many of our county’s schools and students garnered well-deserved praise and earned awards… This disparity in academic outcomes is a crisis in our community that must be addressed.”
In 2015, MCPS embarked on a large-scale “equity and excellence” initiative sparked by the findings of a large racial achievement gap in the county. They transformed their entire choice and magnet school programs to give racial preferences to blacks and Hispanics. They established a “Racial Equity and Social Justice Program,” hired extra staff to promote MCPS equity initiatives, and invested huge sums of money in things like implicit bias training. They have even required seemingly irrelevant departments like the MCPS Facilities Management Department to write and sign equity statements. All in all, they have spent countless hours of energy—and more than $120 million of federal government money—on these achievement gap efforts since 2015.
The idea of closing the racial achievement gap has been a common theme in public school boards across America for the past 40 years. But have these efforts been successful? A new report by the Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight reveals that they have not. It found that MCPS’s initiatives are doing little to stem the tide of the increasing racial achievement gap in the county. Says the December 2019 report: “a review of the data evidences a wide performance gap that has not diminished by race or ethnicity among a majority of the metrics reviewed.” This report comes in spite of all of these efforts to fix this gap.
But what if these efforts seem fruitless because these school boards are focusing on narrow, misleading measurements of success instead of the broader picture? What if closing the “racial achievement gap” is not a useful measure of a school district’s success or failure, and of the success of low-income blacks and Hispanics in particular? As it turns out, the racial achievement gap is a heavily flawed metric, and often tells a distorted story of a county’s truly educational progress, which is then co-opted for political ends.
Firstly, a high racial achievement gap masks the stories of good public school stewardship, which tends to help all races but doesn’t necessarily “close” the gap.
While it is true that MCPS has a high racial achievement gap, it is also true that the achievement of the black population is actually higher than the national average. Black students in MCPS score roughly 0.5 grade levels below the national average for all races, which is still high for the black population. The fact that the black population is doing better than average suggests MCPS had been doing something right, not wrong.
Compare MCPS’s record of achievement and public school growth with that of neighboring Prince George County, MD. Although Prince George, a primarily black county, only has a black/white achievement gap score of 2.06 compared to 3.09 for MCPS, its black students score 1.1 grade levels below the all-race national average—which is worse than MCPS. If you were a black parent deciding where to send your child, where would you pick? The system with the lower achievement gap—or the system with better black results? Clearly the latter.
Secondly, racial achievement gap statistics are heavily skewed by metrics that should not be considered when thoroughly evaluating the performance of a school district. For example, if a school system is trying to improve results for Hispanic citizens, and receives an influx of low-income, low-achieving Hispanic immigrants who have not been through the system, then the entire Hispanic achievement score will be dragged down by those who have not yet been fully assimilated into the school system.
This is particularly critical in Montgomery County, where two groups have been growing faster than the rest. The county population of Asians has nearly doubled in size since 1990, while Hispanics have nearly tripled in size since 1990. Nationally, Asian immigrants have a much higher educational level on average, which is reflected in their kids’ achievement; the reverse is the case for Hispanics. If local educational correlates to race reproduce this pattern, the result of that immigration would be a naturally increasing racial achievement gap—but nothing which merits criticism of the school system per se.
As it turns out, focusing too heavily on closing the racial achievement gap to the exclusion of other priorities can be counterproductive to a school system’s mission and purpose, which is to educate all its students. It leads to consequences that burden high achievers and remove the attractive qualities of a school system that have led high achieving parents to invest in the public school system in the first place.
MCPS’s efforts to restructure the Gifted and Talented programs in the county, for instance, have encountered vocal resistance from local parents. In an effort to (symbolically, for the most part) curb the racial achievement gap, they made the selection process less transparent and used racial proxy factors to determine entry into the programs. Sure, lowering top-end achievement would close the racial achievement gap, but under no scenario could clamping down on excellence possibly benefit low-achievers.
The BOE recently announced that it will redistrict school boundaries based on racial and ethnic diversity standards. MCPS insists on doing this, again, in the name of closing the racial achievement gap. But, in so doing, they have driven away many formerly trusting parents, who contributed tax money to fund the public school system. Many parents move their families into neighborhoods for the schools, and when those expectations are not met, they lose trust in the governance of their public institutions. Said one concerned parent at a contentious MCPS School Board meeting: “Many families buy homes based on the current school districts and making changes will have a direct impact not only on the home values, but also the educational plans they have created for their children’s futures.”
All of these reforms, made in the name of improving “racial equity,” and directly linked to closing the racial achievement gap, have instead stoked anger within the county community and failed to improve the outcomes of the lowest performing students in the school system. This tends to happen when school boards define goals based on terms like “race” and “gap,” which inherently split and divide communities for political ends.
What should be done instead is to focus on managing the school’s resources in a way that will actually improve the outcomes of these students’ lives. This doesn’t mean undermining those students who are already successful in an attempt to flatten the racial achievement gap and make administrators feel better about themselves. Montgomery County offers us an important lesson in the fallacy of simple “tell-all” statistics. The reality, as usual, is complicated and the solutions are rarely simple.