Montgomery rightfully wary of ‘Race to the Top’

Last week, the Maryland State Department of Education released a draft copy of the state's Race to the Top application, and we're pleased to see that Maryland is embracing college-and-career-ready standards, meaningful teacher evaluations and the strategic use of robust data.

Those are strategies that work. We know this because Montgomery County Public Schools have been implementing these strategies — and many more — for the past decade.


MCPS has a comprehensive school reform plan that is working and is mirrored in the right-minded principles promoted by President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan as part of the Race to the Top competition. This isn't educational theory; this is real reform, with real results.

When the application was released, the Montgomery school system was immediately chided in a Baltimore Sun editorial for not being willing to blindly sign on to the state's plan before having a chance to review it. While we want all Maryland children to be successful, our top priority is the students of Montgomery County. Our citizens foot more than 70 percent of the bill for education in our county and provide our staff and students with the resources and tools they need to be successful. We owe them a careful, thorough review of the Race to the Top application so we can make an informed decision about whether to participate.


Since the beginning of the process, we have offered our help and support to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, and the offer still stands. But at this point, MCPS must be very careful about signing on to a plan that might dilute the successful strategies that we have so carefully implemented during the past decade.

We already have clear benchmarks our students must achieve in order to show they are ready for the rigors of college and the workplace. We measure student progress not only using state assessments but also against national tests such as the TerraNova 2; AP and IB exams; and the SAT and ACT. While we are pleased the state is adopting a new focus on higher expectations, that hasn't always been the case, as evidenced by its dedication to the deeply flawed HSAs and other exams. We have repeatedly made the case that these assessments move our state and our students away from the goal of being college ready.

For several years, MCPS has been working closely with our employee associations to create a meaningful evaluation system. In the last 10 years, our Peer Assistance Review program — administered in partnership with our unions — has removed about 400 under-performing teachers from the classroom. There are few, if any, other districts that can make such a claim.

We have also spent considerable time building a robust data system that provides us with information that can be used to individualize instruction, measure success and evaluate programs. This information is readily available to our staff members so they have the data they need at their fingertips.

Most importantly, we are getting results. In a relatively short amount of time, all groups students have made meaningful progress in all areas. For instance, since 1999, we have more than tripled the percentage of African-American graduates who have taken an AP class and more than doubled the percentage who have successfully passed an AP exam. It is this type of achievement that led to our school system being the first Maryland or Washington-area district to be named a finalist for the Broad Prize, the largest, most prestigious education award in the country.

So, I think it is understandable that we are very protective of the reforms that have gotten us to this place. While at first glance, Maryland's application contains many elements that are consistent with our reform efforts, it's not clear if the plan goes far enough to assure college- and work-readiness for all students. We are not interested in racing to the middle.

We are also not interested in simply racing after money: The state estimates MCPS would receive about $12 million if Maryland is awarded a Race to the Top grant. That's .5 percent of our budget, hardly worth unraveling years of successful reforms.

However, we are committed to being a good partner with state officials, and we congratulate them for taking this step. We look forward to working with them and the other districts in Maryland on a reform effort that will serve all students, including the 142,000 in Montgomery County.


Jerry D. Weast has been superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools since 1999.