Transition Report Highlights Room for Growth and Continuous Improvement in MCPS

September 19, 2011
The transition team organized by Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr has delivered its report, highlighting strengths it found in the system and areas where additional focus is needed. Dr. Starr plans to use the report, along with the information he obtains from his “Listen and Learn” sessions, to shape his strategy in the coming months to help MCPS reach the next level of success.

“I am grateful for the tremendous work the transition team did over the last three months to provide me with some expert analysis of what we do well in MCPS and, most importantly, what we can do better,”  Dr. Starr said. “It is always helpful to have a fresh, outside take on an organization to better understand what makes it work. MCPS is a system that believes in continuous improvement so it is no surprise to anyone that we know that we have a lot of room for growth. This report confirms that and provides us with some key areas where we need to focus greater attention.”

The 45-page report from the team, led by Dr. Robert Peterkin, Professor Emeritus at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, focuses on four areas: teaching and learning, professional learning, culture and context, and operations. The team included a mix of outside experts and current and former MCPS staff members.  Over the last three months, the team reviewed system data, documents and plans; conducted focus groups with a variety of stakeholders and interviewed numerous community and elected leaders. As the team prepared its recommendations, both near-term and long-term, five broad themes emerged:
·  Differentiation within and among schools, classrooms, and students
·  Communications and relationships with stakeholders
·  Implementation of vision, mission, and policies in practice
·  Design and delivery of professional development initiatives
·  Issues of race and equity

“MCPS is one of the highest performing school systems in the nation and is poised to achieve even greater success for its students under Dr. Starr’s leadership,” said Dr. Peterkin. “Our goal in this report is to provide Dr. Starr with a candid assessment of where the organization needs attention and to offer some recommendations that we believe will help him shape his strategy going forward.”

Below is an excerpt from the Transition Report discussing the five themes identified by the team.

Differentiation within and among schools, classrooms, and students

MCPS has worked to address the inconsistent performance among the district’s schools for more than a decade.  Today MCPS continues to differentiate support and performance expectations between and among schools.  Yet the Transition Team found a stubborn persistence in the variability of achievement levels among schools in Montgomery County.  This variation in performance was further broadened to include a perceived variation in access to needed resources and specialized programs in our conversations with members of the MCPS community. 

In light of this finding, the Transition Team recommends that MCPS continue to recognize the need for differentiation between schools, while also sharpening the focus on needs for differentiation within schools.  MCPS should consider how best to allocate resources and support in accordance with the individual needs of teachers and students at the classroom level.  By examining the instructional core, the relationship between the teacher, the student, and the content, MCPS can most effectively determine which teacher(s) may need coaching or professional development to determine how best to meet a struggling student’s need and discover which students might benefit most from a varied instructional program or from supplemental learning opportunities.  To effectively address the continuing underachievement of certain schools and students, MCPS should differentiate the provision of essential supports and resources in order to meet the particular needs of each student, while continuing to differentiate support to principals and schools. 

Communications and relationships with stakeholders

Internal and external stakeholders have high expectations not only for district performance, but also for transparency and communication of district processes.  It is important that all stakeholders understand decision outcomes, how decisions are made, what processes are used for decision-making, and what opportunities they have to contribute to the decision-making process.  Over the past few years, the district has increased the involvement of community members in the budget process, particularly through the creation of the Budget Review Group.  The district has also increased involvement in the facility planning process through the establishment of boundary advisory committees, roundtable advisory committees, and annual forums.  However, the Transition Team heard from stakeholders across the district that more work needs to be done to increase communication and subsequently build relationships with all parties. 

As a result, the Transition Team recommends that the district seek to strengthen communication to and relationships with internal and external stakeholders in order to build more support for decisions that are made.  The district has the opportunity to strengthen communication internally so that all representative groups, including central office staff, school-based administrators, teachers, support professionals, parents, students and external partners, are invited to participate in the decision-making process.  MCPS should also seek to improve its relationship with external stakeholders, particularly the County Council, through the establishment of ongoing and regular communication streams.  Finally, the sheer size of Montgomery County mandates the implementation of creative ways of gathering and disseminating information.  Dr. Starr has already initiated "Listen and Learn" forums across the district to ensure that all stakeholders are involved in the transition process.  He has also sought to increase communication through the use of Twitter and other social media.  To ensure the continual involvement and representation of school representatives and parents from across the county in decision processes, the Transition Team recommends that forums be held regularly during Dr. Starr’s tenure at locations districtwide and that the district seek to establish communication with all stakeholders through the use of technology and other creative means.

Implementation of vision, mission, and policies in practice

MCPS has demonstrated its desire and ability to do and succeed at many things at once.  The number of policies and frameworks in place to guide the district’s work in a multitude of areas serves as an indication of the number of initiatives that have been implemented in MCPS.  These vision, mission, and policy statements include the School Climate Compact, Organizational Culture of Respect, the Equity Framework, and the Call to Action, to name a few.  Despite the clear articulation of goals communicated through these documents, gaps became apparent when examining the recorded ways of respecting and working with each other and the actual conditions that MCPS stakeholders and employees described as their experience.  Furthermore, the Transition Team was repeatedly informed that the district had so many initiatives under way that some members of the MCPS community were overwhelmed by the totality of the reform process.

The Transition Team recommends that MCPS consider how to effectively align the district’s articulated plan of action, as described in vision and mission documents, and the district’s actual actions as they are implemented in schools and offices across the district.  Additionally, the Transition Team recommends a review and prioritization of the large number of initiatives through which MCPS is currently pursuing reform.  The volume of improvement efforts contributes to a perceived lack of coherence across district initiatives and makes it difficult to discern the impact of many of the district’s ongoing efforts to improve student achievement.  As articulated by stakeholders, the district must “make some choices” and improve its follow-through, or accountability, on district initiatives to ensure that priority efforts are implemented, revised as needed, and ultimately successful.

Design and delivery of professional development initiatives

No topic emerged more frequently in conversations with stakeholders during the Transition Team’s data-gathering process than professional development.  Concerns about accountability for implementing skills and pedagogies learned in professional development, access to professional development for all teachers and support professionals (particularly in regard to technology), and the need for specific professional development by teachers and administrators to foster their own continued growth were all expressed.  Particular anxiety was voiced regarding the district’s proposed plan to move to an online model of professional development to facilitate cost savings.  Furthermore, the bifurcation of the professional development functions of the district for organizational reasons raises additional concerns. 

The Transition Team recommends that MCPS consider reorganizing the design and delivery of professional development as employee and organizational needs are identified and as new skills are required for growth and new leadership.  If the new theory of action of MCPS is to be focused on the improvement of the instructional core, with an underpinning of equity and excellence and the distribution of resources according to student need, the Transition Team recommends that professional development be reorganized and updated to a 21st century focus on ongoing, systemwide professional learning to reflect that purpose.  A districtwide professional learning plan should include a clear vision with intended outcomes for school and district administrators, teachers, and support professionals; a coherent, aligned, and effective plan to meet the needs of MCPS employees as tied to district and school improvement; and a clear system of accountability for implementation, feedback, and revision in an ongoing cycle.  Moreover, this transition is an excellent opportunity for MCPS to establish a program of ongoing professional learning aligned to a model of continuing growth for all MCPS employees and aligned to national standards. 

Issues of race and equity

MCPS has articulated a commitment to equity and excellence.  The district has successfully initiated a conversation on the impact that a child’s race has historically had on his/her access to high-quality educational opportunities and the support needed to achieve academic success, as illustrated by the Equity Framework.  However, as expressed by stakeholders, race, class, language proficiency, and geographic factors continue to affect students’ access to certain programs and parents’ abilities to participate in their children’s education.  Access to special programs and resources across the district concerns both the parents of high-achieving and struggling students, raising the question as to how the equitable allocation of resources is being determined and assessed in Montgomery County Public Schools. 

The Transition Team recommends that MCPS develop an enduring, systemic approach to sustaining the district’s commitment to address issues of race and equity to ensure the academic success of all MCPS students.  In doing so, the district must consider how to maintain a focus on race and equity by embedding it within other initiatives as opposed to isolating this critical topic as a stand-alone project.  The district has already identified instructional practices and observable teacher behaviors that communicate high expectations and support the achievement of all students.  These research-based practices must be used in all classrooms and embedded across curricula.  Finally, the Team recommends an examination of the district’s current practice of allocating resources to students and schools to ensure that funds are equitably distributed to provide all students, in all schools, with the resources necessary to achieve success.

Read the Transition Report

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