In a recent blog post, Superintendent Dr. Terry Alban wrote that the school system “evolved” amid the pandemic to “implement a virtual instructional program to meet the needs of students.” Teaching online is the largest change our schools have made in recent memory, but if we’re being honest, FCPS has actually made few improvements during Dr. Alban’s tenure, and some areas are actually getting worse.
Let’s start with academics. State testing results won’t be published for the 2019-2020 school year due to the pandemic. If these scores had improved, you can bet educators would be clamoring to publish them, so it’s likely scores declined substantially. Even prior to COVID, only about half of FCPS students were deemed proficient in math in grades 3-5, and less than half in grades 6-8. Our Algebra I scores have declined for the past three years and are now under 50 percent passing.
Is it unreasonable to expect our schools to succeed in teaching the vast majority of our students basic math, algebra and English? Our results have been about the same regardless of which test the state uses, so we can’t blame the tests. Quite a few Frederick County high school graduates require remedial classes. According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, in 2018, 33.5 percent of our county’s high school graduates attending in-state schools required remediation, and 49.1 percent of those attending Frederick Community College did.
Despite the school system’s multi-year, well-intended initiatives intended to promote equity and remove the unconscious bias believed to be reducing minority student achievement, African-American and Hispanic students’ scores remain substantially lower than other ethnicities in every subject. Just to cite one example, depending on the year, 70-75 percent of African-American and Hispanic students failed the Algebra I state test. Surely, we can do better.
And then there’s the cost. Since 2011, when Dr. Alban became superintendent, the budget rose from $506.8 million to $637.1 million, an increase of $130.3 million, or 25.7 percent. We now spend $14,915 per student, or $2,200 more. When Dr. Linda Burgee became superintendent in 2005, the budget was $376.4 million, or $9,596 per student. Despite 15 years of budget increases totaling $260.6 million or $5,318 more per student (a 55 percent increase in raw per pupil dollars) our equity results are as disappointing as when Dr. Burgee was superintendent.
Dr. Alban and Dr. Burgee aren’t unique in struggling to make progress. The same could be said of almost every superintendent in the country. In a recent essay entitled “What if everything we believe about education is a lie?” Robert Pondiscio pointed out that the idea behind public education shared by people of all political stripes — that we’ll one day be able to achieve equal outcomes — is likely wrong.
He cited Fredrik deBoer, a Marxist, who said the left wrongly believes that social programs and a few alterations to schools will lead to equality, and the right wrongly believes that school choice will, but neither approach works at scale. Pondiscio rightly concludes that we are more likely to find common ground not in education as a vehicle for improving equality but in preparation for citizenship. Placing equality in terms of “college and career readiness” at the center of education is like making winning in sports the focus instead of developing athletes’ character. Equal outcomes in athletics or academics will never be achieved, but nearly everyone can develop the traits needed to participate in and sustain our democracy.
Don’t get me wrong, outcomes matter, and the achievement gap in Frederick County is disappointing and concerning. While it’s unlikely that FCPS can fully achieve the goals of its equity policy, we should at least expect progress. Unfortunately, after two years of the LYNX program at Frederick High School that Dr. Alban started in 2017, the Algebra I passing rate sunk to 15.3 percent, less than half the 34.7 percent passing rate the year the program started. Decades of research show that the more equity-focused curricula and initiatives like those FCPS has pursued ironically often make both equity and overall outcomes worse.
Our Board of Education needs to acknowledge that the school system’s sincere and heartfelt efforts have had little success and high costs. My proposed New Year’s resolution for the board is that it works with Dr. Alban to choose a more fruitful and cost effective course of action that makes citizenship and evidence-based instruction the core of our improvement efforts, or, by this year’s end, hire a new superintendent who will.
Tom Neumark was the founding president of the Frederick Classical Charter School and has been involved in education reform for more than 20 years. In 2019, he was selected as a national finalist in the Moonshot For Kids project for his proposal to improve reading instruction.