Fairfax vs Montgomery County
So you have kids, you’re moving to the DC Area and you want to know if Virginia or Maryland has better schools? I did a deep dive into each of the school districts. You can find a couple Montgomery County school videos, Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria videos on my channel.
I’m going to zero in on the two most popular school districts – Montgomery County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia. These are often the two districts that go head-to-head when people consider where to move in the area. It should be noted though that suburban DC school districts also include Arlington, the City of Alexandria and Falls Church City which is a small district. I have videos on Arlington and Alexandria so be sure to check those out as well.
One of the largest districts in the country, Fairfax County has 199 schools. Students can take International Baccalaureate (IB) or AP classes in high school, but that’s not all. There are magnet schools, STEM schools and Academies that offer a school within a school. The #1 High School in the country is also in Fairfax County – Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. This is a 4 year magnet school program created in 1985 to improve education in science, math and technology and is very well regarded.
Montgomery County’s 211 schools offer both local “by-right” schools as well as regional and countywide programs. Students can enroll in language immersion programs for French, Spanish and Chinese. There are magnet middle schools which offer digital design, performing arts and aerospace technology. At the high school level, the choices blow wide open. There are IB Programs offered at many high schools and AP Courses as well. Many high schools also offer Career related programs. You don’t have to be in boundary for these programs. If it’s not offered at your in boundary high school but it is in a high school nearby, you can likely apply.
If you think politics doesn’t have any influence in schools, think again. As someone who hates politics, I never would have believed that politics infiltrates the schools – but they do. When school boards lean one way or the other, policies follow suit.
Generally, people say Montgomery County is more liberal.
Generally, people would not have said Fairfax County is as liberal as Montgomery County, but it has rapidly joined the party. Is this good or bad? It depends what you want for your child and their education.
Academics & Curriculum
In Fairfax County, the school board has a lot of input on the curriculum. Fairfax County is very transparent about their curriculum. The instruction is guided by the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) which can be found on the Virginia Department of Education’s website. What does that mean? This is not Common Core.
Fairfax County has a separate Advanced Academics Program. It requires paperwork, parental sign off and school review and approval. It’s not as straightforward as there are various levels to AAP. Levels 2 & 3 are at the school level, Level 4 requires testing, review and approval. And you may not be at your in-boundary school if they don’t offer Level 4 of academics.
Equitable outcomes is the latest to come from Fairfax County as of October 2023. We won’t just see this in Fairfax though.
Montgomery County was subject of the infamous 2018 Johns Hopkins audit where Hopkins found that English and Math curricula were unsatisfactory. Fewer than 1/3 of the students understood math for their grade level and fewer than 1/4th understood English Language Arts. They revamped the curriculum but it still makes use of lots of screens and programs and doesn’t appear to offer textbooks.
Montgomery County has focused on differential instruction in the classroom. But they also have moved toward some subjects being “honors for all” or implementing the 50% rule, also known as equity based grading. This is where a zero isn’t a zero, it’s a 50%. It’s still a failing grade, but the rationale was to give students who made an honest attempt but failed a boost so it wasn’t so hard to recover.
For example, if you couldn’t turn in an assignment and received a zero and then turned in another and received a 100%, you still failed. But if you average a 50% and 100%, that’s a solid C at 75%. In what normal, adult professional world can you do nothing but still get half the credit, half the promotion or half the paycheck? This is the argument against this sort of policy.
Same with Honors for all – They created this base level “honors” designation in some subjects to tinker with metrics. If you have higher percentages in honors classes, it can’t be inequitable can it?
If Montgomery County Public Schools were invited to Festivus, Frank Costanza would scream, “I got a lot of problems with you people!” It used to be one of the best school districts, but the discipline problems plaguing much of the country’s schools is also rampant in Montgomery County.
Current Superintendent Monifa McKnight started as an interim position in June 2021 and was appointed to a 4 year term in February, 2022. One of her first letters to the school community stated, “One of my top three priorities is rebuilding community trust in MCPS… I am committed to transparency and responsiveness as we work to address our challenges and celebrate our many strengths.”
School Safety, Communication, Transparency, Increase Teacher Autonomy, Improve Special Education Services, Hire More Teachers, Reduce Class Sizes – these are currently the major issues facing Montgomery County Public Schools.
There’s a Central Office for Montgomery County where all the new programs originate. The ideas coming from here include getting rid of the differentiated classrooms or “tracking.”
At the Festivus table, Fairfax County Schools would be seated next to MoCo, because over in Fairfax the story is somewhat the same. The Superintendent, Michelle Reid, is relatively new. She’s held her position just over a year and has been the maker of such popular decisions like spending $455,000 on an Equity Consultant who worked for 9 months. The result of that consultant was that FCPS needs to ensure “equitable outcomes.”
Both districts are implementing some form of “Restorative Justice.”
Both districts have relatively new Superintendents who have already jettisoned some of their original staff.
Which is better, Montgomery County Schools or Fairfax County Schools?
Shockingly right now, they are more alike than they have ever been. Other than the different curriculum (Virginia Standards of Learning vs. Montgomery County’s piecemeal Common Core) they are both headed in the same direction with restorative justice, equal outcomes, honors for all.
That said, the only people who have really strong opinions about Maryland vs Virginia are the natives. Find the house and neighborhood that makes sense for your family with an eye on the schools too, and no matter what side of the bridge you land on, you will be fine!