If he were a character in a Perry Mason episode, John Q. Porter would be the protagonist. Pacing methodically across his art-deco office, impeccably dressed in pinstripes-spats, even-his department's assistant Diane Watts would shadow behind, scribing ideas that churn from his brain about his latest dilemma.
If he were a character, the audience would know the enigmatic "Q" in his name stands for Quirites, signifying his father's subtle hope that his son's future would make him rise above the rest. (Quirites is Latin, and it refers to a singular citizen of Rome as opposed to a member of the masses.) The audience would also know that after being a lawyer and a business executive, Porter's character shifted his focus from big-time crime to solving problems for the greater public. And while Porter's character would reveal to viewers a penchant for life's finer things, he'd playfully balance his highbrow taste with a love for a surprising establishment (... more on that later).
Writers couldn't make up stuff that good, but if they knew Porter, they wouldn't have to. He really was a lawyer. He really was involved with four of the nation's largest criminal cases. And he's not-so-secretly in love with a popular convenience store that rhymes with "Heaven-Maleven." Down to his stagy-sounding name it's all just a shift of Porter's reality. Lucky for Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md., it's fact-not fiction-that John Q. Porter leads the technology present and future of his district as deputy superintendent for Information and Organizational Systems.
Porter, 53, is one of the only deputy tech superintendents in the country. Six years ago he left successful pre-academe careers in law and information management in the private sector to help MCPS develop and implement innovative tech initiatives that support teaching and learning, and enhance student achievement. "[MCPS] wants to be in a position to target data and individual kids, and target instruction for them," says Porter. But that was a far cry from where the system had been "pre-John Q. Porter," as the years before his tenure are sometimes called. Back then, computers were old, networks were non-existent, and the district's raw data, test scores and curriculum, hibernated so far away in filing cabinets it was rendered practically useless.
MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast knew that to improve student achievement his staff would have to know how students were doing. He hired Porter as chief information officer to get the district on-track. That was six years ago. After four years as CIO and two as deputy superintendent, reporting directly to Weast, Porter has helped revolutionize the system's data-tracking capabilities, largely through a data-management system called the Integrated Quality Management System.
"Historically," says Porter, "schools have not been able to look at data [they] collect and create individual instruction for students." With IQMS, the district has tools that allow data to move from one department or program to another that allows everything from tracking student grades, to learning whether teachers from certain colleges are better equipped to handle the rigors of MCPS.
The transference in work skills between his law and business background and what he does for MCPS schools goes hand-in-hand (see sidebar). Though he manages six departments within the Office of Information and Organizational Systems, most of his work concentrates on using data and technology.
"I'm most proud of our integrated quality management system, and being able to take demographic readings of systems through data and having that ability to take that and drive our curriculum," says Porter. "Second, of our knowledge management system, which [gives] the ability to create professional development for each individual teacher; [we are] able to correlate instruction and see what professional development we can deliver to teachers."
Porter is incredibly straight laced and serious when discussing MCPS, except when sharing a few of his guilty pleasures. And in a strange twist of fate, it's Porter's reality that's the stuff of Perry Mason movies, and not the other way around: Behind the fast thinking and even faster-talking case-solver would be a great leading man who, like Porter, gets the job done.
With your varied background, what do you consider yourself first: a tech guy, a superintendent/educator, a lawyer, or a businessman?
JQP: It's kind of interesting: I have the law degree, but my design was never to be a lawyer but to be a better business owner. I would phrase it more like I'm a Renaissance man. I think I bring skills that touch a lot of areas-a tech savvy to the job-it's just a different perspective, a business perspective. I don't always think business is an elixir for all student systems. But being a lawyer [and] a business leader in the community has made me a more well-rounded deputy superintendent.
What's something people would be surprised to know about you?
JQP: If you met me [thoughtful pause]: I like fine things. I like expensive clothes, expensive cars. I collect pens. I collect Rolex watches. But my favorite place is 7-Eleven.
JQP: No. I prefer 7-Eleven coffee over Starbucks, I love its sandwiches-it has everything.
That (kind of) leads to my next question about free time. Most deputy superintendents don't have any. What do you do if and when you get some?
JQP: I like shopping, for DVDs-I probably have 1,500-2,000 CDs and hundreds of DVDs. I don't have time to watch them, but I buy them. Things I like to do? I like to eat at fine restaurants: I try to find the top 10 in new cities I travel to. And I like to dance. It's the most relaxing thing I get to do."
What's your favorite tech gadget?
JQP: Oh, I have so many. My phone-I have the new Blackberry phone, and all the principals do, too; I like my XM radio. My tablet PC. My car [a black Mercedes Benz S430].
When did you become so interested in technology?
JQP: I've always liked gadgets. But when I was in my last year of law school at Ohio State, we were the pilot for Lexis-Nexis. It was called O-Bar [for "Ohio Bar"]. When I graduated, I was involved with technology, which was then called 'litigation support,' and I worked a lot with the use of document managers and in the very, very early stages of imaging.
Talk about MCPS as you would with a parent new to the system. What's its demographic, and what do you view as its strengths?
JQP: We are about rigor for students, about embracing, and celebrating, diversity. From 2000 to the present, the demographic has changed from a majority district to a minority-majority. There are 130 languages and students from 163 countries. This especially makes us stronger as a district rich in diversity. Even though the district is more diverse than it's ever been, students have scored the highest SATs in the district. We believe we are one of the best school districts in the country because all of our high schools are in the top 3 percent of high schools, according to Newsweek. Montgomery County and Fairfax are the only [districts] in the nation [with that distinction].
How has technology helped MCPS's accountability system?
JQP: It's at the core. If you look at [our] accountability group, what we've done is [create] the Integrated Quality Management System. And it has two components: First is the strategic-our management house, which combines our history, and allows us to pull information from the district. A lot of districts can't pull up employment data, HR data, [or learn] if a teacher has taken three or four courses in our district, and they attend 'X' college, [is there] a difference [in their performance] if they've taken our 'skillful teacher course?' To get the answer, we need to get information about their schooling. That to me is getting knowledge about [how] we can drive knowledge. And that's part of our accountability.
The second component is tactical. In that system, you can find state standings, and see how local standings map to our curriculum. You can see rich resources, demographics. You can also see state assessments, and how they've improved over time. Course information-you can see very quickly. That to me helps accountability: not teaching all kids the same way. In essence, creating individual assessments. We want to be in a position to target data and individual kids, and target instruction for them.
What was MCPS's state, tech-wise, when you became deputy superintendent?
JQP: 'Before John Q. Porter,' MCPS had an 11-year cycle: some schools had equipment up to 11 years old. [The school system] did not have access to the Internet for all students. So we had schools of great disparity: schools in wealthy areas [were] disparate with schools in poorer parts. When I came on, one of the first initiatives was to educate the community on the need to have [a] refreshment cycle, that technology [is] rapidly changing. Now we're on a four-year cycle. Now we have 45,000 computers. ... And the ratio is about 4-1 in schools; in some schools it's 3-2. [And] we have a support staff we didn't have before.
Do most kids have computers at home?
JQP: Yes. We are giving computers in multiple ways to students. Programs out of this office are giving computers free of charge to community groups that support students and families.
Will MCPS move to any one-to-one programs, offering all students and teachers a laptop?
JQP: We're looking at it for some of our magnet middle schools-the aerospace middle school, information technology and arts. The verdict is still out if it enhances students-if the ROI is in performance. It's a political decision, too: it becomes 'who gets [them] first.'
What does MCPS offer for online courses? What do you hope to do in the future?
JQP: We have a lot of rich resources online that supplement instruction delivered in the classroom. We have online courses for algebra, and we're putting online AP-type courses. We also have a partnership with Wireless Generation out of New York: it's [created] a handheld product for reading, for students K-2. It takes text reading assessment and balances learning assessment, so it's like learning on a 3-D level. The program is called mClass Reading 3-D, and it's giving us real-time results for students: As soon as they sync their Palm [after completing certain exercises], we can see how students are doing based on their race, cluster-it helps manage the process for all schools, all parts of instruction.
We also include professional development online systems around teachers. We have a central management system that on a day-to-day basis helps teachers with lesson plans, what they need to cover with students. We invariably use data in a million different ways.
With so much going on, how often do teachers receive tech training?
JQP: We try to move away from calling it "tech training:" Technology is part of everyday life-we say it's like a pencil, you use it every day. [So] it's a whole different idea about how to [train.] Teaching is being done through consulting groups.
We have put $60 million into professional development. We have 22 "technology consultants" and there are three or four consulting principals, and their job is to work with the newer or under-performing principals [on technology issues]. We have about 40 consulting teachers to help newer teachers, or to help teachers who are struggling.
We have so many new things coming out, it's critical that they stay on top. And [they] want to stay on top as quickly as possible. When we deliver curriculum, we don't deliver curriculum in a book. When developing an assessment, we try to get away from paper, pencils and bubble sheets; K-2 teachers use handhelds for assessment from reading. We try to permeate everything we do by using technology.
Talk about No Child Left Behind and its technology requirement. It seems like there is no real guidance on how to measure it. And some say districts are ignoring it while others take it seriously. What is MCPS doing?
JQP: First let me say that yes, we're definitely doing it. I think my elevation to deputy superintendent from CIO, add to that my role as research tester, developer, [and] we're clearly stating technology is a commitment. In terms of NCLB, [the technology requirement] should be there. There should be a stronger commitment.
There's not enough time in the day: Our enemy is time, and technology is the only way [to combat that]. Still, there are people who don't understand the impertinence of technology because they fear it. One of the first things you realize in technology is that technology is change; those who fail in developing of systems don't understand the dynamic of change.
The state is looking to come up with standardized K-8 [technology measurements]; it's in draft level.
What tech mistakes do you see other districts making?
JQP: You have got to have staff that understands [technology]. I'm on a group that advocates for CIOs [in school districts]: There's a level of technology every superintendent needs to know, a basic understanding they should have-some course. I think there are some superintendents who don't understand [the importance of technology]. I think also the level that technology people are in, in some districts, is too low. It should be a cabinet-level.
Weigh in on MySpace. Should it be banned?
JQP: Here's the challenge: They know more than we do.
... It's hard to believe that any student knows more about technology than you.
JQP: Well, they know more than most. We're not going to prevent it [so] we have to adjust to them. They know how to get around and are doing a lot of things we didn't do 10, 20 years ago using technology. We have to go about learning how to make it safe for them. [At Montgomery County] we put filters; we do things locally. We have to figure out how to best maximize how to use the Internet to increase learning.
How do you keep it all together? You've got so much going on at the same time.
JQP: It's a lot going on. I have a superintendent that never lets it stop, and has afforded us the opportunity to be creative, and really be out in the forefront-not just have a data information system for students and staff, but [use data as] 'knowledge management.'
Personally, what's been most rewarding thing about your job?
JQP: To see the growth of our district. In the early years we were pushing the district into using data systems. Now, the system is pushing us. There's a voracious appetite for data, and tremendous satisfaction in seeing the legacy of the district is wanting more and more data ... [and] seeing what you've done has had impact on student performance. And I can be a role model for minority students-for all students-[showing] that you can achieve, and make a difference."
With all this experience, you must be a hot job candidate. Do you ever think of what your next job might be?
JQP: I'm not thinking about it at this point.
Please talk about how the vision and support of Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has helped you and the district reach its goals?
Through the vision and leadership of superintendent Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery County Public Schools has been focused on transforming the school system's ability to deliver a highly rigorous curriculum, have grade level student assessments aligned with state and national standards, provide timely professional development for all staff to ensure effective instructional practices, and increase effective and greater communications with the community and parents. The ongoing improvement efforts have raised student achievement scores to above grade level for all grades and schools in the district. The student achievement gains are especially noteworthy because they provide evidence in support of the superintendent's vision that academic achievement is not limited by family income, race, or ethnicity. The superintendent's reform initiatives have used technology as an accelerator in realizing higher expectations for student and organizational performance. The superintendent strengthened the district's ability to use technology to better inform decision-making and improve student achievement by integrating the organizational development, information technology, management, and accountability units under the Office of Information and Organizational Systems that I lead.
How important is it that the community and the Executive Leadership Team have embraced technology as a catalyst for the district's improvements?
The Executive Leadership Team, with the support of elected officials (members of the Board of Education, County Council and County Executive), parents and the business community have embraced the investments in building the appropriate technology infrastructure and information management solutions for the school system. They understand that these improvements are analogous to the tools used in the private sector, facilitating real-time access to critical information. The knowledge management systems we are implementing in Montgomery County Public Schools provide a coherent approach to information management and data-driven decision making that support teaching and learning and strengthen accountability monitoring for school-based and central office staff. The information technology investments also are helping to equip our students with the 21st century skills they need to be successful and enhance the district's ability to differentiate instruction to meet the individual needs of all its learners.
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing editor.