A Legacy of Systemic Change
Jerry Weast is the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, the largest and most diverse school system in Maryland and the 16th largest district in the nation. For the past 12 years, Weast has navigated the district through a comprehensive school reform effort that has improved student achievement and narrowed racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. The district's 25 high schools are all in the top 3 percent in the country, according to Newsweek.
In November, MCPS received the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the highest Presidential honor a school district can receive for performance excellence. Weast has served as superintendent for 35 years, overseeing eight school districts in five states. He has been in public education since 1969 and also has been a professor and instructor at several universities.
DA: Over the last eleven years as superintendent, you have become known for your whole district transformation of the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, included raising academic standards and narrowing the achievement gap for over 145,000 students. How were you able to accomplish this?
Weast: In America, our blessing is diversity. And we have children here in our county from 164 countries, who speak 123 different languages. The largest group that we have is only 35 percent, and that's our Caucasian group.
The question becomes not blaming or pointing out those differences but saying, "Under what conditions can we get these children college-and-career ready?" What we found was the key to helping the child was supporting the people who work with the children—giving parents clarity about what children ought to know and be able to do and how to check for that. And that's why we developed a value chain that keeps track of our kids all the way through college, beginning in preschool.
You do that best when you get the child engaged and the teacher engaged. When you open up school the first day and see the kindergartners come in, they've got a twinkle in their eyes and they think they all can be President of the United States or do anything. And when you open the year and you visit with all those new, young teachers, they have a twinkle in their eye and believe they are going to change the world.
Organizationally, you have to channel that energy in such a way that it uplifts people. And so organizations that involve their employees build a great deal of trust. That trust is translated into compassion. The compassion is understanding the difficulties between the jobs. And that's why we have differentiated staffing, differentiated kinds of funding, differentiated kinds of training—because that shows that we do understand.
DA: The district's gains in student achievement, including having the highest graduation rates of any large district in the nation, provide evidence in support of your vision that academic achievement is not limited by family income, race, or ethnicity. What have you done to make the difference?
Weast: Everybody who has a yard understands that there may be areas of the yard that don't grow green grass as well. And so if you get areas that aren't growing as well, or where it doesn't look as pretty, you try to green those areas, and you don't take that away from the other areas. That's where we got the idea of Raise the Bar and Close the Gap in 1999. Our original idea was a call to action. Part of our district was doing very well, and part of it wasn't doing as well, and the part that wasn't doing as well tended to be heavily populated with children of color, children who were affected by moving around, and children who were affected by poverty.
We did not say those were bad things; rather, we believed those were conditions that we could create remedies for that would help those children grow at the same rate, or even at a more accelerated rate, so our grass would be green all over the district. And that's what educators have to do. They've got to look at where they're having their problems and then do like you do with a lawn. That's what we did, and it worked.
DA: How has the repositioning of resources to where they are needed most impacted test scores across the district?
Weast: We have 12 years of data to show that we have not only raised the bar, because we set the highest SAT scores in the history of the district this year, but we have done that in spite of more poverty, more diversity, more mobility, more growth.
For example, we went up over 57 percent in the number of kids on free lunch, doubled the number of kids that don't speak English, and increased the system by more than 15,000 students. And all the time that we've done those things, we've set higher scores every year. Last year we had our highest SAT scores, highest ACT scores, and had the most Advanced Placement Exam scores of 3 or above. In addition, our students took nearly 30,000 Advanced Placement tests, which is triple what we were doing in 1999.
There is evidence all the way up and down the line. Of our kindergartners, 90 percent are ready, reading on the running record at a level 6 or greater, which on our trajectory, means they are on track for college readiness. Our 25 high schools are in the top 3 percent in the country, according to Newsweek. And no district has more schools in the top 100 than we do. And these are large, very diverse, comprehensive high schools with 1,800 to 2,000 students, not small or magnet schools.
We've been visited by the last three presidents. President Obama asked a group of children who were highly impacted by poverty if they wanted to go to college when they got out of school. All of them automatically raised their hands and yelled out that they did.
DA: MCPS adopted a value chain approach to the K12 continuum to provide a logical framework for strategic choices.
Weast: One of the things we discovered along our way is that many of the textbooks, supplies and materials were not designed to work with each other and they don't create a coherent pathway. The writing program and the reading program and the science program could actually be good programs by themselves, but if you put them all together, they're not coherent. And they're using multiple principles of pedagogy. So we had to fix all of those structural kinds of things.
We also found that we had to offer a lot more support to our teachers and the leaders within the building. We developed programs for how to select leaders within the school system and give them the proper support and the proper training, and we developed a four-year program of training for our leadership and a two-year follow-on training.
For our teachers, we found different ways to select them, put them in a pool, distribute the pool to the children whose schools were most impacted first, meaning the schools with high numbers of economically disadvantaged children, and also give them support in the buildings.
We created the position of staff developer — coach, if you will — whose job was to help teachers within a given building so they had somebody to turn to and say, "I don't know," and there would be no repercussions.
They had a better-trained principal who was trained to be an educational leader. We had a common language and a common database that we used throughout the entire district. We had absolute things that predicted vertically how a child would do and be prepared not only to graduate, but to go to college and get through college.
We also created different ways of scheduling, with a scheduling university for all of our principals in which they learn how to schedule differently so teams of teachers will have time to talk to each other, because we found that our employees felt isolated. They didn't have enough chance to interact with each other and teachers are the best teachers of other teachers.
DA: With awareness of teacher quality on the rise, and the bar set as high as it is at MCPS, how do administrators handle teachers who do not make the grade even with extensive support?
Weast: Even after we scheduled differently and put in place the embedded staff developers, we found that we needed to help some employees either improve or find another profession. Together with the unions we created consulting teacher positions.
We went at it by not trying to get people or put people down, but to find out what we could do to support them, help them get more engaged, and help them gain a better understanding about teaching and learning. And if they weren't successful, we involved the staff developer, the consulting teacher and the principal.
If that was not successful, then they would go in front of a peer review and assistant panel consisting of eight principals and eight teachers. The teacher would either be given more targeted support or a choice to exit the classroom.
That's how we were able to exit nearly 500 people over the last several years, probably more people than exit many other large systems in America, without the acrimony that usually goes with the exit—and with the support of our teachers' unions.
DA: Your reform initiatives are well known for using technology as an accelerator in realizing high expectations for student and organizational performance. How have these systems been a game changer for the district?
Weast: In order to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish, and squeeze it within the six-hour-day, 184-day year that we have, we had to have a tremendous database. We looked at databases throughout the country, including the Walmart database. Walmart is able to run multiple stores in multiple countries and be able to tell you what is on each shelf and how the turnover is. We didn't have that type of a data system. We had a lot of stand-alone data systems, so we had to build one that had an interface with the others and that would give us a relational database we could use to keep track of it all, right down to the child—by name, by grade, by everything—because children move around.
Once our students hit college we needed a way to measure how they were doing, and if they graduated within a six-year period. We were able to lay down what we call the "Seven Keys"—targets that children needed to strive to hit to stay right on the pathway all the way through college— because we had data on 33,000 kids who went through college, including what academic classes they took and how they did.
DA: Where did your vision and passion for education originate?
Weast: In the 1930s, my mother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Her school bell now sits on my desk. My mother not had only to teach the music and the physical education, but to stoke the fire in the stove. And she had to adapt her different strategies for teaching to multiple age groups.
We've got 145,000 children, but the issues are the same: Are we organized to make all children thriving citizens? Can we keep them engaged where they really become learners and want to continue their learning? Can we do that at a level that prepares them for college and university training? Our country needs that.
DA: Any regrets?
Weast: My one regret after 35 years is that I wish I had known this stuff in my first 20. Nobody teaches you that it's about engagement and structure. In 35 years, I've been through lots of different training and lots of different things. What I've learned in the last 15 years is that you really have to have the people and their energy to execute any plan. A plan is nice, but if you can't get your people engaged, then it will not be successful.
DA: As you move closer to your retirement, what do you see in the future?
Weast: I hope to continue to help in any way that I can in education. And I hope to be able to help in the area of leadership, especially among systems that are changing in a rapid fashion, in demographics, levels of poverty, or population size.
DA: My last question.
Weast: You can ask me anything.
DA: With all the talk of the movie Waiting for Superman, are you who we've been waiting for?
Weast: I'm not Superman. I'm a teacher on special assignment.