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Volume 27, Number 5
September/October 2011

Leading a System Where Everyone Gains

An Interview with Jerry Weast


Closing racial and ethnic achievement gaps has proven intractable for school leaders across the nation. But Jerry Weast, 63, superintendent of the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools since 1999, developed a culture of success in a district where 67 percent of its enrollment are students of color. Education Week reported in June that its high school graduation rate—86 percent—was the highest among the nation’s 50 largest districts for the third straight year.

Harvard Education Letter contributor David McKay Wilson caught up with Weast over the summer as he packed up in preparation for retirement, capping 42 years in public education, including 35 years as a school superintendent in Kansas, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Maryland.

You were just 28 when you were first hired as a superintendent. Do you miss the classroom?
My mother was a teacher, and teaching came naturally to me. As a superintendent, I’ve viewed myself as a teacher on special assignment. So my classroom has changed. It got bigger, and I had to adopt the same philosophy with teachers as I had in the classroom. If I taught it and they didn’t get it, I probably hadn’t taught it well.

How would you describe your approach to education?

Children need to be both prepared and inspired. And that is done within a school system, with a team that has its own culture, and is organized to reach a goal. Our goal is college- and career-readiness for every student.

You run a countywide district in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that serves one million residents. What’s the advantage of a large regional system?
When you are trying to help children, you have to deal with time, which has mostly remained constant, so you have to increase efficiency. There’s also variability, which has the potential to increase with more subunits. With one district, you can build a systemic approach, which gives you advantages addressing student mobility issues and in how you deploy resources. Our district has one goal: making our students college- and career-ready, and we have multiple choices to achieve that outcome. It saves money on administration, provides better supports for teachers, and provides more options for parents and students.

What’s the best use of your time?
I like to spend my day solving teacher problems. If we can solve their problems, we can generally solve student problems. Both students and teachers have the same problem: engagement and time. So we encouraged collaboration and structuring the day so they are less isolated, and not chasing too many things in too short a time.

When you arrived in Montgomery County, it was described as two systems in one—one largely white and affluent and a second that was primarily minority and low-income. How did you create one system?
A challenge for all leaders is to properly describe the problem before you set out to find a solution, and to describe it in a way that causes people to want to do something about it. In Montgomery County, we did a visualization of the problem, which we channeled into getting people to act. We made it an economic issue, by showing the differential in housing values and economic growth, and overlaid that on a map of elementary attendance zones. We used the colors of green and red, with red representing the low-income areas. We asked: What would you do if this was your front yard and the grass wasn’t growing? How would you green the red area? People said you had to fertilize and water it. They said that they’d want the red turned green but didn’t want to hurt the green areas.

So greening the red areas translated into providing differential resources for low-income schools?
It was easy for people to make the leap. They realized you had to do differentiated kinds of things so you could green the red area. We avoided the education jargon and moralistic tones and put the issue in a way that people understood, which caused them to want to do something about it and not fight it. The visualization showed that there were two systems here and made it okay to tell the truth. Honesty brought trust. We caused people to think about the issues in a new way—we were going to keep the green areas green and wanted to green the red. That worked psychologically and gave them permission to do a differentiated approach for a single outcome of college- and career-readiness for all our children.

You confronted race head on.
We put race right on the table. It was a differentiator, and we actually proved it statistically. We recognized that racism and institutional racism are two different things. If you recognize differential outcomes and don’t do anything about them, then you institutionalize that racism, which is a very strong concept to deal with.

Your measurable goals span kindergarten through high school. How does that work?
We developed a system of keys that had a 70 percent or greater correlation with success in the classroom. We started in kindergarten and found that reading on Level 6 on Running Record, an assessment in Reading Recovery, had a 70 percent correlation with how students would do in grade 2 on the national TerraNova test. How well you did on that test predicted how you did in our problem-solving grade 5 math curriculum. That predicted success in our middle school math, which leads to algebra in grade 8. And that predicted how students did in high school. If you took Advanced Placement and scored a 3 or better in high school, that correlated with getting out of college within six years. We didn’t limit the curriculum or make it teacher-proof. We actually broadened it and now have 36 subjects with Advanced Placement tests. You need rigor—be it in music, art, math, or English.

Your district has reached out to the mothers of newborns to get them on the right track with their kids. How has that helped?
We had retired teachers put together packets for the mothers, to help them understand what their child had to know by preschool, how to support their child, and where to go for help. We opened our training program for teachers at private preschools, so they understood our expectations.

You also track your students as they go through college. Why focus beyond grade 12?
How else are you going to prove the juice is worth the squeeze? Nobody believes you. We live in a country full of doubters. Our goal is to build trust and learn from upstream what we are doing wrong so we can do better. We’ve learned from college graduates that our focus on rigor in high school works, and that becomes believable to parents because the kids have graduated from college.

Not all high schools in your district made the same significant gains in increasing enrollment of nonwhite and low-income students in honors and AP classes or in meeting the college- and work-readiness goals.
You’ll always have variability, so you are always attacking the variability with different resources to make work what you want to happen. Everybody gains. The green grass got greener and the red grass got green. That’s why we didn’t have any kickback for investing in the red areas.
Montgomery County has encountered serious budget shortfalls with reduced revenues. How did you continue to improve under those conditions?
In the last three years, we set records with college scholarships, and our students did quite well on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests as the system suffered through $300 million in cutbacks. Meanwhile, our unionized employees haven’t had a raise for three years, not even a step increase, and they voted to go along with it. They actually believe in a program that they built, which works.

You’ve had great success working with the unions. You don’t think unions are the problem?
I’m working with employees who happen to be unionized. I can’t imagine not working with the employees, in any business, let alone a business that’s so heavily dependent on its employees. If we didn’t have a union, we’d have to create a new structure to work with them.

You have worked with unions to create peer review panels for evaluating teachers that don’t use student test results, which is now a requirement for getting the state’s share of Race to the Top (RTTT) money. Why oppose the state plan?
The state is participating in what I call the Race to the Trough—they wanted the money, they got it, and they are still figuring out the plan. Our system works. We are the state’s largest and most diverse district. Our students have an average score of 1653 on the SATs—about 150 points higher than the statewide average. We’ve had the highest graduation rate among the nation’s 50 largest districts for the past three years, and we are doing it in a district that’s 37 percent white and has 48,000 kids from families below the poverty line.

But refusing $12 million in RTTT funds over four years—isn’t that a lot of money to leave on the table?
We’re not looking to trade $12 million for a new evaluation program whose methodology has yet to be built. We’ve got something that works, that our people buy into (see  sidebar “Teacher Evaluation in Montgomery County”). Teacher Evaluation in Montgomery County

One of Jerry Weast’s notable achievements as superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools was the creation of the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program for evaluating new and underperforming teachers. Here are the major elements:

• The program is run by a 16-member panel of eight teachers and eight administrators appointed by their respective unions.
• Each teacher is assigned a consulting teacher who observes him or her and reports to the panel.
• The panel evaluates teacher performance using standards developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
• The panel recommends professional development for those whose work isn’t up to par.
• The panel can vote to fire those whose performance doesn’t improve.
We’ve found that if you don’t play the ABC game—accuse, blame, and criticize—you can unleash tremendous power and potential in your employees. Our teachers built not only a good system but an aligned system, built not only a good culture but an aligned culture that worked for them and our students.

The state says all 24 county systems, including Montgomery County, will be required to adopt the state teacher evaluation plan that includes student test results in 2012.

There are still many questions. Were the state tests designed to measure teacher effectiveness? Are they predictive of student success up the grade chain? What about fairness between teachers—between the math teacher, whose students take the state tests, and the physical education teacher, whose students don’t take a state test?

Your district focused on creating common, rigorous standards. How will the Common Core State Standards influence your curriculum?
It won’t affect us a bit. We’ve been there since 1999. We looked at the international standards, brought in Achieve, the College Board, and the Council for Basic Education. We’ve continued to keep our standards much higher. NCLB just caused states to gain standards, but they made them low and variable.

Has NCLB worked?

I supported it at first because I believe in social justice and thought showing the differential results [by subgroup] would be helpful. I wasn’t pleased with how it was operationalized, with all the testing and gaming the system rather than addressing the problem. They made a lot of lowball tests, and that has morphed into accuse, blame, and criticize teachers.

Retirement beckons. What’s next?

I plan to smile a lot. And I’m going to be working with foundations to take these ideas to other places, like businesses and nonprofit organizations