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Jay on the Web: Which Makes A Bigger Difference - Good Teachers or Administrative Processes?

This week, Elena Silva of The Quick and the Ed blog took issue with Jay Mathews' critique of "Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools," a recent book about the successes of the Montgomery Public School System and how they can be duplicated. Mathews had a problem with the books heavy focus on administrative processes, insisting that quality teachers are a major (if not greater) part of the equation. Silva's fights back, arguing that as many good teachers as a school district might have, they need a quality school system to be effective.

Silva writes:

Mathew’s is right about one thing —the six “lessons” are convoluted and sound more like titles for paper submissions to AERA than book chapters (Lesson 1, for example: Implementing a strategy of common, rigorous standards with differentiated resources and instruction can create excellence and equity for all students). But his critique of the book as too process-oriented is wrong. Process has tripped up many a reform and understanding what sequence of events and efforts lead to change is key to any district’s improvement strategy. Sit in on union-district negotiations, listen to testimonies at board and council meetings, dig into PTA minutes going back ten years and more, and you’ll see that Weast’s success is one of process---getting a strategic collective of people (aforementioned) to make difficult decisions for the right reasons.
Central to this success, which the book describes, was the mapping of two zones of affluence—the wealthier Green Zone and the less-affluent Red Zone—that illustrated for all the inequities of the county and its schools. As someone who was educated by MCPS (in the Red Zone before it was the Red Zone), and is now sending my son to MCPS (still Red Zone), I know the practical implications of living in the lesser of the zones. My kids will go to school with a lot of kids who don’t have as much as they do, who have parents that work two jobs and who don’t speak English and who don’t walk them to school every day or read with them every night or schedule extra conferences with their teachers. But they will also be in schools that give a little extra to these kids to even the playing field—from the initial full day kindergarten program to the extended learning opportunity summer sessions that are going on right now.
Mathews says the book misses the real story, which is how MCPS gets and keeps great teachers. I agree that human capital tops the list of public education concerns and that MCPS is successful largely because it has quality teachers, but I’m unconvinced that the story of Montgomery County rises and falls on the teacher reforms. MCPS has done a lot to improve teaching and teachers—its professional growth system, for example, is touted as one of the best in the nation. But Superintendent Weast’s struggle to close achievement gaps is not merely a teacher problem, at least not the way Rhee’s might be in DC. Getting and keeping great teachers in all MCPS schools is a product of the county’s convenient close-in spot to DC (it would be great to know, by the way, the % of MCPS teachers than are spouses to the federal government, think tank and World Bank trifecta—count my family as one) and its ability to offer a job that’s better (in pay and otherwise) than PG and DC school systems.
The real story is about how a county that was unaware of or unconcerned with school inequities, or both, bought into a differential approach to schooling that has resulted in significant gains for the poorest kids. This doesn’t always happen, is still quite contentious, and is definitely a long, involved process—one that is as important as it is difficult to capture.

By Sarah Mimms  | July 22, 2009; 1:11 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Elena Silva, Leading for Equity,  
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Next: Jay on the Web: Joy and Equality in Public Education


Interesting comments in light of today's article in Metro: "Md Reading & Math Scores Continue to Show Gains". MCPS is not top district in any category. Lower than second best in some. And, in fact, declined in one.

Perhaps admin level needs to spend less time meeting about "process" & "branding MCPS" and more time in the field with their teachers actually helping them.

Posted by: alterego60 | July 22, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

I vote for good teachers, since I never said anything about "administrative" processes. Of course teachers matter--they matter most--but Leading for Equity is about the process of change and in a county like Montgomery that doesn't struggle to attract teachers there is plenty more going on that is equally as important as the teacher recruitment and retention reforms that now make headlines. Getting people, countywide, to look at student achievement data and grapple with what this data mean is huge work--it takes a lot of will and strategy and should be recognized as an important part of the county's success in narrowing its achievement gaps.

Posted by: esilva1 | July 23, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Not surprisingly the answer is both. Good process helps keep and develop good people. Organizations that set clear expectations, with fair and consistent rewards, attract, keep, and enable better employees. In addition an environment that helps employees to understand their role, allows them to see why processes exist, and allows them to fix or circumvent the processes when necessary creates a collaborative culture.
For too long in education we have focused on the inputs, now we have moved dramatically to focus on outputs, when the hard work is getting the system and leadership right. Paul Adler, a business professor at USC, provides an interesting framework on the nature of organizations in his paper "Two Types of Bureaucracy: Enabling and Coercive".

Posted by: benb2 | July 23, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

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