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Metro Monday: What Is Montgomery Schools' Secret?

If you don’t like Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, do not take the new book “Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools” to the beach for your summer reading. Your resulting heart attack will frighten other vacationers and bring sorrow to your family.

Still, for those of us who like Weast, or take a neutral stance toward the aggressive school leader, it is a fascinating read. The authors, Harvard Business School experts Stacey M. Childress and David A. Thomas and national business and education authority Denis P. Doyle, look at Montgomery’s remarkable success in raising student achievement as if they were analyzing Wal-Mart’s marketing triumphs. It is all about process. People who deal with this sort of stuff in their own jobs will be intrigued.

I, however, write about teachers, and I am not quite as thrilled with the book as the folks hanging around the business school’s soda machine might be. Let me take you through its key chapter, “Six Lessons from the Montgomery County Journey and a New Call to Action,” to show what I mean.

I pause here for a brief pep talk. Please, please read the summary titles of the six lessons below without giving up and moving over to John Kelly’s column. I realize that Kelly is always good, and these titles are almost impenetrable. But that is part of my point.

“Lesson 1. Implementing a strategy of common, rigorous standards with differentiated resources and instruction can create excellence and equity for all students.”

Lesson 2. Adopting a “ ‘value chain’ ” approach to the K-12 continuum increases quality and provides a logical frame for strategic choices.”

Lesson 3. Blurring the lines between governance, management, staff and community increases capacity and accountability.”

Lesson 4. Creating systems and structures that change behaviors is a way to shift beliefs and leads to student learning gains.”

Lesson 5. Breaking the link between race, ethnicity, and student outcomes is difficult without confronting the effect that beliefs about race and ethnicity have on student learning.”

Lesson 6. Leading for equity matters.”

The authors’ explanations of each lesson are clearer than the lessons themselves, thank goodness. But I noticed a couple of words, “teachers” and “teaching,” missing from the prescriptions above. This is a problem with all process-oriented analyses of what goes on in schools. I have been reading hopeful reports like this for a quarter of a century and have yet to find one that inspired a school district to rise up against sloth and ignorance and bring its kids to a new understanding of the world.

That takes teachers. Good ones. Weast is obviously a gifted school executive. His success here and in his previous job running the Guilford County, N.C., schools prove that his strong reputation among educators was not just a lucky break. But the six lessons give only partial credit for that success to what I think is the real story: Weast’s skill at picking the right deputies and school principals, who selected and motivated the right teachers, who brought their classrooms alive.

There is some of that in the book. Chapter 7 notes Weast’s decision to divide the county into an affluent Green Zone and a low-income Red Zone and move more resources into the latter. That worked, in part because the Red Zone had “staff development teachers in every school and technological supports that freed up teachers from administrative tasks and helped them better diagnose student learning needs so that they could spend more time on instructional activities that were likely to improve learning.”

Also vital, and surprising, was the skill and maturity that led Weast and the Montgomery Education Association, the main teachers union, to resolve their differences and cooperate on a number of innovative measures. The union gave up a 5.percent pay raise at a crucial moment, demonstrating not only the political bravery of its leaders but also the intelligence of its members, which we also saw a lot of in the classroom.

Toward the end of Chapter 7, some pushy educators, my favorite kind, appear.

Deputy Superintendent Frieda Lacey “appeared in principals’ offices with a list of names of qualified African American students in their buildings who were not in AP courses, and talked with students themselves about why they were not enrolling,” according to the book. People like Lacey helped the county follow what the authors called its North Star, a commitment to prepare all students for college and work.

Of course, as I warned you, Weast is the Indiana Jones of this wild suburban adventure. When affluent parents were complaining about the Green Zone being shortchanged, a father asked at a tense school board meeting, “Why can’t my child have full-day kindergarten?”

Weast replied: “He can if you move to the Red Zone.”

That’s a good answer. The six lessons don’t come close to it for clarity and power. But that might be my anti-management, pro-teacher bias talking. If the authors will write another book about how Weast managed to hire and promote all of the great people in his district who made his ideas work, I might even buy it with my own money.


By Washington Post editors  | July 20, 2009; 12:25 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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You should also mention two other factors in Dr. Weast's apparent success:

1. Eliminating the K-8 reading and math assessments he inherited, so his results cannot be compared with his predecessor's.

2. Dumbing down the K-8 curriculum (especially in math and science) to the level of a test-prep for Maryland state assessments. Montgomery
County's growth in the number of students taking AP and IB tests is
due entirely to eliminating the gatekeeping that kept qualified students out of these classes -- and not to increasing the number of students who are prepared to succeed in these classes.

John Hoven

Posted by: jhoven | July 20, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

I like the comment that the North Star will "prepare all students for college and work." I found that most of my teachers, some of whom were really good teachers and well-intentioned, had no idea how much real work is required in a real job. None of their comments about taking the summer off and going to Europe or working part time jobs had any bearing on reality. I still laugh at the Career Services Center manager who asked us all, seriously, if we thought our wives would work or not- this was the mid 1980s when all of our mothers had been working in offices since 1975. Only a few teachers who worked two or three jobs really told us what our careers would be like- one main job plus a consulting company or weekend job. I have real doubts that anyone who has only one local government job has the knowledge of the real world enough to teach kids what the real world is like.

If someone in DC could wake up the DCPS teachers I met and remind them of the cushy, sheltered, middle class jobs they have and how their students will have to work much harder than they ever did to achieve similar goals in 2015 or 2025.

It's a crying shame that no one in DCPS can startle these teachers from their stasis into some kind of dynamic understanding of professionalism.

Posted by: bbcrock | July 20, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Who will play Weast in the movie?

Oh, the wild suburban adventure! $1,000 chorus classes, mandatory illegal course fees, no bid procurement contracts, a slush fund of millions!

Gosh, what a fun. By the way, how is that Wireless Generation royalty agreement working out for MCPS?

Guess those lunches with the Post staff really paid off.

Posted by: jzsartucci | July 20, 2009 7:51 PM | Report abuse

Here are the remaining lessons (or should they be called "secrets") from MCPS that apparently didn't make it into the book:

7. Dismantle special education programs for kids with disabilities. MCPS doesn't believe those kids will ever pass the Maryland HSAs anyway, especially since most won't get any summer services or remediation.
8. Implement a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Call the people who advocate for gifted education racists and ignore their concerns.
9. Hand out 1,400 American Express Cards to your employees. Look the other way when they spend money on fancy dinners and lunches at expensive restaurants. And don't forget high-quality stationery from the Levinger Catalogue, courtesy of MoCo taxpayers!
10. Spend $10 million dollars a year on your "Department of Communications" to promote the "brand." Mock citizens who wonder why MCPS needs such a large public relations department.

Posted by: Astrove | July 20, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

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