Jerry Weast spent the years between 1999 and 2011 as superintendent of Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, where his success at improving student outcomes drew national attention to his huge East Coast school district. But Weast’s mind-set and manner of speaking developed elsewhere — on the Kansas farm where his childhood was spent.
During Weast’s tenure at Montgomery County Public Schools, the district achieved the highest graduation rate among the nation’s largest school districts for four consecutive years at a time when the non-English-speaking population more than doubled and poverty rates increased. In 2009, the graduation rate for black males was 74 percent — highest among large school districts in the U.S, and 22 percentage points above the national average. The district’s well-above-average academic results extend to SAT scores and AP test performance, including for minority groups.
“Growing up on a farm, I learned that you have to be deliberate if you want to have a crop — and if you don’t have a crop, you don’t eat,” Weast said.
In a telephone interview with the Deseret News, Weast talked about how the Montgomery district's successes were achieved.
DN:What do you mean when you speak of “deliberate excellence?”
Weast:On a farm, you always have climate as a predictive indicator. You don’t plan to grow 120-day wheat in a 90-day growing season. We have to think more realistically in education. So, we looked at 34,000 graduates from our district and reverse-engineered to what they were able to demonstrate that they could do while they were in our school system. We found out they had to read at a certain level in kindergarten in order to graduate. We looked at early childhood education. We discovered predictors at each grade level, and found that there was a pathway to graduation.
DN: You changed school governance in your district. How did teachers fit into this?
Weast:The biggest lesson I learned is that I had to give up power, and learn not to chase every rabbit every politician set in front of me. What I caught onto is that the most underutilized tool in the education toolbox are the educators. Before, they were never brought into the equation, and that broke a lot of trust. You can’t run an organization well if you don’t have the trust of the employees. We had to diffuse the power, slow down, and stay a steady course.
DN:What was your approach to improving teacher quality?
Weast:We had to learn how to weed to grow a good crop. We got the teachers to buy into that. They would help with the weeding if it was a fair process. (The Montgomery district garnered national praise for its Peer Assistance and Review process. It pays senior teachers to help new and under-performing teachers. Those who don’t improve go before a panel of teachers and principals, all with equal votes on firing decisions.)
DN:What do you mean when you speak of differentiating instruction?
Weast:There is nothing so unfair as equal treatment — equal funding for every child no matter what the issues are. Poverty has a huge effect on kids in America, and that plays out in the form of racial disparity because a lot of kids of color are hit disproportionately with poverty. We had to differentiate the class size and teaching, but we had the same expectations for all as to outcomes and hitting targets. If you overgraze the pasture, it can’t support the herd. You have to know how to differentiate seeds and fertilizers to get a good, even crop. For low-performing students, we have a class size of no more than 17. Wealthy and high-performing kids might have a class size of 25-27.
DN:Why was it so important to you to address the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students?
Weast:In the U.S., we are doing pretty well with the top 25 percent of students, but we need a thicker layer than that. China has 100 million students in their top-performing category.
DN:What was your approach to narrowing the achievement gap?
Weast:You can’t just say you are closing the gap, or the people at the top end will get held back. And you can’t just raise the bar on academic standards — that leaves some people feeling like they will be left off the train. You have to do both. You have to think through the strategies for both in a very careful way.
DN:You speak of engagement for students, teachers and even custodians, bus drivers and cooks. What do you mean?
Weast:When a person is engaged, what they are involved in matters to them. They don’t mind using their curiosity to get better at what they are doing. People want to get up out of bed and go to work. Kids won’t miss a class, because they like the teacher, and like what’s going on in the class. They study beyond the classroom because they see the connection between what the subject and what they want to do with their life.
DN: The U.S. education has a strong focus on standardized testing. How does this affect student engagement?
Weast:We put amazingly draconian measures on students, and it turns them off. If you treat people like prisoners, they will act like prisoners. If you do testing and the outcome is not good, it becomes a never-ending punishment cycle, and a self-fulfilling prophecy for kids. You can spiral down, or you can spiral up. That’s why you need a consistent pattern going all the way back to early childhood. There are certain things kids need to know and be able to do before the get to kindergarten. If that doesn’t happen, the kindergarten teacher has too much of a span to overcome.
DN: What are some ways your district increased learning in early childhood?
Weast:We found you could do fun learning projects with young children and they could learn a lot. We put out new standards and shared them with the whole community — things children need to be able to do when they hit the kindergarten door. We made packets for mothers with newborns. We put workers in the housing projects with heavy concentrations of poor kids to get them ready for school. You can get them ready if you have clarity, but it has to be deliberate.
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