In 2010, the Montgomery County, Maryland Public Schools was one of five finalists for the Broad Prize, awarded each year by the Broad Foundation to the urban school district that has made the most progress in raising student achievement and narrowing the gap between white students and students of color.

At the time, the district was led by Jerry Weast, under whose tenure the district raised graduation rates, test scores and college-going; increased International Baccalaureate offerings; and increased Advanced Placement course-taking and pass rates on AP exams. On a recent visit to Chicago, Weast, who retired in June, talked with Contributing Editor Cassandra West about creating high expectations for minority children and the importance of investing in the teaching force.

CATALYST: The successes in Montgomery County under your leadership were impressive. Talk about how the district accomplished this.

WEAST:  First, we had to recognize that we weren’t doing well. We had to depict it in a way that caused an emotional response. And we had to understand that our workforce didn’t get up out of bed every morning wanting to do a bad job. But we really hadn’t invested in them and given them a clear definition of what we all wanted to accomplish.  We were measuring things by activity level rather than productivity.

When we actually kept our initiatives going for 12 straight years and graduated kids that we had in early childhood programs, we saw extreme improvement among African American and Latino [students]. Our cultural problem was [differing] expectations, variability in what we expected out of children.

CATALYST: One of the things you hear teachers and educators talk about here in Chicago is the impact of poverty on learning. In Montgomery County schools, the poverty rate is much lower. Do you believe the strategies your district used can work even in a high-poverty district?

WEAST: Absolutely, and here’s why. We sit right next to the District of Columbia and right next to Prince George’s County. Our schools that were impacted by poverty sit right across the street, but they had different outcomes. Same kids, same families, same race, gender and socioeconomics–but different outcomes. The question is: Is Chicago ready to invest in its [teacher] workforce and is it willing to put together a coherent framework to see that it gets done? Do you have the will? If you have the will, you can build the skill.

CATALYST: What would Chicago have to do to invest in its workforce, specifically teachers?

WEAST: The unit of change is right in the classroom, the interaction between the teacher and the student. That is best facilitated by skillful teachers. If you invest in your workforce to build those skills, you will see amazing results.

The teacher is a learner, too. What we’re not doing as a country is investing in that workforce. Our military invests in its workforce, and it is the best in the world. Our police departments are always in constant training, along with the fire departments and rescue people. Our doctors are constantly getting education. But we’re giving our teachers short workdays and very little training. And we spend more time accusing, blaming and criticizing rather than trying to solve their problems.

CATALYST: Research has shown that good teachers are the most important in-school factor for improving learning. How did Montgomery County’s teaching force and recruitment change as a result of the reform plan?

WEAST: The first thing we did was to listen to them, and we understood what they were telling us. Time, isolation, clarity regarding what we wanted them to do and what their job was were real problems for them. Data from low-level exams that weren’t leading the child toward college and career, rather than predictive analytics that told [teachers] something about what they needed to do differently and the training they needed to have, was a problem.

When we started listening to [teachers], organizing them in teams and working with them on a systemic approach—not reintroducing hundreds of new things for them to do—and giving them a say-so in how to go about it, building their skills and helping them police their ranks, guess what? Everything started getting better.  

CATALYST: How was your district able to increase the early literacy skills of 1st-graders and get such a high percentage of 3rd-graders reading proficiently?

WEAST: We found that the biggest issue was being able to think critically and apply those [literacy] skills. Children weren’t going to get that on rote memorization tests. We had to reach back into early childhood and develop a way to get at pre-literacy skills. We had to work with private and public [preschool] providers to set a standard of what a child needed to be able to do by the time they got to kindergarten. And we had to work with parents from right at birth. We got our retired teachers to give packets out to newborn’s [parents] and we put [ideas] into sensible language. Then we retrained all of our early childhood elementary teachers on how to teach literacy. And we asked them what kind of data they needed to know how well they were doing.

CATALYST: Chicago has increased its Advanced Placement course offerings in recent years, but pass rates on the AP exams are still low, mostly because so few black and Hispanic students pass. Did pass rates increase among minority students in Montgomery County? How did you accomplish this?

WEAST: It starts in preschool and having a coherent framework [for learning].

CATALYST: In Chicago, many parents distrust the school system. What do you think made the most difference in Montgomery County in terms of raising parent’s satisfaction with schools?

WEAST: When we first started, they didn’t trust us either because we didn’t speak their language. We found that a parent wants to know how their child is doing. We were almost speaking a foreign language to them. So we created study circles to really examine the issue about race and achievement, and put it right on the table. We created TV shows in different languages, parent academies to train parents.

We found out our bureaucracy was awful. We retrained all our people who were manning the desks and answering the phone about how to properly do that.

We did a lot to look in the mirror and quit blaming the parents and the kids, and try to figure out what is the culture we want to achieve? What is the structure necessary? What are the tools we need to re-learn about how to make our schools more engaging?

CATALYST: Was there resistance?

WEAST: Of course. Any time that you start to deal with socioeconomics and race, there’s always this feeling that, ‘We don’t need to change.’ Second, there’s this whole attitude that if certain groups get [more] resources, then I lose. You have to overcome those things, but you do it with common sense. The key to start building trust is truth. The key to start building engagement is not only listening but taking action on what you hear to make things better. The key to doing some of this is sound psychological theories that work everywhere. Let’s use the right psychology. Accuse, blame and criticize is not the right psychology.

CATALYST: Chicago Public Schools is so much larger than Montgomery County. What three steps would you recommend that the district take next to make academic progress?

WEAST: I’m not here to recommend anything for Chicago. I have no magic formula.

CATALYST: Jean-Claude Brizard is the first CEO in years to come from outside the city and to be an educator. Any parting words of advice for him?

WEAST: I wish him well. I think that anybody that comes into any school district should be prepared to stay a while and should understand what the real issues are prior to putting forth solutions. My best advice to any superintendent is that the biggest asset that you have is your workforce. You’ve got to figure out how to create the proper structures so you bring out the best of that workforce. If you do it right, that workforce will propel your student achievement to heights that you didn’t think was imaginable. It isn’t about you. It’s about what you can do to unlock the power of the people in your organization.

is web editor at The Chicago Reporter.

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