To attack achievement gaps, you split the school system into two parts. The “green zone” was better off economically and academically. The “red zone” was not. What was your goal?
I had a simple way to capture people’s imaginations when I came — by taking a map of the whole county, putting everybody’s school district lines on it for the elementary schools so they could actually go see where their house is. Then I showed the differentiation by using red and green to ensure that everybody vividly understood that we were dealing with two different worlds.
People would push back.
I said: “Let’s just assume it’s your lawn. Would you make the green grass brown? Or would you make the red grass green?”
Everybody would always come back: “Well, you make the red grass green.” They seemed to understand that concept. It’s emotional.
And then how would you do that? Everybody had an answer: “We’d adjust the water, give it the right fertilizer. Put the right seeds in. We’d nurture [it]. Because if we had a totally green lawn, we would actually be able to sell our house better.”
But aren’t people upset if their schools are labeled the red zone?
Of course. You know, the first thing that you have to do is get people to face up to a problem. If I’m going to the doctor, I might not want to look at the X-ray. But guess what? I will not cooperate and I will not face the issue until I have to see it.
Did it take a lot of extra money to help the red zone?
Just a couple thousand dollars a student. It’s a 10 to 15 percent difference. If I’ve got to pay 10 to 15 percent extra and get a similar or close-to-similar outcome, I’d keep investing.
How hard is it to persuade folks in the green to give more money to those in the red?
Easier when they understand the problem. Easier when they know you’re not lying to them, that you’re really going to stick with it. Easier when you show that you’re not just there to rob them, to transfer, to have another failed program. This isn’t just a social experiment.
When you concentrate on process, and who gets what, you get a lot of warfare. We got people to not look at the inputs but to examine the outcomes. The question is, are you and your children better off than before? And the answer is yes, overwhelmingly, no matter where you are in the county.
People understand it, by and large. They understood that we are in charge of our entire front lawn — Montgomery County — and if we chose not to do anything about it, it was going to hurt us all.