Montgomery Schools Chief Says Federal Mandate Is Lowering Standards

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said yesterday that the federal No Child Left Behind law has created a culture that has education leaders nationwide "shooting way too low" and that it has spawned a generation of statewide tests that are too easy to pass.

In a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters, Weast said the federal mandate, with its push for 100 percent proficiency on state tests, has driven states toward lower standards that don't prepare most students for college or careers.

"I think we've got to adjust up," he said. "Or at least give some flexibility for those who would like to adjust up."

Although some states, including Maryland, have been praised for holding children to comparatively high standards, Weast said the state curriculum, the statewide Maryland School Assessment and the High School Assessment all measure a minimal level of academic proficiency. The reason, he said, is that Maryland and most other states have leaders who want their kids "to look good" on such assessments.

Ron Peiffer, deputy Maryland school superintendent, said the state education standards "represent the floor, not the ceiling" of what students are expected to learn. "Most students receive instruction that goes significantly beyond our Voluntary State Curriculum, and that is the way it should be," he said.

Weast addressed several major themes of the past academic year, his eighth as superintendent of the 140,000-student Montgomery school system.

He was recently appointed to a third four-year term, which begins July 1.

He spoke of the acrimony that accompanied the annual budget cycle. The County Council approved a $2 billion school spending plan for the fiscal year that begins Sunday, allotting about $7 million less than what the Board of Education requested but more than County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) proposed. Budget hearings attracted hundreds of protesters, most of them teachers.

Weast said he and Leggett "talk together on a regular basis now."

Despite signs that next year will be tougher and will require further cuts, Weast said he would not reopen negotiations with employee associations, which signed three-year contracts guaranteeing raises of about 5 percent each year. Asked how projected state budget deficits might affect school funding, Weast said, "Montgomery County has been through this so many times that we're used to getting caught with our diaper down."

Weast spoke of the difficulty of serving a large and growing population of low-income families in the corridor that stretches from Silver Spring to Gaithersburg while simultaneously meeting the needs of affluent families in Bethesda, Potomac and western Montgomery.

Since Weast's arrival in 1999, the share of elementary students with "limited English proficiency" has more than doubled, to 14 percent, and the share receiving meal subsidies has risen from about 28 percent to 32 percent, according to state reports. Black, Hispanic and Asian populations have risen, but white student population is 10,000 lower than it was in 1999.

But Weast said that he has seen no signs of "white flight" and that the school system had a net gain in students transferring from private schools. He said part of his mission is to remind parents that the school system's overall reputation hinges on the performance of all schools.

The Montgomery schools "brand is based on the county brand," he said. "Not your particular neighborhood."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company