6 Lessons From Montgomery County Public Schools That Mostly Missed the Point

By Jay Mathews
Monday, July 20, 2009

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 a 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.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com

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