It's Been 10 Years' Worth of On-the-Job Learning for Montgomery's Jerry Weast

Jerry D. Weast, who is about to celebrate ten years as superintendent of Montgomery County schools, talks about his years on the job and the mentors that guided him toward a career in education.
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The achievement gap that separates the haves and have-nots has been the most frustrating problem in public education for years. And across the country, few leaders have made more progress in closing that divide than Montgomery County's Jerry D. Weast.

A farm boy wunderkind from Kansas who won his first superintendency at 28, Weast was already one of the nation's most renowned educators when he arrived in Rockville in 1999. He vowed to bring equity to Maryland's largest school system by abolishing the stubborn performance disparities that set whites and Asians on one trajectory and blacks and Hispanics on another.

Ten years later, Montgomery County stands as a rare specimen in the laboratory of academic reform: a large, diverse school system operating under one leader and a consistent set of goals for an entire decade, amassing a thick dossier of results.

"I've had the gift of time," said Weast, 61, whose 10th anniversary is Aug. 1. Among the country's 25 largest school districts, Weast has the longest tenure of any superintendent save one, J. Alvin Wilbanks of Gwinnett County, Ga., who has served for 13 years.

Weast's record illustrates that it is possible to narrow the gap on many measures, given time. But even after a decade of effort, disparities remain. In some key areas, such as SAT scores and graduation rates, the gap has widened a bit, although minority students in the county outperform their peers in those areas nationwide.

The average superintendent exits after three years, driven out by school board politics, union antipathy or the promise of a better job. It's scant time to set goals, let alone meet them. Fairfax County has had two school chiefs since August 1999; Prince George's County has had five; the District has had six.

"It's a position that can best be qualified as a migrant worker," said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and former superintendent of Fairfax schools.

Weast is a canny survivor and a well-paid one, with an annual compensation package worth $500,000. He has lasted 10 years in Montgomery through prudent alliances with the school board, the teachers union and political leaders.

He has vocal detractors who see him as stubborn and aloof, unwilling to work with constituencies representing special-needs students or the gifted, unwilling even to listen.

"His worst trait is he hears what he wants to hear," said Louis Wilen, an Olney parent who is a leader of the watchdog group Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County. "He has an agenda, and he sticks to it. He isolates himself from parents. He won't hold a conversation."

Weast does not suffer criticism well. He takes things personally. "I'll be honest: A lot of those arrows get through the armor, and they hurt," he said.

Naturally shy -- the prospect of public speaking used to make him physically ill -- Weast overcompensates. He transforms staff meetings into hand-holding motivational sermons, spinning stories with a Midwestern twang and evangelical zeal.

Raised in a farmhouse without indoor plumbing, Weast burned with an ambition larger than Moran, Kan. He found his motivation at age 10, when he lost an eye in a farming accident. Two educators came to his rescue. One was his mother, Maude, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, who stoked his love of reading. The other was his fifth-grade teacher, Alma Wood, who saw the potential inside him.

"She said I had what it takes," Weast said. "I believed her."

Weast's ascent from hardscrabble beginnings -- he first glimpsed the inside of a dentist's office at 20 and worked in oil fields to pay for college -- led him to view education as an equalizer and the achievement gap as surmountable.

Over time, Weast and his staff have generated enough performance data to fill a book: "Leading for Equity," published this summer by Harvard Education Press, presents Weast's tenure in Montgomery as a model for other school districts to follow:

-- Nine years after Weast expanded half-day kindergarten to a full day and supplanted play with pedagogy, most Montgomery kindergarteners of every race are reading simple texts. The share of white students who meet the literacy goal on a school-system assessment (97 percent) is a bit higher than the share of blacks (91 percent) or Hispanics (86 percent), but the gap is relatively small.

-- In seven years of state testing under the No Child Left Behind law, the disparity between reading scores for blacks and whites has narrowed from 32 points to 13.

-- The share of black students who graduate with a passing score on at least one Advanced Placement test has doubled since 2000; blacks in Montgomery now outperform whites in the country as a whole.

Weast's overarching goal is for 80 percent of students to be college-ready by 2014. He has trained the school system on a handful of statistical targets along that college track: literacy in kindergarten, algebra in middle school, AP in high school.

As a consequence, there is less attention paid to some more traditional measures of educational accomplishment, such as taking the SAT and receiving a diploma. On those measures, the achievement gap has not narrowed but widened.

Graduation rates are lower for blacks (84 percent) and Hispanics (78 percent) than for whites and Asians (95 percent). The disparity is larger now than five years ago. Then again, Montgomery's overall graduation rate is among the highest in the nation.

The share of blacks and Hispanics who graduate with SAT scores of 550 or better out of a possible 800 points per section, a threshold identified by Weast as "college-ready," is lower now than at the start of the decade. Scores for whites and Asians, by contrast, are at record highs.

When Weast arrived in Montgomery, the county housed some of the nation's highest-performing schools. But with rising numbers of poor and immigrant students to the east, it was fast becoming a two-tiered system: east and west, rich and poor, a fissure the county could no longer hide. Aggregate test scores were beginning to slip behind neighboring Howard and Fairfax counties, Montgomery's historic rivals.

"It was a good school district for many kids, but not for all kids," said Darlene Merry, a longtime Montgomery school administrator who left in 2007.

Weast pledged to raise the bar and close the gap. Test scores for whites and Asians would go up, he said; test scores for blacks and Hispanics would go up faster.

His focus on minority achievement foreshadowed No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that held every public school accountable for the performance of the historically underperforming. The district's progress comes as schools nationwide -- spurred by the law -- are making unprecedented progress on the gap. Racial disparities are shrinking in Atlanta, Austin, Chicago and across much of the Washington region.

Even so, Montgomery's progress stands out. A Washington Post analysis in 2007 found, for example, that the school system had produced more passing AP tests from black students than any other district except New York, which has 10 times as many black students.

Weast came to Montgomery after serving as superintendent in Great Falls, Mont.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Durham and Greensboro, N.C. Some locals wondered how this Midwesterner with a penchant for hunting and fishing and no East Coast academic credentials would play in Bethesda.

One by one, Weast won over the fiefdoms that make up the nation's 16th-largest school system.

He assuaged the administrative staff by promoting talent from within rather than hiring from outside.

He forged a rapport with teachers almost unknown in public education, inviting union leaders onto his inner-sanctum leadership team. Weast offered teachers the same deal the school board had offered him: good pay for hard work. He made Montgomery teachers the best-paid in the region. In return, the union took the remarkable step this year of giving up a 5 percent pay raise to balance the budget.

Weast collaborated with the union on a program to help struggling teachers improve or exit the classroom. He began holding principals and upper-level administrators responsible for test scores, too, a concept new to the county. He gave them autonomy in return for results.

Weast has cultivated an all-for-one mind-set on the school board, counseling -- and occasionally badgering -- board members to prize the needs of the many over the demands of the few.

"Sometimes it takes a little more time to learn to play team ball," he said. "But it is team ball."

Weast has been accused of bullying, of divide-and-conquer tactics, of freezing out ill-favored board members for months at a time.

"He is not one who takes criticism easily," said Stephen Abrams, a former board member who is fond of Weast. "You're dealing with a very, very strong ego."

His detractors are counting the days until June 30, 2011, when Weast's third four-year term expires. He does not intend to seek a fourth. He does not know what his next job might be. The past 40 years have flown, he says, a reality underscored by the ticking clocks that adorn his office. One of them was fashioned from a weather-beaten board pulled from a wall at the old family farm in Kansas.

"My motivation will not be money," he said. "My motivation will be learning. What stops time for me is learning."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company