Iris T. Metts was named Prince George's new school superintendent last week by the county's Board of Education. Metts, 56, has been an educator for 30 years, as a teacher, principal, administrator, superintendent and, most recently, Delaware's education secretary. Metts will succeed Jerome Clark at a time when there is broad concern over the management of the state's largest system, which has Maryland's highest proportion of provisionally certified teachers and second-lowest average standardized test scores. State leaders threatened a takeover in the spring; the county executive refused pleas by school officials for more money to help stem a teacher shortage because he said the system hasn't proved it will spend the money wisely; and a state-appointed panel monitoring reform efforts has consistently criticized the system's failure to implement hundreds of measures suggested in an independent audit of the system last summer.
Metts sat down with Washington Post reporter David Nakamura for a wide-ranging interview in her office in Dover, Del., last week. Here are some excerpts:
Q. There is a lot going on in the school system right now. What do you most specifically have your eyes on?
A. I would say recruitment, personnel issues, certification issues. Those schools that are under a reconstitution threat. I'll probably have some specific actions that I think we should take immediately in those areas. I read their [teacher] recruitment plan, and my biggest question was why did you wait so late to do this? I mean it's a wonderful plan. There are some questions that I have on the plan. I don't have all of the information with me, but I'm worried about what efforts are underway in the districts to actually match those people who are already in jobs with better certification areas.
Your message has clearly been about accountability. You even tied part of your future earnings to producing specific results. Why did you offer such a specific arrangement?
Because I think unless you produce some specific results, you're not going to build public confidence in the school system. I had just finished trying to negotiate a [teachers union] contract here [in Delaware] that would tie performance to student achievement, and I believe in it. And it probably would have been hypocritical of me not to negotiate a contract that would tie my own performance to student achievement, which I've agreed to do because I believe no matter what we do in the system, if you cannot demonstrate that the students have improved on the state test and other measures that no one is going to believe that the system is really improving so I was willing to do that.
Do you prefer being a superintendent to your current role as education secretary?
Oh, I think I prefer being the superintendent. I think I did a good job here. I hope other people respect me for that, but I think it's a more natural position for me.
Why is that?
Ah, I guess it's just me. I just feel more comfortable, not necessarily just doing the policy and not really being able to make sure that it works the way it should, than to be able to go in and implement. I guess I'm much more comfortable in that end of it, making it work well, than I am in designing.
I talked to some of the school board members in Christina who said maybe that they thought, in this current role, you have to work with some of the governor's vision, whereas as superintendent you can really advance your own vision a lot more.
The governor's agenda is really designed by the people around him, and then he decides what he wants and what he doesn't want and then we have to develop that public agenda. We contribute greatly to his thinking about what should it be, as I think the president's advisers do, too. They're key people in developing the policy. You sense what the philosophy of the leader is, and then you go back and develop the appropriate policy. I think the difficulty that I have is that there's so many people that you have to touch bases with in state government before you can move on something.
In Prince George's, you talk about just touching base maybe with the Board of Education but as you know, there is an oversight panel that has stronger legislation in place this year and the state government has threatened a takeover at different points this past spring. So there are a lot of entities you have touch base with there, too.
The oversight panel has said to me that they would like to work themselves out of business. And you know, I sincerely believe that that's what they're trying to do. I've read their document, in which they said that these are the things that we think you ought to do in order to make sure that you show results and we complete those tasks in a systematic way. I will spend a lot of time with them negotiating that kind of review process.
Right now, I have an accountability advisory committee that reviews accountability policy, a state board of education, a governor's office. [In Prince George's] I see fewer groups involved in policy implementation and development than I saw before so I'm not, I'm not at all, discouraged by that.
No, I think I can handle that. The most important things I think in all of these decisions that are made, are . . . communication, honesty and efficiency. If you're not, if people cannot believe that you're sincere in carrying out what they consider to be important, it isn't going to work no matter how many oversight committees you set up or any of that. But let me tell you also that system will work better when we demonstrate that we're working well and there isn't a lot of micromanaging of policies.
Let's go back. As the superintendent of the Christina School District in Wilmington, Del., you took over [in 1990] at a time when there was an extreme financial crisis. You recommended cutting the ninth-grade sports program. Why?
Yes, because I felt that we were cutting all sorts of instructional programs and we were cutting back on things that I thought would be helpful to the curriculum and to instruction, and so I said well, we'll just do an equal percentage cut across all programs. And what it amounted to was that we had to cut out some ninth-grade sports activities, and I learned my lesson that time. Six hundred people showed up at a school board meeting to protest the cutting of the athletic budget.
And this guy, honest to God, when we went through it and I explained why I thought it was important to, that we would equally cut across all programs, this guy took out his checkbook and said: "Well, how much would it take to support these programs?" And my business manager gave him the figure and he wrote me a check.
How much were we talking about?
It was several thousand dollars. I mean it was, it was about, you know it wasn't anything, it wasn't peanuts. It was about $10,000.
Did you accept it?
Heck yeah. [laughter]
A few years later, you pushed to end two decades of desegregation busing. Could you discuss your philosophy there?
I really felt from reading a lot of the rulings that have preceded the one in Delaware that most federal judges declared in unitary [meaning there are no vestiges of the old, separate system that provided unequal educations for black and white children]. And I looked at the vision of Delaware five years down the road and felt that this state would probably be declared unitary just looking at the history of how desegregation was implemented in the state. . . .
The busing issue to me was not as important as the academic issue. You know whether kids in the city were bused or kids in the county were bused if they weren't receiving a good education that to me was more important. But I knew it was a very emotional issue because Delaware was a part of the original Brown case. I also felt that a lot of the people who push the busing agenda on both sides were older and wiser at this point.
At the same time, I wanted something that at least would try to bring the community of the school system into consensus where we would not have warring efforts among the city residents and the suburban residents and warring efforts among ethnic groups.
So, there were three or four steps that I took. First of all, I knew that this day was coming and that the conditions of the city schools were not to the standards of a suburban school because traditionally schools built in the city were substandard lots of times as compared to those built elsewhere. So when I looked at the facilities within the city, even before the court thing started, I understood that there were problems so I timed the [$5 million bond] referendum ahead of the end of the court case so that the citizens would have an opportunity to vote more money to upgrade the city schools before the issue of what we should do with the city schools and what should we do with busing. Well, I was successful. Then we compromised on starting magnet schools in the city.
Some people say that three of the six magnet schools are struggling with low enrollment. Do you think the magnet program has been a success?
I think we probably created too many. I think some of them will not survive. I left the district shortly after we initiated this plan. They took awhile to get a new superintendent, and now he's in promoting the plan. That period where they really didn't have a superintendent hurt in terms of really pushing it.
You were heavily criticized by a lot of black leaders, including the NAACP, and I'm wondering how you weathered that. Did the criticism sting?
It depends upon which NAACP leaders you're talking about. Now if you talk to the guys who were a part of the original lawsuit, they were very angry because those were the NAACP leaders who brought the suit. They lost the appeal in federal court, in my opinion, because they told the federal judge who ordered, who issued the order in the beginning, that none of this had really changed things in Delaware.
I don't know who their attorney was, but here's this [federal judge] who comes out of retirement to hear this case, and you tell him it didn't make any difference. He says, oh, my God, I've spent all my life doing this, and you tell me it didn't make any difference? Whereas my attitude was, yes, it did because it integrated the suburbs.
Well, that group was very angry with him because they thought that they had worked so hard to get this, and now it was being dismantled. But I supported it because the times have changed. It was not 1960, not 1964. It was 1995, and we were entering a new century and it was time to try something new. There was a new agenda for African Americans as well as everybody else within the system, a post-desegregation agenda.
What is the new agenda then?
It's academic excellence. It's making sure that we have disciplined kids who can exist in any environment and can achieve and it is, it's about making sure that our kids read. Making sure that they perform well. It's making sure that they go on to universities. There's a whole other agenda that's important for African Americans, as it is important for Asians, Hispanic kids. I don't care who you are.
You have supported charter schools. Would you like to see that in Prince George's? Charter school legislation in Maryland is very slow to get off the ground.
Well, I don't know, you know I don't know what the status of it is. My first principalship was in an alternative school, a very progressive school, so I am not afraid of schools that don't look like traditional schools. I was listening to public radio, and they were talking about using structures such as museums, instead of creating traditional school sites, to use museums as schools. And I said what a fabulous idea.
I mean it's a great idea. Why are you building schools without exposing children to the real world? So I do have some very different concepts of what a school should look like and where a school should be, and I'm willing to be a risk-taker in doing that. I also have some problems with very large schools. I think they're, they don't really tend to support the social needs of students sometimes.
What is your top priority in Prince George's when you get there?
What you mentioned in the very beginning, untangling the different factions, the political entanglement. There's just too many hands in the pie, I think.
There seems to be a lot of things that you want to change. Why has this system been sluggish in the last four years?
You know I know Jerome Clark. Jerome is a very proud person, and he pointed, rightfully so, to some accomplishments that the system had made. Because you come in and you want to change things doesn't mean that you totally disrespect what people have done before.
No, I understand that.
And I have to be very careful because I don't want to demoralize my staff or [cause] thinking that I don't respect what they've done. But what I want to do is to make it more doable: to zero in on those things that need immediate attention and to really talk about a management plan that's pretty tight. Sometimes when you're inside of a system and you go up in the system, you have a lot of admiration for the thing, the way things are right now. Sometimes when you come outside of the system and you've lived and worked in three or four different states, you naturally come in and benchmark and make change.
The Prince George's Extra invites readers to tell the new school superintendent what they think she should do to improve the public school system. We will run your letters in forthcoming issues. Please include a daytime phone number and your full name and address. Letters may be edited. Send you letters via e-mail to School Views, firstname.lastname@example.org; fax to 301-952-1397; write to School Views, Prince George's Extra, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md., 20772.
CAPTION: Iris T. Metts leaves the Townsend government building in Dover, Del., where she serves as Delaware's education secretary.
CAPTION: Metts says she has done a good job in Delaware but looks forward to Prince George's.