Although he's been compared to a hard-charging general, Montgomery County's new schools chief yesterday said he will begin his first year on the job with a gradual, methodical approach to best identify what works and what doesn't in the county's schools.
Superintendent Jerry Weast has spent his first days in office analyzing the data and said that he has made several discoveries: Quality does not depend on which neighborhood a school is in, nor does it depend on the income levels of its students. Also, there are some good schools in some of the less affluent parts of the county, and some less productive schools in wealthier enclaves, such as Bethesda and Potomac.
The mission over the next year, Weast said, is to study closely each of the county's schools--the style of leadership, for example, the quality of the teaching staff--to determine what works.
"When you've got 189 schools, you've got to look in 189 different places. It's kind of like looking under a rug," he said at a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. "You've got to know what you're looking for and get the right data."
Weast takes the reins of Montgomery County schools at a time when the system is looking to improve even as its schools are experiencing rapid enrollment growth, and a student body that once was overwhelmingly white and middle class is becoming increasingly racially and economically diverse.
The new superintendent said one reason he left his job in North Carolina to come to Montgomery County, where he is being paid a base salary of more than $237,000 a year, was that he saw an opportunity here to develop education reforms that could become national models for suburban and urban schools systems undergoing similar strains. But those kinds of major reforms, he cautioned, will take time.
"We're going to have to do it gradually. We're going to have to do it thoughtfully," he said. "This first year we're going to look at the whys . . . I think you'll start to see some different kinds of things this year, but I don't think you'll start to see substantive kinds of issues for a couple of years."
Yesterday morning, Weast met with the system's principals to inform them of his efforts to figure out which schools are on track and which are not. He shared with them a series of charts showing the system's performance, including a map of the county that showed elementary school boundaries, color-coded in green and red to indicate which schools were "more productive" and which were "less productive." Other charts showed the continued gap in overall academic achievement between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic classmates.
But educational successes at schools throughout the county often defy racial and economic barriers, he said, which means that the performance variances among schools largely are determined by the staff.
"It's the people that make the difference," Weast said. "It's absolutely the leadership, and it's absolutely the quality of the individuals you have in the classroom." Crunching the numbers, he said, is allowing him to say: "Okay, I know who you are. I know where you are."
The new superintendent emphasized that he will not be brash in making decisions. "If I see kids who are coming into a future that they're not prepared for, then I will act on it, unequivocally," he said. "But I can't just act just for the sake of acting. I've got to have tried to--through the organization--help get some specific strategies, try to discover the why and the why not and really get at it. But I know that leadership makes a difference."
"Some people think I shake things up," he said. "I just lay it out."