A story in the Nov. 11 Weekly about Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's "Call to Action" plan incorrectly stated that the Board of Education adopted four new goals at a retreat last fall. The four goals were agreed to as part of the 1992 "Success for Every Student" plan. They include: ensuring success for every student; providing an effective instructional program; strengthening productive partnerships for education; and creating a positive work environment. The board last fall adopted five "academic priorities" to support those goals. They include: improving the educational design and delivery of instruction and curriculum by using proven best practices; developing a birth-to-kindergarten literacy initiative; creating unique, innovative family- and community-friendly partnerships to improve academic results; organizing and optimizing assets for improved academic results; and analyzing and measuring teachers' and principals' effectiveness in improving student performance and results. (Published 11/18/99)
As Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast introduced what he called the 40th draft of his "Call to Action" academic achievement plan this week, he acknowledged the task is daunting.
"There are no easy solutions. No quick fixes," he said. But "I personally believe there is no more important issue."
The plan, called "A Call to Action, Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap Because All Children Matter," begins where former superintendent Paul Vance's 1992 plan, "Success for Every Student," left off. Vance's goals of ensuring that students can read by the end of second grade, that all students pass Algebra I in ninth grade and that the numbers of minority students and their performance be increased in honors courses and on tests form the "Academic Milestones" of Weast's plan.
To begin, Weast and school board members came up with four academic priorities at a retreat last fall. The four goals are: ensuring success for every student, providing an effective instructional program, strengthening partnerships for education and creating a positive work environment in a "self-renewing" organization.
From there, Weast and staff members worked with community members and reviewed educational research to come up with assumptions on what makes a good school system, such as that policymakers cannot mandate what matters but must instead rely on local will. The other assumptions are that teachers should share and learn from one another and not operate in a vacuum and that research should guide decisions.
To make all this happen, there are six steps, or "trend benders," as Weast calls them.
First, Weast's plan calls for developing a system of shared accountability. Weast's controversial "productivity map" was a first stab at this. In the new plan, productivity, or measuring how a group of students progresses from one year to the next on county tests, will be only one measure of a school's progress. A school's test scores, or proficiency, a more traditional measure, also will be taken into account, as will equity, how students in each racial and ethnic group are doing, and a quality index, which measures community participation, climate and "customer/stakeholder" satisfaction.
To do that, Weast proposes that teachers be trained to set high expectations for all students and learn how to adjust their own attitudes and behaviors so all students can do well. A report last summer found that low teacher expectations and lack of encouragement were key reasons why so few blacks and Hispanic students were in advanced and honors courses.
Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said that changing teacher attitudes is critical and that pouring in extra resources and keeping attention focused on that issue may really change things. "That all contributes to teaching and learning conditions that will not allow teachers to write difficult kids off," he said.
Second, Weast plans to focus on early childhood literacy. Specifically, Weast proposes to lower class size and strengthen kindergarten instruction in needy areas. He also proposes to give every newborn family a "Growing to Learn" packet about healthy development.
He's proposing opening early childhood centers, sending a mobile parenting van out to serve low-income families, creating a one-stop parenting resource center and making preschool instruction more rigorous. Additionally, he's proposing keeping teachers and students together across grade levels through the years and using multi-age instruction.
Third, the plan calls for work-force excellence. Weast proposes providing professional growth for teachers, assigning staff development specialists to each school, planning for "consulting teachers" and setting up a leadership academy and an assessment center for future principals.
Weast told school board members Tuesday that much of the county's enormous $1.1 billion budget, 88 percent, goes to paying staff salaries and benefits. "We've got to spend more than 1 percent and just a few days a year to help them work with every child," Weast said.
Fourth, Weast wants to broaden the concept of literacy. To do that, he's proposing to bring parents into computer labs, so they can better help their children with homework, to teach students good work and study habits, to enhance summer school, to target math and reading interventions and to restructure Algebra I to use hands-on resources and computer simulations to better help those for whom math is a mystery.
Weast also wants to expand the Reading Initiative, now in all schools for first- and second-graders, into third grade.
Samira Hussein, an activist for the local Arab community, said the plan will work only if it is truly inclusive. "That means if there are programs for one group, there should be alternatives for another group," she said. "So no one feels left out."
Fifth, Weast proposes reorganizing assets for school success. Already, he has revamped the central office system hierarchy. Although there has been some grumbling, Weast says only "change is messy."
Weast plans to use the Baldrige National Quality Assessment Criteria to measure performance, as many U.S. businesses and corporations do.
Sixth, Weast wants to create family and community friendly partnerships. The school system has long been criticized as an ivory tower, unwelcoming to parents or outside input. Weast's plan proposes to change all that. He wants to establish a parent-community council, create a parents link on the Web site, better assess family satisfaction, ask for feedback, translate more information into various languages, expand business involvement and look into piloting Comer Programs in three to five schools. The Comer method focuses on parents, child and adolescent development and interpersonal relationships in school management.
School board member Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) said she particularly likes how the plan brings everyone--teachers, students, parents, staff, board members and community members--together and makes everyone jointly responsible for closing the achievement gap and raising standards.
"If this plan fails, it will be because we all fail," she said. "The stars are all in alignment to do this now."