After 12 years at the helm, Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is retiring in June. The Post published an exit interview with him in the Sunday magazine. Here are some more excerpts from my conversation with one of the nation’s most influential superintendents.
One of the more interesting threads was on Weast’s view of charter schools. In recent years, Montgomery County has consistently blocked charter applications. The school board rejected two applications this year, following Weast’s recommendation. He told The Post that one proposal was “duplicative” and the other didn’t have a “good strategy.”
Post: Let’s talk about charter schools.
Weast: Nothing wrong with charter schools. I tried to start a KIPP school. Actually used public money to build at Parkland [Middle School] a wing for a KIPP School.
Post: You’re a results guy.
Weast: That’s why I wanted a KIPP school!
Post: But 12 years later, there are no charter schools in Montgomery County. Do you have something against charter schools?
Weast: No, absolutely not. In North Carolina, I tried to get charter schools started and they didn’t have a law for it. I came here and tried to get KIPP started, and I was told I couldn’t even go visit them. I went and visited them.
Some people have something against [charter schools]. I don’t. I do have something against faddish types of simplistic structures that haven’t been proven to have outcomes.
Post: Should Montgomery have a charter school?
Weast: Well, not just for the sake of a charter. Charters were meant to experiment. They were meant so we could learn something from them. Nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing wrong. But they should be considered based on their experimenting quality—what are they doing that is different from what we’re doing? And what are they trying to achieve? And how are they measuring it?
Post: You have an effort under way with a textbook publisher [Pearson] to develop and market a curriculum.
Weast: Yeah, and I hear that’s ‘wrong.’ Why is that wrong? I fundamentally don’t understand that if we are doing this wonderful college-ready stuff, why we would want to adopt something that was made someplace else. Why not have our people, who are on this trajectory, and have 2- and-a-half percent of all the African Americans who passed the [Advanced Placement tests], why not have us helping that be the next curriculum?
Our people made a system that actually works better than many major school systems all put together are doing. Our people are making a curriculum that is actually teachable, can be done in the timeframe, and isn’t measured by a dozen standardized tests but actually uses metrics to individualize the instruction. You can’t buy that anywhere.
Post: Does the world really need the Montgomery County curriculum brand?
Weast: The world needs a doable curriculum. A doable curriculum that is aligned to national and international standards. A curriculum that doesn’t take four weeks out of the year to test people in the spring and waste time. A curriculum that doesn’t disengage the teacher and the learner but actually engages them. And that’s what we’re allowing our people to make. If we could have made it alone, we certainly would have made it. But you know what, we needed to band with the world’s largest publishing company [Pearson] because they had the psychometricians who could make the measurements that are doable in this curriculum and wouldn’t make them so onerous.
Post: Some critics might say this is a Montgomery County ego thing—even a Jerry Weast ego thing.
Weast: Well, it’s not. You know, we’ve not sought the limelight. What we have sought is the educational outcomes. And what we have tried to do is keep up with what needs to happen for a child when they graduate. I take it kind of personally when they cross the stage that they not only got the diploma but actually are able to do something. That’s why we follow them on into college. We were doing that when it wasn’t popular. That’s why we try to make a curriculum that keeps them engaged.
Post: National academic standards are coming in English and math.
Weast: For ‘em.
Weast: National outcomes. Shouldn’t make any difference where you live or who your parents are or your ZIP code—you should be hitting a certain standard.
I think Montgomery County’s standards really are congruent and fit right in. We’ll just continue to shoot above. We’ll continue to shoot high. That’s what our parents demand. That’s what they support.
Post: Let’s talk more about Maryland’s Race to the Top grant from the federal government. You sat out last year, and you lost out.
Weast: First of all, it was going to cost more than we were going to get. The state took half of the money to run the state bureaucracy. And then they were going to distribute the other half. And we were over a four- year period going to get about $3 million a year. But they were going to ask us to change the processes that we had built to give them a third of their outcomes. And they were going to substitute processes that hadn’t been built yet—and to date have not been built.
They’re still having a huge argument about what to do and how to do it.
The whole idea of Race to the Top, of incentivizing and getting people to come and do different things—certainly not a bad idea. Operationalizing that on a national basis, with very little money and a whole lot of different opinions, depending on where you’re at in the country, is very difficult.
Post: So you think Maryland’s effort is going to tank?
Weast: I think Maryland –I’ll really be interested in seeing how they operationalize it. I notice Maryland and Delaware haven’t really gotten out of the starting blocks yet. And they’ve got a whole lot of committees having a whole lot of discussion. And having talked to many people who are on those committees, it doesn’t seem like they’re gaining much traction. And talking to the school superintendents across the state, I find out they’re beginning to wake up to this is going to cost them a lot more than they’re getting.
Post: The idea in the Race to the Top plan in Maryland and in other states, if you had to pick out one catalyzing idea, it was the notion that student achievement should count for a certain amount in a teacher’s evaluation.
Weast: And the answer is yes, and we do. [It counts] about a third.
Post: And Maryland says it ought to count for half in its Race to the Top application. Is half such a bad idea? Why is a third better than a half?
Weast: Why is half better than a third?
First of all, we have a curriculum, we are closing the gap. . .We are getting kids college ready. We have the track record and the metrics to prove it. Again, I’m not going to substitute that for some arbitrary percentage on a test that hasn’t been built, on a curriculum that hasn’t been developed, on a system that we don’t even know will work. And I’m not sure it’s scalable or actually educationally sound.
Post: A year from now, what will be the kinds of problems that your successor is likely to face?
Weast: The same problems I face. There’s always something going on because it’s a complex community. There’s always something coming up, every time any government gets together, some new rabbit to chase.
My advice to whoever follows me is to trust the 22,000 people who work in this system. They work here because they like it here and they actually want for the children the very best. And we’ve organized them to help accomplish that. The next thing I would tell them is, listen to the children. Children here do want to work hard. They do want a future. They want to make a difference.
The third thing is listen to the parents and the community. The community here is very supportive. You couldn’t have done what has been accomplished here in 12 years without community support and political support.
Yeah, you can have debate. They’re going to accuse you of things. They’re going to keep track of everything you do and say. It’s okay. Don’t take it personally. If you take it personally you’re going to go nuts. If you follow every trend you’re not going to get anywhere. If you try to be proud of yourself, it’ll never work.
It isn’t about “I-me-my.” It’s about “we-us-our.”