The Last Lessons of Jerry Weast
A question and answer session with the retiring superintendent of Montgomery County Public School.
BY CARIN DESSAUER
Photo credit: Michael Ventura
Jerry Weast knew he was facing a challenge when he left his position as superintendent of the Guilford County, N.C., system in 1999 to become superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools. Yes, Montgomery County schools were good, but the area’s demographics had been changing dramatically. More than 20 percent of the county’s children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches and demonstrated special instructional needs—a number that had doubled in two decades. And there was pressure to close an achievement gap between the diverse populations.
Weast, 63, who will retire at the end of this academic year, has been credited with not only closing that gap, but with doing much more—sometimes generating controversy along the way. He has overseen the state’s largest school district, and the nation’s 16th largest, with 144,000 students in 200 schools employing 22,000 people. While so doing, the Rockville resident has raised academic standards, racked up some impressive achievements and nearly doubled the county’s education budget, which currently is more than $2.1 billion.
Sitting in his office surrounded by memorabilia—including the school bell that his mother rang in a one-room Kansas schoolhouse in the 1930s—Weast says he is ever-conscious that “where you come from” shouldn’t be an impediment to getting a good education.
How did you end up in education?
I was a business major and was planning to go into the business world. But I got the chance to coach a Little League football team and I really enjoyed it. I got to thinking that accounting is good, but working with kids is better. [So] from 1969 to 1972 I was an accounting and psychology teacher in Belleville and Colony, Kansas.
My dad was a farmer, and I learned a tremendous amount from him that has been integral to my success in education. What he taught me was how to observe, the importance of building relationships and how to be respectful of people, regardless of the position they hold or the degree that they have. Status and titles never impressed my father—making a difference is what mattered to him.
What has been your proudest moment as Montgomery County Schools superintendent?
One thing we really showed for America, not just for Maryland, is that if you do reform right, you actually can improve the statistics that everybody worships in America—but also improve the ethos of the school system.
This system is as large as it’s ever been in its history, it is as diverse as it’s ever been in its history and it’s gone from a majority-white system to a majority-minority system in the last decade. It went from 6 percent poverty not that many years back to well over 46,000 kids in poverty, which are more students than you have in the Washington, D.C., school system.
For 35 years, we have been keeping track of the SAT scores for this system, and last year’s graduating class set the highest record with the most diverse class, the most kids in poverty and the most kids that do not speak English [as a first language]. We went from 7,000 tests for Advanced Placement [when I started] to 30,000 tests. The International Baccalaureate program grew from 500 to 9,500 kids, and the largest concentration of the program in the world [is] here in this system.
Our teacher retention rate improved. Our graduation rate: Out of the entire top 50 [school] systems in the country in size, we were No. 1 not once but twice in a row the last two years. We were a finalist for [several educational awards]. …Newsweek puts us in the top 3 percent of the high schools in the nation on getting kids college-ready. And we had more high schools in Newsweek’s Top 100 “Best High Schools” ranking than any other school system in America.
We have one of the best systems of teacher evaluations through peer review, the least acrimony amongst the unions and the schools. …I could go on and on.
One thing you have to get across: It isn’t me. It is the employees, the community and the kids here working together. What I have done is maybe provided some structures, built relationships, provided a more diffused leadership program, given them some shared ownership along with the responsibility and developed the rubrics and curriculum that align with college-ready and career-ready.
Along the way, you’ve had a challenging relationship with the Parents’ Coalition, the network of citizen activists who use the political process and other means to hold MCPS accountable.
The thing people accuse me of is listening, but not hearing. I hear, but I do not always agree. I am sorry that the world is faster than it was 10 years ago. I did not do that. [But] if we do not keep up, then our kids will be behind. We have to stop whining and get real.
What are the remaining problems?
My most pressing problem now is that we have grown by 6,300 kids—a whole cluster [a high school, with middle and elementary schools] in the last 36 months—and we do not have the buildings to support that. We cannot keep up with the growth. It takes six or seven years to get a building through, so we are definitely going to be short on buildings.
[People] are not coming here because of the good roads or the cheap taxes or the cheap houses. They are coming here for the schools. …And the state is $160 million behind in what they said they would get us.
My next biggest problem: You cannot measure kids with a bunch of standardized tests. If you increase the testing, it does not mean that you will increase the quality. The quality is about teaching kids to be creative.
Last year’s documentary Waiting for Superman looked at the nation’s failing public school system. Do you think it reflects reality?
When I was going through school, there was the risk of the Communist threat. When going through college, it was the Soviet threat. Later years, it was that the nation was at risk, then “No Child Left Behind,” now the “Race to the Top.” [But what it is really about is the] same thing as when my mother was a teacher: preparing the kids for the future.
Many parents say that Montgomery County schools are great for overachievers, but not so great for average students.
That is one reason we created the Seven Keys to College Readiness. What we have shown is that more kids can handle the more rigorous trajectory than what we thought.
What are the challenges given the diversity of, say, Whitman, Wootton, Kennedy and Einstein high schools, and how do you address these both pragmatically and in terms of the budget?
Diversity is one of the best things that has happened. We have embraced it. Use common sense: Some kids need more time; some need smaller classrooms. Give it to them. Differentiate the delivery. …But do not compromise on the rigor.
There is concern that we are rushing our children to learn math and that one reason that children in Asian countries are much stronger in math is that they drum in the basics before moving to the next levels. What are your thoughts?
I agree that the math has to be changed. Having been to Asia, [I have seen that] they are trying to get our creativity; we are trying to get their depth. Both of us have half of the equation.
Who should succeed you?
Somebody who is as passionate, persistent, who values the employees, who loves kids, who looks to the future and understands that you are dealing with human beings, each one of them unique. …[Someone who is able to deal with the fact that this is] one of the most politically charged systems under the Capitol dome. Someone [who] has to want to live in a fishbowl and be able to handle it.
What list of priorities would you give your successor?
[Keep this improvement] rolling; expand early-childhood education; keep working on teacher quality; improve the curriculum; find more ways to engage our community, especially our community that does not speak English; make school more fun for the kids and the teachers, and that means more tools, more technology and more engagement; take the art, music and P.E., things kids enjoy, and integrate them with the curriculum; and do whatever it takes. …Don’t be afraid. Try to remember to bless your enemies because they help you understand that there are different points of view.
What’s next for you?
I do not want to give up the energy and enthusiasm for education. …[I want to] try a foundation or nonprofit. …I have six grandchildren. I want to see them. …[And] I want to stay [in the area]. I really love the people here and love the excitement and energy of this area. People here really want to do better, and they are driven by that.
Jerry Weast lists the top 10 accomplishments of his tenure*
- MCPS has the highest graduation rate among the nation’s largest school districts, according to Education Week.
- Nearly 30,000 Advanced Placement exams were taken in 2010, more than three times the number of exams taken in 1999.
- The class of 2010 scored an average of 1,653 on the SAT, an all-time high and well above the state and national averages.
- More than 90 percent of kindergartners last year met or exceeded reading targets, narrowing the achievement gap by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
- Last year’s graduates earned $234 million in college scholarships, an immediate 10 percent return on the MCPS budget.
- A collaborative relationship with our staff, which includes having our employee associations at the budget table. Over the past three years, the associations that represent more than 20,000 employees have helped us cut more than $300 million from the budget and have voted to forgo cost-of-living increases for the past two years.
- An increased focus on early education, including the expansion of prekindergarten programs for our neediest students.
- A focus on parent and community outreach to all the citizens of Montgomery County at the district and school level.
- High levels of employee satisfaction. In 2009, MCPS had a teacher retention rate of nearly 95 percent, much higher than other large districts around the country.
- Our organizational excellence has been recognized recently with two prestigious national awards. In October, MCPS was named a finalist for the 2010 Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes large school districts that have raised student performance while narrowing the achievement gap. MCPS is the first school district in the Washington area to be chosen as a finalist. And in November, MCPS was a recipient of the 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which recognizes institutions that improve student outcomes, engage and empower staff and the community, carefully allocate resources and demonstrate leadership and social responsibility. MCPS is just the sixth school district to be an award recipient.
* in no particular order
What others say about Jerry Weast
Jay Mathews, Washington Post education columnist and blogger: “Jerry Weast was one of the most energetic and effective school superintendents I ever encountered. He is certainly in the Top 10 nationally in terms of raising the achievement of low-income students, which to me is the most important measure of an educator. The only reason I would not make him No. 1 is that he has not yet taken on one of our distressed urban districts, but if he did so, I think he would be very good.
“There was an advantage for him in running a district with voters, parents and school board members as smart and as generous as those in Montgomery County, but there are other similarly affluent districts that have not seen such gains for their most disadvantaged students.
“He was a good politician, a good publicist (he would come all the way to my office in Alexandria to explain his latest program) and a very good analyst of what worked and what didn’t with kids. I hope he writes a long book explaining it all in his characteristic clear and vivid way.”
Michelle Rhee, former D.C public schools chancellor: “Jerry Weast took the Montgomery County schools to a new level. His work and leadership made MCPS a model for the nation.”
Rosanne Hurwitz, activist with the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County: “My kids got a great education, but there was a lot of work to advocate on their behalf. The system is designed for the great middle. If you are at the ultra-top or ultra-bottom, then the school system does not care. …I would hope that the next superintendent is more open to all parents and meets their needs.”
Valerie Ervin, Montgomery County Council president, Education Committee chair and former Board of Education member: “At the end of the day, he was a masterful politician who had the right idea at the right time. I think for the most part our students have benefited.
“…But one could say that the achievement gap is as big as it has ever been. Montgomery College has said that students coming from Montgomery County have to be remediated in math and reading. So even though the story that we were told was a hopeful one of great success for individual students, there is still a persistent achievement gap in Montgomery County Public Schools. …He is leaving at the right time because we now need some fresh ideas from a new visionary leader who can take us to the next level.”
George Leventhal, Montgomery County Council member: “Jerry Weast has accomplished a great deal, and he put an appropriate focus on outcome disparities between the kids from more fortunate families versus kids from less fortunate families. …He was a very successful superintendent during the time of rising revenues, but I think he is less well equipped to deal with a climate of shrinking revenues. [And] I think that he is too involved in political campaigns. I do not think that is the role of a superintendent.”
Potomac writer Carin Dessauer, a former executive with CNN and CNN.com, is a regular contributor to Bethesda Magazine.