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Cultivating school success

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17 2013 5:45 p.m. MDT

In this July 29, 2009, photo, math teacher Peter Moore, third from right, teaches fifth grade pupils, from left counter clockwise, Exequiel Mendoza, Maira Gonzalez, Enrique Romero, Moore, Carmen Rosales and Alieu Crayton, in a stimulus-funded summer learning program at a school in Montgomery County's Brookhaven Elementary School in Rockville, Md.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

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Jerry Weast spent the years between 1999 and 2011 as superintendent of Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, where his success at improving student outcomes drew national attention to his huge East Coast school district. But Weast’s mind-set and manner of speaking developed elsewhere — on the Kansas farm where his childhood was spent.

During Weast’s tenure at Montgomery County Public Schools, the district achieved the highest graduation rate among the nation’s largest school districts for four consecutive years at a time when the non-English-speaking population more than doubled and poverty rates increased. In 2009, the graduation rate for black males was 74 percent — highest among large school districts in the U.S, and 22 percentage points above the national average. The district’s well-above-average academic results extend to SAT scores and AP test performance, including for minority groups.

“Growing up on a farm, I learned that you have to be deliberate if you want to have a crop — and if you don’t have a crop, you don’t eat,” Weast said.

In a telephone interview with the Deseret News, Weast talked about how the Montgomery district's successes were achieved.

DN:What do you mean when you speak of “deliberate excellence?”

Weast:On a farm, you always have climate as a predictive indicator. You don’t plan to grow 120-day wheat in a 90-day growing season. We have to think more realistically in education. So, we looked at 34,000 graduates from our district and reverse-engineered to what they were able to demonstrate that they could do while they were in our school system. We found out they had to read at a certain level in kindergarten in order to graduate. We looked at early childhood education. We discovered predictors at each grade level, and found that there was a pathway to graduation.

DN: You changed school governance in your district. How did teachers fit into this?

Weast:The biggest lesson I learned is that I had to give up power, and learn not to chase every rabbit every politician set in front of me. What I caught onto is that the most underutilized tool in the education toolbox are the educators. Before, they were never brought into the equation, and that broke a lot of trust. You can’t run an organization well if you don’t have the trust of the employees. We had to diffuse the power, slow down, and stay a steady course.

DN:What was your approach to improving teacher quality?

Weast:We had to learn how to weed to grow a good crop. We got the teachers to buy into that. They would help with the weeding if it was a fair process. (The Montgomery district garnered national praise for its Peer Assistance and Review process. It pays senior teachers to help new and under-performing teachers. Those who don’t improve go before a panel of teachers and principals, all with equal votes on firing decisions.)

DN:What do you mean when you speak of differentiating instruction?

Weast:There is nothing so unfair as equal treatment — equal funding for every child no matter what the issues are. Poverty has a huge effect on kids in America, and that plays out in the form of racial disparity because a lot of kids of color are hit disproportionately with poverty. We had to differentiate the class size and teaching, but we had the same expectations for all as to outcomes and hitting targets. If you overgraze the pasture, it can’t support the herd. You have to know how to differentiate seeds and fertilizers to get a good, even crop. For low-performing students, we have a class size of no more than 17. Wealthy and high-performing kids might have a class size of 25-27.

DN:Why was it so important to you to address the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students?

Weast:In the U.S., we are doing pretty well with the top 25 percent of students, but we need a thicker layer than that. China has 100 million students in their top-performing category.

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