Stacey Childress, Denis Doyle, and David Thomas have written a case study of how the Montgomery County, Maryland Public School System [MCS]has succeeded in making access to college or satisfying work a reality for all students over a ten-year period. The authors undertook a project of daunting complexity. The case study deliberately avoids a focus on a 'heroic leader' in the person of the district superintendent. What emerges, however, is the knowledge, attitude and training the superintendent brought to the challenge of the MCS, a challenge that the MCS shares with most school districts in the nation: the fact that success in accessing rigorous and demanding coursework is largely predictable by race, ethnicity, and family income. A strong case can be made that the key step in this process was the school board's agreement on the goal to dramatically improve performance of all students, especially for students not served well historically by its district.
What renders the case study intelligible is that it frames the MCS story as the Superintendent framed the strategy of changing the MCS educational system. Although not referenced directly [which I found very interesting], the long shadows of W. Edwards Deming and Edgar Schein were ever present: the former as the Baldrige Award process, the latter in the principles of leadership and organizational change.
It is tempting to ask why this 'pocket of excellence' has not spread further. Both Deming and Schein, from their respective experience with organizational change, recognized crisis as a necessary condition for change. If I had to pick the target audience for this case study, it would be top administrators and legislators in the states first and superintendents of school next. [The U. S. Department of Education take note.]
I am a product of the Montgomery County Public Schools, though I graduated just before Jerry Weast's tenure began. There is no question Weast helped pioneer major and successful change in the school system, creating a red zone and a green zone to funnel more resources to schools in need, pushing more students to take AP classes and exams (with mixed results), and collaborating closely with the unions and other key stakeholders. But let's not kid ourselves, Montgomery County started in a pretty positive place in terms of availability of resources, quality of schools, and test scores. Replicating this approach in other districts, where there may be fewer pockets of success, will not be easy. Some lessons that probably are applicable are cooperation with the workforce and providing adequate resources through funding, training, and time. But don't expect dramatic results everywhere. Success takes time, especially when you are starting in tougher places than the already broadly successful MCPS.
Of course, MCPS was not perfect before Weast's tenure, has not been perfect during it, and will continue to have challenges in the future.