Those who know me know I’m no fan of Jerry Weast, the former superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools. One can find a fairly long list of blog postings, including here and here where I hold no punches when criticizing Weast and his legacy.
So, it feels strange to find myself almost defending Weast. A recent Washington Post "Answer Sheet" blog posting, written by MCPS teacher Lisa Farhi, seemed so wrong on so many fronts that I just had to come to Weast’s defense.
In a nutshell, Farhi wrote that she felt muzzled and unable to talk about poverty during the Weast years—although in her essay she never actually names Weast as the muzzler. Things have improved since Weast’s departure in June 2011, and writing about how the current MCPS superintendent—Joshua Starr—encourages conversations, Farhi wrote: “I feel that the muzzle has been loosened by a couple of notches.”
The implication that Weast muzzled employees seems like a serious allegation to me. But since there is no real way for me to prove muzzling, let’s see if I can back into defending Weast by reviewing some of the public record that, in my opinion, supports evidence of formal conversations about poverty. And again, let me make it extremely clear to readers that I’m no Weast fan.
I’m a former MCPS employee who worked in the district’s accountability office from 1979 through 1998. Weast came to MCPS in 1999, and so I never worked for him. I did, however, interact with him over a four-and-half year period (from 2000 through 2005) when I served as the co-president of the Jamie Escalante Public Charter School, Inc.—the first organized group to apply for a charter school. Weast and the Montgomery County Board of Education rejected that school proposal twice. I would not describe our farewells as friendly.
Unless one is suffering from amnesia, it seems rather impossible that anyone who lived in Montgomery County or worked for MCPS through the Weast years would forget his red/green zone initiatives.
And so 18 months after his retirement, no one remembers how Weast divided the district into red and green zones? No one remembers how Weast used the zones to discuss poverty? Or how Weast used the zones to make a case for why schools with high FARMS (Free and Reduced Meals) rates (MCPS stand-in statistic for poverty) should receive more resources? Well, without a lot of difficulty, readers can find quite a number of publications summarizing these efforts.
- There is a 2006 Harvard University paper, Differentiated Treatment in Montgomery County Public Schools, explaining how Weast mapped the district. According to the paper, “ … the red zone represented areas in which the schools were labeled as ‘highly-impacted,’ a MCPS term
used to define school with significantly higher poverty …” Click here to read the paper.
- At the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery
County’s website, there is a list of the red zone elementary schools. Such lists were common during the Weast era.
- There is a 2007 Panasonic Foundation and American Association of School Administrators joint publication, Breaking the Links Between Race, Poverty, & Achievement, that basically goes out on a limb and concludes that MCPS, under Weast’s leadership and programs, moved the district in a direction where it made progress in breaking the links between poverty and education outcomes. Click here to read that publication.
All of these publications seem pretty clear about Weast and MCPS openly discussing poverty. Now, I do not agree that these efforts closed achievement gaps, and I have blogged repeatedly why I think this is the case (e.g. see this blog posting for why I believe this). Nonetheless, it is hard for me to believe that any teacher who taught in MCPS during the Weast years—and was paying attention to MCPS events around them—believes that no one discussed poverty.
And the notion of being “muzzled”—this clearly is what MCPS teacher Farhi says about Weast—also seems at odd with another Weast legacy—the well-documented reality that district employees frequently engaged in “courageous conversations” about issues that impacted achievement for minority youngsters.
A different 2006 Harvard University paper, Race, Accountability, and the Achievement Gap, describes the use of these conversations. In all fairness, the focus of these conversations was race—and not specifically poverty—but when framed against what is documented above it becomes rather ridiculous to believe that poverty was never a part of these conversations. Click here to read the paper.
But let's put aside all of the above well-documented public record—let's just call everything Weast did during his tenure a well-orchestrated show to convince the public that MCPS closed its achievement gaps. It all was a lie. Further let's assume that Weast was the worst tyrant ever, and he went out of his way to shut down meaningful conversations about issues impacting student achievement, including conversations about poverty. And so he single-handedly muzzled 20,000-plus employees.
And so there you have it—tortured souls like Farhi living and teaching each day in silence. Muzzled in a rat race to jack test scores higher and higher!
And to all of this I'm only left with only one real conclusion: Teachers like Farhi must be complete shameless cowards. Is any other conclusion a reasonable one?
As I pointed out above, I never worked for Weast (and I do not know Farhi). Nonetheless, I worked for MCPS for 19 years of my professional life. I never felt I was muzzled or couldn't talk and write publicly about the things that I thought impacted student achievement. In fact, I wrote a regular column for the old Montgomery Journal newspapers for seven years and no one ever tried to muzzle, silence or fire me (and I penned a variety of op-ed pieces in Education Week and The Washington Post). And beyond taking up the pen, I also discovered, and continue to discover, that there are lots of other avenues in Montgomery County to battle poverty—if that is your mission or cause in life. And so, from someone who has been around the block a few times (and never muzzled), here are some of the ways Farhi and perhaps other “muzzled” MCPS teachers and employees, might become more vocal about how poverty, and other issues, impact the lives of their students.
- Write a blog. Since it is so easy to do this now, I'd love to see Farhi write a regular blog. I would simply just love to see more MCPS
teachers voicing themselves out in the public domain. Nearly all of the
Montgomery County Patch outlets are seeking bloggers. I blog for Rockville Patch, and I have to admit that even with a busy work schedule finding time to knock out 500 words a week is not much of a burden.
- Join a county commission. This is an easy way to get un-muzzled and to find your voice. Montgomery County literally supports nearly a 100 commissions and boards (click here for a list). When I worked for MCPS, I was on the County Child Care Commission for five years, and I later served briefly on the Hate Violence Committee. I'm sure that teachers like Farhi can find a home with a commission, even one that focuses on poverty or poverty related-issues.
- Start a Charter or Alternative School. I only mention this idea because Farhi says her hero is Deborah Meier, the founder of the Boston Mission Hill School. Meier is firmly in the Coalition of Essential Schools camp, a camp that I respect a great deal. I would love to see a Coalition school established in MCPS. And I can guarantee Farhi that she will find her voice taking on the establishment of a charter or alternative school.
Note to teacher Farhi: I’m still waiting for an email reply: firstname.lastname@example.org.