School & District Management

Staff Investment Pays Dividends in Md. District

By Catherine Gewertz — August 09, 2005 7 min read
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If you ask school district leaders in Montgomery County, Md., why they spend millions every year fortifying their staff, they might well answer by pointing to Viers Mill Elementary School.

Tucked away among huge trees, Viers Mill serves a low-income pocket of this famously wealthy county in the Washington suburbs. In the past few years, its home-grown leadership team has overseen a striking rise in test scores, especially among its substantial minority population. The school here exemplifies the district’s strategy of using its human-resources operations as a lever to improve student achievement, particularly in its less-affluent neighborhoods.

As districts nationwide seek ways to ensure a sound education for all children, Montgomery County has drawn notice for its unusual concentration on human resources. The 139,000-student district spends 3 percent of its annual budget—or $50 million a year—on recruiting and developing its people.

The approach appears to be yielding dividends. Test scores are rising across the county, and performance gaps between students of various racial and ethnic groups are narrowing. That’s because, experts say, investing in choosing the right people and providing them with the right kind of training builds a shared culture of language, goals, and methods.

“Human resources is by far the weakest dimension of general management in school systems, but it is potentially the highest value-added management practice,” said Richard F. Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard University. He has been studying Montgomery County’s practices as part of a joint project with the university’s business school.

Reworking the System

The Montgomery County district had begun to improve its staff development in the late 1990s. Then, when Superintendent Jerry D. Weast took the helm in 1999, he reorganized the human-resources operations to better link them to the district’s aim of improving achievement.

In addition to overhauling the curriculum, providing training for educators in teaching it, and funneling more help to needy schools, he set out to strengthen the hiring, development, and support of all employees.

Matthew A. Devan, left, then a principal-intern, staff developer Susan Freiman, and James Virga Jr., then the principal of Viers Mill Elementary School, participate in a core-team training session.

To bolster the front end of the human-resources system, the district formed partnerships with local universities and regularly communicates its needs, enabling education schools to recruit students who want to teach in the district’s high-need subject areas. Universities participating in the partnerships agree to lower charges for the paraprofessionals, teachers, and administrators pursuing advancement, and in some cases, the district also foots part of the tuition bill.

The county moved up its hiring timelines, offering “open contracts” to promising candidates for teaching jobs in April. It also honed its demographic and forecasting operations so it can tell schools in early spring about their fall staffing allocations, said Matthew A. Tronzano, Montgomery County’s associate superintendent for human resources.

Principals have broad authority to hire staff members who fit their schools’ needs, Mr. Tronzano said. And to reverse a common national pattern that sees less-qualified teachers disproportionately placed in high-need schools, the highest-poverty schools in Montgomery County consider only teacher-candidates who are considered highly qualified under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

As a result, all of the teachers at Viers Mill Elementary already meet that definition, a year ahead of what the law requires.

Elsewhere in the district, Daniel J. Shea, the principal of Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, has seen the benefits of the change in the county’s hiring practices.

“The pools of teacher-candidates are better qualified than they used to be,” he said. “And I don’t have to scramble as late in the summer to staff my building.”

The district encourages schools to make hiring a collaborative staff process to ensure a good fit. In a recent interview for a vacancy on the 3rd grade team at Viers Mill, for instance, the teachers for that grade asked questions of candidates and gave feedback to the school’s administrative team.

Training has been rebuilt, largely around coursework designed by Research for Better Teaching Inc., the Acton, Mass.-based education consulting group whose Skillful Teacher textbook is considered “the bible” in Montgomery County.

Administrators must study techniques enabling them to identify and support good teaching. And teachers are encouraged to take a course based on Skillful Teacher. In response to teacher demand, multiple versions of the course have been developed to suit specific subjects, such as algebra.

Training in the district’s curriculum is required, and is now aligned to district goals and standards. Shelly H. Niverth, a 4th grade teacher and award-winning 11-year veteran of Viers Mill Elementary, said clear goals and indicators, and well-designed training, now enable teachers to “teach with the end in mind.” The situation contrasts with the one years ago, when Ms. Niverth felt she had little guidance on what or how to teach.

She cited another improvement: the addition of a full-time staff-development teacher in each building. The teacher-leaders customize district training for their colleagues and help forge a shared sense of mission—and reduce teachers’ sense of isolation—by building a teamwork approach to teaching, she said.

Union Cooperation

The Montgomery County school system demands continuous growth from its employees, requiring them to have individual improvement plans that lay out their goals and how they will reach them. The district envisions advancement for educators as a “lattice” rather than a ladder. The idea is that by offering positions such as a staff-development teacher, educators can grow in their profession without disconnecting from the classroom.

Consulting teachers and principals are also involved in their own staff development through mentoring novice colleagues and working with underperforming ones to improve their practice.

A peer-review process analyzes the problems with new or struggling educators, a reflection of Mr. Weast’s “weed and feed” strategy: Provide plenty of support and growth opportunities, but if those don’t yield results, it’s time to part ways.

Darlene A. Merry, the district’s associate superintendent for organizational development, said that between 2001 and 2004, 177 underperforming teachers were dismissed, chose to leave, or didn’t have their contracts renewed, compared with only one between 1994 and 1999.

The district’s approach could not have succeeded without cooperation from union leaders, who are part of all key district decisions as members of its leadership team. The teachers’ union spearheaded the peer-review process as part of its larger bid to raise teacher quality.

Bonnie Cullison, the president of the 11,000-member Montgomery County Education Association, said the affiliate of the National Education Association can support the peer-review process because it ensured that the district provides ample support for improvement before concluding that some teachers are not well suited to their jobs.

“It’s not good for a union to say anyone can walk into a classroom and teach,” she said. “It diminishes the work we do.”

Montgomery County officials believe that the attention to staff quality, with all of its attendant expenses, ultimately pays off by building a workforce that speaks a common language about education, has a clear understanding of its mission, and is well prepared to carry it out.

Such a system, they say, is especially adept at grooming leaders because they are steeped in the district’s way of doing things.

“It’s important in Montgomery County that when you go into a leadership position, you’re like the Cadillac—that all we need to do is polish you,” Ms. Merry said.

That approach can make it harder for outsiders to break in, however. Some graduates of Harvard’s graduate school of education who sought positions in Montgomery County not long ago were told by district officials that they were hiring principals and assistant principals from within, and were referred instead to the teaching pool.

Indeed, only four of the 83 new principals and assistant principals in Montgomery County in 2004-05 were hired from outside the system.

Selection Process

Viers Mill Elementary School illustrates the district’s method of selecting new school leaders. Principal Matthew A. Devan taught at a Gaithersburg elementary school while getting his master’s degree in administration through one of the district’s university partnerships. After serving three years in the county as an assistant principal, Mr. Devan came to Viers Mill in Silver Spring for his principal internship with James Virga Jr., who’d been the school’s principal for eight years, and is himself a product of a university partnership, as is Assistant Principal Michelle Piket.

In July, Mr. Virga began a new job as the district’s director of school improvement services. Mr. Devan now sits at Mr. Virga’s old desk at Viers Mill.

Heavy investment in the staff is a pivotal piece of Superintendent Weast’s vision, but he said it must go hand in hand with the right supports and a collaborative approach that recognizes the inherent complexity of teaching. His hope is that the combination forges a strong commitment to the work.

“That is the only way you can sustain growth over time, despite the outside weather,” Mr. Weast said.

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Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week as Staff Investment Pays Dividends in Md. District

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