Q&A with Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith

Feb. 3, 2021, 7:22 p.m. | By Luke Sanelli, Anika Seth with Marijke Friedman, Leila Faraday | 3 years, 4 months ago

The outgoing MCPS superintendent discusses the future of final exams, countywide tech access for students, and recommendations for his replacement.

On Jan. 14, Montgomery County Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith announced his upcoming retirement, tentatively scheduled for June 1. In his public video, Smith said his two-year-old grandson recently received open-heart surgery, and Smith thus intends to move to Maine to help care for him.

On Feb. 3, Anika Seth, Leila Faraday, and Marijke Friedman of Silver Chips Print and Luke Sanelli of Silver Chips Online spoke with the superintendent about his impact on MCPS, the district’s biggest upcoming challenges, and recommendations for the incoming superintendent.

Smith began his tenure as MCPS Superintendent on July 1, 2016. During his 41-year-long career as an educator, Smith taught middle and high school English in Washington state, served as a middle school principal in and ultimately superintendent of Maryland’s Calvert County, was the Maryland State Department of Education’s chief academic officer, and acted as the interim statewide superintendent for a year. Notably, in 2013, Smith was named the Maryland Superintendent of the Year.

Photo from Silver Chips Print, courtesy of MCPS

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Friedman (Silver Chips Print): Which developments in MCPS have you been the most proud to watch happen? And what are you personally most proud of?

Smith: I think in MCPS, we've shifted away from a culture of scarcity and more to a culture of abundance. When you think about equal opportunity, schools’ work around Advanced Placement in all high schools. When you think about the 21st-century career and technology programs we've instituted, like aviation and many others—we went from having half the high schools having computer science-based career/technology programs to all of them having those. And when you think about the change in the Magnet programs at the elementary and middle schools, the increase in the number of dual-language programs across the county. When you think about efforts like CREA (the Career Readiness Education Academy) to support our students who are immigrants and students who come late to schooling, at the seventh or ninth or eleventh grade oftentimes with disrupted education. That doesn't mean we can’t offer the opportunity to get to that high school diploma as well as career certifications and other kinds of support.

All those are just examples of moving from what I called a culture of scarcity. What I'm most proud of in MCPS is that shift. And that certainly is an equity-driven shift, because it means that you have more opportunities for all students and you really look at students who, as a group, based on race or culture have had fewer opportunities. Some students in every race and culture have had lots of opportunities. The problem is that, essentially, white and Asian students have had more. If 60 percent of the Hispanic/Latino students have had this opportunity and 90 percent of the white and Asian students have had it, the goal here is not to lose what we've done for the 60 percent here, but to raise it up so nine out of ten of all students get the opportunity. Then, we still work for that last 10 percent to get everybody to that place. 

Faraday (Silver Chips Print): Is there anything that you wish you'd done differently during your time as superintendent or is there anything that you regret?

Smith: I really wish that one of the things I talked about the day I walked in the door was expanding and extending the digital opportunities for all students—and that starts with connectivity. Instead, we had to have a worldwide crisis impose that on us. But think how much better it would have been last March 13 if we had already done that work, if we had already put a Chromebook in every student's hand, if we already made sure that we were making connectivity possible for every student, and supporting them, training and challenging every teacher to use those digital tools. So I wish we had done that sooner, and I don't have any good justification for why we didn't. I just paid attention to other things at that time. Because you always think well, we'll get to that later. And then all of a sudden, on March 13, there was no later. And it was hard for students. It was hard for adults. It's still hard, but it's gotten easier. 

We have done a lot of looking at resource allocation so that the schools with the highest number of students in poverty get more resources. I regret that we didn't do more of that earlier. We did a research study my second and third year here, and that's really revealed a lot to everyone. But if I had known then what I know now, I would have started that resource study the first day I walked in the door because I think that also would have expanded that understanding of the need for digital accessibility, digital facility, digital capacity for everyone. Because let's face it: There's no place in our life that we don't use it. And why not let people work more flexibly and differently even when it's not a crisis, as long as the work is getting done? So I think if those two things, the digital work and resource allocation studies, if I had done them the minute I walked in the door, we could have accelerated a lot of what we've been going through.

Sanelli (Silver Chips Online): What are your hopes for the next MCPS Superintendent? What would you say to them?

Smith: I would say that you can never have true excellence—and this is an excellent system, has been for decades—without full true equity. And you can never have equity without excellence. Who's ever heard of an equitable, mediocre school system? It just doesn't make sense. Tying those things together in everyone's mind will make all the difference for the students that come through the doors of MCPS schools in the years to come. It will. That equity is about making sure that everyone to the greatest degree possible gets what the school can provide, to ensure their education, ensure their sense of agency that I can do this, I have the efficacy, I have the confidence to use what I've learned and go out in search of opportunities in my life. And so you have to have both, you have to have both that confidence from being well cared for by your school and you have to have real knowledge, skills, understandings. Because when you walk out the door, and if you feel great, because we've done such a good job of caring for you, and you cannot read right, and think mathematically, you're going to be in a world of hurt, whether you go right into the job market, whether you go into some career licensure certification program, or you go right to a university, it doesn't matter. All of them can lead you to wonderful good places in the society. But if you're lacking those foundational skills, then all of the goodwill and good care we've provided is going to be lost as an adult when you're wandering around the community without any options. And so that's what I would say to the next superintendent: Guard everything. Don't just guard the learning, don’t just guard the well being. Build everything out and then make sure that the schools are delivering that sense of confidence, that sense of efficacy, and those skills, understandings and that care for the kids social, physical, psychological well being all at the same time, all the way to the day they walk off the stage with that diploma and go off into the world.

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Seth (Silver Chips Print): As we're talking about students' social and emotional well-being, one of the things that came up this summer that was really major was the wave of allegations on social media about sexual misconduct in the district. Do you have recommendations for the next Superintendent about how to handle—and maybe better protect—student safety and well-being?

Smith: Absolutely. One of the things that MCPS was really engaged in when I got here, and we've done a lot of work around it, is child abuse responsiveness. Now, the vast majority—like almost all—of the child abuse reports are from external sources. There are a very small number where adults in schools act badly. When we talk about child abuse, one of the things we've done is build a very systematic way, where everyone knows that we're actually following the systems and processes that we're supposed to follow—not just as checkboxes. Now, take that same line of thinking and apply it to circumstances in schools where adults behave in terrible ways or students behave in terrible ways toward one another. It's exactly the same line of thinking. You have to build systems where you're constantly checking that you have done what you need to do for every student.

People say, ‘There are 161,000 students right now. Well, that's so many students; how do you do that?’ You do it locally, within the school classrooms, the school hallways, the school buildings, the offices across the entire district—so wherever it comes to, you have very tight parameters around you. You can't say, ‘Well, I don't know if this really happened or not. So I'm not going to report it.’ No. You report it. There's no if on that. And then in that process, you have ways to reach out to the student, reach out to the family, reach out to other staff members, and reach out to other agencies that help you do it. And then you constantly do that every single time, and then you check yourself. Are we doing it 87 percent of the time? Are we doing it 93 percent of time? That's not good enough. Are we doing it 98 percent of the time? That's still not good enough. That's a 100 percent issue. 

You got to build really tight parameters. You got to trust people within those parameters to do the right thing. And then you have to go back and verify that it's actually happening 100 percent of the time. And when it’s not, I always call for—if it's a serious situation—for what I call a blameless autopsy. And a blameless autopsy means you go in, and you look at everything. We're not here to assign blame. Assigning the blame can happen somewhere else if somebody has really been derelict or indifferent or actually malicious in how they've treated something.

Both the process improvement and responding to the individual's bad behavior together can make a 100 percent system if you do them and do them right. And we weren't. I’d be foolish if I told you we were because the evidence was brought forward. But I can tell you, we followed up on every one of those. And I got a weekly report on where we were on following up things. And it's okay if a bunch of them turned out to be dead ends because not all of them did. And that's the important part.

Friedman (Silver Chips Print): Looking back in the past, with the locker room rapes at Damascus, I know that MCPS contracted the law firm WilmerHale to look into the culture regarding sexual harassment. Do you think that was the right decision? Is contracting a study something that should be approached in the future, if there were more incidents like this?

Smith: I do think those sorts of studies can really provide beneficial kinds of paths forward. I do. And with that particular study, it really caused us to step back and look at all 25 high schools and the after-school programs. Whether they were athletics or activities, doesn't matter. A bad thing can happen in a band room; a bad thing can happen in a locker room. We put a lot of processes in place that we were ready to implement because of that. Those will be in the budget for next year, or this spring as we try to bring the students back in the spring. We've not lost any of that work. Like so many things, if you have great trust and confidence in your environment and you become relaxed, then that's when people make careless decisions—or they make bad decisions, or they make horrific decisions. And you can't leave that place open for people to make really horrific or bad decisions. Careless decisions happen. And I can't talk a lot about it because, obviously, it's a litigation. But if you go back and look at the press conferences, you know that we held people responsible and said, “People made bad decisions in this case, and going forward, that can’t happen.” We have to have multiple layers—just like I was talking about a few minutes ago—checkpoints, and interconnected pieces, so that if somebody makes a terrorist decision over here, somebody else makes sure it's taken care of, so you don't wind up with a horrific decision.

Faraday (Silver Chips Print): Would you encourage the next superintendent to conduct these reviews when they take their position? 

Smith: Absolutely. When you're dealing with human organizations, if you wait until it's broken, it's too late. So continuous improvement means, for human organizations, means to be constantly looking at where the weakness is, the failings, the places of vulnerability. And one of the ways to do that is to do these kinds of studies and say, “What are the vulnerabilities? What are the areas of danger for our students? And how do we make sure that we close those?” 

Sanelli (Silver Chips Online): What do you think is the biggest challenge that MCPS still has to face in the future? 

Smith: I think MCPS is going to have to continue to face two things. One is that MCPS has been really good for a long time. And so we tend to think, “Well, we're really good at that. So why should we go back and look at it?” Well, the world changes. And one of the things that I realized, around our earlier conversation with the digital work that I should have started earlier: I should have been looking at the world around us more closely and saying, you know, “I know we're doing 50 different things, but we're gonna start with this digital work right now, in July 2016.” Instead, we waited until it was forced upon us. And we'd been doing Chromebooks, we’d been doing Smartboards, but we were really good. So I didn't look at, “How can we be better in this era, right now, in the context of the world?” 

In March of 2020, around connectivity and digital tools, some students had everything. Some students had three devices on their desk at home. Some have one, some had one substandard device, some shared the device with six other family members. And some students had to go find someplace in the neighborhood to even get access, like a library, or a neighbor, or a friend. And then teaching adults how to use them, so they are using them in an appropriate way for the students they serve. That's one thing that I think MCPS is going to have to contend with: the idea that we're really good, so we don't need to be great. And the minute you think you're really good, you slide backwards because you're not working to go forward. 

The other thing, and it goes right hand-in-hand with it, is something called “TTWWADI.” I've used that with all the administrators many times. It’s just a series of letters for, “That’s the way we've always done it.” But that is not a good reason for doing something now. Don't ever tell me, “That's the way we've always done it,” as the justification for doing it this way today. Tell me we've analyzed it. We've looked at ten different ways to do it, and the way we've done it for the last ten years is still the best way to do it. And I'm going to say, “You are a thinking person that really took your job seriously.” If you say, “This works, it’s what we've always done,” that's lazy thinking right there. 

Those are the two things that we have to battle against. Because tradition is good; we have to honor tradition. But tradition can become toxic, if we leave it too long—like this digital tools connectivity question. 

Seth (Silver Chips Print): Before you became Superintendent, final exams were removed. But in the years since then, we've heard former board members, students, and teachers raise concerns about increased testing time, with things like the RQAs and PARCC exams. And former students have raised concerns about under-preparedness for college without that final exam requirement. Do you see a future for final exams coming back to the school district?

Smith: I do. I think that the different kinds of final exams will continue to evolve. We're in a real period of transition right now. The challenge here is how do you know that students are getting what they need—including final exams—in an efficient and effective way so it doesn't take too much time? And how do you do it in a way that makes sense to students? I think the assessment question is going to change a lot. There's a good article from a year or two ago by this futurist who said pretty soon, final exams and state tests are not going to be necessary. Because that information will just be constantly collected about your progress so that every student will know all the time, how they are doing. And if you go look at some of the things that are happening with medicine, science, business, and manufacturing, that's what they're doing. They're constantly collecting all sorts of information, and then they can talk about the individual patient experience, or they can talk about a group of patients, or they can talk about this whole class of medical work that we do. I think the same thing is going to happen in education, that the whole conversation has shifted away from, “Should we give a one-hour or a two- hour final exam? Should it be four times a year or two times a year?” to being, “What do we know? Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, semesterly, yearly around growth?” 

That's where I think we're heading with testing. I think the next five years are going to be very interesting and very exciting. And I always tell civil rights advocates, “Don't give up on this.” Because if we lose the knowledge about how our students are doing, and how do we know, then disparities in learning and opportunity and access are going to be perpetuated. If you think about Advanced Placement, there's the gap of who takes the class and who doesn’t. But then look at the other disparities that exist: Which groups of students get a 1 and which get a 5? Not by individual, because my motivation level might be a 1, so I get a 1 because that's what I contributed to my own learning. But if you can predict by race or culture or income which group is going to get more 5’s and which group is going to get more 1’s, then there's something wrong in the system. You have to look not just at the binary who-gets-in and who-doesn't but then also at what happens when they're there.

Friedman (Silver Chips Print): What do you hope to accomplish in the months before your retirement? And how do you feel about this chapter of your long journey as an educator coming to an end?

Smith: I'm very, very sad. I had not planned to retire at this point. I'm just trying to cope with my own feelings about it. Frankly, I'd not planned to move to Maine—it's really cold in Maine! I like the weather in Maryland. It's hard; it really is very hard. But my goal is to leave the school system in the very best place I can leave it in and to make the absolute best transition for the next superintendent, the staff, the school board and the community that I can provide as we go forward. In my mind, there was no good time to do this because I didn't want to do it; I just needed to do it in a way that would be the best possible transition for the school system going forward. That's what I hope to do, and I'll keep working on that until I leave. Thank you for listening to me.

Last updated: March 4, 2021, 9:57 p.m.

Luke Sanelli. Hi, I'm Luke Sanelli, and I'm the News and Co-Entertainment editor for Silver Chips Online. In my free time I enjoy to draw, watch TV with my family, play video games in my free time. Also, I love to wear hats. More »

Anika Seth. print More »

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