In July 2011, Starr said he wanted to “take a breath” before enacting major change. But as Starr enters his third year of leading Montgomery’s public schools, larger expectations loom.
With deeper knowledge of how the district operates but without the shield of being the new guy, Starr now must step up to the community’s demands for a clearer vision of how to improve the high-achieving school system, where student needs are growing but budgetary resources are shrinking.
“Dr. Starr looks at big ideas and tries to bring people together to figure it out,” Montgomery County Board of Education President Christopher S. Barclay said. “The issue now is going to be how well he can implement those ideas.”
Starr enters the next school year also facing renewed debate about the performance of Montgomery high school students on math courses’ final exams, as the two most recent sets of data showed startlingly high failure rates — as high as 71 percent in Geometry courses last month.
And along with other Maryland school district leaders, Starr has had to confront his students’ slipping performance on state tests, drops announced last week that he and other schools officials attribute to new national education standards — known as the Common Core — that are rolling out in county schools. Montgomery saw some of the sharpest declines, including a 12 percent drop in the number of students who passed the state’s third-grade math exam.
Starr has launched a work group to study the final-exam failure rates and said the drop in state test scores reflects “incredible misalignment” between what is being taught in class and what appears on the tests.
As he has worked to deal with those specific concerns in recent months, he also has been focusing on developing a broader vision for the school system, which he recently outlined in a policy framework that the Board of Education approved in June. The one-page glossy brochure is meant to guide the school system’s accountability while laying out expectations for what students should know and be able to do and what staff should do to help them. It broadens the district’s definition of student success to include social and emotional skills and problem-solving, along with traditional academic measures.
“The vision is that I want us to be the best public education system in the country, bar none,” Starr said. “I want our kids to graduate and be academically proficient, creative thinkers and have a sense of hope that they can meet the world on their own terms and thrive in their future.”
Starr said he wanted a simple document that was less of a “strategic plan” and more of a “plan for strategic thinking.” But for some, Starr’s plans to improve the school system don’t seem concrete enough — particularly when it comes to narrowing the achievement gap.