With honeymoon over, expectations rise for Montgomery County schools chief


Joshua Starr attends a press conference for a school supplies drive in this file photo in Rockville. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
July 28, 2013

When Joshua P. Starr first took over as Montgomery County school superintendent, he dedicated his time to understanding the community and unraveling the mechanics behind the district’s successes.

He held “listen and learn” events, shadowed a Gaithersburg High School student for a day and methodically toured about 175 of the district’s 202 campuses during the past two years — visits he plans to continue throughout his tenure.

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.

The Montgomery County Council has been putting increased pressure on Starr to clearly articulate his plans to shrink the academic disparities between students based on race, income and other factors. A March report from the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight shows the school system has made mixed progress in closing the academic performance gap between white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students.

Fred Stichnoth, a longtime parent and activist in Montgomery County, said Starr must make sure to remain focused on improving the school system for disadvantaged students. He worries that Starr’s “Strategic Planning Framework” lacks detail.

“He talks a lot less about the achievement gap” than former superintendent Jerry D. Weast, said Stichnoth, whose two children graduated from Montgomery schools. “I don’t think he sees the point in having the spotlight on it in a way that Dr. Weast felt that it was important.”

When Weast led the district, he divided the county into “red zone” and “green zone” schools. Red-zone schools received more per-pupil funding and were generally in areas of the county with high rates of poverty and students who speak English as a second language.

Starr steers clear of Weast’s terms, instead talking about “focus schools” and “non-focus schools.”

This year, Starr launched initiatives to try to improve schools with more lower-performing students on a more individualized basis. But even so, that work has sometimes frustrated members of the Board of Education, who want more details and a less professorial discussion on how to help disadvantaged students.

“We’ve got to have something more concrete about how we get to these students and these parents,” Board of Education member Judy Docca said to Starr and his staff during a meeting this spring. “You’re talking about all of these things in a very philosophical way.”

Starr often counters that improving schools and student success doesn’t come in a package off of a shelf and that there is no “one size fits all” solution for schools.

Barclay said Starr and the school system do feel a sense of urgency about closing the achievement gap. But the school system also is in the middle of preparing for new standardized tests and the rollout of more rigorous education standards under the Common Core.

“There is no system in this country that has a magic bullet,” Barclay said. “All of us are trying to align our resources in ways that get the most results for the most students.”

As Starr continues his work in Montgomery, national and local leaders will be watching to see how he navigates the competing interests in the district, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education.

“The challenge in Montgomery County is how do you stretch kids at the high end and support the kids at the low ends whose political constituencies are not as powerful,” Rotherham said. “The low-income kids usually get the short end of the stick, but [Weast] was able to wrap better support for those kids into something everyone could get behind.”

Starr has gained attention nationally as an unappointed spokesman for anti-reform advocates, calling for a moratorium on standardized tests. And he often uses public appearances to speak out against rigid accountability measures that solely focus on math and reading scores. It’s a different tack than that of his predecessor, who focused more on politics at a local level.

“He definitely likes his emerging role as the anti-testing superintendent nationally, but there is a concern from an equity standpoint,” Rotherham said. Montgomery still has to “make sure to do well by the most disadvantaged kids,” Rotherham said.

But Starr doesn’t see that national focus as detracting from the work he does on a local level. With federal policies that rigidly focus on reading and math scores disappearing and new, more challenging education standards coming in, Starr sees this time as an opportunity to change the conversation about the best ways to educate students and also narrow the achievement gap in a way that sets students up for better success in the future.

“I’m trying to convince people in Montgomery County that we have this blank slate in front of us,” Starr said. “Now is the time to say, ‘All right, if you could design it in the way that is your fantasy for what kids should know and be able to do and what adults should do to help them’ . . . there is nothing stopping us from doing that.”

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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