“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.”