By the time former superintendent Jerry Weast finished his first year at the head of Montgomery County public schools, he had issued a “Call to Action” plan to close the racial academic achievement gap, hired three dozen new administrators and pushed one of the biggest budgets in memory through the County Council to launch a laundry list of programs.
Twelve years later, his successor, Joshua Starr, is winding down his inaugural year with an intentionally short list of changes. He restructured the central office, built on the close relationships Weast had forged with employee unions by brokering a controversial and generous pay raise during a tight budget cycle, and began to articulate a vision for a school system dedicated to graduating not just good students, but good people.
The leaders’ different introductions to the nation’s 16th-largest school system reflect changing marching orders and shifting educational eras. Weast ushered in a decade that became defined by No Child Left Behind, a federal law that highlighted achievement gaps by escalating the role of standardized tests. Starr is positioning himself to lead the next phase of education reform, which he hopes will bring more success by thinking beyond test-bubble sheets.
“As we have become increasingly focused on rigid conceptions of what success is — that are directly aligned to standardized tests . . . are we missing something? Have we lost something? I think we have,” Starr said at a May forum at Walt Whitman High School about the importance of social and emotional learning.
In a series of book clubs and community meetings, Starr hosted discussions about the best ways to motivate students and teachers through perseverance and teamwork, and how to emphasize the emotional intelligence, creativity and communication skills that also are important in work and life.
His meetings attracted many parents, glad to participate in the intellectual exercise. But some county leaders question whether he should spend more time developing hands-on leadership and cultivating political relationships.
“Josh is a learned scholar. . . . He reads a lot of theories about schools and policies and about how kids learn. But I would like to see him get his hands dirty and drill down below what he’s read in a book,” County Council member Valerie Ervin said.
She said she was dismayed that Starr relied heavily on his staff to deal with council members in budget talks. Ervin and others on the council were especially critical of raises given to school employees.
Educators have protested the limitations of standardized tests for as long as No Child Left Behind has tied high-stakes decisions to one-day snapshots of student achievement. But Starr finds himself in a unique position to do something about it, given what he often calls the “luxury” of Montgomery’s successful track record and a window of opportunity that opened this year. After Congress failed to reauthorize the federal education law in the fall, Maryland became one of 24 states to be granted a federal waiver from its most punitive aspects.