Montgomery superintendent Joshua Starr’s prominence injects him into national debate


Second Grader Diego Rodriguez in a near whisper tells Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua Starr the project he's working on at Wheaton Woods Elementary School Thursday, December 13, 2012 in Rockville, MD. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
December 15, 2012

In his year and a half leading Montgomery County Public Schools, Superintendent Joshua P. Starr hasn’t been shy about using his Twitter feed, countywide book clubs, education podcast and public appearances to talk about — and criticize — “big ideas” in national education policy.

He’s knocked the “overly simplistic notion that somehow you can boil education down to one standardized test.” And he’s panned “federal and state rules and laws that have narrowed curriculum, stifled creativity and relied too heavily on standardized tests . . . .

But Starr’s voice has been amplified by his position at the helm of one of the country’s largest and best-performing school systems that also happens to sit in the back yard of the nation’s capital. And his sharp critiques come at a time of intense and often rancorous debate over the role of standardized testing in President Obama’s plans for improving instruction, closing the achievement gap, and holding students and teachers accountable.

Last week, Starr stepped into the national spotlight and offered his provocative views at a Washington Post Live education forum, where he said the country should “stop the insanity” of judging teacher performance based on student exam scores and start a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. His comments prompted applause from a room full of educators and caught fire with others across the country who share his frustration that federal education reforms are forcing school systems to do too many things at once.

“Part of my great frustration is that we’re not being intellectually honest about what we are doing to improve education, and we’re doing it in a way that is maddening to so many folks because we’re trying to do three things at once,” Starr said.


Fifth graders Zaire Mitchell, left, and Bryan Lomeli, talk about their reading project with Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua Starr at Wheaton Woods Elementary School Thursday, December 13, 2012 in Rockville, MD. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

School districts, as he sees it, have been asked by federal or state governments to implement new national curriculum standards to create more consistent educational instruction for students, require student test scores to be a factor in measuring teacher performance, and implement waivers to free school systems from burdensome No Child Left Behind policies left over from the George W. Bush administration.

He speaks from a privileged bully pulpit few superintendents enjoy. He works for a Board of Education that supports his political views and outspokenness, and his relatively affluent student population over-performs. For the past four years, Education Week has ranked Maryland as the No. 1 state for public schools — with Montgomery County students contributing to much of the success.

But he doesn’t speak for everyone, particularly his counterparts in many large urban school districts, where academic achievement is lower, poverty is higher and the need for reform is urgent. A hold on standardized tests, some argue, could reduce the progress the reform movement has made holding schools accountable.

“I agree there is frustration, but I don’t necessarily think it is the reason to declare a universal moratorium on standardized tests,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s largest urban public school systems. “Before the standards movement came along in the mid-1990s, student achievement wasn’t terribly well-measured. People didn’t ask questions about achievement gaps or academic performance, or whether or not the country was being competitive.”

Starr said there is a place for standardized tests, but he worries that the reform movement focuses too much on data and not enough on what kids should know and do to prepare them for the workforce.

“You have to test in order to understand progress, but it shouldn’t be the goal,” Starr said. “When you talk to industry leaders, they say they are desperate for kids who can think on their own, who can solve problems, who are creative. Why don’t we build opportunities for that kind of learning?”

Starr’s high profile in Montgomery lends him a “credible, reasoned and pragmatic” voice as the country continues to debate education reform on a national level, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“I don’t think what he’s saying is new or unusual,” Henig said. But “he’s got extra armor that a lot of superintendents wouldn’t have.”

The success of his system helps, but Starr’s credibility as a critic is also built on the early part of his career working in urban systems as an accountability director in New Jersey and New York City. And although his system clearly benefits from the affluence of its residents, much of Montgomery is also ethnically and economically diverse. At least one-third of its students get free and reduced-price meals (a measure of poverty). And despite recent gains, the achievement gap, with white and Asian students outperforming black and Hispanic students, remains stubbornly difficult to close.

And then there’s money. While urban districts are scrambling for resources to improve their systems, the Montgomery school system was financially secure enough to reject $12 million in Race to the Top dollars that Maryland won from the federal government before Starr even arrived.

Starr’s predecessor, Jerry Weast, took what some in the county considered both a principled and political stand in refusing the money because school officials didn’t want to include the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations.

The county’s teacher evaluation system — with the union and the school system working together to provide consulting teachers for new or struggling educators — has been praised by the U.S. Department of Education and others.

The county’s stance against taking money from Race to the Top — Obama’s signature education initiative — was part of the reason Starr said he was “thrilled” to come work for Montgomery after being superintendent in Stamford, Conn.

Board of Education President Christopher Barclay said Starr’s willingness to boldly discuss how federal policies affect school systems on the ground level is “part of why we hired him.”

“You have this whole list of things you're doing well . . . and then we’re asked to change it in ways that may not support student achievement,” Barclay said. “We have a responsibility for pushing the envelope as much as we can in really helping to have that dialogue publicly.”

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said Starr’s call to “stop the madness” of basing teacher evaluations on test scores resonated with other superintendents across the country, as did his call for a three-year testing moratorium. They say they are overwhelmed by the amount of reform overloading the education system.

Domenech, who leads an association that represents 13,000 school administrators nationwide, said local educators are frustrated because they’re teaching students based on old standards while simultaneously preparing to roll out curriculum under new Common Core standards and assessments designed to provide deeper and more difficult instruction to students. There’s a misalignment between what is being taught and what teachers will be evaluated on in the near future.

“So if you’re evaluating teachers based on student performance, you’re setting them up for failure, basically,” Domenech said.

Charles Barone, director of policy at Democrats for Education Reform, said assessments for Common Core are still under development and won’t be ready for a few years, and that standardized tests aren’t the sole factor in judging teachers. He said he worries about suspending standardized testing.

“You really risk losing some of the pressure on schools with lower achievement or kids with an achievement gap,” Barone said. “Standardized tests are imperfect, but they do provide a common yardstick to see where policies are working.”

Starr said he’s never had difficulty speaking his mind but isn’t looking to be a national spokesman against the standards-and-accountability movement. And he isn’t interested in launching an assault against the White House’s education policies.

In fact, Starr has tweeted that he admires and supports Obama: “I’m happy with election outcome, but not at the prospect of more RTTT-esque [Race to the Top] so-called reform. Let’s start talking about children, not tests.”

Starr said people have asked him about the consequences of being so vocal. He said that he’s not worried and that it’s important to confront big ideas in education because everyone has the same goal, which is to improve education for all students.

“The reason I love being superintendent of schools is I have deep beliefs about what I want kids to do and what I want adults to do to help kids do what they should be doing,” Starr said.

“I’ve got to be authentic, and I’ve got to do it in ways that feel right to me.”

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