This was written by Joshua P. Starr, the new superintendent of the high-achieving Montgomery County Public Schools system in Maryland.

By Joshua P. Starr

As a school superintendent, I’m glad to see that President Barack Obama has launched a national conversation about dismantling No Child Left Behind. However, I’m concerned about what may take its place and whether a new law will be what our education system and our country need to improve.

The problems with NCLB have been discussed at great length, but we must absorb the lessons learned from the last 10 years or risk repeating the same mistakes.

NCLB rightly forced us, as a society, to own up to the fact that certain children have been systematically shortchanged by public education. History has proven that, without meaningful oversight, states and local districts will not always do what is necessary to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education. Any new law must remain committed to providing that oversight.

NCLB also forced educators to use data —but it was the wrong data. Using a standardized test as the only indicator of success is short-sighted, and continuing to build flawed policies around the overuse of a test score will simply lead to more failure.

However, perhaps in response to NCLB, I have seen educators develop wonderful ways of looking at meaningful data. Teachers and administrators are collaborating to track student progress using student work and common assessments given throughout the year. They are critiquing their own lessons and watching video of their teaching to improve. These are successful practices that should be encouraged and replicated. Data should start a conversation, not end it.

Third, NCLB has allowed us to see the difference between being held accountable and being accountable. NCLB is rooted in the idea that if educators are held accountable and shamed publicly, they will miraculously develop the knowledge and skills to improve. As we now know, this is folly. But being accountable is what happens on great teams, when everyone feels responsible for the collective success. This happens in schools and districts when the focus is on student and adult learning; when teachers have time to collaborate; when administrators supervise and evaluate for the purposes of improving and developing; and when superintendents and school boards recognize that we have to provide resources and time for people to learn new skills that will help our children.

With these lessons in mind, I suggest that any new national education law be based on what students need to know and be able to do in the 21st century to be college and career ready.

There is widespread agreement that students need not only good technical skills but should be able to think critically, problem solve, work in teams, speak another language and write well. These skills can be embedded in and integrated among all curriculum areas. For example, rather than focus solely on Algebra II as a graduation requirement, schools should ensure that students obtain the conceptual and abstract knowledge and problem-solving skills that Algebra II promotes.

In order for our educators to be successful, we need to invest in them, support them and then trust that they will do right by our children. Ineffective educators must be given appropriate counseling by peers and experts and, then, be removed from schools and classrooms if they don’t improve. The Professional Growth System in Montgomery County does this with incredible success. Systems of support require collaboration with labor organizations and recognition by elected officials that our educators need to be treated as professionals and paid accordingly.

We also must make sure our students have the social and emotional skills they need to be successful. I want Montgomery County students — including my own children — to be good people and good students. They must have the self-confidence necessary to explore and experiment, to embrace success and deal with the occasional failure. These skills are as important to their future as any of the “three R’s.”

The last decade has taught us what not to do when trying to improve outcomes for our children. We now have a choice. Do we focus on what actually works to improve public education and invest in our people, or do we continue to fall prey to the facile notions of accountability and school improvement that simply don’t work?


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