I just read a speech given by Joshua P. Starr, the man who has been chosen to succeed the retiring Jerry Weast as superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, long one of the country’s best school districts.

I liked what he said in this 2010 speech. And I liked what he didn’t say.

It is heartening that the Montgomery County Board of Education did not rush out to find a retired Army general or a media executive or a carbon copy of Michelle Rhee, but rather looked for a superintendent who had been, of all things, a successful superintendent. What a concept.

Starr is expected to start in a few months after Weast, in June, formally leaves the job he has had for a dozen years.

There’s a great deal to learn about the 41-year-old Starr, who has since 2005 been superintendent of public schools in Stamford, Conn., a district with one-tenth the enrollment of Montgomery County.

But he transmitted a sensibility that speaks to the need for looking at school reform broadly and thoughtfully. Here’s part of what he said in a speech in February 2010 (and you can read the whole speech here):

“While the term achievement gap is commonly understood in the education landscape, we think about differences in achievement as an education debt. Let me first explain what that term means. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an expert in education and critical race theory, coined the phrase to suggest that America has accumulated a great debt to our children of color by systematically keeping them from opportunities that are otherwise afforded other children. To Ladson-Billings, the stark disparities in test scores – known as the achievement gap – is a reflection of the institutional barriers that exist in America; for example, access to mortgages and credit, admission to particular schools, or certain kinds of jobs. The list of intentional and unintended barriers goes on and on.

“At the local level, our education debt has manifested itself in tracking middle school students. In the early 1970s, when Stamford decided to desegregate its schools so that each school’s demographics would reflect the population at-large, a commensurate decision was made to establish four or five distinct tracks in middle schools for students with different levels of prior achievement. While schools were desegregated overall, many classrooms were not integrated, with high-level classes typically made up of White and Asian students and low-level classes typically made up of African-American, Latino and poor children.

“Thus, the so-called achievement gap that has developed over time should be seen not simply as a function of what one group of children can do in comparison to another group of children, but rather as a result of barriers that have been constructed over time—barriers that we must break down. Removing these barriers pays down the debt that we owe to the students in our classrooms today, let alone the generations of children and families who have been denied opportunities to participate fully in the American dream.

“The work we have been doing in Stamford over the last five years to pay down this debt is rooted in a simple concept. High quality instruction leads to good outcomes for students. That’s it. That’s the theory that grounds our work and that has lead to these encouraging results. We are building a system to improve instructional practice by developing world class curriculum, adhering to the best practices in professional development and monitoring for results.

“We have tried hard to not fall prey to the “if there were just argument,” that is fashionable these days, and goes something like this; the achievement gap would be eliminated if there were just merit-pay for teachers; the achievement gap would be eliminated if there were just more charter schools, or more school choice, or increased accountability.

“The achievement gap would be eliminated if we just had more public/private partnerships, if corporate executives ran school districts, if we just adopted business practices to run school systems, had longer school days and years, block schedules, better teacher preparation programs, more parental involvement, more early childhood education, better nutrition, improved pre-natal care, small class sizes, data-based decision making, school data teams, union/management collaboration, leadership development, policy changes, more technology, full autonomy for principals, or mayoral control. All of these ideas have merit, but none can stand alone. They must exist within the context of a system that focuses on what and how we teach our children.”

As a contrast, I’ll note that when Rhee left her job as chancellor of D.C. public schools last October after about 3 1/3 years, her laser-like focus on standardized tests and all the things that can be done with the results gave her no time to start addressing the fact that the city schools have no real curriculum. She left that task to her successor, Kaya Henderson. It just wasn’t a big concern for her. It is for Starr.

As for what he didn’t do in that speech: He indicated no Rhee-like obsession with test scores. One area of future inquiry involves Starr’s stand on linking teachers’ pay with student achievement, especially when measured by standardized test scores.

Starr was quoted in this Washington Post story about his appointment as saying that is “not a strong believer” in paying teachers based on the academic performance of students.

That’s better than being a strong believer, but what it ultimately means remains to be seen. I’ll ask him soon.


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