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Nonsense about Superintendent Joshua Starr

Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr has been a thoughtful critic of the excesses of the modern reform movement, and for that, of course, he is now the object of gratuitous attack. Starr recently said that the country would be better off with a three-year moratorium on standardized testing than a continuation of the current insanity that uses test scores to evaluate not only students and schools but teachers with formulas that are unreliable and invalid. Here, award-winning school Principal Carol Burris, who has documented the problems with New York state’s new teacher evaluation system, talks about Starr and his history.

By Carol Burris

I am no longer surprised by the narrow view of school improvement that is held by those who believe in test-based school reform. Their playbook never varies—its strategies are high stakes testing, school choice, evaluation of teachers  by test scores, online learning, and charters—there is little variation from one ‘reformer’ to another, with perhaps the exception of whether or not they support vouchers.

Their faith in test-based reform is so unwavering that anyone who questions it is branded as anti- reform and pro-status quo. Enter Chester (Checker) Finn. His recent commentary in Education Next reads like a polite, veiled threat to Montgomery County Superintendent, Joshua Starr, for speaking out against Finn’s favored reform agenda.  After a tepid acknowledgement that some “set in their ways” superintendents occasionally follow the reform playbook while other “earnest” reformers like Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and Jean-Claud Brizard live by its rules, he brands Josh Starr as a “fully fledged anti-reformer.”

I suppose if the only reform one must believe in is Finn’s, then the label is a match.  However, if you believe that school reform is continuous and thoughtful school improvement, which results in greater opportunities and increased learning for students, then you will find Josh Starr to be a very impressive leader.

Although I have never met Josh Starr in person, I interviewed him last summer for a book that I am writing for Beacon Press on race and schools. Prior to coming to Maryland, Starr was the superintendent of the Stamford Connecticut public schools. It is small city system with 20 schools—some are neighborhood schools while others are magnet schools. It is a majority minority district where 54 percent of all students are considered to be disadvantaged by one or more of the following factors: free or reduced priced lunch status, ELL status, or residence in low-income housing.

In 1976, the Connecticut Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights initiated a review of the status of Stamford’s progress with desegregation and expressed concern that middle- and high-school ability grouping was re-segregating classrooms, with high-track students being predominantly White, and low-track students being predominantly Black or Latino. When Dr. Starr arrived in 2005 as Superintendent, nearly 30 years after the report, no progress on improvement recommendations had been made. There were up to five tracks in the middle schools. Although only 40% of all students in the district were White, nearly 79% of the honors track was White. Conversely, although 53% of the district’s students were Black or Latino, only 11% of the honors track was Black or Latino. In the three lowest tracks, however, about 73% of the students were Black or Latino. It was as if two separate school systems existed.

Josh Starr characterizes the Stamford schools as being like “the wild west” when he arrived—no curricular structures, with everyone doing their own thing. When I spoke with him he jokingly remarked that there were 20 schools with 80 different ways of doing business.

Josh Starr took all of that on. He led a middle school transformation committee to review data and grouping practices and to create a curriculum for all students that would be based on rigorous standards. The committee was charged with reviewing the organizational structure of the middle school and, based on research, recommend the strategies and structures that would achieve the goal of challenging learning opportunities for all of Stamford’s children. To help fund the transformation initiative, Starr secured a $27 million dollar grant from The General Electric Foundation. He created a relationship and alliance with the local NAACP and the Latino community and began to talk openly about race, encouraging difficult conversations within the boundaries of respect and community norms.

The Middle School Transformation Committee attracted serious and committed school and community members, and recommendations including changes to the rigid tracking system that was responsible for de-facto segregation. State test scores went up for all subgroups, with accelerated growth for Black and Latino students. A survey of parents, students, and teachers showed positive reactions to the reform. The percentage of Black or Latino students in the honors math track increased from 11% to 30%—a dramatic shift in the proportion of student groups in the highest track.

And that was when fierce opposition arose.  Integrated classes were not universally welcomed.

Joshua Starr held his ground despite the opposition. In an opinion piece on the topic he stated, “Some may think we have a choice about eliminating tracking. I do not. If we want to live up to the ideals of social justice and equity long espoused by our community, we must ensure that each and every one of our children has access to a curriculum based on high standards that prepares them to graduate ready for higher education and success in the 21st century.”  In Starr’s words, the reduction in tracking became “the hill that he was willing to die on.” Stamford Schools are better, more equitable places for the six years that Josh Starr spent there.

There are those who will ignore all of the elephants in the room—poverty, segregation, overcrowding, prejudice, inequitable learning opportunities, and watered-down curricula for some students. They will follow the reform playbook and shout “no excuses” at every turn.

Yet when school leaders like Josh Starr, who have done the real work of making schools better for students speak out, they are a threat to the lockstep reform agenda set by Finn and his friends. Finn saw fit to attack Starr because Starr’s importance extends beyond Stamford and Montgomery County. Parents listen when real reformers point out that today’s reform emperors have no clothes. They are credible critics who have no self-interested reason not to embrace test-based accountability reforms except that they are wise enough to know that those reforms simply will not work.

Folks like Chester Finn easily dismiss teacher unions and the leaders of struggling school systems as being awash in vested interests and ulterior motives. It is not as easy to dismiss a Josh Starr who runs great schools just a stone’s throw from Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s office. And that is why Chester Finn would spend an entire column criticizing one superintendent for his beliefs. As Finn knows, test-based accountability policies are deeply unpopular among parents across the nation, and their survival becomes more precarious when accomplished and courageous superintendents point to the truth.