Joshua Starr, 'Measured' Schools Leader, Heads To Montgomery County, Md.

The Superintendent Who Doesn't Believe In Superman

The newly-announced head of Montgomery County, Md., schools is not a fan of extremes.

“There is no one reform model where one size fits all,” said Joshua Starr, who will leave his current post as chief of schools in Stamford, Conn., this summer to lead education in Montgomery County, a district 10 times larger. “Test scores are not equivalent to a profit-and-loss statement,” he added.

In recent years, figures like Michelle Rhee have become media celebrities by adopting drastic approaches to education reform. Cities have made headlines by adopting the Obama administration's corporate-tinged approach to overhauling school systems by calling for a higher reliance on data, fast school closure, revamped teacher seniority rules -- and, in some cases, for total power to be in the hands of the mayor rather than an elected school board.

As Starr joins the ranks of large-district superintendents, his approach couldn’t be more different.

Starr’s appointment comes as some of the country's biggest and highest-profile school districts are still searching for their own leaders. But unlike recent superintendent candidates announced in cities such as Chicago and Newark, both well known for failing schools, Starr comes from a more traditional background, with a doctorate from Harvard’s superintendent program. Where other superintendents have made their name in boardrooms, Starr made his in classrooms, and fortified it while administering them. He says he promotes a more subtle -- and less ideological -- approach to education reform.

“I do not think Superman exists,” Starr said, referring to the recent documentary "Waiting for Superman," about the troubled state of U.S. schools. “Not only can a superintendent not do it all, but it absolves others from the responsibilities that a system is aligned to support good instruction for all kids.” He added that beliefs in individuals with messianic powers to turn school systems on their head sends the wrong message.

“[Starr] is measured in his work rather than ideologically driven,” said David Bloomfield, the chair of the education department at CUNY's College of Staten Island, who worked with Starr eight years ago when he was an adjunct faculty member in the Brooklyn College Educational Leadership graduate program that Bloomfield headed.

In Stamford, some parents credit Starr with narrowing students' achievement gap: He consolidated middle schools tracked by performance, saying that the distinction led to racially- and socioeconomically-divided classrooms, with white and Asian students in high-level courses and a large representation of poor, African American and Latino students in low-level ones. He also sparred with the school board and some parents, who claimed the approach undermined high-performing students.

Starr said when he arrived in Stamford more than five years ago, he saw no centralized teaching curriculum, so he worked to develop one -- what he now calls his proudest achievement. He partnered with General Electric’s foundation to increase Stamford’s instructional funding.

“He improved instruction with focused investments,” said Wendy Lecker, president of the city’s parent-teacher council. Starr targeted the money at developing instruction in math and science, as well as professional development for teachers. Lecker also lauded Starr’s accessibility and receptiveness to parents.

Montgomery County is America’s 17th-largest school district, and the biggest in Maryland. It neighbors Washington, D.C., and is relatively high-performing and affluent, but its diverse population contains large proportions of English Language Learners, special education students and children eligible for free or reduced school lunches -- the types of students who are often blamed for dragging down test scores in other districts.

Starr will succeed current superintendent Jerry Weast, who is stepping down after a marathon 12-year tenure. Weast's work in narrowing the achievement gap and bolstering scores has garnered Montgomery County a reputation of success.

“It’s an important school district because under Weast, they did a number of reforms in serious ways and paid attention to issues of standards with less of the big rhetoric of closing schools down,” said Jeffrey Henig, a Columbia University Teachers College professor who used to live in Montgomery County and sent his children to school there. As in more prominent urban districts, Henig said, the county's schools administration spars with the unions, but takes a more mild approach. In fact, the president of the Montgomery County Education Association sat on the board that interviewed Starr.

“It should be more prominent as a rival model of the kind of very heavy test-prep emphasis, heavy accountability for teachers and schools and students, yet a place that does very well and has attended to issues of equity in innovative ways,” Henig added.

In Stamford, Starr said, the education board directed him to enact aggressive reform. In moving to Montgomery, Starr sees himself perfectly positioned as a change agent, but a less pugnacious one. Using a visualization technique he learned from working with GE, he said he sees Montgomery at the top of the S curve –- the best point for enacting reform.

“There are still achievement gaps, but there isn’t the kind of urgency that Detroit might have. That’s a wonderful problem,” he said. “My biggest plan is to engage with people, listen to people, do transition work so I can understand short- and long-term priorities. I don’t have a plan to implement this program and cut that program.” Starr has said that he will not push charter schools or closure measures.

Starr said that similar to his approach in Stamford, the focus will be on instruction, not structure. “I find the education debate destructive,” he said. “I guess I’m kind of simple. This must be about good teaching and learning, and high-quality instruction.”

He said the pitched education debate -- which paints teachers unions and administrators as bitter enemies -- diverts focus from what he sees as the core of the problem.

“I don’t hear people talking about what kids need to know and be able to do,” he said. “Talk to me about what the vision is for what kids know and will be able to do before you bash teachers unions and say if we just had mayoral control everything could fix itself.”

Regarding his own place in national education reform, he said he hopes he's not judged against education leaders nearby districts -- Andres Alonso in Baltimore, Michelle Rhee in D.C., or even his predecessor in Montgomery County.

“I hope I am seen as Josh Starr, and not as not-Jerry or not-Andres or not-Michelle," he said.

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