Interview with Joshua Starr
The "anti-reform" superintendent on the death of NCLB, the rise of Twitter, and where his Maryland district fits in.
Joshua Starr isn’t your usual suburban superintendent. As head of Montgomery County Public Schools, a large, high-performing district just outside Washington, D.C., the Harvard-educated, self-described social media fan doesn’t hold back in his criticism of federal education policy. The Fordham Foundation’s Chester Finn recently described him as “perhaps the foremost critic of contemporary education reform in the Washington metropolitan area.” Now heading into his third year as superintendent at MCPS, Starr, previously superintendent in Stamford, Connecticut, has helped to launch a new consortium of big suburban school districts. And he’s also facing his first major public relations challenge—low scores on several math final exams that have caused concern among some parents and community members.
Q | What’s your take on your first two years as head of Montgomery County Public Schools?
A | MCPS is a high-functioning system. It’s already got an architecture for equity and excellence that is outstanding. Teacher and leadership development is already in place, and professional development has been matched to the Common Core for four years now. The potential to go even further is there.
Q | What about the recent concerns over low results on end-of-semester exams?
A | That’s just one slice of the data, along with course completion. Course completion is much better, and one reason is that a lot of kids don’t need to pass the exam to pass the course. So they didn’t study for the geometry final because they were really concerned about the physics final. It’s an important piece of data, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Q | Do you consider yourself opposed to the current reform movement, as some have claimed?
A | People always want to claim you for their own ideology. But I’m a little frustrated that people think I’m against testing. I have a deep background in testing. I believe in using the right assessments for the right reasons. So when people say I’m against accountability or testing, I find that frustrating.
Q | Does that make you a reform supporter, then?
A | One of my big frustrations with the so-called reform movement is that it’s not based on what kids should know and be able to do. It’s focused on governance, a longer school day, union bashing. Tell me what you want kids to know and be able to do. Start there, and then you align from there.
Q | You’re not concerned about the Common Core?
A | I’m a big supporter of the Common Core. I think we should have national standards. The job of the federal department of education is to support states, and hold states accountable for creating situations for districts to do their best work.
Q | In a nutshell, what’s your critique of NCLB?
A | The problem with NCLB is that they chose the wrong standards, called for rating schools on an annual basis, limited to literacy and mathematics. It has hurt public education in lots of ways. We need to create better conditions for success, that will get you to good results for all kids, not just based on an annual test score.
Q | How has Maryland’s NCLB waiver impacted your district?
A | It’s simply a recalculation of data that we already know and use. There are no consequences or rewards attached to any of it, so it’s nothing that we don’t already know. I tell my principals, “Here’s the state’s analysis of our scores, and if you find it useful, use it; if you don’t, don’t.”
Q | How about Race to the Top?
A | MCPS [and another district in the state] did not sign on to RTTT when Maryland applied. We are working with the state to come to an agreement about how to protect the integrity of our professional development growth system.
Q | How does the Montgomery County school board feel about your presence on Twitter?
A | When I left to come down here, folks were nervous about me using it, quite frankly. However, it’s been a great way to connect with people I wouldn’t [connect with] otherwise. Using it, I can help folks understand that public education is a complex enterprise, and share with them things I’m reading—articles, national trends—it’s sort of a clearinghouse.
I also use it to recognize and celebrate great practice, like when I go to great schools, take pictures, and tell them about being in a classroom, how proud I am. I don’t do a lot of back-and-forth.
Q | How do you feel the district is doing in terms of educating low-income, minority students?
A | I like to tell people we’re the first district to get to the moon. Now we have to get to Mars, and we’re going to have to do different things to get there.
Q | The district’s teacher evaluation and support system has received a lot of attention. What makes it so distinctive?
A | We have what Arne Duncan and others have called the “gold standard” for teacher evaluation in the country. It is completely collaborative with our teachers union—they actually started it in the late 1990s to elevate and protect the profession. It enables us to get rid of teachers who aren’t performing, regardless of whether they’re tenured, plus it provides incredible support for teachers who need to improve. We’ve removed a number of teachers, though that isn’t the focus, and we use student achievement data in the process, but we use it in the right way.
Q | How do districts like MCPS figure out what to do, given that there’s so much attention to small, homogenous districts or large, diverse low-performing ones?
A | We just started a consortium of large county school districts [the Large Countywide and Suburban School District Consortium], including Gwinnett, Fairfax, and Arlington counties. These are 14 districts that traditionally perform well and educate hundreds of thousands of kids, but haven’t been at the table until now. We are meeting again in a few weeks.
Q | Where do you and MCPS fit in the current school reform movement?
A | There’s this void, which MCPS is uniquely poised to fill. NCLB is dying a slow death; it’s clear that the old way of testing kids doesn’t meet the needs of the 21st century. At MCPS we haven’t had to spend the same kind of time chasing the various state policies down the rabbit holes that exist.
—Back to School 2013—