Oh, Starr-y Superintendent



By 12/20/2012

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America has nearly 12,000 school superintendents, of whom the overwhelming majority are career educators who have taught in the classroom and risen through the administrative ranks of public education. Most are middle-aged-to-older white males—and almost half say they will retire within five years.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be ardent change-agents. They’ve lived and worked within this system and will benefit from its pensions in retirement. Why make waves?

To be fair, some are earnest, tireless, and imaginative reformers, bent on altering public education so that it better serves the country’s girls and boys. Among the most nationally visible of these have been Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Kaya Henderson, Tom Boasberg, John Deasy, Jean-Claude Brizard, and Andres Alonso. (Several of these, of course, followed non-traditional paths to the corner office.) Others, just as committed to major overhauls, are well known only in their communities, such as Cleveland’s Eric Gordon, Cincinnati’s Mary Ronan, and Dayton’s Lori Ward (if only she had a supportive board). These people strike sparks and light fires.

But thousands of superintendents are more set in their ways, sometimes firefighters but rarely kindlers. They preside (often ably) over “the system as we know it”: holding staff meetings, preparing budgets, meeting with their boards, entering into bus contracts, negotiating with their unions, promoting from within, and generally operating as the current heads of complex, enduring, and essentially complacent organizations that evolve slowly—mainly at the margins and without any particular impulse to change more or faster.

And then there’s Joshua P. Starr and a few more like him who have emerged in recent years as fully fledged anti-reformers, pushing back as hard as they can against the sorts of changes that the Joel Kleins, Arne Duncans, and Jeb Bushes are striving to make.

Starr is the school superintendent in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, a role he has occupied for a year and a half, following a half-decade in the same role in Stamford, Connecticut. He’s very bright, incredibly energetic, exceptionally articulate, and well-credentialed.

He’s also become perhaps the foremost critic of contemporary education reform in the Washington metropolitan area, outstripping anyone in the teacher unions, think tanks, or government. You can see and hear him in action at a recent Washington Post forum and read the Post’s thorough account of his views.

Starr is against testing, against achievement-linked teacher evaluations (“bad science”), and against Race to the Top—dollars from which Montgomery County eschewed, even when Maryland won the competition. He’s called for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. He appears cool toward the Common Core (though Maryland has adopted it and he will have to deal with it). On the choice front, Starr (like his predecessor, Jerry Weast) thinks the central office knows best, hence is colder than cool when it comes to charter schools. (Sprawling Montgomery County operates 205 district schools for its 144,000 pupils but has granted exactly one charter.) Though the system has some magnet schools and special programs, students are generally assigned to the schools the administration wants them to attend; opting into other schools is the exception, not the rule. (At the secondary level, there are several high school “consortia” with lottery-based admission.)

Admittedly, any Montgomery County superintendent has grounds for steering a steady course rather than promoting radical change: The school system has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the country’s best. Weast was much praised as a successful education leader, not least because of the progress the district made on his watch in reducing achievement gaps, boosting graduation rates, expanding AP enrollments, and more. Stacey Childress, Denis Doyle, and David Thomas chronicled all this in their 2009 book Leading for Equity. And the following year, Montgomery County was a finalist for the Broad Prize. Though Charlotte-Mecklenburg won that year, the system Starr was about to take charge of made a very respectable showing on the metrics that Broad respects.

Yes, it’s a good school system. It is also, for the most part, a prosperous, upscale system, much like Starr’s previous Connecticut venue. And of course, it’s expensive: For the next fiscal year, Starr has asked the county for a $49-million increase over the current budget, amounting to a total of $2.22 billion, which works out to $15,280 per pupil. The school system employs 22,230 people—one grown-up for every 6.5 kids. That’s a lot.

Should districts like Montgomery County—doing pretty well and generally content with what they’ve got—be subject to big sweeping reforms imposed by state or national governments? A legitimate question, to be sure, and there’s no denying that much of the backlash against big reforms arises from people who sincerely believe that such districts don’t need to change in big ways. Should reformers just leave them alone and honor the principle of “local control” in situations like Montgomery County? Should they tailor their reforms to sorely troubled situations and persuade lawmakers to write statutes and regulations that apply only in such situations?

Sometimes they probably should. There’s more grief than gain ahead when the state or federal government imposes a new teacher-evaluation system or charter school mandate on places that don’t want them—and that, by common consent (including at least the appearance of agreement by their own voters, taxpayers, and parents), are doing pretty well.

But in those situations, it’s vital to impose transparency via external audits and comparisons that such districts aren’t apt to do for themselves. How do 8th graders in Montgomery County compare—not just with each other or with Baltimore, but with Korea and Finland? Which schools are working well, and which really aren’t? Which truly “add value” to their pupils, and which just take smart, well-parented, upper-middle-class kids and keep them that way? How much per pupil does this system spend on special education versus the national average, and how many special-needs kids graduate from high school? How many of the kids taking AP courses then pass the AP exams? How many minority students are enrolled in the district’s International Baccalaureate program, and what is their rate of success? How many graduates of the county’s high schools must still take remedial courses in college? How many “eligible” students cannot get into “gifted and talented” classrooms due to the paucity of such programs? How many are turned away from the county’s acclaimed Montgomery Blair magnet high school program (which takes just 100 kids per year)? And much more.

Just as important is transparent information on who makes these policy decisions; who pulls their strings; and their views on what’s good, bad, and ugly. I’ve written before that as a Montgomery County voter, I find it next to impossible to get accurate information on the candidates for school board, even when I try. Yet it’s the board that picks the superintendent and—in a high-spending county in a heavily taxed, deep-blue state with a history of giving public-employee unions just about everything they ask for, including big policy wins—there is ample reason to suspect that the superintendent is, in effect, hired by the teacher union. How can voters determine this? Only if someone makes it their business to ferret out and make public all the relevant information on the politics as well as the performance of the system and those who run it.

Montgomery County (and other districts like it) needs a versatile, smart, and courageous education-advocacy organization to make sure that the interests of school-system employees and their friends don’t trump those of children (and taxpayers). Today it doesn’t have one—nor, to my knowledge, does it have anyone to point out the things that aren’t working, the kids who are badly served, the schools that are poorly led, the choices that don’t really exist, and all the other things that the system is not keen to make known.

In short, I’m saying that Starr is (of course) free to say whatever he likes, and so long as his district is performing well, there is no reason to impose scads of state and federal mandates on it. But those other levels of government, as well as employers, civic groups, philanthropists, and the media have a parallel obligation to bring all the relevant information into public view, about the system and also about who governs it. Local control in a democratic system is only as good as the means whereby it is exercised, ultimately by thoroughly informed voters. Who knows—it might even turn out that the children of Montgomery County would also benefit from some of those reforms that their superintendent is becoming famous for denouncing.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.




Comment on this article
  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    What successful reform?
    The legacy of Rhee, Duncan, Klein, Brizzard is failure. And now Chester Finn wants it in Montgomery County just because. Reform for reform’s sake. One could remark what is Chester’s financial stake in this.
    None.
    But he’s a true believer.

  • Lee Barrios says:

    But in those situations, it’s vital to impose transparency via external audits and comparisons that such districts aren’t apt to do for themselves. How do 8th graders in Montgomery County compare—not just with each other or with Baltimore, but with Korea and Finland? Which schools are working well, and which really aren’t? Which truly “add value” to their pupils, and which just take smart, well-parented, upper-middle-class kids and keep them that way? How much per pupil does this system spend on special education versus the national average, and how many special-needs kids graduate from high school? How many of the kids taking AP courses then pass the AP exams? How many minority students are enrolled in the district’s International Baccalaureate program, and what is their rate of success? How many graduates of the county’s high schools must still take remedial courses in college? How many “eligible” students cannot get into “gifted and talented” classrooms due to the paucity of such programs? How many are turned away from the county’s acclaimed Montgomery Blair magnet high school program (which takes just 100 kids per year)? And much more.

    Mr. Finn – You certainly have the money, personnel and access to all the information you are disingenuously seeking in this paragraph. Why don’t you publish it along with your excoriation of Supt. Starr so the rest of us not-so-connected citizens can determine the implications of your concerns.

  • jeffrey miller says:

    How many rhetorical questions can be proffered in one blog post? Chester, you can lament till the cows come home why other folks don’t get your estimations of the effective reformers of today. Thing is, few are listening. Maybe the reason is few know how to think through these issues, even school boards. So, most don’t really care all that much, especially those who are childless.

    Maybe it is time to turn control of education over to the professionals and concede that local or federal political control has failed.

  • crunchymama says:

    So far the only “benefits” I’m seeing, both as a parent and teacher in MCPS, are as follows:

    -while my 5th-grader *is* able to take a math class a grade ahead (so she and a number of other students have a critical mass for a 6th-grade math class AND there’s staff to teach it), my possibly-brighter-in-math 2nd-grader is having to stick with the same math curriculum as her agemates, some of whom are bored out of their skulls while others are being left behind, because “Common Core” means “keep all the kids together come hell or high water” (and while CC doesn’t preclude acceleration in math, if there isn’t available staff to teach an accelerated or slower math class, it amounts to the same thing where the rubber meets the road).

    -As a music teacher, having an objective for my lessons isn’t enough any more, nor is covering pretty much the same material quarter by quarter or even month by month sufficient; I’m now expected to follow a week-by-week curriculum that makes NO allowances for missed weeks – how about THREE Tuesday afternoons in a row missed for, respectively, Sandy, Election Day, and a half-day to fit in parent conferences. My lesson plans are expected to be specific enough as to cover, as in this made-up example, Objective A.I.b.iic, “Students will respond to musical cues such as lyrics in a song,” and I’m expected to list ALL these objectives at the top of EVERY lesson plan in the event that an administrator wants to see and evaluate them. For the record, the “Hokey Pokey” fulfills this objective, and I could throw it into a 40-minute lesson and check a box, but the actual planning, typing, and printing take as much time as the 40 minutes I’m allotted to TEACH that lesson, assuming there’s even class that week. :P So far I assume I have the latitude to make adjustments accordingly, so I do, but when the day comes that kindergarten music classes are subjected to standardized testing too, what then? Or Heaven forbid I end up with an administrator who insists on checking my lesson plans weekly, especially if it’s someone without any music background whatsoever – most of this has already happened to me in the past, and having to explain Every. Single. Thing. in the lesson to someone who still doesn’t get the point (my 20+ years of experience teaching music to babies thru adults be damned) in the name of “reform” is a colossal waste of time. As it is, the evaluation and grading I’m expected to do even at the kindergarten level in general music uses up time and energy that could better be spent TEACHING: singing, playing, listening, dancing, and oh, yeah, even fulfilling those minutely-detailed objectives.

    -I’ve seen other teachers in my schools working through lunches day after day, working alone and together to meet the new “Curriculum 2.0″ (read “MCPS invented it, sold it to Pearson, and now we have to teach it even if we find where we didn’t yet de-bug it but wish we could now”) objectives when SOOOOO much of their time is being taken up by this and that and the other evaluation and test and assessment, leaving less time to teach MORE.

    You want to know what’s short-changing our kids? Having more and more and more time spent at academic activities, even as young as 3YO (I was a long-term substitute in a Head Start class last year and I have seen Head Start expectations that included insane amounts of copying and tracing and other pencil time which is completely developmentally-inappropriate for that age!) and LESS time to be CHILDREN. Spending more time EVERY YEAR taking standardized tests that I spent taking the GRE and teacher exams (currently known as PRAXIS) COMBINED. Cutting back or eliminating arts and recess to fit in more teaching time, which has been taken away by the endless assessing.

    With all due respect, I don’t see public school classroom teaching experience on your biography (yes, I looked); I’m not convinced you have any idea whatsoever about what actual classroom dynamics are like, at least not in any recent public school classroom, and I further question whether you have, especially in the recent economic downturn where more and more families have been displaced and in need of social services they didn’t need 10 years ago) served as a teacher in a low-income school where these problems are exacerbated. I’m betting that even with your Harvard degree, you wouldn’t have the education credentials – meaning MD teacher certification, for one – right now to be hired as a substitute teacher in MCPS (For the record, neither would Arne Duncan.). From your cozy Chevy Chase womb, it’s easy enough to forget that there are children in MY neighborhood in Rockville (only a 20-minute drive from you, or you could just go east to Silver Spring to see more of the same) who don’t get 3 meals a day, who don’t have heat in their homes, who have incarcerated parents, who desperately need special education services or counseling or wraparound social services the schools don’t have funding to provide them, or who recently immigrated and are doing their their best to catch up but whose ESOL staff has been cut – AGAIN – or who are in fact living in CARS instead of multi-million-dollar homes, or even in apartments 5-to-a-room (I’ve taught those students too). I am not convinced that you have a realistic view of what teachers do, and how Joshua Starr is doing his damnedest to support what they do, not add to the burdens of schools and teachers and students in a way that wouldn’t require the addition of 6 hours to every 24-hour day. It would be reassuring to be proven wrong, but at the moment, what I’m reading only sounds like so much outrage at something of which you have only limited PRACTICAL knowledge and understanding.

  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    And thus, crunchy mama, you have summed up the experience and knowledge of Chester Finn and the like minded Professional Education Reform gang.

  • Nelson Smith says:

    It’s the day after Christmas and I decided to read this post. One of the commenters calls it an “excoriation” — which is a laugh for anyone who’s ever read Finn actually excoriating someone. This blog is generous to its subject, asks useful questions, and makes a good point.

    I’m responding here because I find comments troubling. You see some of these names on all sorts of ed reform blogs, spewing the same pyrotechnics about any column or writer they dislike. Every possible chance of dialogue is lost to their ad-hominen-laden, Kabuki theater rants. Every post is another opportunity for Massive Retaliation.

    A new year’s wish: Please, folks, get a new hobby.

  • crunchymama says:

    So, Nelson, besides defending a post about schools by someone who I’m not convinced has spent much time IN any schools, do you have anything substantial to offer besides suggesting that those of us in the trenches find another use for our time? Me, I’m thinking I could use a degree in something besides education so that I too might be taken seriously when proposing education policy.

    Yes, the Board could be more transparent – but while Finn takes time and space on that admittedly valid topic, he also spends plenty of time and space simply dusting Starr down up one side and down the other for being against “reform,” additionally equating “reform” with Michelle Rhee and her ilk. (Have you READ Michelle Rhee’s bio? It includes barely more time in the classroom than Mr. Finn himself, and she has LIED about significant parts of her teaching experience. She also wouldn’t be hireable as a substitute teacher here in MCPS with her “qualifications.”)

    As for who makes policy decisions, most of what Starr objects to is policies that have been set by people who have no CLUE what goes on in real-life actual classrooms, in often-too-large classes taught by teachers who have new curricula thrown at them quarter by quarter, with the arts and any leisure time (that would be “recess”) cut back or eliminated as early as kindergarten. Starr himself only has so much say in things like the yearly standardized testing going on in elementary and middle schools. I have not heard him say that he’s averse to valid methods of teacher evaluation – the PAR system, while perhaps not perfect, is IMO leaps and bounds better than evaluating teachers and schools and principals by test scores and VAM. I’ve not even heard him say he doesn’t want to know how MCPS students compare to, say, students in Canada or Finland, or just over in Virginia. Have you? Has Mr. Finn? If so, please provide documentation so we people with too much time on our hands know that it’s time to slink back under our rocks and blindly teach “assets” (as Michelle Rhee has referred to America’s children) instead of “children,” instead of putting the kids in our classrooms first. Otherwise, I see no reason to take you any more seriously than Mr. Finn.

    What I have heard and read is that it’s TOO MUCH. The kids are being tested almost endlessly – don’t think for a moment that in Maryland the MSA is the only assessment kids undergo. It takes away from actual teaching time and it hurts our kids – and anyone who’s not in favor of the endless stream of multiple assessing per QUARTER (not per YEAR, but per QUARTER!) – is at least worth listening to without the automatic knee-jerk discrediting and labeling of “anti-reform” – as if that is the same as “we want to do whatever we want without any evaluation whatsoever.”

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    High-stakes testing is not “reform” at all: It deforms education into an impotent caricature of the real thing.

    Thus, people who oppose high-stakes testing are not against reform at all–they are against de-forming public education.

    There’s a good reason the National Academy of Sciences has scolded policymakers for basing current policies on ideology instead of evidence–because what we are doing is not merely not supported by the evidence–it runs contrary to the evidence.

    What next … a column also accusing the National Academy of Science of being “anti-reform?”

  • Rhonda Shaw says:

    The most important “reforms” are those that teachers make on a daily basis in their classrooms. They are the ones who know their individual students, can adjust based on what their students did not understand, and can actually help the students learn. Too many standardized tests sap the environment of any joy in learning. Too many prescribed methods and limited materials (“approved”) sap the environment of any joy in teaching. We all know that our best teachers were the ones who were most enthusiastic, experienced, and well schooled themselves. It is worth noting that the system in Finland uses only teacher made tests. It is logical to test over what has been taught—-the students connect their learning to the tests and feel it is worth studying when results are clearly linked to the teaching. In the current climate, teachers are made to feel distrusted by the constant testing from above. They no longer look at the student, but look at the test, the “pacing guide” and all of the “specialists” in order to teach. They are afraid to do anything even half creative. This is a much less fulfilling role for both the teacher and the students. People are tired of tests and curriculum constantly changing for political reasons. Starr gets it and he’s not afraid to put out an idea that will, hopefully, generate a much needed discussion.

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