Grading Joshua Starr

The superintendent hopes to spend another four years running the county's public schools. Does he deserve to keep the job?

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IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A MOMENT that highlighted Montgomery County’s investment in classroom technology.

Five public school teachers from the county were seated in a neat row at the front of a classroom at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg while, behind them, two other county teachers were visible on a large screen, waiting for a Google chat to begin.

Montgomery County Public Schools officials had invited school board members and the three members of the Montgomery County Council’s education committee to view the demonstration in late October as a way to thank them for coming up with extra money to pay for the technology.

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr rose to say a few words, and then tried to chat with the teachers on the screen. But when the teachers spoke, no one could hear them. Then the screen froze.

A Starr aide quickly rebooted the system, and within minutes everything was running smoothly.

The incident seemed an apt metaphor for Starr’s own performance as head of the state’s largest and fastest-growing school system: Though he has taken steps to address some of the district’s most pressing challenges, there have been some missteps, and it remains to be seen whether those efforts will succeed.

Starr, whose four-year contract ends June 30, is hoping he’ll have the opportunity to find out. The school board is scheduled to begin formal discussions in February on whether to renew Starr’s contract, although informal conversations are already said to be underway and Starr’s long-term future here appears less than assured.

Members weren’t happy to find out in 2013 that Starr, who had worked for the New York City public school system and has family there, had talked to the new mayor about becoming the city’s schools chancellor. A year later, though, Starr says he’s firmly committed to his current job, which in 2014 paid him a base salary of $260,100.

Running MCPS is “the best superintendent’s job in the country,” says Starr, 45, who lives in Bethesda with his wife, Emma, and three children: two middle school students and one first-grader who are MCPS students. “We want to be here for a long time,” he says.

WHEN STARR TOOK over as MCPS superintendent in 2011, he inherited a rapidly growing school district facing changing demographics and harsh economic realities that were much different from those faced by his predecessor Jerry Weast. During his 12-year tenure, Weast was able to make use of better economic times to improve student achievement and to narrow the gap between higher-performing students—mostly affluent white and Asian students—and lower-performing students, mostly lower-income African-Americans and Hispanics.

“Josh has wanted to put his imprint on the system, but he hasn’t had the luxury of good fiscal times to set things in motion,” says Patricia O’Neill, a school board member from Bethesda. “It was a lot easier for Jerry to get some quick wins by implementing all-day kindergarten and reducing class size in the primary grades. We don’t have that kind of money now.”

Starr had left the 15,000-student school district of Stamford, Conn., to run MCPS, a district with 154,000 students and an operating budget of about $2.3 billion. A national critic of relying on standardized testing to assess student and teacher performance, Starr has promoted a more holistic approach to prepare students for the 21st century workplace. He is continuing Weast’s efforts to close the achievement gap, but recognizes that the school system needs to do more to get the job done.

Starr says he is focused on making sure all MCPS students receive the same quality education and has begun programs to help them get ready for college, including one with Montgomery College and The Universities at Shady Grove. He is also pushing for the expansion of “project-based learning” programs in high schools that incorporate hands-on learning and real-world projects to teach students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers.

He has put in place a data-driven, early-alert system to identify students who are at risk of failing, and has told principals and teachers to focus on understanding the needs of each child in their classrooms. He has also revised the discipline policy to lower the number of out-of-school suspensions, which had disproportionately affected minority students.

Despite these efforts, Starr’s critics say he isn’t doing enough—or moving quickly enough—to close the achievement gap and address pressing issues. Some, including parents, board members and elected officials, describe Starr as a remote technocrat who is more easily understood through his frequent tweets than when he tries to explain something in person.

Some teachers complain that the district has fumbled its continuing rollout of curriculum changes required by the state’s adoption of the more rigorous Common Core standards for math and English, leaving them struggling in the classroom. And other issues have drawn public criticism, including the handling of several cases of MCPS employees accused of inappropriate conduct with students, the recent controversy over the school board’s decision to remove all religious references from the MCPS calendar, and Starr’s decision to back off a proposal he initially endorsed to change high school start times so students could get more sleep.

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, D.C., and the author of a 2012 book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools, has written about his family’s decision to move from more diverse Takoma Park to Bethesda in search of better schools.

“I feel like Josh Starr has more of a profile nationally, as a commentator or pundit, than he does as a local leader,” Petrilli says. “It is not clear to me exactly what his agenda is here in Montgomery County.”

WHEN STARR WAS HIRED in 2011, school board members and local politicians said they looked forward to a leader who would instill a more open and responsive culture. Starr quickly embarked on a “listening tour,” meeting often with county residents, staff, parents and students, and visiting schools to learn about concerns and issues. He held book club meetings that were broadcast on the district’s website to engage the community on progressive ideas in education.

That collaborative style has won praise from county councilmember Craig Rice, chairman of the council’s education committee. Leaders of the county teachers’ union also say Starr looks to them for advice and keeps them in the loop.

“He is very good about making sure that we are included in the decision-making process for most major decisions,” says Doug Prouty, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the union that represents MCPS teachers.

Starr’s style is much different from that of Weast, who was rarely described as collaborative. Still, his approach has rankled those who are looking for faster action.

County councilmember George Leventhal (D-at large), who became council president in December, tangled publicly with Starr about what Leventhal has described as the difficulty that council members experience when trying to get more information from Starr and his staff.

And newly-elected school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse of Silver Spring, who replaced veteran Shirley Brandman of Bethesda, says she is eager to better understand the impact of some of Starr’s programs. “He is willing to try some new things; now we have to see if those are the kinds of things we have needed to do,” she says.

O’Neill and Brandman say it’s not surprising that Starr is still honing his goals and communication skills after spending his first few years learning about the school system and the community. The second four years, assuming the board rehires Starr, will be a more telling measure, Brandman says.

Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard, who works closely with Starr to try to improve college readiness among public school students, says Starr has become a better communicator.

“He is learning to navigate the political waters,” she says. “He’s becoming clearer in his message. He’s an intellect, he’s confident, he is very committed to social justice.”

For his part, Starr says it has taken time for people to understand his style of leadership. “I think what some people are getting used to is that I am equally if not more interested in what their interests are and what they have to say than simply pushing my agenda,” Starr says.

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