Grading Joshua Starr
The superintendent hopes to spend another four years running the county's public schools. Does he deserve to keep the job?
MCPS IS NOW a majority-minority school district that’s facing “an increase in the stratification of MCPS high schools by income, race and ethnicity,” according to an April 2014 report by the county council’s Office of Legislative Oversight.
“A majority of the school system’s low-income, black and Latino students attend high-poverty high schools while a majority of MCPS’ non-poor, white and Asian students attend low-poverty high schools,” the report says. “And since 2010, the share of black and Latino students attending high-poverty high schools has increased while the share of white, Asian, and non-poor students attending low-poverty high schools has increased.”
Starr says the changing demographics underscore the need for MCPS to make sure all students have the opportunity to succeed, especially with the more rigorous curriculum required by the Common Core standards. “Just because we have done well under one set of rules—No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration’s push on testing and curriculum,” Starr says, “it doesn’t mean we are going to do well under a whole new set of rules if we do the same things.”
At the urging of the school board and other education leaders in the area, the Maryland State Board of Education last fall delayed for two years the requirement that students pass new high school assessment tests for Algebra 1 and English 10 before they can graduate.
Joseph Hawkins, a Bethesda resident who worked in the school system’s accountability office, which analyzes student performance, says it’s difficult to assess whether efforts by Starr or Weast have helped to close the achievement gap.
Hawkins, who worked for the school system for 19 years before leaving in 1998, has continued to track its efforts. He said the most consistent measure of student achievement has been SAT scores, and the gap between the scores of white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students has not narrowed in 18 years.
Evaluating student achievement in the lower grades remains complicated because standardized tests have changed several times, making it difficult to chart progress, Hawkins says.
MCPS officials say that efforts to close the achievement gap can’t only focus on tests—they also must address whether students have equitable access to quality teachers and schools.
“The question is now not what the gaps have been, but how do we prepare for the future—we have been to the moon, and now we have to get to Mars,” Starr says. “It is a totally different architecture to get to Mars, and you have to do things differently.”
Just what the district should do differently is the question. A 2010 study by researcher Heather Schwartz for The Century Foundation, a Washington think-tank, found that county public school students who were poor but able to attend high-performing schools did better than peers who stayed in schools where most students were low-income.
In Montgomery County, affluent students are more likely to live on the west side of the county in communities such as Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac, and attend schools with little racial and economic diversity, while the rest of the county has a greater share of lower-income students. But changing school boundaries to allow lower-income students access to better schools often sparks political fights.
Starr says that redrawing boundaries to better diversify student populations is impractical because most schools already are too crowded and are likely to get more crowded as the system continues to grow. The fastest-growing district in Maryland, MCPS is adding about 2,600 students per year, and has gained more than 16,000 students since 2007, according to the district.
The schools chief says he wants to help bridge the achievement gap without shortchanging more prosperous neighborhoods. And he says the key to doing that is involving more than just the schools. “The question is how the community will support the changed demographic in both social services and employment opportunities,” he says. “I think that is important for the community to figure out.”
County councilmember Nancy Navarro of Silver Spring, (D-District 4), a former school board member, says that Starr should be more direct about spelling out the changing needs of MCPS students.
“It is one of those moments where we need to walk away from the fear that somehow this issue only belongs to certain parts of the county or certain people. This is a social and economic issue, and I think parents all over the county realize that,” says Navarro, who held a forum last fall on the achievement gap.
“If we can’t solve this in Montgomery County, we are in big trouble,” she says. “Who will pay our Social Security? Who will work for companies here?”
O’NEILL SAYS SHE hears often from west side parents complaining about large classes and a sense that more school money is being spent elsewhere. “It is a subject of tension that is out there,” she says. “But we have an obligation to educate all children.”
MCPS spends an average of $14,414 per pupil annually, but adds about $2,200 more per student in lower-performing or high-poverty schools, where student needs are more complex and extra resources are sometimes added, Starr says.
Still, problems persist. In the past two years, an increasing number of students have failed to pass the state’s high school assessment for Algebra 1, which is required for graduation. And even when students are able to meet the requirements for graduation, some haven’t been ready for college-level work. For decades, MCPS graduates who attend Montgomery College have failed to pass placement tests in English and math, and have needed remedial help. The college’s data for MCPS graduates from 2010 to 2013 shows that about one-third of those enrolled required remedial help in English; about one-quarter needed help in reading; and two-thirds needed help in math.
Starr says MCPS is trying different approaches to raise student achievement. He points to the Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success program begun in 2013 at the urging of the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville and Montgomery College. The program aims to provide mentoring and support for students to ensure that they graduate from high school and successfully complete college.
Starr also has expanded “project-based learning,” which was already in place through special programs at several county high schools. Last fall, Wheaton High School became the first MCPS high school to offer project-based learning to all students in every course, an approach that Starr wants to see replicated in all public high schools.
He also has launched a study of MCPS “choice” and magnet programs, which are designed to draw students to schools mostly on the county’s less affluent east side, to determine if they have contributed to a narrowing of the achievement gap.
And Starr has established a set of benchmarks that MCPS students should achieve by graduation in order to be ready for college. Ideally, Starr says, students should be able to attain at least a C in Algebra 2; to pass AP exams with a score of 3 or higher, or International Baccalaureate exams with a score of 4 or higher; to earn a combined score of 1650 on the SAT or 24 on the ACT; and also be infused with “hope, engagement and well-being.” The benchmarks are outlined in a “Strategic Planning Framework” adopted by the school board in 2013.
An acolyte of the progressive education movement, Starr is also focused on helping students succeed in life beyond school. “The line I always use is that I want my kids to be straight-A students and I want them to be great people,” Starr says. “But if I have to choose, I would rather that they are average students and great people.”
To that end, Starr is stepping outside the traditional role of a superintendent by seeking ways to improve access to social services for students. He has been talking with officials of county departments about providing services for students whose parents can’t make it to a parent-teacher conference because they are working, or who lack Internet access at home, or who come to school exhausted because they work after school to help their families survive.
Navarro says she is watching the superintendent closely. “His desire to change the culture to allow more flexibility for staff to innovate and to pay attention to more of the social-emotional aspects of student achievement are really admirable,” she says. “But I have concerns about how this is translating into curriculum direction for the staff.”
WHILE THE ACHIEVEMENT gap has been a difficult problem to solve, Starr has come under fire for other high-profile issues.
Jennifer Alvaro, a Bethesda parent and an expert on sexual abuse, says the school system needs to be more candid about cases of MCPS employees or contractors charged with inappropriate conduct with students, even if school officials can’t legally discuss specifics. As a member of a new MCPS task force on sexual abuse, she says the district has done little to inform the public about the group or ways to prevent abuse.
“There is no information on the website,” she says. “It’s all secretive. What decade are we living in? You can’t get straight answers.”
Alvaro says MCPS officials need to develop a program to help identify prospective abusers and to quickly communicate with parents when abuse allegations are made in individual schools. “They need to do much more,” she says.
Starr also was criticized when he recommended a proposal for later high school start times, but then backed off the issue when proposed changes proved too expensive. He drew the wrath of parents because his proposals included a longer day for elementary school students.
Michael Rubenstein, a Silver Spring parent who is part of a group pushing for later start times in high schools, says he was frustrated and puzzled that Starr used the issue to propose lengthening the elementary school day. That idea “should be evaluated on its own merit,” Rubenstein says.
Starr says that in an ideal world he’d like to lengthen the school day to give students more time for athletics, art, music and other activities. Experience with his own children has underscored his understanding that being inside a classroom all day can be wearing. “I’d love for them to get outside more,” he says, “but they don’t have a long enough school day.”
Richard Kahlenberg, a Bethesda father of four who has written extensively for The Century Foundation on ways to improve public school systems, is optimistic that Starr will figure out the proper path if he continues to lead MCPS.
“I think he has done some very positive things in standing up to some of the craziness of what is being imposed by the federal government. It remains to be seen whether he will aggressively address this looming issue of economic segregation,” says Kahlenberg, whose youngest daughter is his fourth and last child to attend county public schools.
“The big question is: Can he address the issue in a way that is skillful politically?” he asks. “And from what I have seen of him, I think he has the potential to address this in a smart way. You need to lay the groundwork for something like this and make clear that all stakeholders not only will have a say, but will come out better at the end.”
Miranda S. Spivack is a former Washington Post reporter and editor. She lives in Bethesda with her husband, a government lawyer. Both their daughters are graduates of Montgomery County public schools.