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Interview with Joshua Starr: Excellence is Not a Zero Sum Game

I recently read of Joshua Starr, the Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, in the state of Maryland. He has spoken out forcefully against the "insanity" of evaluating teachers using test scores, and refused to accept Race to the Top funding for this purpose. New York principal Carol Corbett Burris described here some of the reasons his schools have been succeeding. I asked him if he would share some thoughts with us.JStarr.jpg

What do you see as your greatest challenge in MCPS?

MCPS is widely considered to be one of the best large districts in the country. While we have been very successful under the current national education agenda (although we still have significant student achievement gaps), it is necessary to redesign our architecture to enable us to prepare our children for 2025 and beyond. We've traveled to the Moon, but now we have to go to Mars; the system that got us to the Moon won't get us to Mars. In order to make the necessary changes, we must have a culture that values risk-taking, innovation, information-sharing, appropriate autonomy and collaboration. Engendering that culture is our biggest present challenge.

What do you see as the role of public schools in our communities?

Schools play a vital role in our communities. They must be seen - and designed - as community assets. I'd like schools to be designed as a hub of integrated community services for health care, pre-K, adult education and recreation.

How do you approach the challenge of meeting the needs of all students within a single school, when some are behind, and others ahead?

First, we must ask what the actual needs of children are and then ask what the larger purpose of education is. I am concerned that children's needs and the purpose of education are almost solely defined as academic. Academics are extremely important, yet so are critical-thinking and social-emotional skills. If our core purpose as educators is to prepare children for their future, does it change the conception of their needs? That being said, great schools (ones that can meet the needs of all children) all have the same conditions: relentless focus on the instructional core; high expectations for all children; a warm nurturing environment that welcomes and engages families; strong relationships among adults and children; team work and collaboration; rigorous curriculum and assessments; comprehensive professional development and an instructional leader with strong social-emotional leadership competencies.

What do you see as the proper role of testing and test data in our schools?

At best, the data help you ask better questions. It is essential that collaborative teams of educators - and families when appropriate - use multiple measures of student and school performance to understand the conditions for success at a school. Formative assessments linked to a rigorous curriculum are an extremely useful tool for school improvement. Student work is probably the best data to use in school improvement efforts. Standardized test data are an entry point into deeper understanding of the conditions at a school that are likely to lead to success for all children.

What are the dangers of redesigning our schools using a market-driven approach?

I have become increasingly concerned that public education in the United States is seen as a private commodity rather than a public good. Too often, value is defined as something that I have and you don't, if we both have it, it can't possibly be valuable, regardless of what the "product" actually is. The current achievement disparity between different groups of students is not only a moral imperative, it's an economic one. If we don't better serve children that are poor, African-American, differently-abled, Latino, immigrant or English Language Learners, our economy will greatly suffer because the tax base will decline substantially. I believe that communities have to define what they want from their public schools, organize systems around their vision, and then make sure that all schools within the community have the capacity to achieve it. If we continue to think of excellence as a zero-sum game we will continue to allow too many schools to fail rather than build their capacities to improve.

How have Montgomery County schools responded to this pressure (from Charter schools in particular)?

Given the amount of pressure we put on ourselves in MCPS to meet our collective expectations for excellence, we have not perceived any pressure from charters. We have one charter school in Montgomery County and we receive very few charter proposals annually. Charter schools are part of the public education landscape today and I believe there is mutual interest in innovation and autonomy that should be the basis for powerful conversation between charter advocates and traditional public schools. They are not a panacea, nor are they the enemy. Additionally, they serve so few children that I wonder why there is such perseveration on them by people on all sides of the ideological spectrum. I would rather have the conversation focus on building the systems that enable all children to achieve at a high level rather than devolve into a debate over structural issues that mask the much more important instructional concerns that we currently have.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

I am concerned that the conversation about public education today does not focus on what children need to know and be able to do in the 21st century. The great shock to education is not choice or the changing demographics. The huge shift is in the democratization of information. Because more people now have access to more information than ever before, we must shift our instruction to the development and application of knowledge. This requires a huge change in teaching and learning and all of the systems that support great teaching and learning. I believe that we need to have an intellectually honest national conversation about that, rather than allow ourselves to get caught up in debates that are ultimately meaningless.

What do you think of Joshua Starr's approach to school improvement?

You can follow Joshua Starr on Twitter here. He also offers a podcast featuring his discussions with others on education issues.

Photo by Neil Rubino, used with permission.

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