Dr. Joshua Starr is no Dr. Jerry Weast. Dr. Weast was not a communicator, he benched the Board and made three pointers with only a few misses for the vast majority of his 12 years as school system superintendent. With the fiscal handcuffs on Montgomery County Public Schools for the foreseeable future, taxpayers and students need Joshua Starr and the Board of Education to be on the same page in order to navigate the complex problems of one of the largest school districts in the nation.
Dr. Starr has done his homework with the elites in education reform and has taken away from it his own brand of reform, one where statistics do not mean everything. He understands above many others that statistics do not often elucidate the behavioral components that drive performance. As PARCC and Common Core was implemented, Dr. Starr fought for a moratorium on standardized tests. This was not about building a national reputation, it was about doing what made sense.
Weast got MCPS to the moon, now Starr must get MCPS to Mars, but the same strategies that got us to the moon will not get us to Mars, as Starr says often. After a certain point, ramping up the same successful strategies of allocating even more money to struggling schools and pushing students harder to accelerate into more challenging classes that got us to the moon will become counterproductive in our attempts to get to Mars. We have seen this already with unprepared students being tracked into Algebra 1 by 8th grade. Dr. Starr prophetically asserted that communication and learning will pay high dividends in developing new long term strategies.
One of the biggest efforts of Dr. Starr, has been instilling a sense of “grit” not only in MCPS students in terms of learning, but in MCPS employees in the sense of working against the tide in battles that appear unwinnable. Dr. Starr has grit. He has a drive to accomplish politically complex and unsavory goals. He has demonstrated his competence in this over and over again, fighting race to the top and the influence of standardized testing in teacher evaluations.
In short, Starr is an academic with the grit to shake things up without having to use blunt authority to do so. He built a strong board, strong superintendent system structure, in contrast to Weast’s old way of using authoritative leadership to accomplish goals. In my experience, Dr. Starr’s openness has been misinterpreted by a handful of board members. I found Dr. Starr to be very open, we met one-on-one numerous times. I always felt listened to and often saw my comments finding their way into school system strategies. I say this after having spent only one year on the board, with limited voting rights and little political bully pulpit. When I hear suggestions that Dr. Starr has “ failed to forge strong relationships with some board members” and has a “brusque or distant manner,” I know there is more to the story.
When new board members attend the system’s orientation with the board staff, each is handed a copy of National School Boards Association’s, “The Key Work of School Boards.” This guide describes the eight key school board action areas ranging from establishing “vision and standards” to ensuring “alignment, collaboration, and continuous improvement.” During my time in office, I witnessed a variety of behavior incongruent with these professional guidelines. On occasion, board members would, without reason, throw the superintendent under the bus by making inflammatory statements when they could have been discussing real solutions. I witnessed board members having meetings with union officials over controversial issues, jeopardizing work being done by others by not coordinating with board staff, officers, and the superintendent. I understand that board members can become frustrated with their role: it is not one where an individual can make sweeping changes to the school system, as much as many of us would like to. Rather it is a high level role where vision and communication are key. Political actions have driven an unnecessary wedge between the board and the superintendent. These issues, ingrained in organizational culture, did not manifest under the leadership style of Dr. Weast. But the board cannot have this both ways. If they enjoy Dr. Starr’s more inclusive leadership, they have to accept the disagreement that actual discussion inevitably allows.
Perhaps the board could use some of Dr. Starr’s grit, learn from the failures the school system has made over the past few years and re-focus on students and teachers rather than politics. Dr. Starr has a lot of work to do in this county, but in a world where grit and aptitude weigh equally, Dr. Starr has had a successful term with MCPS. The only reason I can think of that would explain a decision to not pursue a contract renewal as superintendent of perhaps the best public school system in the nation is if he felt so inhibited by the inner politics of the board and so unwelcome by some members that he could no longer do his best for the teachers, students, parents, community stakeholders and employees of Montgomery County Public Schools.
Guest contribution by John Mannes, former Student Member of the Montgomery County Board of Education and founder of the MoCo Student
Image from Montgomery County Public Schools