Friday, February 6, 2015

removing josh starr won't fix the broken culture at MCPS

Montgomery County school superintendent Josh Starr resigned this week, and many community members are wondering what went wrong. While Starr had a lot of supporters, his role in a MCPS culture that didn't take criticism well may have been his undoing.

Starr Takes a Photo of the March
Starr (left) tweets a photo of the March to Close the Achievement Gap last spring. Photo by the author.
A week ago, Bethesda Magazine reported that four of the eight school board members didn't support renewing Starr's contract. Last weekend, Starr and the Board of Education quietly met to discuss his departure February 16, four months before his contract ends.

Some elected officials, along with parents and students were confused about what he'd done wrong, pointing to increased test scores since Starr arrived in 2011. Others felt that Starr didn't have a clear direction for the school system, and wouldn't listen to people he didn't agree with. Ultimately, that may have led to his dismissal. But the frustration with Starr reflects a larger issue with how MCPS deals with a rapidly changing school system.

Starr made promises, but didn't always follow through

Despite its reputation as a high-performing school system, MCPS also struggles with the suburbanization of poverty, which has made the achievement gap among minority and low-income students more evident. Starr championed the issue, boasting of his commitment to social justice and even appearing at a student-organized March to Close the Achievement Gap last spring.

But if community members or public officials tried to question him on this or other issues, Starr could be arrogant or dismissive. When the county's Office of Legislative Oversight found that growing segregation in the schools is exacerbating the achievement gap, Starr shrugged it off, saying the school system was already working hard to fix the problem.

In practice, that didn't always seem to be the case. MCPS spends less on its low-income students than other area school system. There's been little talk about Starr's "innovation schools" program, which pledged additional resources and supports for 10 high-poverty schools, after a big announcement two years ago. And last year, Starr threatened to remove programs that could help close the gap from the budget if the County Council didn't give MCPS more money.

A reflection of the broader system

Meanwhile, the school system has struggled with other controversies over the past year, including widespread math exam failures, improper credit card use, and a sexual abuse scandal. Starr wasn't directly responsible for any of these things, but frustration grew with his aloof nature and unclear agenda for MCPS.

"Four years went by and people were still waiting to hear what the new direction was all about, where are we going," said Nancy Navarro, a councilmember and former school board member, to the Washington Post. "That was never really articulated."

This impatience made Starr an easy scapegoat when things went wrong, as Councilmember Marc Elrich notes. Yet his behavior is really a reflection of MCPS as a whole.

MCPS gets its high-flying reputation from a handful of high-performing schools in the most affluent parts of the county, even as many schools are doing much worse. This perception is one reason why the teachers' union has such strong an influence on local politics.

As a result, people assume all of MCPS is doing fine and are unwilling to challenge the school system. Meanwhile, officials are reluctant to admit anything's wrong. "The county's progressive image has created a fierce resistance to serious analysis of rapidly changing conditions," wrote Harvard researcher Gary Orfield in a 1994 study of segregation in MCPS, which is still relevant today.

To fix MCPS, recognize that it's broken

This culture is a big problem for MCPS, which is used to being the preferred school system for families with the means to choose where they live. Today, many of those families are moving farther out to Howard or Frederick counties, or taking a chance on the District's improving public schools. To keep MCPS competitive, the school system and its leadership have to acknowledge that it's no longer solely defined by its success, but its failures as well.

On the day he resigned, Starr retweeted a photo of a girl at White Oak Middle School, a high-poverty school in East County that I once attended in the 1990s, with the caption: "I want to be recognized for my work. I have been in the honor roll for a long time."

Like her, MCPS is used to being a well-regarded school system, and wants to be recognized. But the real test of its success is how it grapples with the great challenges facing it. Whoever replaces Starr will need to ensure that all the county's schools deserve the "honor roll" status that attaches to the more affluent ones on which the county has staked its reputation.