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A year after taking the helm of Montgomery County Public Schools, Superintendent Josh Starr talks about deciphering new report cards, boosting teachers’ pay, interpreting standardized tests and dealing with passionate parents in one of the nation’s top-performing school districts.
- Joshua Starr Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.)
Video: Inside The Studio
Joshua Starr, head of public schools in Montgomery County, Md., criticized the “apparent national obsession” with standardized testing. Starr said standardized tests are an overly simplistic measure, and that schools need to emphasize creativity, problem solving and effective communication. “I am concerned that there are those out there who believe [standardized tests] are equivalent to a profit and loss statement,” Starr said. He added that the county’s new curriculum will help reconcile the academic achievement gap.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. If you follow him on Twitter, you already know that he visits schools regularly, tags along to class with students, praises teachers for their good work. You also know that the man who tweets as mcpssuper is pushing back against the nation's education reformers, saying they're too quick to glorify standardized tests and to blame teachers when students do poorly.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoshua Starr is in his second year as superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, one of the biggest and best performing school systems in the country. As he tackles the challenges of a diverse and demanding school system, Starr is boosting teacher pay and introducing new report cards. He's telling teachers to collaborate and top administration to spend more time in the schools.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAt the same time, he's navigating shifting demographics in the student body and the sometimes perilous politics of a county that demands nothing but the best from its public schools. Joshua Starr joins us in studio. He is superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools. Good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
MR. JOSHUA STARRWell, thank you so much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation with Superintendent Starr, you can call us at 800-433-8850. The Montgomery County public school system is nearly 10 times bigger than the District's. You came from -- in Stanford, Conn. In your first year here, what have you done to get to know the schools and these communities on such a large scale?
STARRWell, you know, the greatest privilege I enjoy being a superintendent is visiting schools and getting to see our kids, talk to our teachers, talk to our administrators about what they're doing. You know, I've spent -- I think I've been to about 120 schools thus far. I'll get to the rest of them this year. We've done a lot of community outreach and engagement. We have a lot more of that coming up this year.
STARRAnd it's just wonderful to see how engaged our kids are in classes, to talk to our teachers about what their hopes and dreams are for our kids, to engage with our parents as well. So that's how I get to know folks, and I really want to see what kids are doing in classrooms and what teachers are doing as well. And, you know, Montgomery County Public Schools has a well-deserved reputation for excellence, and I love to see it firsthand.
NNAMDII was going to ask this later on the broadcast, but since you mentioned how much you like to visit schools, I read where one councilmember felt that you're not engaging politically enough. You seem to be spending more time visiting with kids in schools than you spend visiting with council members, county council members even when, apparently, it's budget time.
STARRWell, you know, I'm not sure who made that accusation. I don't know that it's true. I regularly have phone calls, breakfasts, lunches, et cetera, with various county council members. I'm always willing and eager to talk to them about what's happening. I think I have to strike a balance. You know, I've got to stay grounded in what's actually happening in schools, and I also have to be able to communicate what our needs and challenges are to our elected officials and to others.
STARRSo I try to strike the right balance, but certainly, if that county council member wants to give me a call, we'll make sure to get him on the schedule for a meeting.
NNAMDIAs I said, it may come up again later in the broadcast, but here in the Washington region, former D.C. superintendent -- schools chancellor Michelle Rhee became a national figure for trying to hold teachers responsible for student performance. You have spoken out against blaming teachers for poor performing students in schools. What's your philosophy about how to evaluate teacher success?
STARRYou know, I'm a recovering accountability director. My background was in accountability. And what we know is that internal accountability is the most important thing that moves schools. And by that, I mean, when teachers are in a building where they're getting support from their leadership, where they're getting support from each other, where they get the right professional development, they have good curriculum, they hold each other accountable for the results.
STARRI must also ensure that we have systems of accountability and that we don't let mediocrity exist in our classrooms. And we have great processes for that. We have the professional growth system and the peer assistance review system in Montgomery County that's been replicated nationally. We also know that there's tons of what the statisticians call noise in the test scores. They are not equivalent to a profit and loss statement, as some would like us to believe, and they are an indicator.
STARRThey're an important indicator, but they're not the goal. And we know that teachers don't exist in a vacuum, right? And, you know, so it's an entire system from the boardroom to the classroom that enables great teaching to happen every day. So people have to be accountable for results. I never shy away from that, but we can't be so simplistic to think that it's solely the teachers' fault or, you know, just the result of what the teacher has done to get good outcomes.
STARRThey need good professional development. They need good support from their administrators. They have to be held to a high standard, and they needed to be given the capacity -- or help to build the capacity they need to help our kids.
NNAMDIDo you see that putting you at odds with people like, well, President Obama and education Secretary Arne Duncan, and what was your reaction to the recent teacher strike in Chicago?
STARRYou know, I think that the president and the secretary have the absolute best of intentions. I truly do. I really think they want to help our kids. I'm struck by the fact that so much the conversation today is about the structural issues, right? And not what we know actually improves outcomes for kids, which is a focus on teaching and learning, right? We have to focus our attention 100 percent on what kids are doing in classrooms everyday.
STARRAnd too many people want to focus on what I call the if there were just conversation, right? If there were just a longer school day, if there were just charter schools, if there were just merit pay, if there were mayoral control, if there weren't unions, et cetera, et cetera. All of them have some place in the education conversation. I'm not suggesting they don't. But show me how it impacts what teachers do with kids for six and a half hours a day, 184 days a year, and I'll listen.
STARRAll right? But if it's just about, you know, making structural changes, which is, unfortunately, too much of what the national reform conversation is about, then it's not really about what improves teaching and learning.
NNAMDIWashington Post editorial page criticized you last week for boosting teachers' pay without addition -- with additional funds that you'll get through a new state law. The Post said you could have cut class size by hiring more teachers. Why did you choose to give teachers a two-year raise that will average about, what, 7 percent for most teachers?
STARRWell, it doesn't average 7 percent. That's a misstatement that is being pushed out there. But the reason that we did it is 'cause they're worth it, right? I mean, you know, so the Marriott Corp. is one of the biggest corporations in the area. And if you listen to the head -- the leaders at Marriott Corp. talk, they say their people are the most important thing.
STARRThey know if they have happy employees, then their employees are going to serve their customer. I feel the same way. You know, our teachers are support professionals. Our administrators have been the key to the success of Montgomery County Public Schools for the last 12, 13, you know, years in terms of the great results we've gotten but have also been there forever, right, helping our kids.
STARRThey're the ones that work with our kids every day. They need to be valued. They need to be supported. The compensation we gave them was not some enormous increase, you know? It wasn't something that anybody would have looked askance just a few years ago. They are well deserving of it. And they've also sacrificed over the last few years. They've voluntarily given up pay increases.
STARRYou know, and whenever you do a budget, it's a matter of choices. Sure, we could have cut some class sizes, but which ones, AP classes, elementary classes? You know, we could have restored certain things, but where do you even start? I said it at the beginning of the budget season that I would not recommend new expenditures on programs or services until I'm assured that our budget is aligned to our priorities and to our students' needs.
STARRI was praised for that in December. When I came in with a budget that was within MOE on a new base, right? It was about a 2 percent increase, 2.2 percent increase. I legally could have asked for a 5.5 percent increase, but I said no. We'll go with a new base that the council decided, and we figured out a way through our interest-based collaborative processes, right, to compensate our teachers.
STARRAnd, remember, we create our budget with parents at the table, with the associations at the table, right? And everybody said compensation is something we can do, right? Let's hold off on some of the new things we want to do until we're assured of what the new work is. You know, our teachers are -- all our staff are absolutely worth it.
NNAMDIThe Washington Post editorial goes on to say overall salaries for teachers in Montgomery will be about 20 percent higher than in Fairfax. Of course, you can quibble with that figure, but I sense here also that the notion that if you're paying your teachers well, you're likely to attract the best teachers. Is that part of this?
STARRPeople want to come work in Montgomery County, and the reason they want to come work in Montgomery County is not only because of the pay. And, you know, we want to offer a competitive rate, but they also know that they're going to get supported. We invest almost $10,000 in our new teachers, right? We make sure that we support them through our professional growth system. We make sure that we provide them with professional development, and we make sure that our leaders are creating an environment that supports their work.
STARRTeachers want to be part of the solution. They want to be actively involved. That's what we provide, so they want to come here and work. I don't make excuses for that. And, in fact, if you look at what's happened around the country, people come to see what we're doing, so they can try to, you know, replicate it in their districts. And I'm not going to back off from making sure our employees feel valued.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Joshua Star -- he is the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools -- and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you feel about pay raises for teachers? You can also send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment. Can you talk a little about the nation's apparent obsession with standardized tests? How well do they measure success for both students and for teachers?
STARRYou know, the scores are an important indicator, right? They are not the goal. They're an indicator of what's -- when something is wrong, quite frankly, not when something is right. You know, I think about my own kids. I have a 10-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 4-year-old, and I certainly expect that they'll do well in the tests. And I would -- if they're not doing well in the tests, what's going on here?
STARRBut I also know that when they graduate high school and they graduate college, they're going to be asked to be creative problem solvers, right? They're going to ask to take feedback, persevere, right, work with people from diverse perspectives, solve problems with people who have all different kinds of ideas. They're going to be asked to communicate effectively. That's not always measured in a standardized test.
STARRSo they tell us when something is wrong, but they certainly -- they don't tell us when something is right. I am concerned that the -- there are those out there who believe they're equivalent to a profit and a loss statement. It's not dissimilar from what happened 120 years ago when the business community foisted taylorism or scientific management on educators, and that led to many of the problems we have today.
STARRIt's the same kind of overly simplistic notion that somehow you can boil education down to one standardized test. Kids will tell you different. Parents will tell you different, and teachers will tell you different.
NNAMDIYou've said academic achievement is not the only key to success. Talk about the new curriculum 2.0 and your desire to prepare students to be, what you mentioned earlier, creative problem solvers.
STARRSure. You know, and let me be clear, academic success is important. You know, we still have an achievement gap in Montgomery County. While our results are fantastic, we do well compared to anybody in the state and the nation. We still have a gap. I want more kids doing better on things like AP exams, IP exams, SATs, et cetera. Academics are very, very important. But as I said earlier, we know that our kids need complementary competences, right?
STARRWhat are the 21st century creative problem-solving skills, critical-thinking skills, communication skills, and then what are social-emotional competencies that our kids need? Do they understand particularly in this increasingly diverse world, you know, different perspectives? Do they -- what Paul -- do they have what Paul Tough and Daniel Pink described as grit? Can they persevere when they get feedback, you know?
STARRCan they pick themselves up off the floor? Do they know how to fail, right? That's an important part of life, quite frankly. Parents get that. You know, kids get that. That's not always measured in standardized tests. So our curriculum 2.0 is helping our kids develop those critical-thinking skills, is an integrated curriculum.
STARRIt also addresses the fact that over the last 12 years, we've had to narrow curriculum, quite frankly, because of No Child Left Behind. So we're trying to really integrate our curriculum. Whether it's arts, sciences, social studies, literacy, et cetera, around certain themes, certain critical thinking skills, we're integrating our curriculum in that way, and we think it's going to promote many of those 21st century in social, emotional as well the academics also.
NNAMDIPlease put on your headphones. We're about to go to the telephones. We will start with Silas in Washington, D.C. Silas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SILASHi. My name is Silas. I guess you just said that. I have been a teacher for the past four years in Southeast Washington, D.C., and then in Harlem. My question is, you say you want to give raises to all teachers because they're worth it, but is it really all teachers who deserve a raise, or is it some of the best that deserves raise? And is across-the-board salary increases or across-the-board salary increases going to really retain the best teachers or just retain all teachers?
STARRWell, thanks, Silas. You know, we have -- so there are two things here. One is it is very difficult to isolate an individual teacher and say that they're the only person that's contributed to a child's success or failure, right? So the technical process to do that is much more complicated than people would suggest is one issue. But the other issues that we have in Montgomery County, we have the peer assistance review model.
STARRSo we have been able to support all of our new teachers, as well as our support professionals and our administrators. And if teachers aren't cutting the mustard, quite frankly, if they're not living up to our practice standards, meaning when we go into their classrooms, are they not doing what we know to be great teaching and are they not getting the results that we expect, we give them support.
STARRAnd if they don't take that support and if their actions, you know, don't get better, if they don't get better at what they're doing, then we ask them to leave the system, and we do it collaboratively. We do it with our unions, right, who are the table making the decision together. So it's not that, you know, we accept mediocrity, but we have processes to make sure that our kids are getting only the best from our teachers.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Silas. We're going to take a short break. If you have called to join the conversation with Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If the lines are busy, go to our website, kojoshow.org. You can join the conversation there or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you believe teachers should be held responsible for their student's academic achievement? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Before I go back to the phones, this fall, Montgomery County schools are abandoning letter grades for their youngest students in favor of a new style of report card. It tells parents whether kids are meeting achievement goals within each subject area, like math or reading. Could you explain the thinking behind the new report card and the timing of its roll out?
STARRSure. You know, this had been piloted in 25 schools for about six or seven years, so it's been going on for a while. And at some point, you got to, you know, you just got to fish or cut bait. And it is, you know, new vocabulary for folks. It is a little different. But what we really want to do is show how kids are doing relative to the standards that we have. But I also want to say, and I tell this to the principals, the teachers and the parents, the report card like any data, it's an entry point to the conversation, right?
STARRI go to my kid's parent-teacher nights and, you know, parent-teacher conferences, and, you know, I'm certainly interested in the grades. But I'm so much more interested in hearing what the parent -- what the teacher has to say about my children. And I think it's the same for most parents. So it's more aligned to the standards, right? It gives more accurate depiction, we think, of how the kids are doing relative to the standard. But it should be the launching pad for conversation between teachers and parents.
NNAMDIDo you think that parents have to understand how life may be somewhat different in the 21st century than it was when they went to school because what we as parents understand are the letter grades? And in the 21st century, we were being asked to acknowledge and accept that there is a new standard for how we evaluate our children and that, as you mentioned, they have to create problems.
NNAMDIThey live in a different kind of world. They have to compete ultimately with other economies. They have to learn how to create, invent things. Maybe -- is that a lesson that parents also have to learn? Because I imagine that there is almost, I guess, an instinctive pushback against things being done in ways with which we are not familiar.
STARRAbsolutely. You know, look, mathematics is a perfect example. And, you know, I don't want to open up Pandora's Box here, but math is a perfect example. Rigor in math has traditionally been seen as the how quickly you can do complex procedural problems, and whoever can do the procedures correctly and accurately, you know, do a sequence of more of them, is considered to be really good in math.
STARRAnd now we know that teaching mathematics is about the conceptual underpinnings, right? Kids need to not just know the tricks, but they really need to understand what fractions are, have a number sense. That's not always captured in the worksheet, right? We know that in the average Asian student spends about nine minutes on a math problem before they give up. The average American student spends about 30 seconds, right?
STARRSo we have to teach kids different ways of thinking about mathematics as well as many other things. This is just one example. And parents really need to understand that so -- because it really is different than we went to school.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. We go to Evan in Cabin John, Md. Evan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVANHi, Kojo. Thanks for another great show. You know, as someone who lives in Montgomery County, I can't tell you how happy I am to listen to Mr. Starr and how much I'm so happy that my tax money is supporting this school system and his approach to education. You know, if the city councilman is worried about not getting face time with them, the city councilman should accompany Mr. Starr to the classroom so he can learn about it, too. You know, and same with The Washington Post. I mean, they're playing Monday morning quarterbacking.
EVANI just love the approach -- for your collaborative approach. The (unintelligible) I definitely appreciate the fact that you're focusing on the children and the teachers are the one that teaches. I'm so tried of them villainizing teachers, like teachers want to be teachers 'cause they want to be rich or something? No. They're doing it 'cause they love it, you know. And I think your approach respects that fact.
EVANYou know, I think -- and also the problem solving, I think, is so important because I think we're, you know, we're moving into an era where we can less and less count on large organizations to hire people 'cause human beings are too expensive. So to the extent that we're encouraging people to go out on their own and become their own entrepreneurs -- and they need to be equipped with that through education 'cause no matter what trade you have, you have to deal with bureaucracies, read fine print, et cetera.
EVANI guess the one question I have is, you know, in terms of switching from the practical to the ideal, if you could talk about student-teacher ratio. You know, I think that it was, like, if we had an ideal goal, it would be something like one teacher to 12 kids. I know that would cost billions of dollars. It would take national resources. But that's how much we spent in a war in Iraq and places like that.
EVANBecause you can have a situation where, you know, you can see what each kid needs to really advance to the next level of their early, you know, stage of education. And it would also require us to build more facilities, which would lead to stimulus and blah, blah, blah.
NNAMDIWell, let me...
EVANSo anyway, I just wanted to comment on (unintelligible) progressive platform, one to 12.
NNAMDILet me get a response...
STARRSo I was in -- actually, I was in Cabin John Middle School yesterday. And I was talking to an eighth grader. And we -- she was actually taken us a tour of the building, and I was talking about class size. I said, you know, some of your class sizes look kind of big. What do you think? And she said, you know, I like it, actually. I like having a bigger class because we can do more interesting things. We can be in groups with lots of different kinds of perspectives, right? So for her -- and this is just one student out of 149,000.
STARRI don't want to suggest that all students feel this way. But, for her, she actually feels a benefit to having, you know, 28, 29 kids in her class. I was in Gaithersburg High School on Monday, shadowing a student all day. And there was -- his AP class had about 31 kids, but some of his other classes had 21 or 22. And we've done a good job of keeping class sizes low in some of our higher-need schools. And also recognizing that we, you know, in some schools, they have to be bigger.
STARRThere really is no ideal ratio. It's about the -- what's being taught in the classroom. And what you'll find in our classes is that there may be an additional literacy support during the literacy time or there might be a paraeducator, who's also co-teaching during certain literacy or math times, or there might be an English language learner or a special education teacher that's pushing in or that's present during certain times of the day.
STARRSo the class size isn't always just a function of the number of kids divided by the one homeroom teacher. We provide additional supports during the school day, and there really is no ideal. It depends on the kind of work that the kids are doing, the task that's before them.
EVANDo you think it's more important that the early -- the first through third and fourth grade is that the kids are -- have access to the more attention, more (word?) ?
STARRYeah. I mean, the research is clear on this that the only significant indication that class size matters is at K to three, but it's got to be small. It's got to be -- I think it's lower than 16, I think, is the number. After that, the national studies have shown it doesn't have much of difference. But I also know, you know, there's another issue here.
STARRThere's something Atul Gawande calls ineptitude, right, the difference between what we know out there -- and we know more now than we ever did before -- and what we're actually able to do. And our teachers, there's so much information before them. There's so much they know. There's so much they're trying to do. They can't do it all alone. And we have to provide a lot of supports to them so that we can be sure that they're meeting the needs of our kids in their classrooms.
NNAMDIEvan, thank you for your call. Here's Marybelle (sp?) in Severna Park, Md. Marybelle, your turn.
MARYBELLEWell, hello. Thank you so much for taking my call. Mr. Starr, I've been listening to the program here for a few minutes, and I'm thrilled, thrilled to hear about your concerned teachers and their interactions with students. I'm with a national coalition called startschoollater.net, and we are looking to ensure that teachers and students have a fighting chance with public health and safety issues.
MARYBELLEOne of the things we've noticed specifically in Anne Arundel County, where I live, and in Montgomery County, where we've got a local chapter there, is that teachers are really getting kind of a raw deal. They're spending the first hour, hour and a half teaching students that are asleep. These students are waking up at 5:30, six o'clock to get to school because the school schedule is so early, and it's against their circadian rhythms.
MARYBELLESo try as best as they can, even if they were to go to sleep at the 8:30 hour that most sleep scholars propose they go to sleep at, that's nearly impossible for a teenager, number one, because of their circadian rhythms, melatonin levels, and, number two, because of all their sports activities and everything else that take them out of the home place (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIAllow me to get the response, Marybelle, because we've got other comments from this issue. One posted on our website makes the argument that it does not have to cost more money for a later school start. Also, the point that you're making, Marybelle, is emphasized here. "Apparently, you guys have clearly been communicating and doing your scientific research. Their melatonin is released two hours later than kids or adults" -- talking about teenagers here.
NNAMDI"And teens need more sleep than adults to be healthy, safe and learn. In counties where this change has been made, after-school jobs and sports have adjusted and flourished. Montgomery County is not being a leader on this issue," says bronxmom. Go ahead, Josh.
STARRYeah, so I was wondering when this was going to come up. And, you know, there's been a petition that's been circling around for the last few weeks or so. I think it has about 5,000 signatures suggesting that we should have a later start time. And let me first say that I get it. You know, I definitely understand the thinking behind it. I get that, absolutely. And I'll have to say, as, you know, folks won't be surprised, that it's more complex than at first blush.
STARRAnd it's complex in a couple of different ways. The first is around sort of public policy decision making. Those who are demanding that we do something because a survey has been signed on to, you know, and part of my job is to advise the board, right, on their decision making. And one would then question whether a survey on some other topic would also get a response, right? If people wanted, I don't know, K-8 schools and 5,000 people signed that, would we, then, make that switch?
STARRAnd we have goals for the year. We're focusing on teaching and learning. This is a huge undertaking. Will it take us off tasks? The board's going to have to consider that. The other piece is, you know, we -- a study was done in the District in about '98 or so. What we're going to do is we're going to dust off that study. I think we need to say, OK, what's the same, what's different? Let's take a look. We know there are other districts have done it.
STARRSome, it's a great success. Some superintendents have talked to us, said don't do it, it's not worth it. We also know we don't want our kindergarteners at bus stops at 6:30 in the morning, right? So we've got to find the right balance between what's doable, how much energy it will take to do this and what we may not do because we'd be spending a lot of time and energy on it. And we also want to get perspectives from around the county, right? Make sure that all voices are heard in this conversation.
STARRSo it's absolutely been put on our radar screen. I'm sure the board will be raising it very soon. We know the petition will be coming to us soon. And I look forward to helping people understand the complexity of the issue and also recommending a way forward soon.
NNAMDIMarybelle, thank you very much for your call. And this issue may be related. The report you commissioned when you arrived a year ago found some teachers and administrators feeling overwhelmed by new initiatives and wanting to slow down. How did you respond to that concern?
STARRYes, that was our transition report, right? And we took a hard look at, you know, what people are feeling. And, you know, folks in Montgomery County want to work hard and are working hard. They care deeply about their work and their kids. And we've got to find the right balance between pushing, right, and saying, you know what, our kids need more, our kids need different, we got to build their capacities, we need new teacher capacities, et cetera, et cetera, and saying how much can you take, right?
STARRWhat's the right rate of change? I also think that those who are closest to the problem, so to speak, or the issue should be the ones who are charged with solving it and coming up with solutions, which is why we've invested so heavily this year in what we call professional learning communities where all employees are engaged with each other and focused on what they're doing, right, and how to get better at what their doing because the solutions at the local level oftentimes trump what we can dream up at my level.
STARRSo we hope that that's going to slow us down a little bit, but we also know that there is great urgency in Montgomery County Public Schools around students, around making sure they have the best.
NNAMDIHere's Emily in Potomac, Md. Emily, your turn.
EMILYHi. I wanted to ask about the future of getting more content in other curriculum. I know Curriculum 2.0 is bringing in more science, more history. I read about a study in New York of the Core Knowledge Foundation where they're bringing more nonfiction books into the class. They're bringing more outside topics. What's the future?
STARRWell, you know, such a good question. Six and a half hours a day, right? And we can't do everything. I mean, if I had my druthers, every student would learn an instrument, every student would be proficient, you know, really master one sport, they would act in a play and they would -- a really well-rounded education in all areas, and we can't do everything in a 6 1/2-hour day.
STARRThis is why we're really working on integrating our curriculum, right? This is why we're also starting to take a hard look at project-based curriculum. We're going to be doing that at Wheaton High School -- some really exciting things that we're starting to develop there to really say, you know what, it's not about, you know, when I spent time on Monday with a high school student, I was overwhelmed by how kids have to switch their thinking every 45 minutes, seven times a day.
STARRYou go from math to child development to AP psych to statistics, whatever may be, and it's a different language every single time. That's not the way we work in the world, right? It's not the way we do our work. We go deep, and we integrate in many different ways. So we think that by really challenging our kids to apply what they know more, focus on project-based learning and to integrate our curriculum, we think we're going to be able to get more content and the right kind of content in there.
STARRSo it's not just reading more books, right? Reading is very, very important, of course, but it's not just, you know, learning more content directly from the teacher and then getting test on it, but really trying to integrate it. That's the future of American public education, I think, and that's the work we've started to do with Curriculum 2.0.
NNAMDIEmily, thank you for your call. The great challenge for Montgomery County Public Schools is the equitable allocation of resources to provide a strong education for students at all ability, all income levels. Your predecessor, Jerry Weast, narrowed the achievement gap between students of different races. What's your approach to balancing the needs of such an increasingly diverse district?
STARRWell, I mean, the work that Dr. Weast did and that so many folks in the system led is just so powerful, and I could not be talking about the things that I'm talking about now if I hadn't inherited what I did. This is, you know -- it's sort of the next level of work. So part of it is around teacher collaboration, right? This is why we're investing so heavily in professional learning communities.
STARROur teachers, our support staff, our administrators know a lot, right? Let's tap into what 22,000 employees know, and let's use that to build towards the next level. We need to focus more on our work with the community, right? I think we need to start thinking about organizing around families as much as we organize around kids. Some of our families are in great need.
STARRSome of our families are just average families where both parents work, where, you know, the high school student may be working as well or helping out, take care of their brother and sister, where they may not have firsthand knowledge of the college application process. What are we doing to help children like that or maybe new to this country and just need a little extra help?
STARRSo I think community engagement is very important. We do think that our integrated curriculum and that approach is really going to help as well, help -- be a little more engaging for kids. And I'm also thinking that, you know, the focus on practice as well as outcomes might help us put a little more fun back into the classroom. I'm deeply interested in what teachers are doing every single day with kids, not just the outcome they get. I want good outcomes.
STARRWe must be accountable for outcomes. But the way you get to those outcomes is as important, if not more important, than just simply getting the outcomes. We've been on diet pills in this country with No Child Left Behind over the last 12 years. I want our approach to health and wellness to be about going to the gym every day, right, eating right, things like that, not just taking a diet pill so you weigh the right amount. Focusing on practice is the way we're going to get there.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. If the lines are busy, go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send us email to email@example.com. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Our guest is Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We got an email from Hannah, who says, "Why not a subject-focused curriculum? In Europe, many times you choose your route early in high school to have a path toward a certain career. It can be a difficult decision, but might work well."
STARRSure. I think there's a lot that we can learn from what's happening in other countries, you know, particularly Finland. I also know that in Europe, in some European countries, you're tracked at a very early age, and while it may be great for some, it's not great for others. And I know that their approach to career in technical education training far surpasses ours, particularly Germany. It's really some powerful work that's gone on.
STARRI don't think we look enough -- you know, we're really quick in this country to decry our standing, but we don't -- we then -- instead of looking at what other countries do to support teachers, to elevate the profession, to, in fact, pay teachers a lot more than they do here, we do the exact opposite. So if we're going to compete and we're going to look at what they do in other countries, we actually have to put our money where our mouth is and marry those practices, replicate those practices as well.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. We go now to Jane in Washington, D.C. Jane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANEOK. I was wondering what kind of resources at the high school level we have for at-risk teenagers, those that have emotional issues, but do have outside resources such as therapists, psychiatrists, et cetera. What in-school resources, besides an IET, do we have?
STARRYou know, there are a lot of resources at the high school level. We have our pupil personnel workers, you know, our guidance counselors, et cetera. We also do a lot of work with various community agencies. And that's really where, I think, the future is, not just adding more resources to our budget so that it's all in the school system, but to partner with various community agencies and do what we call wraparound services.
STARRSo, for example, at Kennedy High School, we're just starting to train folks on home visits, right, so that our teachers and our staff can go out and really understand what our kids are dealing with at home and build some relationships with families. And we also have -- we've done some work with this thing called the Kennedy Cluster Project where we provide what we call wraparound services to kids so we can really understand what's happening with the family and what kind of services they need.
STARRI think that's our future, quite frankly, so it's not just about more that the school has to do, but how the school is working in concert with various community resources to provide the student and the family with much needed services.
NNAMDIJane, thank you for your call. We move on to Elizabeth, who is in Montgomery County, Md. Hi, Elizabeth.
NNAMDIYou're on the air, Elizabeth. Go ahead.
ELIZABETHOK. My question for Dr. Starr -- sorry about the noise -- is my child has gone to the Montgomery County advanced math program, and she's now in eighth grade, doing geometry and doing very well. My younger child is in the primary grade, and I understand that advanced math is being eliminated, and I have serious concerns because I think they're both capable of it.
ELIZABETHI understand that, in the past, Montgomery County has really pushed too many kids into advanced math and that there were legitimate concerns about the foundation of math for those children. On the other hand, completely eliminating it seems swinging the bar too far.
STARRSo the -- you know, one of the things that happens when we go through these phases with curriculum is that the conversations that people are having amongst themselves often become akin to fact, right? And we need to do a lot of work with communicating what we're going to be doing in math. We will not be taking away opportunities for kids who truly need to be accelerated beyond their current grading level to have that opportunity.
STARRWe will not be taking away that opportunity. We also know we've done an enormous amount of studying of this at the local and national level. I talk to kids and parents all the time and teachers, in particular, who say that many of the kids who are accelerated aren't ready to do high school math. They don't have number sense. And, in fact, many of the kids who are just in the -- on grade level end up doing quite well in high school math.
STARRToo many of our kids have to get tutors, right, for mathematics. So this is a very complex issue. It's one that is part of the national conversation. Quite frankly, you know, math is probably the hardest issue that school districts have to deal with. There are kids who need to be accelerated. They will continue to be accelerated. Will we have as many kids as in the past just so that we can show that we have gotten a certain number?
STARRProbably not because what I want to make sure is that I can look every single parent in the eye, every single student in the eye and say, you're getting what you need to be successful, which means a four-year course of study in mathematics with an AP class, right, that enables you to do well in college. I need to be able to look everybody in the eye and say, it's not just about the numbers that I'm showing about how many kids are in advanced math but that you're getting what your child needs.
STARRSo Curriculum 2.0 is different. And I encourage you to look at the work that your child is doing, right, and really understand how we're moving from just simply procedural mathematics to conceptual mathematics and really learn about it. And that's where it's going to be a lot -- have to be a lot of collective learning. But we're going to be doing a lot of communication about this coming up in the new calendar year, so, please, stay tuned. But we will not be wholesale eliminating all accelerated mathematics.
NNAMDIElizabeth, thank you very much for your call. And, Joshua Starr, Elizabeth's call reminds me that, indeed, we got an email from someone who said they left D.C. 10 years ago so their child could attend Montgomery County schools. Hopefully, we'll get the rest of that email later. But that's what quite a few people do because public education is clearly a high priority in Montgomery County, one that parents there are passionate about. What is it like to be accountable to such well-intentioned but sometimes, well, demanding parents?
STARRI love it. I love it. I mean, you know, I grew up in New York, and there was the Sy Syms' commercial, you know, an educated consumer is our best costumer. It's the same thing...
NNAMDIWe had those commercials here, too, yes.
STARRYeah. We do. Right, right. And, you know, I love it. The -- I want parents to be actively engaged in understanding what the -- what their children need to be successful in the future. The challenge is, I think, for us to get all parents actively engaged. I want every single parent to feel like they can come down, they can talk to us, they can tell us what they know about their child, and they can understand what their child needs as well to be successful. So I welcome that kind of accountability because I'd much rather have an engaged community than, you know, a disinterested one.
NNAMDIWell, let's get specific. Here is Peggy in Potomac, Md. Peggy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PEGGYThank you, Kojo and Dr. Starr. Dr. Starr, you were saddled with an enormous mess created on the Brickyard Road school site. And the executive now controls the land, but the school system is having to pick up the bill for the legal costs that this has engendered. Could you not work with the Board of Education to insist that the executive pick up those costs and reimburse the school system, so that the hundreds of thousands of dollars now being spent on legal battles would actually go to educate our children?
NNAMDII must admit I have no idea what Peggy is talking about. So can you, please, explain?
STARRSure. Well, please understand. I can't discuss this at length nor in detail because of the extensive litigation that exists. And it's -- I got to walk these fine lines, you understand. But there's a farm that has been for 30 years -- that's been Nick's Organic Farm in Potomac that is our land, right, that has been leased by this leased by this farm for 30 years at a rate of...
NNAMDIYes. Now, I know. Go ahead.
STARR…$1,300 a year. $1,300 a year, this land has been leased, and, you know, I'm sure the farmer's done quite well, producing organic materials for his farm in Frederick. And we are always in conversations with the county about different land use issues. And sometimes they need something. Sometimes we need something. And, you know, when the county asked if they could have that land for soccer fields, they said, you know what, it seems fine to us. We notified the owner -- I'm sorry -- the leasee -- the leasor of that property, Nick, right?
STARRWe notified him back in 2010 that we would be turning it over to the county. At that time, there was no educational program to that farm, right. It didn't come up until, you know, they realized that they would have to go. Right now, it's still in court. We will see what the -- I am not doing anything or recommending that the board do anything until the judge makes his determination. There has been a stay. We'll see what the final determination is. But, you know, land use issues and growth management issues are very, very difficult and complex issues in Montgomery County.
NNAMDIPeggy, thank you very much for your call. Because we're coming to the end of the broadcast in a few minutes, I feel I have to be fair to Margaret, who sent me the email indicating that she left D.C. 10 years ago, so they could attend Montgomery County public schools. Because, after that, she said, "Our daughter has had wonderful, talented MCPS teachers, but they simply cannot teach to their full potential with the bloated class sizes they must deal with.
NNAMDI"Now that our daughter is in high school, we've left MCPS and returned to D.C. That may be shocking to some parents listening today, but our excellent D.C. high school has a maximum class size of 25. Her D.C. teachers can be magnificent educators. They are in part because they have manageable class sizes." Well, you talked about that a little earlier in the conversation, so I don't necessarily want to go back there.
NNAMDIBut I just wanted to make sure that Margaret had her whole issue dealt with. You're been promoting so-called professional learning communities that encourage teachers to work together on preparing and analyzing lesson plans and on nurturing students. What's the goal of that cooperative approach?
STARRSo our teachers know so much, right? They know so much. And we know that if the people who are closest to the issue at hand have opportunities to resolve that issue and figure out solutions, they're going to come up with a much better solution than we will over at central office. And we know that when teachers collaborate, it builds community, right? We also have intergenerational transfer of knowledge issue, right? I got baby boomers that are leaving, you know, every year.
STARRAnd then we're hiring about 300 teachers a year just to keep up with enrollment. Well, how do you take everything that our veterans know and transmit it to those younger folks who are coming up? Professional learning communities enables us to do that. It's a proven practice that improves results. I did it in my last district. It was part of the key to reform, and it's one of those best practices. You know, you go back to Europe, right, and the way they organize, they make sure their teachers are collaborating, right?
STARRTheir teachers are seen as professionals, who aren't just doing what they're mandated to do by the folks downtown but are actively collaborating a part of the -- just, you know, creating the solutions that help our kids. It works not only in developing better practices but in creating a kind of collaborative culture that's so essential to school success.
NNAMDIAnd we go Natalie in Silver Spring, Md. Natalie, did the superintendent just answer your question?
NATALIENo. Actually, he didn't.
NNAMDIGo ahead then.
NATALIEOK. Good afternoon. You mentioned earlier that education of the 21st century differs from when we went to school. And I'm trying to be engaged with my child as far as homework is concerned, but I don't understand the new teaching techniques. And one example would be how they use the cubes and the rows for teaching math. And how are parents supposed to understand so we can help our children at home with their homework?
NNAMDIAnd we only have about a minute left, Joshua Starr. Go ahead, please.
STARRWell, I find the same challenges when working with my kids on their homework. So you're not alone. You know, we do have parent academies that we run through our division of Family and Community Partnerships. And we are looking for ways to do a lot more of -- a lot more parent engagements.
STARRSo I recommend you go down and talk to your child's teacher or their principal and say, look, I'm looking for ways to help my child, you know, give me some -- I can guarantee that they will be amenable to that, and they'll want to help you understand what it is your child is doing. And thank you for the support you're giving your child.
NNAMDIAs I said, we're almost out of time. In about 30 seconds, can you talk about why you replaced the Office of School Performance with the Office of School Support and Improvement?
STARRWell, I want to give the message to our folks that we are about supporting you. We are about building capacity. I say all the time that not only do we, you know, we don't have a student learning problem in America. We have an adult learning problem, and we have to learn better ways of serving our kids. We have to learn better ways of serving our adults.
STARROur adults won't learn how to get better at their job if they're not given the support they need to do that. So that's how we're reorganizing it. There is still great accountability for outcomes at Montgomery County public schools, but we're also focused on supporting our folks and building that capacity.
NNAMDIJoshua Starr is superintendent of Montgomery County public schools. Thank you for joining us.
STARRThank you so much for having me on, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you so much all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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