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Q&A: Exit Interview With A Nationally Known School Leader

Joshua Starr
Skip Brown
Joshua Starr

Joshua Starr, a nationally prominent superintendent with the Montgomery County schools in Rockville, Md., this month was granted early release from his contract after 3 1/2 years.

Starr, 45, a father of three, is the former superintendent of the Stamford, Conn., schools and director of accountability for the New York City public schools. He is known as a bit of a maverick. As the head of the 154,000 student district in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, he gained notoriety in 2012 by calling for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. And he's incorporated measures of student and employee engagement and well-being into school report cards.

But Starr lost the confidence of his board. Opinions differed as to why: because of his rising national profile, or stubborn achievement problems in the district; questions about the administrative handling of some school sex abuse cases, or a controversial debate over whether to change school start times. We caught up with him for an exit interview.

What are you most proud of from your time as superintendent?

Well, I'm proud of our results. Graduation rates are up across the board, and we've also narrowed the gap in graduation. SAT and AP scores continue to be high. I'm proud of that. We also reduced suspensions pretty significantly.

The second thing is the way that we've redefined what public education should look like, to include creative problem solving and social and emotional well-being to be as important as academic success.

We saw the biggest one-year increase in graduation rates at Wheaton High School, where we reframed what teaching and learning looks like by focusing on project-based learning.

How did you become convinced of the importance of these "squishier" concepts like creativity or even emotional well-being — that these are central to the mission of a public school?

I like to say the problem we are trying to solve in public education today is the democratization of information.

I ask teachers all the time, if you can Google it, why teach it? Because we have so much information today. How do you help kids navigate that? That's critical thinking and creative problem solving.

And when I talk to the business community, they always talk about the fact that they want kids who have good academics, of course, but more importantly they want kids who can solve problems and think critically.

And what about the social and emotional stuff?

When it comes to social and emotional well-being, we mean that kids should value and respect diversity, make healthy good personal decisions, and build resilience. We believe kids should be good people.

Hard work is the most important thing in life. That means learning from failure, setting goals, having a vision of your future, a sense of hope those things are really important. And you can build it into everyday classroom experience.

But how? What do you do to promote these values at the district and school level?

Well, everyone wants the fad diet — that one program that's going to fix everything. But when I talk to principals about how they're getting improved results, it's not about a program, it's about relationships.

In our school-improvement planning process, we require a social and emotional goal. We measure student and employee well-being and engagement through surveys. We do social and emotional walk-throughs, with a team of central and school-based folks. It's kind of like instructional rounds, but it's about environments being created for kids that support social and emotional well-being.

As we've reported, urban school superintendents tend to have a short "shelf life." Why do you think that is?

I think the expectations for the superintendent can be not aligned with reality sometimes.

One reason is the incredible polemics of the reform or school-improvement movement that's going on these days. With [issues like] testing, school choice, superintendents have to act in the middle. We're stewards of the community's values. And we also have to comply with the accountability regs from the state and the feds.

People want to see dramatic improvement quickly. The expectation that a superintendent can do it alone I think just doesn't work well. It takes an entire community to eliminate the achievement gap and raise standards.

And the budget issues don't help.

You made headlines in 2012 by calling for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. What's your position now as the issue is back in the news?

Well, I think more and more people have come around to the point of view I expressed a few years ago. I am not anti-testing. I'm concerned about the policies associated with the testing regime and how they may detract from the quality and purpose and the use of tests.

We need good assessments — any quality school or district must have ongoing assessments of where kids are relative to where we want them to be. We need accountability and I do think there's a role for state tests — I would argue once each in elementary, middle, and high school — to measure school performance. Tests are an essential part of the landscape. It's a matter of which test for what purpose.

You promote resilience and grit as part of social and emotional well-being. How are these values coming into action for you now as you contemplate your next step?

I always tell new leaders coming up, the first rule of leadership is know yourself. I'm going to spend some time doing that over the next little while, thinking, What it is I want to do for the rest of my career? Where can I make the most impact? What are the greatest needs out there?

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.