This is the third in a series examining the record of educators who have been mentioned as serious possiblities for NYC Chancellor. Previously we examined the records of Andres Alonso and Kathleen Cashin. The following was compiled by Peter Dalmasy, Class Size Matters researcher.
Joshua Starr grew up in Larchmont, New York and holds an undergraduate degree from University of Wisconsin, a Master’s in Special Education from Brooklyn College, and a Master’s and Doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1991, he moved to San Francisco where he worked at a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed kids.
Starr began his career as an educator in 1993, first as a substitute English teacher and then in 1995 as a special education teacher at PS 753 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn where he taught until 1997. He then served as Director of Accountability for Plainfield (NJ) Public Schools while completing his graduate studies at Harvard, and later as the Executive Director for Operations in Freeport (LI) School District.
In 2003, he was hired by Andres Alonso to be a Deputy Senior Instructional Manager and then Director of School Performance and Accountability at the New York City DOE, where he helped design the initial stages of the school accountability and grading system.
Starr’s record as Stamford Superintendent
Starr was appointed the Superintendent of Stamford (CT) Public Schools in 2005 and served for seven years. The district has 15,000 students in 20 schools. Like Andres Alonso, he had never served as a principal before being hired as superintendent.
While in Stamford, he altered a program in the district’s middle schools that had grouped students by academic ability, known as ‘tracking’, by consolidating five tracks into two, despite facing opposition from some parents, who demanded multiple tracks.
In a December 2012 Washington Post Answer Sheet op-ed, Long Island principal Carol Burris explained, “In 1976, the Connecticut Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights initiated a review of the status of Stamford’s progress with desegregation and expressed concern that middle- and high-school ability grouping was re-segregating classrooms, with high-track students being predominantly White, and low-track students being predominantly Black or Latino.”
“When Dr. Starr arrived in 2005 as Superintendent, nearly 30 years after the report, no progress on improvement recommendations had been made. There were up to five tracks in the middle schools. Although only 40% of all students in the district were White, nearly 79% of the honors track was White. Conversely, although 53% of the district’s students were Black or Latino, only 11% of the honors track was Black or Latino.”
With funding from a $27 million grant from General Electric Foundation, “he led a middle school transformation committee to review data and grouping practices and unified a curriculum based on rigorous standards.” As a result, “the percentage of Black or Latino students in the honors math track increased from 11% to 30%—a dramatic shift in the proportion of student groups in the highest track.”
When he arrived at Stamford, there was no centralized teaching curriculum across the twenty schools. By the end of his tenure, all twenty schools in the district taught the same curriculum. Wendy Lecker, then co-president of the Parent Teacher Council of Stamford, told the Washington Post, “We had 150 different ways of teaching reading. He came in and made it much more uniform.”
Despite engaging with the union early on in his tenure as Superintendent, his relationship apparently worsened towards the end of his leadership. According to Lori Rossamando, president of the Stamford Teachers Union, the union filed eight unfair labor practice grievances over the course of Starr’s tenure.
He unexpectedly laid off twelve classroom teachers in May 2011, and blamed this on the teachers union’s “unwillingness to bend.” He also eliminated 20 literacy and math coaching positions because of an $8,000 stipend that the union had demanded for the positions, which had been previously funded under a grant from General Electric.
Starr in Montgomery County, Maryland
Starr left Stamford after the 2010-2011 school year to become Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools’ Superintendent. Montgomery County is the largest district in Maryland with 151,000 students in 202 schools.
Before Starr arrived, the school system had reduced spending by $430 million between 2009 and 2011, which caused the elimination of more than 1,300 positions and an increase in class size of one student on average.
In May 2012, when several Montgomery council members reported class sizes of 40 students or more, Starr responded that he was not aware of this.
In September 2012, he acknowledged class size “is something that teachers and parents feel is incredibly important, and I, too, want to have very reasonably sized classes. And we know that a skilled, effective teacher is the most important in a child’s success.”
In October 2012, when interviewed on public radio, he said, “There really is no ideal [teacher/student] ratio….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.”
He added, “…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.” [note from LH: Actually research shows that there is no threshold that has to be reached before reducing class size has a positive impact on student learning. And though there have been no experiments to show the benefits of class size in the middle and upper grades, there are many controlled studies that suggest a correlation between higher achievement, lower dropout rates, and more student engagement in smaller classes in these grades as well.]
At a community meeting in April 2013, Starr was asked whether or not there were plans to reduce class sizes, and he responded, “30 teachers have been added in focus (high need) schools, but class sizes will not be reduced across the board any time soon. It is very expensive, and not the most effective way to improve school experience.”
Three Year Moratorium on Testing
More recently, Starr has become a prominent critic of high-stakes testing.
In December 2012, he called for a three-year moratorium nationwide on standardized testing.
In February 2013, he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post that said, “Most U.S. public school systems are attempting to implement at least three things at once right now: revamped accountability measures, reforms as part of the federal Race to the Top program and the Common Core State Standards. This is simply too much at one time.”
While he said he was a believer in Common Core, he argued, “Districts around the country are spending so much time implementing new accountability measures and other supposed reforms that they are not developing the system capacity to change teaching and learning in the classroom in ways that will enable our students to achieve Common Core’s promise. School districts are not investing in new curricula, assessments, professional development or data systems.”
Starr also said there needs to be a “stop [to] the insanity of linking student test scores to their evaluations,” and that “Race to the Top dollar reforms are based on “bad science and bad theory.” In a radio interview he commented, “There’s tons of what the statisticians call noise in the test scores. They're an important indicator, but they're not the goal.”
Surveys in Montgomery County Schools
Starr paid $900,000 to Gallup for three years to give surveys to students and staff, and compare the results to a national database of respondents. According to the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, this decision was made without a vote of the Board of Education.
In the fall of 2012, and again in 2013, the survey asked 5th-12th grade students twenty questions on their views of their teachers and their classroom experiences, and looked at their hope, engagement and well-being as measures school administrators should track and improve.
To measure well-being, students were asked: “Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”
Some questions included whether the students “energetically pursue goals,” “learn or do something interesting yesterday,” “laughed or smiled a lot yesterday” or “had a best friend at school.” Other questions asked students if they “know they will graduate from high school,” “can think of many ways to get good grades,” or “know they will find a good job after they graduate.”
Teachers were asked 19 questions, a full list which can be found here. Most questions asked them to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 their agreement with statements such as “I have a best friend at work” and “I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.” Other questions included “There is open communication throughout all levels of MCPS” and “My supervisor involves me in decisions affecting my work.”
Here are the results of the student and staff surveys from 2012-13, compared to national results.
Parents have also been administered surveys by the Montgomery County Public Schools. Questions include such items as whether a given parent “feel[s] welcome at [a] child’s school,” “believe [a] child is safe at school,” “What grade [one] would give [their] child’s school,” and others. Examples can be found here and here.
Earlier this month, Starr appeared in front of teachers, administrators, students, and parents for a “State of the Schools” address, where he said he would like to use the survey data and make it part of the Strategic Planning Framework. He said, “Hope matters. Hope travels from person to person.”
Changes in the school day
Since 63 percent of high school students and 70 percent of parents said in in a 2013 survey that classes started “too early,” Starr released a plan to move the start of high school fifty minutes later, from 7:25 am to 8:15 am. He also moved the middle-school day to start ten minutes earlier, at 7:45 a.m. Elementary schools would have longer school days, with afternoon dismissals 30 minutes later.
At a town hall meeting on November 21, 2013, when one parent questioned the benefits of this plan and asked if he planned to conduct research on the issue, Starr said, “If you’re going to consider these kinds of changes, it’s better to do it all at once.”
Test scores and achievement gap
In March 2013, a report was released by Montgomery County Public Schools showing that the achievement gap had widened between White and Asian students and Black and Latino students in the district between 2007 and 2012.
Starr wrote a letter saying he would use an additional $10 million towards helping address achievement disparities, including adding 30 “focus” teachers to reduce class sizes in English and math at middle and high schools where students were struggling.
Admitting that the achievement gap remains a problem, Starr said, “We must accept that the strategies we have used up to this point – while effective – will not get us to the top of the mountain.”
In May 2013, figures released by MCPS showed that January math final exams were failed by many high school students. For example, 62 percent of students failed who took the standardized end of course geometry final and 57 percent who took the Algebra 2 exam. At the honors level, 30 to 36 percent failed January end-of-semester math tests. Additionally, 86 percent failed finals for Bridge to Algebra 2, intended for students who needed support before moving into the advanced course.
Starr said, “It’s certainly a concern to me that this many kids failed…exam failure does not mean course failure.” In response, Starr and the district would do a school-by-school analysis and an examination of such issues as student placement and professional development.
When asked about these math results, Starr responded, “That’s just one slice of the data, along with course completion. Course completion is much better, and one reason is that a lot of kids don’t need to pass the exam to pass the course. So they didn’t study for the geometry final because they were really concerned about the physics final. It’s an important piece of data, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.”
Market driven reform
In a January 2013 interview, in response to the danger of market-driven reform, Starr answered,
“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.”
Crossway Community Montessori School is currently the only charter school in Montgomery County, which opened in 2012.
In October 2013, Starr proposed a $1.5 billion Capital plan to ease overcrowding in Montgomery County due to “dramatic enrollment growth.” The plan includes increasing the number of classrooms in elementary schools and upgrading the infrastructure of several MCPS buildings. He recommended that 20 current projects for revitalization and expansion be delayed to focus on creating classroom additions and more schools.
Town hall meeting
On November 21, 2013, Starr appeared at a town-hall meeting, where parents and attendees carried posters with “impassioned messages.” Parents cited one elementary school with a major mold outbreak that allegedly caused health problems Parents at a high school with a large Spanish speaking population requested that bilingual administrative staff be hired. Starr suggested that parents speak with district specialists about the mold situation, about which he said, “They’re doing, I think, everything they can to remediate the problem.” On hiring bilingual staff, he said “We know it’s such a need,” but said that hiring decisions at the individual school level were made by principals.