In a World of 'Not Possible,' Can a Starr Revolution Work?

In a world of "not possible,” without a revolution, Superintendent Starr simply is blowing ideas in the wind.

Montgomery County Public Schools is doing a really good job of quickly loading to its public website videos of Superintendent Joshua Starr's book club discussions. Click here to view the newest video, on the book "Drive."

In my last blog post,

I noted that my Montgomery County-based for-profit research firm is hiring, and when interviewing new workers, we never discuss high school and what was learned there. Now, I am restricting my observations here to the hiring of recent college graduates.

But let’s get back to the "Drive" video. In the video, Starr claims that our schools are out of sync with the world of work and the global economy.

Now, Starr is not the only school superintendent saying this—that schools today must have a different purpose, one that better matches emerging world economies. On the Dec. 20 edition of "The Politics Hour" on WAMU-FM, Kaya Henderson, chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools, actually said today's schools are so out of touch with reality that they should be "blown up."

But here's the part that really needs tackling: I accept the notion that schools today have different purposes than schools from the dawn of the last century. Very few of us are going to argue against this. But then we still are left—or Starr is left—with two key questions:

  1. How does MCPS actually get parents and communities to accept this notion of a new mission? I’m not convinced that Starr and most MCPS parents are on the same path.
  2. Assuming everyone ends up on the same path, what does Starr do to change things—and change schools?


The first issue is an easy one, especially since Starr loves to talk. With enough talking, Starr probably gets everyone on the same path. The other issue—changing the schools themselves—is the real challenge.

And so, for example, if Starr believes what he is saying—and I have no reason to doubt him—wouldn't he also question our current investment in school buildings? Aren’t we still building the same schools we built at the dawn of the last century?

Sure, within our new school buildings there are fancy new technology toys and gadgets, but the schools themselves aren't really any different than the ones our grandparents and great-grandparents attended. Beyond green roofs, shouldn’t the design and structure of the schools we’re now building match these new purposes?  

And so if we are investing in the old ways, how the heck does change occur? And what does a truly modern school look like—one that is better suited to match graduates with the new world economies? I have no idea what these modern schools ought to look like, but I wish Starr would do a better job of articulating a vision—if he has one.

On the MCPS website, I noticed Starr’s next book club selection is "The Global Achievement Gap" by Tony Wagner. This is an interesting book selection because at his public website, the author—Wagner—makes the point that only today’s elite private schools seem to match the current world of work and the global economy. The author believes, for example, that private elite schools are the rare place where schools actually teach students to think in the proper ways. (The ways that match the current work place and world economy.)

So let’s pretend that this is true. How then would this alter things for MCPS? Do we build smaller schools? After all, it is probably impossible to find any large elite private schools.

Click here to see what Wagner actually said about private schools.

So, I’ll give Starr credit for throwing good ideas on the table, but lots of people throw ideas around. The real test of leadership will be getting MCPS to change. And frankly, I think that will be some kind of revolution. And why a revolution?

It seems as though whenever our Board of Education is presented with good ideas, they typically respond by saying “that’s not possible.” Recently, I watched a video of a joint meeting between the Board of Education and the County Council, and it seemed as though whenever a council member suggested a change a board member would respond with "not possible" (or some other variation of "no").

One council member suggested building new schools “up” and not “out.” The implication here is to build schools with smaller physical “footprints.” I heard “not possible.” When another council member asked if school buses could be moved to a cluster model to save on transportation costs, again I heard “not possible.” And the suggestion that MCPS students eat fresh farm vegetables also got shot down.

Click here to view video of the meeting.

So, in a world of “not possible,” without a revolution, Starr simply is blowing ideas in the wind.

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Eva Sullivan February 15, 2012 at 10:52 AM
Maybe if we can stop teaching to the test, there will be more time for exploring other topics/ tangents. The schools themselves aren't broken, but the administration of these schools is sometimes misguided, uninformed and by remote control.
Elizabeth Chaisson February 15, 2012 at 02:01 PM
I'd like to see Montessori classrooms integrated into the early grades. The book Drive mentions how these classrooms actually do teach students the skills they need to think independently and self-motivate. It would not be "reinventing the wheel" to integrate a proven method for our more challenging students. Montessori created this program for intellectually disabled children and found that it also works well on academically advanced children. We could eliminate the separate but equal magnet schools for "gifted" elementary students by integrating Montessori classrooms into local ES.
Susan Byrne February 16, 2012 at 11:57 AM
How the heck does change occur? Incrementally. With a steady eye on the outcome desired and frequent navigational corrections as needed. Investment in building the schools of the 21st century would be nice, but let's not hold our breath for that. This is a superintendent who recognizes that more can be done with what we already have, while we continue to work on those 21st century investments. We have a plan developing with key goals that are on target: training teachers in their pivotal role of fitting programs to students and differentiating instruction, collaborating with stakeholders to enrich the community with the untapped intellectual and other resources within our reach, translating policy and philosophy into practice. We have good reason to believe this can be done. It has been done elsewhere. There are plentiful models of success. The Transition Plan of September 2011 has identified the gaps we have to address. And I believe Starr can provide the leadership to bring community resolve to filling those gaps.


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