Photo from MCPS.

Last week, we talked about how de facto segregation has made Montgomery County Public Schools a system of haves and have-nots, and at how watered-down attempts at integration made it worse. But for superintendent Joshua Starr, the real answer is making teachers better at teaching and students better at learning.

“I could come up with ways of mixing and matching kids from different backgrounds and different races and different stripes in schools,” says Starr, “but unless you actually change what teachers do with kids every day, you’re not going to get a different result.”

I met Starr in his ground-floor office at the Carver Center in Rockville, a former black high school that’s now MCPS headquarters. 50 years after the end of official segregation, an “achievement gap” persists between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts. Starr calls it a “moral and economic imperative.” His official Twitter account says he’s “committed to public ed for social justice.”

Focus on teaching and learning, not on demographics

Before coming to Montgomery County in 2011, Starr was the schools superintendent for Stamford, Connecticut, which began busing students in the 1970’s to encourage racial diversity in each school. However, it had little effect on academics.

“The tracking of kids was pernicious and incredibly problematic,” he said, referring to the grouping of students by academic ability. Disadvantaged students were often placed in the lowest classes. “The education the black kids and poor kids and Latino kids got was horrific compared to what white kids got. While we integrated schools, the classrooms were not integrated.”

Starr tried mixing kids of different races and backgrounds regardless of skill level and found that minority students performed much better. MCPS began trying this before Starr arrived with some success in some of the county’s lower-income schools, but as he pushes for expanding it, some parents complain it holds high-achieving students back.

Starr wants to make Wheaton a model of “project-based learning.” Photo by the author.

Another attempt at closing the gap is “project-based learning,” which teaches students collaboration skills and critical thinking though exposure to real-life scenarios and new technology. The first school to try it is Wheaton High School, one of the system’s poorest and lowest-ranked.

“There are kids that I saw when I was down there who were presenting their projects, 9th graders, 10th graders, that far exceeded what anybody in the county’s done,” Starr said. “When they graduate college, they will be highly sought-after as employees.” Teachers at top-ranked Whitman High in Bethesda are studying Wheaton so they can bring the program there.

In May, Starr named Watkins Mill, Kennedy, and Springbrook high schools “Innovation Schools,” making them testing grounds for “new and innovative strategies” to improve student performance. They were selected along with 7 elementary, middle, and alternative schools based on their low student performance rates and past attempts at improvement. They’ll partner with the central office to design “school improvement strategies” for each campus, while principals would get extra coaching.

“We know that just by virtue of living near Walter Johnson High School, everything’s going to be okay,” Starr says, referring to a school in Bethesda. “Walter Johnson needs support too, and they’re going to get it. But Springbrook needs a little bit more.”

Integration the community’s job, not the school’s

Will better teaching be enough to fix the system’s troubled schools? Starr can’t integrate his classrooms if the schools aren’t integrated to begin with, which he blames on the county’s larger demographic trends.

“The students in the school are an outgrowth of the neighborhood … it’s just this natural progression,” he says, noting that people have their own reasons for choosing private schools or moving to a certain neighborhood. While working in Stamford, Starr commuted from Park Slope, an affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn. Today, he lives with his wife and 3 kids in Bethesda, home to the school system’s top-rated, but least-diverse schools.

After decades of trying to integrate its schools, MCPS needs outside help. “I don’t decide housing policy. I don’t decide transportation policy. We’re a function of a community’s decisions about how it wants to organize itself,” he says. “My main job is 149,000 kids and their increasing diversity, and the needs that they have and what I need to do to get those kids what they need, wherever they’re going to school and whoever they’re sitting next to.”

During his brief tenure, Starr hasn’t shied away from controversial statements. He’s called for a moratorium on standardized tests and expressed skepticism towards charter schools, even though the project-based learning program comes from one.

School reform advocates accuse of him of protecting the status quo, and MCPS officials suggest they weren’t looking for massive changes. “We have a good thing going here, and we were not looking for candidates who were going to change direction,” school board member Christopher Barclay told the Washington Post in 2011.

“Most people choose MCPS,” Starr says. “The choice program we have [the Northeast and Downcounty consortia], it’s working. Most people get their first choice and people are very satisfied with the choices they get.”

Where white (in red) and low-income students (in blue) go to school in MCPS. Graph by the author.

It’s great that Starr wants to give all students a great education regardless of background. But the isolation of poor and minority students in several schools, particularly in East County, suggests that many middle-class families aren’t choosing them. That threatens both the system’s future and the county’s. MCPS can’t fix it alone, but admitting that they have a problem would be a good first step.

“America has issues with race and it will always have issues with race,” says Starr. “Montgomery County’s a very progressive community. People are deeply committed to equity. There’s a lot of evidence that in this county and this school system, people are able to live together.”

“They don’t seem to be able to go to school together,” I reply.

“Issues of race have to be addressed if we are going to realize our full potential,” Starr says. “That’s in the school system as well. How you go about doing that becomes part of the challenge.”

Tomorrow, we’ll look at ways to meet that challenge in our final post.