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Moving Past 'One Size Fits All' Reform

May 18, 2011

Joshua Starr has recently been appointed to oversee the schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, the nation's 17th largest school district. One interesting fact about this hiring decision is that Starr does not advocate for the style of eduction reform in vogue among many superintendents at larger schools. Instead, Starr believes in a restrained approach to reform that bypasses hyperbolic ideology for constructive dialog.

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By Douglas Fehlen

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Corporate-Style Reform

In 2001, George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation was passed into law. The bill outlined specific measures by which schools would be held accountable for educating students. Heavily emphasized in this assessment was the use of standardized tests as the measure by which schools were judged for being successful. Schools not meeting standards were to be shut down.

No Child Left Behind has ushered in a period of reform in U.S. schools that many associate with practices in place within corporate America. School districts are routinely reorganized, often with neighborhood schools being closed in favor of privately run charters. Charters typically operate on a smaller scale, which can result in other schools having huge enrollments and overcrowded classrooms.

Results-oriented reform also calls for merit-based teacher compensation, with those educators whose student under-perform becoming targets for dismissal. Performance is based on student scores on standardized tests, a practice many view as being unfair to educators in challenged districts. Corporate-style 'efficiency' measures have been used to not only address so-called 'failing' schools, but to also make cuts to operating budgets, including staff reductions and a stripping away of teachers' seniority protections and collective bargaining rights.

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'Good Teaching'

But many in education have voiced doubt that standardized tests and business-style reforms are the best ways in which to improve learning. Among these critics is Joshua Starr, the newly appointed chief of schools for Montgomery County in Maryland. Rather than restructure schools by closing them down or re-appropriating resources, he suggests, instruction is the key: 'This must be about good teaching and learning, and high-quality instruction,' Starr says of enhancing students' education. 'I don't hear people talking about what kids need to know and be able to do.'

Making a move from head of schools in Stamford, Connecticut, Starr comes to the Montgomery County position with a reputation for building bridges between staff and administrators. He chides those who oversimplify the school reform debate, including measures to shut down schools, fire staff and place control of the schools in the hands of city mayors: 'Talk to me about what the vision is for what kids know and will be able to do before you bash teachers unions and say if we just had mayoral control everything could fix itself.'

Starr, a graduate of Harvard, achieved successes in Stamford schools by developing a centralized teaching curriculum and creating more diverse classrooms. The administrator is widely credited with helping to reduce the achievement gap, build relationships with teachers and maintain constructive communication with parents. In his new position overseeing the schools of Montgomery County, which borders Washington, D.C., Starr will have to contend with instructional challenges that come with having a large percentage of English language learners and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Referencing Waiting for Superman, the recent film lauding the benefits of corporate-style education reform, Starr says, 'I do not think Superman exists.' Starr suggests that instead what is needed is a blended approach to reform that targets schools' - and learners' - specific needs.

Learn more about the current state of the school reform debate currently talking place among educators throughout the United States.

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