As New CEO, Joshua Starr Hopes to Build on PDK's Legacy

By Joetta Sack-Min

Joshua Starr, who took the helm of Phi Delta Kappa International this summer, left a high-profile job as Superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., schools, where he had focused on accountability and high standards for the fast-growing and increasingly diverse 154,000-student district. While some were surprised that Dr. Starr did not seek another job as superintendent, he is now focusing his work on improving teaching and learning through systemic change at PDK International.

Dr. Starr also has worked as director of accountability for the New York City public schools and as superintendent of the Stamford, Conn., school district. Dr. Starr has a doctorate in education from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, a master’s degree in special education from Brooklyn College, and a bachelor’s degree in English and history from the University of Wisconsin. His three children attend public schools in Montgomery County, and he began his career as a teacher working with adolescents with several emotional disabilities.

Dr. Starr recently spoke with the Learning First Alliance about his experience as a superintendent, the recent PDK/Gallup Annual poll, and his plans for the organization.

LFA: Why did you decide to take the helm of Phi Delta Kappa? What do you hope to bring to PDK from your experience as a superintendent?

Joshua Starr: PDK has always been a voice for teachers and quality instruction. It has a legacy of bridging research and practice, as well as developing the next generation of educators and gauging public opinions of public schools. As I transitioned out of the superintendency, I wanted to focus on the systems that support quality teaching and learning for every child and I felt that PDK would provide me that opportunity. I intend to build on the rich assets and legacy of PDK and apply them to help practitioners solve the systems challenges they face in the 21st century. 

LFA: The latest PDK/Gallup poll shows significant opposition to the Common Core and testing and assessments in general. What are your thoughts on this? Did you see this type of opposition building when you were a superintendent?

JS: I certainly have seen opposition to testing building during the last few years. The poll shows that people believe there’s too much emphasis on standardized tests, which I interpret to mean state standardized tests rather than ACT/SAT or AP. My sense is that teachers, leaders, parents and students are exhausted by the quantity of tests and the over-reliance on them for policy and decision-making. In my view, standardized tests are a floor, not a ceiling. We have to find the right balance between assessing student progress, providing necessary supports and resources based on student need and ensuring accountability for outcomes. Standardized tests are one piece of that picture. 

LFA: This year’s poll also was the first that contained data broken down by race. Were you surprised at these results, particularly the data that found African-American parents more favorable toward using test scores for accountability? Do you plan to continue to ask these questions?

JS: The ability to understand the results by demographic groups is essential for anyone who wants a true picture of the public’s attitudes, as we have become an increasingly multiethnic country. It’s essential that survey data enable these comparisons, so we will continue to use methodology that allows for disaggregated results. I believe that the demographic differences require further exploration and discussion by experts, and PDK intends to lead that conversation. In my view, there are two potential explanations for why African-American respondents see the role of testing differently than white respondents. First, African American parents want their children to reach the same standard as all other children, and standardized tests are an indicator of that achievement. Second, the stark achievement differences between different demographic groups are proof that some children – especially African American – are not achieving at the same level as white children. Given the fact that many schools that African American students attend are under-resourced and underperforming, the standardized test data can serve as a rallying cry to provide these schools with the resources and accountability they need so that achievement will increase.

LFA: Poll respondents have also named funding as the top challenge for school districts for the past several years. Having recently served as the leader of a large, diverse school district, do you believe this is an accurate take on the situation? What do you see as some of the other greatest challenges for district leaders?

JS: Funding continues to be a serious issue facing local communities. While some districts receive a significant amount of money from the state, most rely on the local tax base to fund schools. The Great Recession portended a decrease in the amount of available local money to spend on public education, at the same time that districts saw more vulnerable students and academic standards increased. Moreover, parents want schools to provide more than they’re able to within a 6.5-hour day; the desire for more music, the arts, technology, career and technical education, athletics and small class sizes have to compete with federal accountability requirements that are based solely on English language arts and mathematic scores. Balancing all of these competing demands, in the face of increased pension requirements foisted on local governments in many states, presents superintendents with very difficult choices.

LFA: As superintendent in Montgomery County, you saw an increase in graduation rates as well as an increase in academic achievement. You were credited for a host of reforms such as funding for low-income schools and community engagement. What did you feel was most effective, and do you have any advice for other superintendents, particularly those from large or diverse school systems?

JS: I believe that one of the most effective aspects of my leadership in Montgomery County was how we advocated and organized around the idea that public education can be more than test scores. While outcomes remain of paramount importance, the community valued critical thinking skills and social-emotional learning as essential competencies that our students need to be successful in the 21st century. The Strategic Planning Framework and School Support and Improvement Framework that we developed and implemented codified our community’s values in new and powerful ways. We began to shift the culture to embrace innovation and local decision making, with very clear non-negotiable expectations for student outcomes and commensurate adult actions. In addition, we put in place an early warning indicator system that was able to predict by the end of the first quarter of 1st grade, which students were not on track to graduate. Finally, we decreased discretionary suspensions by 50% and overall suspensions by 37% by focusing on race, equity and positive relationships with students. I would recommend that any superintendent organize his or her efforts on classroom instruction and equity. Superintendents, especially ones of diverse school systems, must actively confront the role that race plays in public schools and they must be willing to ensure that every child in every classroom, every day, receives the highest quality instruction.

Photos courtesy of James Minichello, AASA.