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The MCPS “Bathtub” is not leaking…

In a posting earlier this year – An Old Dog plans new tricks… I picked up on a fearful concern expressed, both inside and outside Montgomery County, about the consequences of the community’s selection — during a time of diminishing state and local resources — of a replacement for the superintendent who was retiring after 12 years and leaving behind what had been acknowledged by local and national observers to be a district that uniquely had worked collaboratively as a system.

At the time, falling back on this site’s usual metaphorical approach to understanding, I then cautioned that superintendent turnover traditionally results in a “Throwing out the Babies with the Bathtub” condition… and how the neighboring Washington DC schools offered a continuing example.  Every time they threw out a superintendent (seven of the “best and brightest” in the last decade) they also threw out the “bathtub” in which the community’s children (and their teachers) “swim” everyday.  That “bathtub” — the school district — is the holding space that serves as the container of supportive processes and practices that keep people throughout the system “afloat” as they perform their daily work with and for children.

Continuing the metaphor, I raised some questions about how (in a general reform culture that tends to view school districts as an “enemy” to be flattened and disempowered) the MCPS story could serve to raise questions for the search committee about the superintendent’s role in developing a sustainable “Bathtub”–

•    as the systemic container created with a single purpose:  to develop and support the learning capacities of all the children whose learning lives it encloses…

•    and as a connected container which must hold everybody (the children and adults) and everything (what they do alone and together in managing learning and teaching) needed to achieve that single focus…

•    and within which trust serves as the “water” that supports them – the medium that makes it possible to create and sustain over time the supportive connecting relationships required to achieve both individual and collective purposes.

Back to the present… The Board chose a new superintendent – Joshua Starr – who took on the system leadership role only six weeks ago.   Yet, never having met him, I still feel confident to predict that the MCPS “bathtub” will not leak – and that the Board and community will not be ”throwing out its babies” to create a new “bathtub.”

The “data” that supports this preliminary conclusion comes from the talk and walk of both the Board and the new superintendent.

•      The Board’s actions — that went against the grain of what “experts” say a new superintendent should be expected to do (see the DCPS reference above for how well that worked for them) – seem to validate the theory emerging from my 14 years of observing this Board’s learning process that MCPS had been on a journey that had changed their way-of-thinking about themselves, how they fit together with the rest of the system, and why.  They appeared to have developed an operational perspective that, in an analysis I did for the Stupski Foundation’s study of MCPS, I had termed “Systemic Governance.”

And, for me, their choice of Starr fit.

•      Why Starr?  Again with no personal knowledge other than press interviews and reports, here are some of his words and actions that tell me his way-of-thinking resonates with the MCPS way-of-thinking that I had been benchmarking for 14 years in order to dig down to a level of understanding that answers the root question – Why do we do what we do… and in the ways that we do it?  This had turned out to be a framing perception that gave meaning to the valuable benchmarking of MCPS’ “What’s” and “How’s by others – (e.g., Harvard, Panasonic, Stupski, APQC) interested in applying them to their own reform efforts.

More significantly, not only did he seem to fit MCPS’ way-of-thinking, he fit mine.  What I’ve heard or read suggests to me that he understands both the nature of the “territory” he has to help the community “navigate”… and the key role that only he can play in the journey.

(To better understand why I purposefully used the term “navigate,” see Total System Management: The Leader as Convoy Commander, and then for how that “theory” played out in MCPS’ “practice”  – The Convoy Revisited: How did it Steer and Develop its capacity at the same time?)

I’m sure that one of the criteria for Starr’s selection had been the “talk” of his “vision” (the attracting “light at the end of the tunnel”).   But the initial steps of his “walk” recognizes that system leadership requires a complementary vision to create light at the “end of the tunnel” where the journey starts that is comparable in scope and nature.  And which must be based on information that accurately illuminates that reality.

“I also have established a transition team made up of both internal and external leaders who are helping me learn, as quickly as possible, about the areas that need the most focus to accelerate our progress in closing the achievement gap and raising standards.”

“He has arranged meetings with key people in schools and the community “to sit down and ask questions and find out what would they do if they were in my shoes,” …

“A transition team composed principally of his long-term mentors and former and current county schools staff members is also delving into school system data and research. The team is planning focus groups and developing a report about the system’s challenges and strengths. It will be delivered in the beginning of the school year.”

“In the fall, the school system plans to start a series of “listen and learn” events across the county for Starr to hear from parents and staff members. He also will convene online town hall meetings with students and host public talks about books that reflect his educational philosophy.”

So at the risk of mixing my metaphors of the school system as “bathtub” or “convoy,” at this point I feel good (both as an educator and as a Montgomery County taxpayer) that Starr will be the person with his hands on the “faucet” or “wheel.”

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