Candidate Survey: Stephen Sugg for Montgomery County Board of Education
-Doctor of Education (K-12 Administration emphasis; Policy, Planning & Leadership), College of William & Mary (2015)
-M.S. Rural Sociology (University of Missouri)
-BA (with honors) (University of Missouri)
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Manages Govt. Relations & Place-based initiatives at HAC, a national nonprofit that empowers the rural poor. Previous: Senior Policy Officer at LISC, a national nonprofit that brings capital to low-income communities and adjunct professor at Tidewater Community College.
– Dissertation & academic research focused on a Maryland school that is a national and international model for addressing the achievement gap, character education, and school/community relations
– 4 years as a higher education lobbyist in Missouri
– 5 years as an adjunct professor at the 4-year and community college level
– 2 year-term on University of Missouri Board of Curators
– Legislative Assistant to U.S. Senator Jean Carnahan
– National Rural Housing Coalition Board of Directors member
– 10 years as a government relations professional in DC, focused on nonprofit community development & housing, often via public-private partnerships
– Advocated via national platforms for arts in education and place-based education
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Why are you running for office?
As a father of three young children and with decades of experience building strong communities and effective schools, I know that Montgomery County can do better in preparing our students for today’s opportunities and tomorrow’s economy. In doing so, we will address the achievement gap; more importantly, we’ll see students who are well-rounded, resilient, and engaged in civil society. But right now, we are doubling down on the 9-5 factory-like model of mid-20th century education.
I’ve dedicated much of my career to studying schools in Maryland, nationally, and internationally that get it right. Too often here in Montgomery County, we are missing opportunities to make instruction in early grades align with best practices. We are equating time in seats with “learning” and gauging student achievement with narrow metrics. From kindergarten to the teen years, our kids are doing worksheets, while their peers elsewhere are deep in hands-on learning. Our teachers need more license to innovate.
As other schools in Maryland and nationally embrace outdoor time, recess, school gardens, the importance of play, and serving healthy foods, our schools cling to the status quo. For example, Montgomery County ranks near last statewide for time devoted to physical education at the elementary level—despite overwhelming evidence of a childhood obesity crisis and that physical activity makes kids learning-ready. MCPS even opposed recent legislation (HB 393) in Annapolis that would have required modest levels of physical activity (PE and recess) for elementary students. We can do better.
I’m optimistic: We have many first-rate educators, diverse and bright students, and a community that values our schools. I’ll bring a new perspective to the Board of Education. A perspective aimed at tomorrow’s opportunities—not yesterday’s way of doing business.
Who do you consider your political role model, and why?
Harry Truman. He is my namesake (Stephen Truman Sugg). He grew up under modest circumstances, had his share of failure in business, rose to the top of politics, and never lost touch with the common man. As a young man growing up not far from where Truman was raised, his life story resonated. And while not having a formal education pedigree, Truman was a voracious reader and writer. Attributes that we need more of in today’s politicians.
What is your favorite book about politics and policy, and why?
“The Senator and the Sharecropper” by Christopher Asch details the lives of lives of Fannnie Lou Hamer and Senator James Eastland. Both were products of the Sunflower County, Mississippi, in the same era, but their lives were markedly different. Eastland was a staunch segregationist, serving decades in the U.S. Senate. Hamer spent her life in poverty, but became a poignant national voice for civil rights, including a run for Congress and a national forum as she attempted to speak at the 1964 Democratic convention. She is one of my heroes.
One cannot understand modern politics and our country’s ongoing struggle with race until delving into the biographies of those like Hamer and Eastland.
What is your favorite book about education, and why?
“Teaching the Commons” by Paul Theobald. The book, now two decades old, offers a blueprint for 21st century education. It is a reminder that so much of what we need in education today, including school and community linkages, curriculum relevant to students’ lives, and the importance of hands-on learning that goes beyond what standardized tests measure, can be found in the past. “Teaching the Commons” reminds us that factory-like schools are a relic of early 20th century industrial needs, and 21st century schools should be profoundly different.
What will be your top priority on the Board of Education?
Actively listening. MCPS is the nation’s 18th largest school district, serving a highly diverse community. I have strong views on education, and extensive experience both K-12 and and in higher education. But a thread across my experiences is knowing that there is more to learn.
The Board must do better in proactively listening to all voices–not just formal constituencies such as the PTA and educator organizations, though those are important, too. But we need more Board members at local farmers markets, in coffee shops across the county, at community recreation centers, and in houses of worship of all types. And we need Board members to bring in external perspectives–domestic and international–that can make MCPS better.
What is the biggest issue facing your county schools?
The achievement gap–i.e. lower test scores for poor and/or minority students–is mentioned frequently. Rightfully so. We lose human and economic capital when subsets of students continually have lower test scores and graduation rates.
However, in a deeply misguided attempt to raise test scores, our schools have cut back what matters most. PE and recess have been downgraded. Arts & humanities are not prioritized. And curriculum has narrowed. Creativity and critical thinking–the skills that are most important student success–are being devalued. And too often, our brightest students aren’t challenged once they meet basic benchmarks.
The status quo is not working. MCPS has not made meaningful progress on the achievement gap. Research across disciplines proves that kids–especially poor and/or minority students–desperately need movement, arts, healthy food, and play in order to thrive. By allowing for such, we can address the achievement gap. The approach that I advocate is hardly novel, but it will take new leadership on the Board of Education to upend the status quo.
What are the three biggest issues facing Maryland schools?
* Adequate resources. And an uncertain (at best) fiscal future for the county and state. Locally and statewide, there is warranted concern over school crowding and inadequate school construction and maintenance investment. Locally, I’m concerned that MCPS does not receive its fair share in funding from the state, as the state’s funding formulas do not take into account MCPS’s challenges with poverty, English Language Learner (ELL) students, and burgeoning enrollment.
* Delivering a well-rounded education. For the last 3+ decades across the country, schools have narrowed curriculum in pursuit of standardized test “student achievement”. The result: less civics, less humanities, less art, and even less physical education. All of this is pedagogically unwise. Montgomery County must be a national leader in providing a truly well-rounded education for all. This includes career and technical education. Right now, we have some bright spots in the county, but much room for improvement–especially at the early grade levels.
* The achievement gap. Every candidate wants to address the achievement gap. I wrote my dissertation on a school in rural Maryland that serves nearly all low-income students but has state-leading test scores. I’m eager to share examples from what I learned from schools that get it right.
Have you read your county schools curriculum? If so, which parts do you like and which parts do you dislike?
Yes. On paper, MCPS curriculum has admirable aims (e.g. integrative thinking, notes the importance of art and civics) and I see alignment with applicable standards.
But as an educator and an education researcher, I believe that curriculum implementation and school district culture are far more important than the written curriculum. Thus, assessment of a school system by reading the curriculum and including no other data is of marginal value.
For example, if the curriculum calls for integrative thinking and critical thinking, but the instruction taking place often prioritizes memorization over critical thinking, then the curriculum is empty rhetoric. Moreover, in a district as large as MCPS, judgments about the implementation of curriculum ought to be school by school. Blanket statements are not necessarily applicable.
What is your position on school spending?
Smart investment in education ought to be a top priority of policymakers. World-class schools and great teachers are a driver of economic development and high-wage job growth. We should invest toward such.
Having served on a governing board in the past, I know that good board members have to ask hard questions about spending. Good stewardship of tax dollars is critical. Montgomery County, for example, must have serious conversations about school boundaries.
Further, MCPS must do more to tap philanthropic funding to supplement its core work. I have seen other school systems–big and small–do this well. We can do it better here, especially considering swaths of great wealth in the county–both individuals and in the business community.
Please identify the three areas which you believe should be prioritized when it comes to school funding
Arts Programs, Teacher Pay, Vocational Skills
What is your position on teacher tenure?
Support. The best route to great teachers is 1) paying teachers for the value of their work; 2) focus on recruiting the best and brightest to the profession, which ought to be a national priority.
What is your position on standardized testing?
Assessing educational progress is important. And smart testing can, at times, help tailor instruction to student needs.
But Standardized testing, especially as implemented under the legacy of the “No Child Left Behind Law”, has narrowed curriculum and reduced teaching and learning to rote memorization. I saw such in action when I taught high school students via dual enrollment at the community college. And I saw it nationwide as I studied for my doctorate degree in education. Long-time educators told me repeatedly of civics, for example, being given short rift because “reading is what the state tests”.
Other countries, including Finland, have far better approaches to testing. They have fewer tests, and rely on teachers to informally assess student progress. It works. We ought to steal more of Finland’s ways in education. Further, standardized testing and prep for such is expensive, and it cuts instructional time.
What is your position on classroom size?
Especially at younger grade levels, smaller class sizes can facilitate the sort of adult-child interaction that we know leads to positive long-term outcomes—academic and social.
And, after spending 5 years teaching at the community college level, I know that smaller class sizes contribute to a teacher’s ability to innovate and reach both struggling students and students who need extra attention or mentoring. The value of such interactions are difficult to quantify, but they are still important. Connections between learners and teachers matter.
Do you believe the Board of Education should having taxation authority?
I don’t anticipate momentum in Maryland toward taxing authority for Boards of Education. And it isn’t a priority for me.