My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Thoughts on the Achievement Gap

Throughout my campaign for School Committee (and before that, in my work as co-founder of ACE), people have accused me (and/or ACE) of being racist, and have assumed that I'm trying to move the schools to meet only the needs of white (or wealthy, or white and wealthy) kids. And I am continually amazed that for so many people in this educated and liberal town, speaking about academic excellence seems to be speaking ONLY about white, wealthy kids. So, let me say on the record, that I think ALL kids benefit from schools that emphasize academic challenge and rigor. (As expressed eloquently by a person of color who called me after last week's Hampshire Gazette article came out, "academic excellence does not have a color or an economic class.").

I also believe that my emphasis on evaluating what we are doing and examining what other districts are doing can be extremely useful in closing the achievement gap that exists in the Amherst schools. In particular, we should look to other districts, like Amherst, that are a part of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN -- there's a link on my blog to their home page). The Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) is a group of multiracial, suburban-urban school districts across that country (with student populations between approximately 3,000 and 30,000, and typically with a history of high academic achievement and some connections to major research universities) that have come together to study achievement gaps that exist in their districts.

One of the things I like best about MSAN is their focus on research -- here's a quote from their website:

The Minority Student Achievement Network conducts collaborative research that informs school practices, engages in and evaluates evidence-based instructional interventions, and provides learning opportunities for teachers. The ultimate goal of the research is to increase our knowledge of the processes that contribute to the achievement gap in order to inform policies and practices that will enhance the academic performance of African American and Latino/a students.

We believe that in order to reach these goals a comprehensive approach is necessary. Therefore, we combine research, instructional interventions, and learning opportunities for teachers into an integrated approach. We believe that students will excel when academic rigor and high expectations are combined with caring, supportive school environments that include positive family involvement. Therefore, our research focuses on improving teaching and learning (particularly in mathematics, science, and literacy), building stronger relationships between teachers and students, and enhancing parents' educational participation.

Only two of these districts (other than Amherst) are in Massachusetts (Brookline and Cambridge). However, the level of academic challenge provided in these others districts is clearly greater than that provided in our district (at least at the high school level). For example, both Brookline and Cambridge require an identical set of THREE years of high school science courses: physics for all 9th graders, chemistry for all 10th graders, and biology for all 11th graders. In contrast, Amherst Regional High School requires ecology/environmental science for all 9th graders and then only one other science course (likely biology or chemistry), for a total of TWO years of science. Thus, students in Brookline and Cambridge, regardless of race/class/gender, all graduate having had physics, chemistry, and biology in high school. Students at Amherst High can now graduate having had a class in only ONE of these three core sciences. These schools also both offer AP Chemistry, a class that is an important gateway class to studying chemistry in college (and an important class for aspiring doctors), whereas Amherst Regional High School does not offer this class.

A final note -- although as noted in my first post, I was criticized during the School Committee meeting for suggesting we compare ourselves to Brookline, a recent report by the Boston Black Parents Alliance on reducing the math achievement gap stated the following: "An example of a school district with a seemingly urgent approach to closing their achievement gap is the Brookline School District. District leaders and school level leaders have identified closing the achievement gap as a top priority of the district and, most importantly, they have developed and outlined a specific action plan for closing the gap." This plan (which can be seen at: includes extensive exploration of data to determine their progress in closing the achievement gap as well as looking to other districts for programs that have worked to reduce the achievement gap. And once again, I hope other members of the School Committee will join me in pushing the district to analyze the effectiveness of our programs and compare what we are doing with what other districts are doing across all areas of our curriculum and for all our students.

Friday, May 2, 2008

April 29, 2008 Regional Meeting

First, Superintendent Jere Hochman announced that a committee is working on selecting math textbooks for 6th to 8th graders. I asked whether parents were included in this committee, but was told that parents were not part of this committee (only teachers). I also asked whether the committee was gathering information on books used by high achieving districts in Massachusetts, and was told that they were not (although this information might eventually be used). I've written a textbook, and I know that the level of book can vary considerably -- I had hoped that at a minimum, the textbook selection committee would have gathered information on the books used by public schools in high achieving Massachusetts districts (what are these? See links on my website to the Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report lists of public high schools). Perhaps these books won't work for Amherst for some reason, but at least having this information seems like a good idea (and I'm going to continue to push for this).

Second, we discussed a new "enrichment policy" -- here's the exact wording:

The Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, the Amherst Public Schools, and the Pelham Elementary School are committed to providing educational programs and support to meet the needs of all children. Programs should support each child's growth and development by providing him/her with an appropriately challenging educational program. The School Districts will utilize a model for enrichment and enhancement of students' experiences in the educational program in order to meet the needs, interests, and talents of students. The schools and staff will have high academic expectations for every students, will actively encourage achievement, and will encourage students to become independent learns and critical thinkers.

Apparently this policy used to be the "gifted and talented policy," which describes a different sort of a program (that is, a pull out program in which just some kids could receive this additional support). The new enrichment policy is designed to be able to offer extra challenge to kids who need it but in a more flexible way (that is, it is not identifying only SOME kids who need enrichment). I'm delighted with this policy and think it could make a real difference for ALL kids. I was quite surprised, however, that when Superintendent Hochman was describing this policy, Kathleen Anderson (another School Committee member from Amherst) turned to me and said "This is the program for the rich white kids." It strikes me as extremely offensive (and entirely inaccurate) to assume that poor and/or kids of color couldn't benefit from enrichment.

Third, we discussed the district's "goals of instructional program". Many of these are very good -- and place a heavy emphasis on academic achievement, including:

1. To challenge all students to achieve academically at an internationally competitive level ...,
6. To employ best practices of differentiated instruction to ensure that every student is learning, and
7. To maximize each student's achievement directed by district curriculum standards and objective or, as agreed upon,
individualized goals.

I particularly liked #5: "To utilize appropriate, effective, research-based practices and innovative course plans, units of study, lesson plans, pedagogy and assessment practices." However, I ended up abstaining on the vote on these goals (all other members voted in favor) because I'm just not convinced that the district truly intends to follow through on this fifth goal -- I see little evidence of the use of research-based practices or assessment, although I hope this is changing.

One more note from this meeting: I was very concerned by Kathleen Anderson's question to me (following my request that the School Committee begin to consider the policies and programs that are used in other districts) "Why don't you move to Brookline?" After I looked at her blankly, believing that I must have misheard the comment, she repeated it. At this point, I stopped the meeting and asked Elaine Brighty to request that Kathleen stop muttering comments to me. I'm still pondering how best to react to this comment (and specifically whether to have it stated for the record at the next meeting), but it strikes me both as very inappropriate and very unfortunate (does she really mean to imply that a School Committee member who wants to see what high achieving districts are doing should leave Amherst?). Amherst has to find its own way and choose programs that work best for our kids, and I don't believe our goal should be to "become Brookline" (or any district). But that doesn't mean we can't, and shouldn't, learn from what other school districts are doing and at least consider implementing some of the policies and programs that have worked well in other places. When there are districts who are succeeding in some way (e.g., raising achievement levels in traditionally underperforming subgroups, increasing math/science/writing proficiency, and so on), we should clearly try to learn what these districts are doing, and I intend to continue to push for this type of research.