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.

1 comment:

Mherstresident said...

Ms. Sanderson,

I have been troubled by the tone of some of your posts. The other person's actions at School Committee were clearly inappropriate and offensive. But, publically chastizing her on your blog? HOw ar eyou going to work together? What if the School Committee has to hire a new Superintendent?

That said, I agree there is nothing bad and everything good about looking at what other high performing school districts use/do.

I just hope you will be circumspect in your dealings with others. As for the ACE issue, I've never hear nor read of anyone thinking you were racist, just elitist. I recognize that is a fine line of accusation, but perhaps you (and the ACE people) might ask yourself why that perception is so widespread. I myself, while I belong to a similar demographic as your family, have perceived the ACE mission as such. And when I have asked questions, none have been answered satisfactorily.