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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Ideal Dynamics of a School Board

As most people who are reading this blog probably know, I'm a social psychologist, meaning I teach and do research on how people interact (in close relationships, in small groups, in the world, etc.). One of the central topics addressed in my field is social/group influence and in particular the phenomenon of groupthink. What is groupthink? Here is what I just pasted from wikipedia:

Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance.

In thinking about the phenomenon of groupthink (which I teach in my Introduction to Psychology class each fall), it struck me that the discussions I've witnessed at School Committee Meetings often share many of these characteristics. There is a great focus on consensus ... prior to my arrival on the board, I watched meetings for a year -- in this time, I saw NOT a single non-unanimous vote on anything. I see very, very little focus on critical testing of anything -- we assume our schools/curriculum are good because the experts say they are. We assume we are spending precious dollars wisely because the experts say we are. And I see very little focus on presenting dissenting viewpoints (other than my own). In fact, when I've expressed dissatisfaction with decisions and/or the decision-making process, I've been told that we need to have a retreat to work on collegiality.

I believe that I have a very different view of the role of the School Committee than most other people on this board. I'd like to see members of the board engage in active, vigorous discussion, even debate, of issues that come before us, and their pros and cons -- instead of listening politely to reports (from experts and/or the public), thanking people for giving them, and then moving on. For example, I've heard from many people that instead of hearing person after person talk about the power of music/Marks Meadow on Tuesday night, they would have liked to hear School Committee members openly discuss what they saw as the different priorities in the budget and how they'd suggest balancing a budget (I too would have liked this).

Here are a few specific examples of what I'd like to see during School Committee meetings:

  • I'd like to see the board request that reports that come before us have data and evaluation built in, including objective information on the outcomes of a given program/curriculum, and to include some type of comparison to other districts. So, if we approve a new required science curriculum for 9th grade, I'd like to see specific information on how (and when) we are going to examine the effectiveness of this curriculum and I'd like specific information on how this approach is (or is not) in line with what other districts are doing.

  • If we choose to spend money on a particular strategy or approach for working with English Language Learners, or Special Education students, I'd like to see some review of research literature that shows why we are taking this approach, and I'd like to see a plan for collecting outcome data on whether this approach is working. So, if we are busing kids to different schools so that kids who speak the same language at home are in the same school together, I'd like to see research/literature that suggests this is the right approach to be using, and I'd like to know how other districts are teaching ELL students (do they use this approach also, or a different one?).

  • If we choose to move from a semester to a trimester system in our high school, I'd like the decision to include a review of what system other schools are using, specific ways in which the success of this change will be evaluated, and the timeline for assessing this decision. So, I'd be interested in knowing the impact of this change in school schedule on student achievement (SAT-IIs, MCAS, grades), attendance/drop-out rates, and ability to take classes at our local college/university.

Considerable evidence suggests that groups that use a groupthink strategy -- pushing for consensus, agreeing with a powerful leader (SUPERINTENDENT), discouraging dissent from rogue group members, refusing to criticize or even question decisions -- can and do make serious errors. So, I think the School Committee could be making BETTER decisions if we used a better decision-making process. In turn, I'm going to push for active, vigorous questioning of all of our programs, curricula, and budget ... and I hope the result will be better decision-making about how to allocate scarce resources (time, money, staff) in our district.

To end on a slightly lighter note -- here's a clever parody on groupthink: It is kind of long (I think 9 minutes), but definitely worth watching.


Neil said...

I'm going to push for active, vigorous questioning of all of our programs, curricula, and budget ... and I hope the result will be better decision-making about how to allocate scarce resources (time, money, staff) in our district.

I agree. A consensus reached at the expense of not engaging in a rigorous debate of ideas and data on the merit is worth little. I think you must bring the school board along by getting buy-in to change the style of operation.

Certainly, you need a chair willing to schedule the time for the Q&A and other members to ask the questions and make the assertions they withhold in the spirit of cooperation. Cooperation does not have to be sacrificed. You can have cooperation - seeking first to understand - even without agreement. Decisions do not need to be unanimous.

Declaring your view of how the school board operates and how you'd like to see it work differently may feel like radical change to some members, and maybe even beyond your place. I don't agree with that, but change can be threatening. You wont lose my vote for trying. And I think you'll gain many for succeeding. We need the best efforts of our policy makers to get the best educational opportunities for our kids.

Emily said...

Since my daughter will only enter kindergarten next year, I've never been to a school committee meeting or witnessed this dynamic. But this post leaves me with raised eyebrows, as in: "This is something that even needs to be -said-?" I'm stunned. The idea that endless public comment (opinion) is as valued as real information... Really? Is fear of confrontation so great that we're willing to abdicate responsibility for these important decisions?

Alison said...

Good point, Catherine. We have an election coming up. I would be interested in learning what our three candidates think of this direction for the School Committee.

We have a lot of good people sitting right now, but unless they are able and willing to speak their minds freely and take a stand for what they believe in (and what their constituents are telling them), we might as well just have a continuous loop of previous SC meetings running on ACTV instead of live ones! I am all for a more active and engaged SC in the future!!

Anonymous said...

The HS and MS are already on the trimester schedule. I found the study they did on it was lacking in information and would love to see more on it.

Greg Saulmon said...

Catherine --

I just posted an op-ed piece about the role of blogging and public comment. Thought I'd share, since it focuses on your efforts here:


Greg Saulmon / Local Buzz

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, to all,

My thoughts:

Neil: I agree that change is threatening ... and it is a different way for a School Board to operate than ours has run. I believe that it appears threatening, in part because it appears that people who ask tough questions and want objective data are doubting the experts (teachers, principals, superintendents, etc.). But the reality is, much of what we are doing is a guess -- it is people's best bets about what will work, but these can be wrong (my own best bets have been proven to be wrong on multiple occasions). It strikes me as respectful to engage in rigorous, active debate -- and hopefully we can all admit that good, smart, thoughtful people can disagree, and can be wrong. For me, there is no shame in being wrong -- there is shame, however, in being afraid to figure out if one is wrong. I share your hope that I can move the School Board in this direction -- and yes, perhaps the next election will help with this (and a new superintendent).

Emily: I share your incredulity that my comments are radical ... but, ummm, they are to some! I am pushing for data-driven decision-making ... and hope to be able to move the district forward in this way.

Alison: Maybe you should ASK the other members of the SC how they believe the SC should operate during public comment at the next meeting? I will say, I hear a lot of talk during SC meetings about the importance of data and the belief in data, but then when I actually ask for data (e.g., how is that new 9th grade science program working? where is that trimester report?), I've seen little interest from other members in having this type of report brought before us, serious evaluations conducted, etc. I share your hope that the next SC election will make a difference in this regard.

Anonymous: I share your frustration in the trimester report -- which we PAID for (from a U Mass professor). The link to it, for those who haven't read it, is as follows: I was particularly surprised that the report was ENTIRELY based on people's opinions ... there is NOTHING in the report on learning outcomes (e.g., what are the consequences for learning a world language when you may have instruction in that language for the 1st and 3rd trimesters, and thus have a huge gap in the middle? what are the consequences for students being able to take classes are our local colleges/universities of this system? are all students equally able to master material in a matter of only 3 months, whereas most schools provide 4 1/2 months)? Again, I was disappointed in the quality of this report, and it seems emblematic to me of the lack of emphasis on serious data and evaluation in our district.

Greg: I LOVE the piece -- thanks for sending it along. May I post a link to it/summary of it on my blog? Thanks much for your wise observations.

Greg Saulmon said...

Thanks, Catherine.

Feel free to link / excerpt away.

- Greg

Andrew said...


Keep up the good work. I just posted a few words of support on my blog, if you're interested.

Rick said...

I think you are talking about two separate things in this post:

1. Should there be debate and discussion between SC members at SC meetings? Yes definitely.

2. On debating a particular issue, does SC have the information really needed to debate the issue (data, etc.)?

What may often happen is that because #2 is missing, debate gets postponed to the next meeting, which avoids debate, which may then never end up happening – not sure, that’s just a guess based on snippets of meetings I have seen.

But #2 is very hard work. That’s why it doesn’t happen enough. That is why not as many blogs are like this one that tries to get facts and present them so we can see them.

Having said that, I will say that not all debate is just about data or comparison with other schools. Some things are probably impossible to answer just with data.

For example, in the trimester/semester debate, you obviously can’t just say “schools who are on a trimester schedule have higher SAT scores than schools on a semester schedule, so therefore we should stay with trimester” (or visa versa) because there are so many other variables that affect SAT scores. Now if somebody has done a good study on this that spans many school systems with really good statistical analysis, then have a look at that study, but I would not try to collect your own data on this and do your own analysis, because that really takes experts, and even they get it wrong. I am big on data, but only when its data that you can really use to reach valid conclusions. Lacking that, I am not sure hearing opinions of teachers (and students) on this issue, tabulated as a sort of “data” would be such a bad thing and sometimes is the best you can do. But this does not seem to be that: - which has no tabulation of the opinions.

And speaking of School Committee debate:

One thing I would like to hear the SC talk about some time (which surely they already have) is “what is our vision of education in Amherst”. Or maybe “how do we define education”, or “what do we REALLY want our kids to know when they graduate”. Even if this is written in stone someplace, it’s not a bad idea to remind yourselves of what it is Amherst education is trying to achieve as you discuss particular issues.

For example, here are two different ways to say what Amherst education should be about:

A. The goal of education is to score high on tests such as SAT, MCAS, etc. to ensure that graduates have a level or proficiency in key areas.

B. The goal of education is to teach kids how to think, how to question what they encounter in the real world, how to problem solve, both on their own and with others, etc…

I know many people will react to this by saying “we can do both” or “these are not incompatible” and while I agree with that, there is a big difference in whether you put “A” first in your mind or “B”. (for me, its “B”)

Measurement and data are very important and we probably don’t have enough of it, but whatever measurement is done should always be to measure how we are doing versus what we said we wanted to do.

To do that, we have to keep reminding ourselves of what it is we wanted to do.

Bev said...

Thank you Joel Wolfe for stating the obvious: "The SC meetings are largely a farce and the public is treated shamefully."
I stopped attending SC meetings a few years ago when I realized that Jere Hochman and Elaine Brighty ran the show and would do just about anything to stay in charge, including lying to parents and the public, and covering up illegal actions by special ed administrators.
Perhaps you have not heard any complaints from parents of disabled students about the cuts in sped because we know it is treacherous to advocate for our children. The sped administration repeatedly responds to parent advocacy with an "invitation" to go to hearing, which they refer to as a parent's "right." Of course, the school district's lawyer is highly-paid, experienced, and I would say quite ruthless. If a family cannot afford their own lawyer, they have no recourse but to sign the IEP, or face bullying and discrimination from not just sped administrators, but from any staff member who gets the directive from Student Services that the parents are "troublemakers" and should be ignored, for the good of the whole district. If the SC had any courage and ethics they would cut the budget of sped administrators by half and rehire the therapists who work directly with our most disadvantaged children.

Anonymous said...

Abbie says:

The SC lost much of my respect and confidence last year after they requested the portables for MM and their lack of interest, or even curiosity, about the merits, or lack of, teaching Chinese at WW. There was virtually NO discussion about the chinese program, at least at the meeting I attended, which was also attended by the grant director. Catherine did ask how the program was going to be evaluated and we received no clear method(s) of how it would be evaluated and it seemed like the director was surprised that it ought to be and had no idea how it ought to be.

I was one of the few who voted with Nancy Gordon at TM last year AGAINST buying the portables. MM has been there for what, 30 years and managed without them. We had no money to buy them last year and to me, it smacks of poor management. If the school only has the capacity of X with so many classrooms then enrollment should be capped. It seems simple. I think the TM vote about the portables was an excellent example of the "groupthink" that Catherine discussed in her last blog. The group simply took for granted that if the SC asked for something it must be valid and didn't question it...

By the way, a MM parent told me that those portables aren't even being used. If true, why?

Anonymous said...

The portables were just hooked up with utilities about a month or so ago. They have been used for Science Club already. There was no funding for teachers to put in them for the second half of this year. There is however, definite need for them at MM.

Information Seeker said...

Does anyone know how this will directly effect the budget and what we will be looking at for next year? Looking for specifics here.

Thank you

Ed said...

All Sheep and No Shepherd
Everyone is the Same
Everyone wants to be the Same
Anyone who is different goes voluntarialy to the madhouse.
Thus spoke Zarasthutha.

Lets get real here, the classic example of groupthink was the German National Socialists and we kinda know how that worked out in the end...

A related story is how the Nazis failed to develop the atomic bomb -- reportedly one of their senior scientists made a simple math error in calculating the atomic weight of something - simple addition that the basic undergrad would see. But since he was the expert, no one ever checked his work and hence no bomb (I do wonder if he made the mistake intentionally).

In the field of education we have lots of experts who are never questioned on anything, whose reputations consist of nothing more than other experts saying they should be considered an expert. And they are never held accountable for mistakes, either.

WHICH UMass professor of socieology did the study -- there are some faculty members on this campus whose studies I would dismiss with the simple comment of "you let that nut into the building and trespassed Larry Kelly?!?"

And why did the town have to pay for it? This is a land grant university with outreach obligations...

Now psychology is outside my field and unlike many in this profession, I will admit my limits -- but I am not sure it is groupthink as much as hero worship.

Hitler came in as the man on the white horse. He proposed to do a lot of good things and just asked people to trust him and worship him and never question the manner in which he sought to do them.

And while I know the Hitler analogy is inflamatory, the same concept does apply to a lot of what I see in PK-PG education today. The expert knows what he/she/it is doing and we never should question anything, just (a) give more money and (b) stifle our consciences) and (c) be good sheep.

I trust my mechanic, but when he fixes something, I make him fish the old parts out of the trash and show them to me. (There is a state law that mechanics have to do this - for a reason...) Is it too much to ask that our educators do likewise - to have something other than their names on their proposals/theories?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

OK, my responses:

Greg/Andrew: thanks for the support on your own blogs! I've just pointed that out in a new posting. You both made really important points, and I appreciate it.

Rick: Glad you agree that you think we should have debate! I agree that getting data is hard ... and this partially explains why we haven't done it. But I also think it is NOT as hard as we might imagine.

Here's something simple -- we could ask all parents in all schools about their experiences that year, and we could post these responses. This would pretty clearly tell how parents (again, not a perfect measure, but some measure) feel about their kids' school (strengths/weaknesses). This would NOT be hard, and as a member of the School Committee and a parent, I sure think this would be useful.

Here's another example -- let's track how many kids each year opt out of our schools (private school, charter school, home school, school choice), AND let's survey those families. Those kids are our customers ... if we're losing them, I want to know why, and I think that would be useful information.

In terms of your example of surveying teachers/parents about the trimester system as data -- first, as you correctly note, that information wasn't given in the report that is posted on the ARPS website (I asked for this at a School Committee meeting, and was told that it wasn't a priority of the committee so I was NOT going to get it -- although we spent school district money getting this data). But even if we had that information, I think it is a problem because we are only surveying those who are in ONE situation (e.g., if you ask Amherst College faculty whether they would like to teach at a university versus a college, we are biased because we've all chosen the college option already). I think at a minimum, it would be useful for this community to know some simply things, such as how many high schools in MASS are on semesters versus trimesters, whether OUR kids who take back to back languages do better than those who have some separation, and whether the trimester system makes it easier or harder for kids to take classes at the colleges.

One final thing -- would love to have a School Committee, and even broader, debate about WHAT EDUCATION SHOULD BE. Maybe this can go on our to do list!

Bev: I've heard more from parents about issues with special ed than anything else ... it clearly seems to not be working as well as it should. I've asked for surveys to be done of parents with special needs kids, and I think this is an area in which we really need to think about how we are spending time and resources (e.g., on teachers, administrators, legal expenses, etc). Thanks for raising this issue.

Abbie: I agree that the portables were a mistake -- I was not on Town Meeting then, but Nancy Gordon was right. BIG mistake.

I also agree that we should be evaluating the Chinese program -- I was NOT on the School Committee when this program was instituted, or I would have insisted on such an evaluation. And as you note, I asked precisely this question when it came before the School Committee -- and, as with many things, we institute them and assume that evaluation will occur, but if evaluation is not automatically built in as an expected, required part of new programs, it clearly just is not going to happen.

And yes, the portables are NOT being used as classrooms (which is what they were intended to be used as) ... and even if we keep MM open next year, they are NOT projected to be used as classrooms (MM has 10 classrooms PLUS the two portables), and next year's projections are that we only need 9 classsrooms! Another reason that this was a HUGE mistake.

Information Seeker: I hear a lot of different things about how this $$ will be used -- including that it is a one time shot only (and we need to solve our long-term budget gap), it includes money for the next TWO years (so half would come this year, half would come next), it is already included in our optimistic "best case scenario" (because the state's budget is build on the assumption that we'll get federal help). So, my best guess is "DO NOT COUNT ON THIS!" Even if we get a million next year -- we need to spend all of our dollars in the wisest way, and we need to create a long-term solution (just read the FCCC report on the growing gap between expenses and revenue to understand that a one time pay-out isn't solving the problem -- NOR will a one-time override).

Ed: I agree -- I'm all about accountability. I am not into relying on anecdote and intuition. SHOW ME THE NUMBERS, and be willing to stand behind those numbers. There is no way that we won't make better decisions if we start using a more objective, empirical, data-driven process.

Rick said...

What you said in your reply to me re: trimester/semester makes sense. Thanks also for taking so much time to reply to everyone.

In that reply you said this:

"I asked for this [the data from the report] at a School Committee meeting, and was told that it wasn't a priority of the committee so I was NOT going to get it -- although we spent school district money getting this data."

Huh? Is this really true? Data that the schools have collected can be withheld from school committer members? Who does that, the chairperson?

I thought there is no higher authority in school system than the SC so “you are the boss”. I would think it would have to at least take a vote of the entire committee to withhold something from one member. I don’t get this at all.

If I were you I would just demand it (in a firm but nice way), saying that they do not have the authority to withhold anything from SC members – unless there is something I am missing about that legal-wise.

BTW I don’t care one way or the other on the trimester/semester issue, as my two cents is that it probably doesn’t make much difference which one we have. It’s just the withholding info thing that bothers me on this.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick: You are totally right. I requested this report at the second meeting of the new school year, and I was told that an executive summary would be produced -- but as you note, that summary does not include ANY data. I will indeed ask at the next meeting to have this data reported -- though I imagine this will take a second (on my motion) and then a committee vote. It is my pretty strong belief that the data exists only as raw numbers, and that a report was never written that included such data (though I hope I'm wrong, I believe that this report would have been posted if it did exist). Thanks for the good idea!

Alison said...

I am very curious about the data regarding the semester/trimester issue. I hope the report includes the following information:

--How many students (by grade) have essentially a year gap in instruction in math, science, english, social studies, and their languange. (By a year gap I mean that in year 1 they have their subject in trimesters 1 and 2 and in year 2 they have their subject in trimesters 2 and 3, thus separated by two trimesters and one summer without instruction in that particular subject.)
--How many students (by grade) have a break in their instruction in math, science, social studies, English, and languages. (By break I mean having their subject in trimester 1 and 3 with a break in between.)
--What are the summary statistics on number of academic subjects (math, science, social studies, English) taken per trimester (by grade) in a given year. I.e. are there some trimesters where students have no/few academic subjects? (I realize this may be different by special ed/regular ed so separate reports by education type would be appropriate.)
--What are the summary statistics on the number of study halls for students (by grade) by trimester?
--Under the trimester system, how many days and hours of instruction does a student have for an academic subject versus how many days and hours of instruction under a semester system?
--How does the trimester system affect students who transfer in and out of our system into systems with semesters?
--What proportion of high schools in MA and US have semesters versus trimesters?
--What proportion of four-year colleges and universities in the US have semesters versus trimesters (i.e. are we preparing our children for the structure they will likely experience in college?)?

I am also curious about the survey and interviews with teachers and students on this subject, but I would venture to say that unless they had experienced both trimesters and semesters, their thoughts will be less informative. The point of the report was to research the relative benefits of semesters versus trimesters and unless you have a sample of those who have experienced both IN OUR SCHOOLS, it isn't a true comparison. Some of our teachers, though, should have some good insights since they have been here a while.

Thank you, Catherine, for pushing this issue.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in knowing the history of the switch to the trimester system. I remember when the HS was on a semester schedule and then switched to the trimester schedule. Does anyone remember the reason for the switch? Also, can someone succinctly enumerate the pros and cons of each system? Those must have been looked at when the switch was made.

Ed said...

Maybe I go for the jugular too quickly, but if I were on the school committee and had been told that they wouldn't give me something I wanted to see, I would have flipped over the agenda, written "please consider this a formal written request for access to [whatever] under the Massachusetts Sunshine Law" and walked over and handed it to the Supts.

You are still a citizen and that is a public record on file with the school and sunshine applies. And if they want to play petty games, well it might be embarrassing to explain to the Sec of State folks why you aren't giving a member of the SC something that you ought to have given her in the first place, but any citizen has the right to that data.

And how do you *know* that it is just raw data? "Trust but Verify" and do you even really trust these people at this point?

Ed said...

One other thing -- once you do something like that ONCE, they might just think you might just do it again and a lot of games stop being played.

Anonymous said...

At the time I took the survey I was looking forward to reading its outcome. I wondered then if other parents, having only the semester experience all our lives, were unhappy with the trimester system. I am unhappy with it for exactly the reasons Alison pointed out. To many gaps!

Rick said...

There is something that comes to mind for me on this issue of the report.

I had assumed from what you said that this report actually exists but they just didn’t want to give it to you. I think that that may have been a bad assumption on my part and that perhaps the full report including all data does not exist yet.

If that is the case, then I take back what I said about the “demanding”.

If the report is not finished yet, then I understand to some extent that there are more important things to do right now than finish that report. On the other hand, the summary is dated August 2008 so it seems there has been time to do the full report.

Still, here is where I would cut some slack: we all want data, but we are not willing to pay enough to get all the data we want and get it fast.

So, if the report is not done yet, then the way I would put it is: “OK I know that we have tons of stuff to do, and everyone is overworked, but can I please get a date as to when the full report can be finished by and distributed?”

Rick said...

One other thing I would say (trimester/semester):

The summary report said the committee could not reach consensus on which was better, trimester or semester. I got the sense from the way that Mark Jackson said this that he thought this was not a good thing, in part because he said “the committee was not successful in building consensus”.

To my mind, it makes perfect sense that the committee might not have reached consensus on this issue and I don’t see this as a bad thing. That simply indicates that both trimester and semester methods are good and that just maybe it is almost impossible to distinguish which is “best”. Or if one is “best” it is not best by a lot.

So yes, we should see the full report, but we should probably also be relieved that by knowledge that the trimester system we have is probably fine.

BTW my two cents is that Mark Jackson is a great guy (we are lucky to have him). If anyone could build consensus it would be him.

Anonymous said...

I understand the value of having an active school committee debating important issues. That said, if issues and perspectives are only gathered vis-a-vis administrator initiative and input to the committee, as the Amherst schools are increasingly want to do, then it will always be a flawed and less informed discussion whether the committee acts as a rubber stamp, or vigorously debates.