Tonight's meeting consisted largely of two topics: the 9th grade science program and the 2010 budget.
The superintendent started by saying that she was coming late to the conversation on the required 9th grade science course, but was committed to doing an evaluation of this course and how well it was working. She is also reaching out to other districts to learn how they evaluate programs, and will bring that information back to our committee. Maria also noted that she believed we should use the "same standards" to evaluate this program that we use to evaluate other classes and programs.
Then, the 9th grade science teachers presented a detailed description of the new required ecology and environmental science courses, and the evaluation that they were conducting. I encourage you to watch this presentation on ACTV to get a full sense of the types of information that was presented, but the data that was presented included the following: information on parents' views about the course, information on how the teachers are grading lab reports, information on areas in which students are having trouble learning some aspects of the material. They have also collected student feedback about the course, but this data was not presented. The science teachers also discussed how they were excited to "modernize" the 9th grade science curriculum, and how it was aligned with state curriculum goals.
The committee then had the opportunity to comment. Andy noted that he was pleased this topic of evaluation of this course was now on the table, and that the committee recognized the need for conducting such evaluation. I then raised several concerns that I had about the nature of the data that was presented. In particular, I noted that what the science teachers described in terms of strategies for grading lab reports and testing student knowledge were clearly effective teaching techniques, but these techniques could be applied to any science discipline, not just ecology/environmental science. I also noted that the key way in which material is learned in science is through comparison to some type of control group -- so, we don't just evaluate "how is this course going" but we really should be evaluating "how is this course going COMPARED to a different course"? The easy example here is that if you are studying cancer treatments, you don't just say "well, chemotherapy seems to be going well," but rather you conduct tests to see if chemotherapy is going better THAN radiation." And it seems pretty ironic that this type of evaluation wasn't being presented since of course this type of evaluation epitomizes the scientific method! I am discouraged that this type of data was not presented, nor does it seem like this is of particular interest (although the Chair of the Science Department, Mary McCarthy, noted that there will be tests of whether the students taking this class do better or worse on MCAS science tests and in higher level science classes, there was no mention whatsoever of the specific details about this type of a real evaluation -- including timeline, who would do this work and how would it be presented, what types of data would lead to a re-thinking of this course, etc.). I also asked a question about the effectiveness of this course for students with differing levels of math preparation -- the students in honors ecology/earth science range tremendously from those who completed algebra in 7th grade to those who are currently in 9th grade algebra -- and I think it would be important to examine how well students with different math backgrounds are doing in this course. Elaine then noted (once again) that the School Committee isn't in charge of evaluation, and thus this was not our job, and also that this decision has already been made, so it was not going to be re-visited. I found these remarks disheartening -- the School Committee voted unanimously last January to adopt this required course, and at the time assured parents that it would be evaluated. So, I guess I'm concerned that the entire School Committee was willing to adopt a course that has never been tried in any other district as a 9th grade required science course AND to simply hope that this course worked without requiring any sort of proof of its effectiveness. Andy then expressed his view that some evaluation should ideally be done, and he encouraged the superintendent to make sure that did occur. Finally, I again expressed my desire for such an evaluation, which would include a comparison. I also expressed my view that if this course was indeed as effective as people believe it is, then surely an evaluation demonstrating its merits would be desirable -- and useful in quieting critics.
So, that is a lot about my views on the science curriculum, and I know there are certainly supporters of this science curriculum. However, for me, the required 9th grade ecology/environmental science course is emblematic of what I find problematic about our Amherst schools for two reasons. First, I do NOT believe that we should be willing to adopt an entirely innovative science course and make it a requirement. This seems like a very, very risky strategy, and I'm just not comfortable with Amherst ignoring what ALL other districts in Massachusetts are teaching (earth science, biology, or physics) in 9th grade and creating its own required introduction to high school science. Second, if we are to adopt an entirely unproven course and make it a requirement, I believe we have a very serious responsibility to conduct a rigorous evaluation of this course on a very specific timeline so that we can figure out whether it is preparing our kids in the best way that it can for future success in science. I'm discouraged that my feeling about the importance of evaluation seems not to be shared by many other members of the School Committee (Andy was the only member who expressed support for such an evaluation).
The next part of the meeting focused on the budget for 2010. Updated information on the cuts lists was not presented, but will be at the April 7th meeting. However, we did learn that Amherst was not one of the districts who received money in the initial round of stimulus aid from the federal government, although we did receive money from IDEA funds (which can be used for special education funding -- about $200,000). Information on stimulus aid for Title 1 money (for low income students) is expected soon. In sum, we haven't received a lot of money from the federal government, and it is not clear that we should reasonably expect much aid to come this way. Andy then pointed out that we could control some aspects of other aid -- such as potential teacher give-backs of raises, an override, or the use of town reserves.
The committee then went into executive session to discuss contract negotiations.
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.