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.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What Do We Value - Part 2

Given the interest people have in math/science at the high school, I did some more research today (again, using the same 10 districts as comparison points). I looked for three things: what do schools offer as 9th grade science, do schools offer AP chemistry, and do schools offer AP statistics. Here is what I found:

9th Grade Science - the first-year high school course for students varies considerably. Several schools require physics of all 9th graders (Brookline, Cambridge, Newton). Others require or offer biology for all 9th graders (Framingham, Northampton, East Longmeadow, South Hadley). Hatfield and Belchertown require earth science/physical science, and Hadley requires an integrative science course. Amherst is the ONLY district that requires ecology/environmental science.

AP Chemistry - most of these schools offer AP chemistry (Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, Framingham, Northampton, East Longmeadow, South Hadley). Hadley doesn't offer AP chemistry, but offers a second-year, advanced chemistry course for those who have finished the first-year chemistry course. Amherst, Hatfield, and Belchertown are the only three that offer only one chemistry option.

AP Statistics - schools are split on whether this course is offered. Some do offer it (Brookline, Newton, Framingham, Northampton, South Hadley). Others do not (Cambridge, Hadley, Hatfield, Belchertown, East Longmeadow). Amherst also does not offer this course.

In sum, I guess the answer here is who do we consider our best comparison district? Of these 10 schools, Amherst looks exactly like Belchertown and Hatfield across all three of these measures, and looks worse on all three of these measures than Brookline, Newton, Framingham, Northampton, and South Hadley. Given that our kids will be applying to colleges with kids from these other districts, and attending college with kids from these other districts, I believe we should strengthen our math/science offerings and requirements (and create stronger math/science programs in elementary and middle school to prepare students for this type of more challenging work).

UPDATE: In response to a question about this blog, I also looked up data for five top high schools (as based on the US News & World Report List: Belmont, Boston Latin, Newton South, Wayland, Brookline) and five top private high schools (I chose these randomly: Andover, Exteter, Deerfield, Williston, Northfield Mount Herman). The news isn't encouraging.

9th Grade Science - ALL offer core sciences: biology (Boston Latin, Wayland, Andover, Exeter, Deerfield, Williston) or physics (Newton South, Brookline, Northfield Mount Herman).

AP Chemistry - ALL offer AP Chemistry.

AP Statistics - ALL offer AP Statistics.

Again, students from these schools will compete with our high school students to get into college, and will compete with these students in college classes. I asked a faculty member in chemistry at Amherst College about the difference between a student in our intro chem class who had had AP chemistry versus one who had only had a single year of chemistry, and he said, "Night versus day." That isn't encouraging to me. I believe it is time for our district to increase the rigor of our math and science curricular offerings to help ALL our students succeed in their college academic endeavors.


Neil said...

This is excellent research. Would it be worth it to take it the next step and study the curricula (?) of the top 5 best public schools in MA? Perhaps study the top 5 private HS in MA too?

A high degree of Math and Science competency (in my opinion )are two of the most important fundamental skills sets for college and the job market. English reading and writing (as augmented by foriegn language study) and critical thinking is the third and fourth. I'd rather see multiple AP courses in fundamental areas of study than specilized (multidisciplinary) courses science such as Environmental science.

These same areas of study are imporrtant to the non college bound students, and perhaps a few other life skills courses too.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Neil -- thanks for the compliment -- and I too agree that having a strong background in core disciplines within math/science is essential for both college-bound and non-college-bound students (and particularly we should have such a background OFFERED, such as AP Chemistry). I have gathered the data you requested on other schools, and again, it seems that Amherst High students are at a disadvantage compared to students from these other schools.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

I firmly believe that our secondary schools need to increase their requirements for ALL students and focus on core academics. Navneet and Mike make a compelling case, in this week's Bulletin, for education being the great equalizer. I agree. By increasing the required level and number of core academics required for each grade level in high school, you would decrease the gap between students who choose to take those higher-level core courses and those who increasingly opt out for elective courses. You are also exposing more students to higher-level-type thinking and analysis; skills they might not be exposed to if adhering to the current minimum ARHS graduation requirements.

Like many others who have posted, I am particularly concerned with the lack of emphasis on math and science in our schools. Among the top-growing industries in our country are the medical fields (our country is currenty facing a critical nursing shortage and the need for skilled technicians in radiology, etc. continues to increase), scientific research, and information technology. Not to mention the shortage of math and science teachers in many areas of our country. If we want to prepare our students to be competitive for slots in the best colleges AND best prepare them for future careers, our best approach would be to immediately increase our requirements for math and science at the high school level and continue the ongoing work to align math and science curricula across the K-12 continuum.

JWolfe said...

I usually don't support this sort of thing, but I've become convinced that what we need to do is scrap all the curricula, from elementary school to HS, and start over. If we begin with the idea that Reading, Writing, Math, and Science are fundamental and that *everything* else comes after we've taken care of those basics, we could then create a list of priorities for the "extras." World languages would probably be first on that list, but even something that important would come after the basics.

I really like Catherine's posts on what we value. In my HS in suburban Philadelphia in the late 1970s when a serious budget crunch hit, parents decided to drop football to keep computers. They ended up being able to keep both, but it was a fascinating decision. My HS had 4,000 students and fewer than 50 did computers. The football team, band, cheerleaders, and fans certainly made up a significantly larger percentage of the HS and a couple of athletes played Div. 1 football. One even had a long NFL career.

The point is that my town, when faced with a financial crisis, chose academics over sports. (Computers was programming.) We're facing a crisis. What exactly do we value? I hope most of us would like to focus on the basics of education for everyone with opportunities for everything from remedial work to AP classes -- but in core subjects.

One final thought on this: I can just hear the old guard on the School Committee condescending to any parent who raises the idea of redoing the curriculum with a lecture about state standards and mandates. Whenever parents raise these sorts of issues we're told the schools are hemmed in and that there are mandates that the poor, uninformed parents don't know about. But, when the SC wanted to scrap first year HS science and create a completely unique and dubious curriculum, it sailed through without a single objection from that SC, just howls of protest from the assorted university and college science faculty and other parents in attendance.

I believe we have to rethink the entire curriculum even if that's considered "divisive" or "not the Amherst way," or "naive" or whatever else will be thrown in the way of positive change by the very people who helped create the current mess.

Neil said...

Why frame the issue as re-thinking all of the cirriculum? Why not frame the issue as back to basics and high levels of competency (AP) in core courses; math, science, English (reading and writing) and maybe foreign language study.

Looking at what the other successful Commonwealth area HS's are doing and what works (produces high achieving students) can help shape the dialogue about what we value - want we want to accomplish in our schools.

Anonymous said...

I confess to being naive because my oldest child is in 4th grade but I'm confused, why doesn't Amherst offer AP Chemistry. Furthermore, why is the 9th grade science this random environmental science class. This makes no sense to me. Amherst should follow what Brookline and other high achieving districts are doing in terms of the math and science curriculum and dump this environmental science (or offer it as an elective for seniors)

I completely agree with the posters above that math and science should be the #1 priority above all other subjects.

Anonymous said...

In this day and age of the budget crisis, it seems critical that we make sure the basics are in the curriculum (even if it means ADDING subjects like AP Chem, regular 8th grade algebra), and CUT THE FLUFF. We need to do right by our kids. It is what every smart business and fiscally-responsible family is doing now - cutting the fluff and checking to see that core priorities are being met. Too bad it takes a poor economy to make us focus on what is critical. It is what we should be doing ALL ALONG.

Let's make Amherst a truly good school system, and that is really the best gift we can give ALL our children - the tools to ensure their own success later on life. So let's beef up the requirements for graduation, and add more science and math to beef up the core curriculum.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Alison - I agree whole-heartedly. This is a time in which we need to focus on making sure ALL kids receive training in the core disciplines, not just those whose parents push them to do so.

Joel - fascinating story about your high school. And yes, I think a real focus on what our schools should be and how to get there is essential.

Neil - I very much like the idea of a "back to basics" focus (almost seems essential in these tight budget times), and I've pushed heavily for a focus on comparing what we are doing to other schools. There will be a report from the "how are we doing" subcommittee (I'm a member!) at a SC meeting in April, I believe, which hopefully will be informative.

Anonymous 11:42 - My oldest is in 5th grade, so I too am not yet impacted by 9th grade science. But let me say this - I decided to run for School Committee the DAY after the School Committee voted (UNANIMOUSLY) last year (January 2008) to eliminate 9th grade biology in favor of a curriculum that no other high schools are doing in Massachusetts. Yes, I found this highly disturbing. And although the board insisted the impact of this curriculum would be evaluated, there has been zero serious evaluation of its effects (and I've asked for this REPEATEDLY at School Committee meetings, as have members of the public, and there is just NO willingness to examine how this program is going). As you suggest, environmental science/ecology is, in all districts other than ours, an elective for seniors (and I heard the AP Environmental Science class was actually great -- but now this will be eliminated, I imagine, because students won't want to take two years of this topic and thereby miss out on taking physics). I also believe we should have AP Chemistry, but I haven't yet heard a proposal from the high school about offering this class (which would be a GREAT addition to our curriculum, especially for students who intend to take pre-med courses in college).

Anonymous 12:09 - I agree whole-heartedly with each of your sentiments. I hope you (and other posters) will convey these views not just to me, but also to the superintendent and entire School Committee.

JWolfe said...

Neil makes a good point, but the reason I think we need to start from scratch is that there are too many programs and constituencies in the way for a "back to basics" campaign. If you start over, then every one of those programs will have to be restarted and that would require a competent case to be made on their behalf.

In other words, if you end a program, it will be harder to restart it given the budgetary environment. If we just talk about "back to basics," we'll never have the resources because so many other programs will still control them.

Anonymous said...

Catherine - how do we do that (convey our sentiments to the Superintendent and the rest of the SC?) Is there an official email address for the SC, or do we contact each one individually by email? Where can we find this contact information? I don't even (honestly) know who the other SC members are.

You mention repeatedly that the public and you have asked for evaluations of programs (the chinese program at WW, the 9th grade science course) - and that it's met with resistance? lack of action? Is the issue lack of funds, or lack of time, or simply lack of accountability?

In a SC meeting, can you actually move to have these programs evaluated, and have a vote taken on it? It sounds like even if a study were undertaken, the information might just be shelved by the current members of the SC (you excluded, of course).


Abbie said...

In my experience, there is a very strong anti-intellectual sentiment in this town. Ironic really, since it's so similar to the Republican party reaction. There is a distrust of data and evaluation, instead a "holistic" approach is favored. The extras in our schools are marketed as appealing to those not interested in the core and so that's what brings them to school and keeps them there. I entirely reject these views. If we have good teachers they can make the "core" interesting and exciting to many kids and that will open up future opportunities for those kids.

I am for the core (math, science, literarcy and writing), our future depends on scientists and citizens who are informed and are able to think critically (something we should expect of our SC and school administrators). It does EVERYONE a disservice to dumb-down our curriculum.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Anonymous 12:19 - if you do a search on this blog for "ecology," you can find all of the times people have asked for a review of the 9th grade course during a School Committee meeting. I just did that and found the following: August 16th (Andy Churchill asked), September 23rd (Steve Rivkin, candidate for School Committee asked), October 7th (Steve Rivkin asked), Janaruy 6th (I asked), January 20th (Steve asked). So, that would be 5 times during meetings over the last year by members of the School Committee or members of the public. I've also asked both superintendents (Jere Hochman, Al Sprague) and the School Committee Chair (Michael Hussin). I can't get an evaluation ON THE AGENDA to have a vote. A very poor evaluation of "science in general" was conducted (at my request) last spring to establish a baseline, but this "evaluation" led to the not surprising or helpful conclusion that "biology is liked more than chemistry." I have no idea if any evaluation has been done of the kids now in ecology/environmental science as a comparison, again, because I can NOT get this on the agenda for a vote.

I believe Abbie is exactly right -- members of the Committee don't think data and evaluation are really helpful or necessary. And asking for such data is seen as critical of the teachers/the high school/the course. The lack of an evaluation is definitely not due to lack of funds (we paid for bad evaluation) or lack of time - I've offered to have all the data entered and analyzed by one of my students! It seems VERY ironic to me, as a scientist, that the science faculty themselves aren't EAGER to evaluate this course, because of course that is how scientific knowledge is gained. Either the course is working great, in which case we should prove that to share it with other districts (like Brookline), who may want to then copy our innovative approach to 9th grade science, or it is NOT working, in which case we should want to know this so we can do something else!

One last thing -- you can find all the names of SC members on the Afollowing link:
School_Committee_Directory.jsp. And you can email all school committee members at the same time at: You can email the superintendent at:

Abbie - I fully agree with both points.

Neil said...

I think most of the commenters have made a strong statement about what they value and that it hinges on high achievment in core competencies of math and science and English reading and writing and maybe also critical thinking aimed towards college candidacy at the highest level.

Some students strong in math and science tend to be under developed in English reading and writing and the opposite is true. We tend to pursue more vigorously our strengths. That said, I think Math, science, literarcy (English and forign language), writing with an emphsasis in maximizing the number of students participating in AP is a good objective. How we get there may require more input from more link-minded parents. Why not set if the town of Amherst is ready at the right moment to accept a stretch goal of increasing participation in AP coarses by a large amount whereby 66% take atleast one AP course and 50% take two and do well. This is an example but our goals should be measurable and agreed upon. That makes working out the how a little easier.

Joe said...

Some of the thoughts raised on this particular topic reminded me of the movie "Stand and Deliver". For those that remember the movie you may want to read this story.

I agree with the idea of creating stretch goals, they may be more realistic than we think. What is certain though is that if you don't offer AP classes, students will not take AP classes. Also, if we don't offer AP classes how can we even suggest we want to provide the best educational enevironment and its all about the students?

Anonymous said...

Part of what's going on here is that Amherst has been in a weird bubble where it thinks it's got this excellent school system ... while actually in key aspects it just doesn't measure up, as Catherine's inquiry is showing. Its reputation and an assumption of excellence, combined with an wrong-headed state tax structure, has meant a steady and certain decline in public schools. For those of you with elementary school kids - good luck. We're just a couple of years away from BAD schools.

Rick said...

I feel as though I am very familiar with the high school, having been heavily involved with the ARHS Parent Center, and having two kids gone though it. I agree that math and science are weak at ARHS – not all teachers/courses – but generally that is true. My kids both say that.

But I have to say that everything else is GREAT. English, political science, history and languages are all very well done. There are teachers in those areas I would have loved to have had in college, never mind high school.

So, I would hate to see ARHS get “bashed” because so much of it is really excellent.

By all means “fix" what needs fixing in math and science, but don’t think that all of ARHS “sucks” just because of those weaknesses – it doesn’t at all.

Anonymous said...

There are excellent Amherst high school teachers. But the erosion of standards has begun - not their fault, but ours, because we're not willing to pay for high standards - and one indicator is in what is required of graduates. Also - fyi, last year the school disbanded its National Honor Society membership (it costs less than $100 a year to belong) and canceled undergraduate awards, only to restore them - without the ceremony. What message does this send? That individual achievement is not valued in this high school. Given that, it isn't that surprising we're not offering the full complement of AP classes.

Ed said...

In my experience, there is a very strong anti-intellectual sentiment in this town. Ironic really, since it's so similar to the Republican party reaction. There is a distrust of data and evaluation, instead a "holistic" approach is favored.

This Republican needs to object -- the GOP is no more unified on education than are the Dems and unless you want to be linked with the worst of Howard Dean or Zell Miller, I would suggest caution before presuming that all Republicans reject data and educational research.

Ed said...

The traditional pre-college science curriculum was Biology/Chemistry/Physics. The rationale for this was that Biology was considered mostly memorization while Chemistry involved some math and Physics much math -- thus the students would (hopefully) have learned the necessary math by the time they were taking Chemistry & Physics.

Now as to the non-college track, you had babysitting science courses like "earth science" and "environmental science" and other pusedo-sciences that had a lot of field trips and a lot of social issues and such.

And then there is Amherst. It is one thing to teach an Environmental/Ecological Science course to kids who have already had both Biology & Chemistry but when it is your *first* course, it can only be an ideological diatribe. Different only from a course in Creation Science in the political bent of the ideology.

Not knowing anything of the curriculum, I can say that without a basic background in both bio & chem, all you can do is memorize the political views of the teacher. If you don't know anything about acids, if you don't know what H2SO4 *is*, any discussion of acid rain is moot....

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Joe, GREAT article!! Thanks for posting the link. Can we make it required reading for our School Committee?

Ed said...

Two specific examples:

Many of the most earnest save-the-planet folk confuse Carbon Monoxide (CO) with Carbon Dioxide (CO2). CO is lethal to humans (as in you-will-die-right-now-call-911 lethal) at levels measured in parts-per-million. CO detectors aren't allowed to report less than 30 and it is 100-400 range (depending on time) that will kill you today.

CO2 is also lethal in high concentrations (remember Apollo 13) but it naturally exists at levels that CO would kill you and isn't an acute (call 911) problem until it gets up to 1% (10,000 PPM) and gets fatal at somewhere between 5-10% depending on lots of things.

400 PPM versus 70,000 PPM -- a knowledge of math is important here too. And I like to remind people that their very expensive granite countertops are both radioactive and leaching Radon gas - which they are, in levels you can actually measure if you want to spend enough money - but it is so minute that it is moot.

The other think these kids keep confusing is the acute "dial 911" levels and the far lower ones that probably harm human health long term and may (or may not) be damaging the planet.

My second example is a story attributed to Al Gore although I like to think that he wouldn't be stupid enough to actually say this. Reportedly he was visiting an old mining site where the alkali had been removed or abated from the ground water and the people there were very proud that they had "gotten the PH down to 7."

Gore reportedly responded "why stop there, why not go all the way to 1." Now if you don't have a knowledge of chemistry and understand what PH *is* and how the scale runs, if you don't have a knowledge of biology and some basic idea of what would happen to any living thing exposed to a PH of 1, then this is a perfectly logical thing to say.

My point is simple: if your students don't first have some knowledge of basic biology, chemistry and math, any attempt to teach Ecology or Environmental Science is going to be nothing but a political diatribe. It could be taught from the left, or from the right, but it can be nothing more than an ideological memorization course just like creation science.

As these two examples show, kids have got to have the prerequisite knowledge before you can honestly (and hopefully politically neutrally) teach this stuff.

Imagine teaching advanced Latin grammar to students who had never been exposed to a foreign language and didn't even understand English grammar....

Anonymous said...

Allison I love the idea of required reading for the school committee but it seems, with the exception of Catherine, that they have no interest (or perhaps ability) to read, digest information and make choices based on something beyond a politically correct group think mentality.

However, I am hopeful that with the coming school committee election we can focus on electing school committee members who read, think and focus on academic achievement and excellence because in the end, that helps ALL kids.

Nina Koch said...


It might be helpful to you to look at the curriculum for the Ecology/Environmental Science course before you attempt to characterize it.

Curriculum Map

EB said...

Let's talk about schools Ed, please, rather than the politics of global warming.

Ed said...

In addition the Environmental course has stuff that isn't even a science curriculum -- it is a SOCIAL STUDIES curriculum and should be over there. For example:

"Calculate growth rates of the
human population through history. Interpret and critique the demographic transition
graph. Create age structure and
survivorship curves from local data
Evaluate the costs and benefits
of the world urbanization trend.


And my other point, which some somehow still can't understand, is that ever since the days of Newman (and before that) we have divided the curriculum up into logical sections. Biology, Chemistry, Physics... On higher levels they become quite connected but you have gotta teach the basic skills.

You teach addition and subtraction before you teach auditing.....

Anonymous said...

I posted this info in Alison's blog but thought it relevant for this group too.

The question here is what do we value? We all agree that we value a more rigorous curriculum, with an increased focus on science and math.

The given is that we all value a good solid education for our kids.

However, when we put our money where our mouth is - (the budget) - and we look over the past 10 years, you'll see that we DON'T actually value regular education. Instead we have added a great deal of money (actual dollars, or in terms of percentage) - to a variety of other items like administration and health care and SPED.

For the elementary school budget, I compared expenditures from 2000 and 2010 budgets.

Comparing Numbers from 2000-2010

(from page 7 of "Amherst Elementary Budget FY10"

Here is the percent change since 2000 (relative to 2010 proposed budget) for the various categories. I've written the percent change and the dollar amount (and it is important to look at both because sometimes a modest increase in dollar amounts of an item with a small starting price tag looks like a big percentage increase).

Here's how to read this:

Program/Expense name: Percentage increase in spending since 2000 (Dollar increase in spending since 2000)

And here's the data:

Elementary school - 2000-2010

Regular Ed: 16% ($845K)
ELL: 66% ($355K)
Special Ed: 72% ($2 million)
Subs/Temp: 63% ($74K)
Other programs: 3314% ($356K)
Supp Services 29% ($286K)
School Admin 20% ($168K)
Central Admin 35% ($145K)
Information Systems 107% ($193K)
Facilities 65% ($592K)
Transportation 223% ($414K)
Health Insurance 189% ($2.2 million)
Oper and Other -6% (yes, that is a MINUS sign, of -$20K)

And here is the data for 2000-2009 for the MS/HS. I could not find the FY10 regional budget so I used the 2009 data.

Page 11 of FY09 Executive Level Budget - Regional

For the MS/HS: (2000-2009)

Regular Ed: 4.4% ($285K)
ELL: 44% ($100K)
Special Ed: 54% (1.7 million)
Subs/Temp: 39% ($44K)
Other programs: 81% ($753K)
Supp Services: 4% ($52K)
School Admin: 51% ($423K)
Central Admin: 42% ($213K)
Information Systems: 207% ($372K)
Facilities: 66% ($863K)
Transportation: 38% ($493K)
Health Insurance: 200% ($2.8 million)
Oper and Other: 250% (1.9 million)

What jumps out at me?

1) Regular education has suffered relative to all other categories. Over the past decade, we have increased spending on regular ed by 16% at the elementary level ($845K) and an increase of only 4.4% ($285K) over 9 years in the regular ed MS/HS budget? That's way less than the rising of living expenses or inflation.

2) SPED spending has really increased over the past decade at both the elementary/MS/HS levels - on the order of $2 million (72%) for elementary and $1.7 million (54%) for MS/HS.

Do we have a lot more SPED kids, have federal guidelines for mandated services increased drastically, are the costs of these services increasing, or are we adding more services than required?

3) Health insurance has skyrocketed, with an increase of $5 million (200%) over the past decade. Do we have a lot more people on payroll or is this JUST attributable to the rising cost of insurance?

4) Facilities have increased in cost by 65% - $600K (elementary) and $863K (MS/HS level). We are NOT as far as I can tell, serving significantly more students than in 2000.

In summary: for all the regular students, we have added $1.15 million in the last decade. We have added $3.7 million to SPED, $1.5 million to facilities, $5 million to health insurance, $900K to transportation, $1.3 million to admin and central admin, $1.9 million to Operations and Others, and $1.1 million to "Other programs"

How can we add as much or more to "Other" ($1.1 million) and "Oper and Other" ($1.9 million) than to regular ed ($1.15 million)? I don't even know what "Other" is, but I think we can tighten our belts and make do with less "Other".

I think we now know what we have valued over the past decade.. and it is NOT education. It is the stuff that surrounds actual education - the building, the operations, the staff's healthcare, and the administration. And of course, the "Other." Is it time to change what we value by putting our money where our mouth is?

Anonymous said...

By the way, it does not take a mathmatician (which I am not) to realize that we cannot keep up with the higher rates of increased spending for SPED, administration, facilities, and health insurance relative to the lower rates of increase in spending for regular ed. Given that budgets are going to remain level or reduced in future years - pretty soon there will be NO money left for regular ed.

Are we sure we want to go down this path? Has this been looked at before by the SC? Has the SC decided that these are temporary, one-time increases that they wanted to authorize, or has this actually snuck by them? Or perhaps this IS the path they want to follow?

Rick said...

@Ed Did you even read the whole curriculum?

"Lab: Quantitative model of nitrogen cycling in ARHS Exp. Forest
Dot diagrams and molecular models,
Phosphate and pH measurement"

Sounds like science to me.

And the part you reference is called Anthropology - ever hear of it?

"Anthropology has origins in the natural sciences, and the humanities."

Ed said...

"Lab: Quantitative model of nitrogen cycling in ARHS Exp. Forest
Dot diagrams and molecular models,
Phosphate and pH measurement"

My point is that you teach the basics first.

And the part you reference is called Anthropology - ever hear of it?

In the K-12 environment, the social sciences, including Anthropology, are taught as part of SOCIAL STUDIES. They are not taught as part of a science curriculum. There are issues of accreditation and such if you do too much of this.

Ed said...

Two thing on the budget numbers.

First, you need to calculate this in consistent (inflation-adjusted) dollars. $100 in 2000 is $122.61 today - according to the BLS. See:

Now I have some issues with this number, believing it a bit high because of how it is calculated (they don't include "discount" stores like Walmart in their statistics) and I suspect that housing costs have dropped more than reflected. But it is an issue.

The actual education budget, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is LESS now than then.

Second, the cost of ghettoizing the ELL kids is going to be reflected in the transportation budget.

Third, I find the increase in the ELL budget DISTURBING. When we (as a state mandate to districts) switched from ESL to ELL in the 1990s the belief was that costs would become less because instead of conducting dual curriculums in other languages, the child would quickly learn English (in a year or so) and then would be taught in English like everyone else.

Remember the referendum on that and the "don't sue teachers" signs?

So the question I have is if Amherst has switched back from ELL to ESL (in defiance of state mandate) and the cost increase is a direct reflection of this.

Did the number of ELL children increase that much?

Rick said...

"My point is that you teach the basics first." - Ed

By High School students are moving beyond the basics - I would hope.

"In the K-12 environment, the social sciences, including Anthropology, are taught as part of SOCIAL STUDIES. They are not taught as part of a science curriculum. There are issues of accreditation and such if you do too much of this."

Who says? Your source for this is what?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

OK, I'm going to step in here ... it is entirely possible that teaching ecology/environmental science in 9th grade is a good idea (clearly the HS science teachers and principal and SC members who voted unanimously for it believed it was a good idea, and that is was science). My ONLY issue is that because this is an entirely different approach used to teaching science than any other district in Massachusetts, we should evaluate it to make sure that the course is indeed serving as a better introduction to science than the alternatives (e.g., biology, earth science in the old system). And I continue to be concerned that that evaluation isn't being done, and that there seems to be considerable resistance to doing it. I don't believe I'm qualified to judge the merits of the course, nor, do I imagine, are most posters on this blog. But we can all agree that this course is a very unusual approach to teaching 9th grade science, and since most districts do seem to feel that teaching core sciences first is a better approach, we owe it to our kids to make sure that the course is working. If it is -- an evaluation will demonstrate that and shut critics up (including me). And if it isn't -- we should all want to know that so we can change it, yes?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Catherine. We need to evaluate the new 9th grade science course to see if the course is working. For the life of me, I don't understand this district's aversion to evaluating courses. Seems to me that we could glean some very useful information from an thorough evaluation. Because this new science course has had a bit of controvery surrounding it one would think the teachers, administrators and SC would welcome an eval. Perhaps its even working better than everyone expected. Let's do the eval.

Worried About Science said...

Could we not open up a choice for ninth-graders? Biology or Environmental Science? This could offer two potential science pathways for our students and allow more of them to remain interested and engaged in science for four years. Or, if you want to require Environmental Science, could you also offer Biology to ninth-graders who might want to take both?

What do transfers in take? Those who come from districts who offer Biology for ninth graders? How are they then integrated into Amherst's science curriculum?

Catherine, you always want to know what we would cut if we add something. I would add Biology as an option for ninth-graders and cut 50% of the available electives for ninth-graders. Take a look--there are a lot.a

Wondering said...

I know our regional school students have some free choices they can make as to where they go to school. Kids interested in vocational studies can go to either Franklin Tech or Smith Vocational for free with transportaion and kids who are interested in the arts can go to the Pioneer Valley School of Performing Arts again for free and with at least some transportation. Are there any FREE options for our students who are interested in a highly academic, college-prep curriculum? If not, isn't that what we should be offering in-district?

JWolfe said...

The budget numbers here and on Allison's blog are beyond shocking. (What's beyond shocking, because that's how I feel.)

These numbers explain why so many in the old guard of the SC have been hostile to parents who want exotic extras such as textbooks. I have been personally and rudely lectured by people like Elaine Brighty for being borderline greedy in my desire to have our elementary school kids to have access to textbooks as opposed to hand-outs.

These budget numbers show that money has gone to everything except basic instruction.

This must change or the downward spiral will accelerate.

Ed said...

I have to say that because the local teachers like a course is perhaps the absolute worst justification for it.

What you need is peer review -- teachers from OTHER districts and those who are affected by what your graduates know (and don't know) reviewing your courses. The latter would include potential employers, college professors and possibly a job placement person.

The DESE (DoE) also has great resources in the field, and there is a wealth of Federal stuff from a variety of places.

As to who says the social sciences go into social studies - see above - although there is a move to replace social studies with the traditional 3 history courses (GrecoRoman, US and Modern World). This would, of course, push the social sciences somewhere else as social studies no longer would exist, the fourth year being the traditional "civics."

And I gotta ask - exactly what happens to the kid who concludes that nukes are the way to go - it is a position one could logically reach and believe in and why do I believe this would be considered a "wrong" answer??? And this is different from creationism because???

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Joe - love the Stand and Deliver piece ... which reminds me of the "bigotry of low expectations" issue. I think the assumption is often made in Amherst that AP classes (or honors classes, or algebra in 8th grade, or more challenge in elementary school) would only be good for white/rich kids -- and thus, we haven't prioritized such options (and those who have are quickly called "elitist"). I agree with your view that many of our kids may be capable of more than we are offering/requiring.

Anonymous 5:05 - I honestly don't feel that I know in what ways the Amherst schools are excellent versus not (and there is probably, like in virtually all systems, some parts that are better than others). But I do believe that we need to be more focused on really examining where we are doing well (and by which kids) and where we are not. And until we are ready to have those open and honest conversations, it will be hard to make progress.

Rick - I agree that the focus shouldn't be on bashing ANYTHING/ANYONE. I would like to keep the focus on PROCESS. Let's use an objective and transparent process to see where we are doing well, and where we could do better throughout the district!

Anonymous 9:08 - I heard from a lot of parents about the disbanding of the National Honor Society and the elimination of the undergraduate awards ceremony. And yes, I think that both of those issues indicate what our school does, and does not, value.

Ed - A number of parents with PhDs in scientific fields shared your view that teaching the core first (biology, chemistry, physics) is essential to helping kids really understand complex inter-disciplinary fields such as environmental science. Again, I'd love to see an evaluation of the 9th grade course to see how well it is achieving the goals it was designed to achieve.

Anonymous 5:00 - thanks for the information. I'm going to do a separate post on special ed soon, and will add one on administrative costs.

Anonymous 5:10 - to the best of my knowledge, this issue of how we are spending money in different areas (regular ed, special ed, administrators, etc.) is not one that has been really examined in any detail/depth by the SC.

Anonymous 10:31 - as you know, I share your enthusiasm for an evaluation! Feel free to send an email to the entire SC and/or the superintendent and/or the HS principal expressing that view. I believe the assumption made on the SC is that I'm the only one who actually cares about this, and hence it can be ignored.

Worried About Science - I made this exact proposal last year ... add this new course, but give students a choice. And this option was rejected by the SC in favor of having all 9th graders take ecology/environmental science. But this is a great idea -- feel free to send it to the SC and superintendent to see if they would be willing to make this change (particularly since we don't even know how well the 9th grade ecology course is going). Students who transfer in at 10th grade are free to take biology or chemistry (as are our own students).

Wondering -- Yes, excellent point! Seeing as technology and arts can be taken in other schools, it does seem appropriate for us to have a very strong academic curriculum.

Anonymous said...

They eliminated the undergraduate awards but held K-12 awards for just the hispanic students? How odd.

Anonymous said...


The first two responses in your 2:35 entry made me think of an entry on an earlier post about 6th grade MCAS math scores in 2008.
Pelham and Mark's Meadow were the #1 and #2 schools in the whole state. I don't imagine those students got there without being challenged on a regular basis, and I'm pretty sure the student populations of those schools include plenty of kids who are not rich/white. I understand this was not the first year these two schools excelled either, so something good must have been going on regarding challenge and
desired results. I've heard the two teachers who led those classes each retired last june. I wonder if anyone in central administration/curriculum oversight conducted an exit interview or something other to discover the methods they used to
achieve such notable results.

lise said...

A word on the 9th grade science....My kids have first hand experience in two of the schools Catherine cites ....Wayland (public) and Deerfield Academy. I think the curriculum and the objectives of the ninth grade science program are very laudable. They are similar to the objectives and curriculum that Wayland does in the 7th and 8th grade.

My daughter who went to Wayland Middle school came out excited by science, familiar with the principals of experimental design, having designed and participated in experiments and field studies and having completed data analysis and written lab reports. My daughter who went to Amherst Middle school also came out excited by science. She had fun in her science classes, but did little challenging work, mostly filled out worksheets, and had never written a lab report. Both daughters went on to 9th grade bio at Deerfield. Both found the course challenging, however, my daughter who came through Amherst was much less prepared and much less confident in her abilities. She was at a disadvantage compared to other students who came from more rigorous programs. In talking with friends around the country I think most strong Middle Schools offer a program more like Wayland's than Amherst's.

I agree with the 9th grade science teachers that the study of environmental science and ecology at a basic level may be a great way to introduce students to scientific principles, and a great way to grab kid's interest. I just believe it comes too late.

In addition, I think it is apalling that a student can graduate from ARHS with just EEC and Bio and without ever having taken a physical sciences class. One of the reasons that many systems are going to a physics first curriculum is that at least every student learns the basics of things like gravity, friction, density, an the atomic composition of matter. (By the way, Deerfield is moving to physics first next year.)

We definitely need to evaluate the science program - and the middle school program too.

Anonymous said...

Lise, if you would share, why did you choose to send your daughters to Deerfield Academy instead of ARHS?

A Different View said...

I agree that more AP courses in math and science should be offered. We see in the news that the US is losing its edge in these areas.

With respect to Env Science: in the zeal to achieve excellence, watch out that we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. It could be argued that offering Environmental Science is cutting edge over our competing schools, not fringe. I agree that its success should be evaluated but it should not be deemed to be somehow lacking in academic rigor just because other schools don't teach it. Good for ARHS for thinking out of the box and teaching to our students' futures, not matching some one-size-fits-all view of curricula planning.

Also be careful that in wanting all students to take certain courses by certain grades that we don't create an elitist system. Not all students learn at the same paces; for example some won't be ready for physics in 9th grade just because we say they should be. Even excellent teachers can't control individual brain development.

And one more thing: for some students music, drame, art ARE core. I have at least two out of three like that among my children.

Anonymous said...

Catherine - can you tell us how to read this table? I am assuming you might know since you are on the SC & presumably the SC needs to study this document.

Nina- perhaps you may know who to contact to learn how to read this info.

Amherst-Pelham Regional School District Budget Planning Information FY10 document. The information is found on the table on page 28.

Specifically, we want to know what the #/# under FTE means. Is the number of admin/staff or teachers/para or what? It reflects the specialized programs (for SPED). It doesn't reflect 'regular SPED' numbers.


lise said...

Response to A Different view...

I aree the science program may be innovative and the best thing since sliced bread. If we evaluate it we may find that out. If we don't we are just going on assumptions - a very bad thing to do scientifically. We also need to evaluate the MS science curriculum. Tht is the one I elieve is clearly lacking challenge let alone rigor. And at any rate we need to change graduation requirements so that our HS students have at least a smattering of physical science.

I also agree that every child may not be ready for physics in ninth grade. Nor is evry child ready to read at a ninth grade reading level. Do we hold everyone back for that small percentage? A growing number of systems are teaching "physics first" because it is diffcult to learn bio and chem without a basic understanding of physics. This is an indication that perhaps the vast majority of students are ready for physics. I would suggest that we teach to the higher level for the majority of students and make sure we support those who need the support.

In response to Anonymous. My older daughter went to Deerfield because we were new to the area and gave her the option. She fell in love with the small classes and the fantastic dance program that lets her have opportunities to choreograph and perform that would not be accessible anywhere else. My younger daughter had her choice of ARHS, Deerfield or NMH. Her only experience of Amherst was the middle school where she had a great time socially, loved the Amherst community, but was bored and frustrated academically. Having had a year in Wayland in 6th grade she knew it did not have to be that way, and felt that personally for her Deerfield is a better fit.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, reading some of these posts is pretty bizarre experience. First, I will grant this--Amherst schools are not perfect. Math and science at the High school? Maybe there should be more required for graduation. Certtainly there could be more more equitable levels of achievement across the district.

Then for perspective, I go to the Massachusetts Department of Education website and look up our MCAS scores. Lo and behold, at a glance, anyone can see what our horrendous, nearly crimially-negligent enterprise at the secondary schools has wrought! SIGNIFICANTLY higher rates of students scoring Advanced for ELA, Math and Science (20%+ more for each), higher achievement levels overall than the state average for all "subgroups" like Limited English proficient, low income students, etc., MUCH lower fail rates.

My god, now I'm also in favor of dismantling the whole curriculum, now! Take our schools apart stone by stone! I'm leading the charge with my pick axe tomorrow! Follow me!

Rick said...

@ Ed: This is an absolute idiotic statement:
“I have to say that because the local teachers like a course is perhaps the absolute worst justification for it.”
And if that were the case, how does peer review help? They would just scratch each others back right?
Ed, please say something of use – don’t not just bash – it’s NOT helpful.

Rick said...

The issues I hear regarding quality seem to fall into these categories:

1. Evaluation of courses.
2. Number of years you can take a particular subject, like science or math.
3. Whether or not an AP version of a course exists.

EVALUATION: Maybe there is resistance to this – I don’t know. I can’t see anyone being against evaluation; or shouldn’t be. But I can see there being a problem in figuring out HOW to evaluate. How would we measure whether or not this course is better or worse that the usual Earth Science that other schools have? If there is a good method, we should do it, but I am just wondering what that method is. Something specific may have been suggested, so sorry if I missed.

NUMBER OF YEARS: So one problem mentioned is that Amherst requires just 2 years of science in High School. Also I have heard that you are not allowed to take 2 science courses in one year. Is there also a restriction on total years of scones you can take? Certainly starting in 10th grade, students should be able to take two science courses in one year if they want to (subject to budget restrictions). They will have to do that in college if they go into science so might was well prepare them for that. And if there is a restriction on number of total science course you can take, that is dumb (unless it’s a budget problem). Having 3 years of science be a requirement I am just not sure about – regardless of what other schools do – probably, but I am just not sure. That deserves a discussion. Is it really a good thing to force a “non-science” student to take chemistry, for example, when maybe they got all the chemistry they will ever need in the 9th grade science course? Would that class time be better spent by taking something the student was really turned on by, or spent boning up on basics that the student really HAS to have to graduate, which I say is math, reading and writing. (Here I am not talking about the kids who are going got Harvard as pre-med, they are going to take all the courses anyways.)

AP COURSES: I guess I would like to know if this is just a “naming” problem or not. For example, is “Honors Chemistry” really just as good a course as an “AP Chemistry” course would be, but it just isn’t; called that? Or is it that the course does not exist at all? If it’s the former, just change the name.

And what about CURRICULUM?
In all of the above, one thing not talked about enough, in my opinion, is to actually look at and compare curriculums. It’s not a bad way to evaluate by looking at the curriculum for our chemistry courses, for example and comparing them to the curriculum of other school’s chemistry courses. That would at least get to half of the equation: WHAT is taught. The other half is HOW well it is taught.

The equation for a good course is:


Anonymous said...

Just a question about the budget decision making process. I keep hearing "Early, dynamic, ever changing" from the regional level. If this is the case and they are not ready to make a budget decision yet, why are we making a decision at the Elementary level so soon? Don't they need to be made at about the same time? Or are there different guidelines for the two different districts?

Anonymous said...


Very good analysis. You put into words very succintly alot of the scattered thoughts I have been having as I read the various comments.

Unless thee are budgetary reasons behind the restriction, why not allow someone to take two science courses in one year? And on the flip side, I agree with you that we should continue to require only two years of science to graduate. Those who enjoy or will need more science for college will take more (if we let them they might actually two in one year) and those who do not want or need to take more courses won't.

I also think that the new9th grade Environmental/Ecology course just might be a good alternative to the traditional Earth Science. Lets evaluate it and go from there.

Let's look at the Honors Chem class - does it have the rigor of an AP class? If so, lets call it AP Chem. If not, can we bump of the rigor so that it is an AP class?

The ARHS does alot of good things well. I think the Math/Science part needs to be looked at and perhaps tweaked. I am not convinced we need to throw out the entre curriculum, not even the Math/Science curriculum. But we should be continually looking at it to see where it can be improved and beefed up and then do it. We cannot be afraid to do some serious evals, though, to see where we stand. Lets do the evaluations and then make adjustments as indiated.

Ed said...

A growing number of systems are teaching "physics first" because it is diffcult to learn bio and chem without a basic understanding of physics. This is an indication that perhaps the vast majority of students are ready for physics.

There is a related issue here: do you teach physics with or without math? If you teach it *with* then you have to have students who are already on the far side of algebra and geometry and such -- or you have to teach that as part of the physics class.

It is the same issue as "Calculus for Third Graders" -- do you introduce something without all of its aspects, or do you wait until the kids have those and introduce it later?

Let me put it this way - do you teach kids how to drive down I-91 on black ice before or after they have a basic knowledge of how to drive on dry pavement?

Ed said...

Response to Rick:

The principle of disinterested peer review is a bedrock of education that dates back to the Middle Ages. I don't know how to say this any simpler, it is like saying that courts have things called judges...

In higher education there are things like refereed journals, peer review and the like. I may think I know a bit about education, but I have to convince a bunch of other people that I do, it is called a thesis that they have to sign off on.

In K-12 there is the principle of accreditation. While far too often a rubber stamp, a quiet "we won't say anything about you if you don't say anything about us", in theory is a good thing. Teachers who don't have to work with you next week can come out and take an *objective* look at your programs and your learning results and the rest.

And if you don't like this, then why not let kids give themselves their own grades too? Why not let students just do those assignments they want to and all. (I know they do that at Hampshire College, but I digress...)

I say again that the mere fact that the teachers like a curriculum is irrelevant. If OTHER, DISINTERESTED teachers like the curriculum, that is quite different. And there is a very big difference here....

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Anonymous 4:55 - I do not know whether such exit interviews were conducted, but yes, this seems like a very good idea!

Lise - thanks for sharing your experience with science in different districts. I think that is really the key thing - our schools need to prepare our students to be at least on equal footing with students from other top schools (public and private). I agree that an evaluation of 9th grade, and MS, science should be conducted. I hope the School Committee and Superintendent will decide to take this on.

A Different View - I agree -- we need more AP science/math courses and the new 9th grade course may be GREAT (and exactly what students need). But we can't assume this ... we need to test it. I hope that testing gets done.

Anonymous 7:22 - I will look this up and get back to you later!

Anonymous 8:24 - I find your post disheartening, because this is EXACTLY what keeps the Amherst schools from improving. Yes, our MCAS scores are good. Yes, we get kids into top colleges. But I'd prefer a focus not just on patting ourselves on the back, but really challenging ourselves to be the very best public school system we can be.

Rick - as always, thanks for using your name and the thoughtful comments! In terms of evaluation -- I've just done a new post on how to do that. In terms of requirements - yes, the budget means we can't typically can't double up science courses. But I also think requiring students to do something MORE (as other schools do) could turn on students to more science! I know that sometimes students might find something interesting (e.g., chemistry! physics!), but are scared so they don't even try. And this is often particularly true (in science) for girls. I see increasing the requirements for science as a way of increasing interest in these new disciplines. I mean, we know some students don't like social studies, but we still want them to have 3 years -- but it is OK if students don't want to have 3 years of math or science? In terms of course names -- the College Board recommends a year of chemistry BEFORE AP chemistry. So, AP chemistry means it is a second year chemistry class. I actually don't care if we have "AP Chemistry" at all. But I'd like a second year of chemistry for students OFFERED for students who are passionate about chemistry. And finally, yes, we should look at curriculum -- great idea.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 8:24

I am disappointed that you are mocking everyone who wants to improve the school system.

1) It is possible that MCAS scores do not reflect how prepared a student is for college or prep school (like Deerfield Academy). Regardless of test scores, we need to prepare our kids well for the next step in life. Someone previously posted that their kid (and others) have had to take "Dummy Math" in college despite having good math grades at ARHS. What employer is going to hire people who need to do some "Dummy Work" to get caught up?

2) It is very possible that DESPITE a non-optimal school system, Amherst still has great MCAS scores for a variety of reasons:

a) Our kids are genetically blessed. We have a disproportionate amount of academics in this town and it is possible they've passed on their intellectual abilities to their kids.

b) Our kids are environmentally blessed in that many are growing up in academically-minded families who encourage education, who teach a lot at home or hire extra tutors.

c) You mention good ELL scorers... well, they're not for the most part children of migrant workers scraping together a living. Rather, many are children of foreign executives or kids of foreign graduate students. Again, educationally-blessed by both nature and nurture.

d)Same with low income children in certain areas of town. There's a huge difference between low income families who are going through a stage in life - because they are working towards an undergrad degree, graduate degree or postdoctoral fellowship vs those that don't see a brighter future ahead of them. The lower-income families living near UMASS are families who are FOCUSED on education, and see their lower income as a mere stage in life - one that everyone in academics has gone through. It's just a step towards a bright future. Again, children of UMASS students and postdocs are also favored with both nature and nurture in terms of education.

If I had to guess, there is a big difference in the reduced lunch- kids at MM (near UMASS) or Crocker Farm (not near UMASS). Even if their (low) incomes are similar, the futures of the parents in these families are NOT very similar. However, the futures of the kids COULD be similar IF WE FOCUS ON GIVING EVERYONE A GREAT EDUCATION.

Education is an equalizer. We should always be working on improving our education system.

Anonymous said...

The lower-income families living near UMASS are families who are FOCUSED on education, and see their lower income as a mere stage in life,

You also need to account for the STANDARD in Standard of Living.

If you are from, say, China and you consider not having to bring in coal dust pellets and start a fire in order to cook supper to be a luxury -- a stove that you can just turn on and use -- then you are coming from a very different perspective. While "poor" in terms of economic status here, most of the foreign-born graduate students are amongst the richest people in their hometowns....

Diana Spurgin said...

Anon 3:47:
How you could read this blog and come up with the conclusion that undergraduate awards were eliminated for all but Hispanic students is, well, incorrect.

Mark Jackson made a decision that he himself called hasty and poorly vetted to eliminate the awards as a cost and time-saving measure, and he resolved the issue quite satisfactorily. For years there have been complaints about the awards ceremony - always well in excess of three hours long, on a school night, in a hot, stuffy and overcrowded auditorium, just so you can watch your child on the stage for less than 10 seconds. Teachers, as much as they want to honor their students' efforts and accomplishments, have much better things to do than sit there for 210minutes on any night, school night or otherwise, as do parents and their students, at such a busy time as the end of the academic year is for all.

Mr. Jackson was looking for ways to save money and teachers' time and realized - with the help of constructive comments from parents (unlike so many on blogs)- that he had thrown the baby out with the bath water. In the end, certificates of award were still given, the names published in the paper, and kids were able to cite their awards on their college apps - the only thing lost was an onerous and unnecessary ceremony.

This is what I hate about blogs - anonymous posters who bash individuals, committees and practices, and circulate rumors that go unchalleneged unless the blog host dispels them. Catherine, you do a good job of setting people straight, but I didn't see you address this fallacy. Maybe I missed something, but letting one person go off into the community saying things like "Did you know only the Hispanic kids got undergraduate awards?!?" does a disservice to our community. There is way too much partisanship being displayed throughout town already.

Don't worry, all you anonymous posters - you won't see another posting from me - as it is I get flamed from too many other sources, being a volunteer in this town and all....

Anonymous said...

Diana, there was an awards night just for K-12 hispanic students. Fliers were sent home, it was not just made up by the poster and nobody was "bashed."

Diana Spurgin said...

Anonymous 10:43:
Please read my posting more carefully - I never said there wasn't an awards ceremony for the Hispanic students, I simply corrected the erroneous rumor that academic awards were eliminated for other students.
And as for people not being bashed by anonymous posters on blogs - reality check, please.

Anonymous said...

If I had to guess, there is a big difference in the reduced lunch- kids at MM (near UMASS) or Crocker Farm (not near UMASS). Even if their (low) incomes are similar, the futures of the parents in these families are NOT very similar. However, the futures of the kids COULD be similar IF WE FOCUS ON GIVING EVERYONE A GREAT EDUCATION.

WOW! You have made quite an assumption about the kids in North Amherst! Yes, there are a portion of these kids whose parents are grad students. I would not say that these kids are genetically gifted in any way though. This also does not make up most of who Mark's Meadow is. Most of these kids come from normal families from all classes. MM does not just have North Village for families. That is a big assumption being made. There are people who live in houses and still qualify for free/reduced lunch. You do not know the circumstances of these families and should not be making any judgments based on assumptions.

This is a big problem with this blog. There is a lot said, and no one to really back any of it up. Everyone seems to think that the MM community is on the defensive and that there are parents there who are fighting to keep it open and are not thinking about the rest of the town. I am not saying there aren't parents like that, but overall, they don't feel that way. They just want the decision to be made correctly. They want the facts to be out on the table, clear as day. It needs to be clear that any possible revenue we could get, will not balance out this decision. School Choice needs to be looked into, SERIOUSLY!!! We need to know if we can do any renovations on any of the schools, if we are down to 3 buildings. We need to have a clear understanding of busing costs, ELL students, SPED kids, Title 1 funds,utility costs, giving parents the ability to get to their children's new schools, when they don't own cars, and much more. None of this has been looked into yet. We need to know these things BEFORE we decide to close a school. That is what most parents in MM want to have happen before the decision is made. It needs to be clear for everyone in the town, the total savings and costs associated with closing a school.

Please don't judge people or their motivations based on assumptions.

Nina Koch said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response about the undergraduate awards. They were also posted on the school website:

Also, I have noticed your name on several committees and so forth and I for one appreciate your service to the community.

Anonymous said...

I've posted more detail on Alison's blog - under Per Pupil Expenditures

but I wanted to summarize my very interesting findings here.

I looked at how Amherst (A) spends an average of $15,224 per pupil annually and Amherst-Pelham (AP) spends $16,131 per pupil (vs state average of $12,500). Where does that extra money go?

Overall – we are spending a lot MORE on Insurance and Retirement ($3.8 million MORE), Specialist Teachers and Paras/Instructional assistants ($4 million MORE) than state average. And about $1.5 million MORE on Operations and Maintenance (big ticket extras include Heating, Utility Services, Maintenance of Buildings, Extraodinary Maintenance, Networking and Tel, and Technology Maintenance).

Perhaps a town of our size does not need 3 HS buildings and 4 elementary school buildings (hence the combined high building maintenance/heating costs in excess of $1.5 million MORE than state average). AP and A have so many more teaching specialists and Other Teaching Services ($4 million more) that perhaps are what is causing our employee benefit costs to be much higher ($3.8 million MORE). Either that, or we have negotiated really SWEET employee benefit deals (sweet for the employees). Our administrative costs are in-line with the state average (but we dedicate $230K MORE to Human Resources/Benefits in admin than state avg, probably to manage our perhaps larger staff of Teachers, Specialists, and Other Teaching Services.)

Keep in mind that our overall budget for FY08 was $22 million for A and $30 million for AP. Using the state average expenditure of 12,497 per pupil and multiply it by the number of our pupils says that IF we were average spenders, A would spend $18 million and AP would spend $24 million, respectively. So we spend 4 million more for A and 6 million more for AP relative to state average.

And here is where we spend it. For AP: Just for buildings ($1.2 million), paraprof/Ins. Assistants, ($.48 million), and Teacher, Specialists ($1.3 million), and Insurance Retirement ($2 million) we are spending $5 million MORE (of the excess of $6 million above state average). I should mention that we spend $500K LESS on Teachers, Classroom than the state average here.

For A: Adding up the Building costs are minor ($300K more), paraprofs ($860K more), Teachers, Specialist ($1.3 million more), and Insurance/Retirement ($1.8 million) gets us up to $4.26 million MORE than state average.

So now you know where our “extra money” is spent relative to where other schools in the state spend their money.

I don't post my name because I don't want people thinking that I am targeting Teachers, Specialist and paraprof/Instructional assistants - but I am just summarizing what the numbers say.

TEXTBOOK Numbers said...

For those interested in textbooks, you'll like this.

Category: Instructional Materials, Equipment and Technology. Amherst (elementary) spends $163K LESS than state average.

For the elementary schools (Amherst): we spend $11.71 per pupil on Textbooks & Related Software/Media/Materials whereas the state avg is $78. Here are some numbers from neighboring towns: Hadley $156, Belchertown $83, Brookline $63,South Hadley $60, Winchester $146. To reach state average, we need to spend $96K MORE.

Then there's Other Instructional Materials. State average is $46 per pupil. Amherst spends $29 per pupil on that. That's $43K MORE needed to just reach state average.

For Instructional Equipment, state average is $32. Amherst spends $6 per pupil, or $40K LESS than state average.

We're good on General Supplies, though! Amherst spends $85 per pupil here whereas state average is $75.

The Amherst-Pelham (MS/HS) spending in this category is more in line with state averages.

Real suggestions for budget cuts said...

To sum up a previous post describing what has been added to the budget over the past 10 years:

We have added $3.7 million to SPED, $5 million to health insurance, $1.5 million to facilities, $900K to transportation.

Now to sum up areas where we overspend relative to state average:

Specialist Teachers and Paras/Instructional assistants ($4 million MORE), Insurance and Retirement ($3.8 million MORE), Operations and Maintenance ($1.5 million MORE) and on transportation, we spend $1 million more than state average.

Hey, the amounts between what we've added recently and how much we overspend the state average are almost identical!

This suggests that we should STOP additional spending in these areas and MAKE CUTS in these areas. These are ADDITIONAL expenditures added just recently, and way above state averages. Frankly, we couldn't afford them in the first place and now we are (literally) paying for it.

Here are a couple of ideas:

1) Cutting MM reduces building costs, some Insurance (due to reduction in staff). But also creates cuts to regular ed (Teacher, Classroom).

2) Cut or move East Street Alternative HS: 7 FTEs for 17 kids currently. Will reduce FTE cost (Specialists, paras, health insurance) AND building costs.

7 FTE is $385K, add their insurance, and you've reached the cost of running MM per year. Does not even count the building cost.

3) Cut or move South Amherst Campus HS (11 FTE for 29 kids). Will reduce FTE cost (Specialists, paras) health insurance AND building costs.

11 FTE x 55,000 = $600K, and their Insurance/Retirement is sure to make that number go over $1 million. That's $1 million for 29 kids, not counting the building costs. Sure, some of the FTE will still be required by state mandate for special ed, but probably not 11 FTE!

Perhaps the East Street and South Amherst Campuses could be consolidated or one could be moved to the HS (in the portables?).

4) Cut Teachers, Specialists and para/Instructional assistants by 10-20%. 10% of $4 million is $400K and their Insurance/Retirement is sure to add up to the annual cost of MM ($671K).

I'm not saying cut one versus another. I am saying that these items should ALL be considered for cutting. Maybe cut several of them and restore funding to the basics of education that could benefit EVERYONE.

What do we value? Clearly we value educating our kids in 7 different buildings and with many many Teachers, Specialists, and Non-Clerical Paraprofs./Instructional Assistants. I would like to see a reduced emphasis on these items and a little more attention paid to the core education of the majority of the kids. I am horrified to see that we spend $500K LESS on Teachers, Classroom at the MS/HS than the state average.