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.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What Do We Value?

As I've written about repeatedly on this blog, I think the key thing for the School Committee, the Superintendent, and the community to grapple with right now is what do we value in our schools -- and our schools should clearly reflect those values. We've talked a lot about issues of music instruction in the elementary schools and world language in the middle school, so in this blog posting, I'm turning to focus on the high school, and in particular, the high school course offerings that we REQUIRE (which I think is a good way of indicating what we value).

To make this comparison, I chose 10 Massachusetts districts. These included some of our neighboring districts (Northampton, Hadley, Hatfield, Belchertown, Longmeadow, South Hadley), plus the other two MA districts that, like Amherst, are part of the Minority Student Achievement Network (Brookline, Cambridge) and two well-thought of MA districts (Newton, Framingham). Here is what I found:

English - All of these districts, including Amherst, require 4 years.

Math - Amherst requires 2 years (4 trimesters). Belchertown, Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, South Hadley all require 3 years, as do Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, Framingham. Only Longmeadow requires just 2 years.

Science - Amherst requires 2 years (4 trimesters). Belchertown, Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, South Hadley all require 3 years, as do Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, and Framingham. Only Longmeadow requires just 2 years.

Social studies - Amherst requires 3 years (6 trimesters), as do Belchertown, Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, South Hadley, Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, Framingham, and Longmeadow.

World language - Amherst requires none. Belchertown and Hadley require two years, as do Brookline, Cambridge, and Framingham. Newton, Longmeadow, South Hadley, Hatfield, and Northampton also require none.

So, this review suggests that our basic requirements for high school graduation are lower than that of these comparison districts in both math and science, and lower than some other districts for world language. Although many students at Amherst Regional High School can and do voluntarily take more years of math/science/world language, I'm not clear why we are setting lower standards for our students than the standards set in other districts (and surely our students are just as capable of mastering the same material as those in these other districts). In the current system, a student could leave our high school with geometry as the highest level math class completed AND biology as the only core science class completed, and this lack of higher level math and science would shut the door on many college majors. Increasing the rigor of our graduation requirements would help show that our district holds high expectations of ALL students and that we are confident ALL students can master higher level material across disciplines. This strikes me as a valuable way to show our district's commitment to equity and excellence for all.


Alison Donta-Venman said...

Catherine, I could be wrong, but I think our students could graduate ARHS with less than a geometry-level math preparation. If you took algebra in ninth grade and geometry in tenth grade and dropped after that, then yes, you would have reached that level. But some students do not take algebra in ninth grade--there are a number of pre-algebra-type options available on the ninth grade course selection sheet.

Some districts get around this by stating their requirements something like "two years of math at least at the geometery level." The social studes requirement is written like that in many places, "three years of social studies including one year of U.S. History." The language requirement also often says, "two years of a single language," probably in an attempt to get kids to stick with one language long enough to get some mastery.

Anonymous said...

We are so concerned that high expectations will lead to low self esteem that we balk. Who are we really hurting with this "progressive" conceit?

Adam S.

Concerned about Math and Science said...

I wonder why we require 4 years of English but not 4 years for Math and Science? I think most would agree that the Math/Science curriculums are not very strong in Amherst.

My vote is for a much more rigorous math and science curriculum - the US is falling behind the WORLD in producing high level scientists and engineers and mathematicians. Technological advancement is very important to the economy - and we need to provide our kids the ability to thrive in the world of creating and using new technology.

As a parent of an elementary school student, I have no idea what is offered for science and math in the HS.

Can someone tell me all the options?

How many levels of each science course is offered? (e.g. biology, honors biology and AP biology?) Same for physics and chemistry? And math?

What are the remedial options to get kids caught up and thriving in math and sciences?

Are there applied math options (like economics, or understanding the stock market or how to finance your own business or accounting or balancing your own budget) - that would make math more interesting and applicable to those who are NOT on the science/engineering track? Not everyone needs calculus, but everyone can use a good understanding of math.

Can get to AP Calculus, AP Physics, AP Chem, and AP Biology by senior year, and what is the path to doing so? Do you have to pick only one science AP course, or can you do two, is it even possible to do three AP science courses?

A question for middle school/high school: what is the deal with algebra or pre-algebra? Is this a class you need to take early so that you can take certain math classes in the high school? What are they?

When are you REQUIRED to take algebra (just by gradudation?) Alison mentions pre-algebra options in ninth grade. Are some kids coming into the HS vastly unprepared for algebra in the ninth grade? Shouldn't we be addressing this issue in the middle school, and making sure that EVERYONE in regular ed comes in prepared for algebra in ninth grade?

As a kid, everybody took pre-algebra in 8th, algebra in 9th, geometry in 10th. Can't quite remember what happened after that, but there was certainly required math classes through graduation.

Currently, at the elementary school level, no one lets your kid go ahead above grade level in math. So somewhere in 7th and 8th grade, a disconnect in the math curriculum occurs where all of a sudden there are disparate levels? I understand letting some kids get ahead, but WHY WOULD WE LET ANYONE GET BEHIND IN MATH?

I know this is a HS discussion board - but I would love to know what the math options are in 7th and 8th grade so that we can better discuss the math curriculum in HS.

I think that by increasing the standards of graduation we can increase the rigor of the curriculum offered. This will help kids of ALL groups.

This will bring better focus to the budget - it will become clear that instead of these extra exploratory courses in 7th/8th grade that seem not super helpful that people were mentioning in an earlier blog, we could be putting the kids through a more rigorous math, science, reading, and writing program in the middle school.

How many classes does each MS and HS kid take during a semester or a trimester?

Anonymous said...

I know of several kids who graduated ARHS last year, took their college placement test, and had to take "dummy math" to catch up. Yes, my child was one of them and I was surprised that they weren't better prepared after getting good math grades in HS.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Alison - great ... now I'm even more concerned!

Adam S. - I agree completely, and yes, I think low expectations can potentially damage the most at risk students.

Concerned About Math and Science - first, I have some bad news for you: we don't offer AP Chemistry at all (which is pretty unusual -- if you search through my old blog postings, I did one on this last May or June). I certainly think requiring at least 3 years of math/science is appropriate -- 2 seems very insufficent (I think the 4 for English is a state requirement). I don't know about the remedial options for math, but the required course for all 9th graders is ecology/environmental science (we are the only high school in Massachusetts with this requirement). Then, students can take biology or chemistry in 10th grade, and AP biology or chemistry or AP physics in 11th and 12th grade. You CAN do 2 AP sciences (again, we don't offer AP chemistry, which I do think is a problem), by taking 10th grade chemistry, 11th grade AP bio, 12th grade AP physics. We also don't offer AP Statistics, which many high schools do (and is a way for students to take an AP math class who don't want to/aren't prepared to take calculus). In terms of math - in 7th grade, kids have the option to take "extensions" (meaning extra assignments), which prepares them for 8th grade algebra (about 35-40% of kids take algebra in 8th). And I'd say we should be getting MOST kids through algebra in 8th (which some districts do indeed do, and which prepares kids to finish calculus in HS). As of now, both the MS and HS are on the trimester. I don't know how many classes are taken in a day at the MS (I'm sure someone will post this answer soon!), but in the HS, you take 5 classes (3 academic classes in 2 trimesters, 4 academic classes in 1 trimester) in the HS. And I agree -- a more rigorous math/science preparation in elementary and MS would help our kids in HS achieve at higher levels.

Anonymous 2:48 - I've heard this from other parents as well. Sounds not so good.

Anonymous said...

To Concerned about Math & Science(1:01):

Here is the link to the high school Program of Studies: with graduation requirements, course offerings, etc.

There is no AP Chemistry at the high school, shame. With the advent this year of the REQUIRED 9th grade Ecology/Environmental Science class, it limits what students can take in the following years for science. There currently is an honors bio and an AP bio (but I don't think that AP class will be there for long); honors chem; honors and AP physics. There are/were assorted other science electives such as AP environmental and an astronomy class, but again with this new 9th grade science requirement this 2008-2009 year, those electives I believe will go by the wayside. Last year, when the School Committee was asked about the impact this new course would have on science electives in later years, they did not respond. Also, Catherine and many parents had asked for data from the SC and science teachers as to why the switch to this 9th grade science requirement was accepted and important to do. We did not get answers to that either. Now, many of us have asked that this cohort of students be studied to see if they do any better in science classes than the previous students did, to benefit younger students, maybe yours. We have not heard that this is being done. Prior to this year, students who had taken honors algebra in 8th grade, could take honors bio in 9th, and move through the courses.

Math in the middle school is an interesting topic. Catherine has advocated for having all students strive to take honors algebra in 8th grade, which then sets students up to take AP calculus as a senior. I believe that only about 40 students take honors algebra as 8th graders, the rest take a pre-algebra class. There are always a few 7th graders taking it. This year, a larger group of 7th graders got into algebra, after being prepped by their 6th grade teacher. I don't know of any other 6th grade teachers doing this, maybe Catherine knows more. We should be encouraging this and hoping that more students are ready for this, though in reality, the elementary math curriculum as is, does not really prepare students for algebra. I believe that the existing 7th grade math course(which is deadly for good math students)is the catch-up period, to re-teach all the math that was not taught, or not taught well in the elementary grades.

Anonymous said...

First, world language is absolutely required.
3 years of math required
and same with science.
I attend ARHS and just went through registration, those classes are mandatory. Algebra-Geometry-Algbra 2- and at least Pre-Calc. Many people go higher then this.
I don't know where your getting your statistics.

JWolfe said...

What No One Says About AP Classes

Here in Amherst, AP classes are seen as a being some sort of luxury for the rich, high achieving kids. The obvious first flaw there, which I've heard repeatedly in this town, is that the high achievers are from economically privileged families. It's a conceit that is classist and racist and all too common among folks who see themselves as progressive. There are plenty of high achievers from all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities.

The bigger point that I want to raise is that AP classes are free money for college kids. Even the most elite private and flagship state universities give college credits for 4s and 5s on AP exams. (Liberal Arts colleges tend to work on total number of classes and not credit hours and so don't often give credits for APs.) My point is that by limiting the number of AP classes at ARHS we not only limit the learning opportunities for all students, but we mindlessly penalize our high achieving kids from working-class and poorer families. I've seen kids from elite prep schools with a full year of college credits via APs. Smarter kids from Amherst don't have that advantage when they get to university.

Why does Amherst have fewer AP classes than so many other districts in Mass and throughout the Northeast? Why don't we value such high value (educationally and economically) classes? What does that say about our priorities as a town?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 4:43 - thanks for giving the link to the HS program of studies, and pointing out some of the issues that people have had about the change in 9th grade science. And to be clear, right now in 8th grade, there are basically three choices: a VERY small number of kids take geometry (like 10), a minority of kids (35-40%) take HONORS algebra, and most take pre-algebra. So, it has ALWAYS seemed odd to me that we offer HONORS Algebra, but not REGULAR Algebra in 8th grade -- a point I've made at meetings. I am sure there are kids in Pre-Algebra would could do Algebra, but not HONORS Algebra. But when I've made this point, it is called promoting "tracking." Of course, we do have three tracks now -- the highest achievers in 8th grade take geometry, the next level takes Honors Algebra, then we skip the next level completely (Algebra) and move to the lowest level (pre-algebra, where most of our kids are). I just don't see why this tracking is OK, but tracking to include "algebra - regular" isn't.

Anonymous 4:30 - according to the program of studies at the high school right now, world language is NOT required, and only 2 years of math and science are required. Higher level courses are OFFERED, which many students do take, but they are NOT required.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3:43

Here are some numbers to consider when talking about the 7th grade math course being a catch-up period to reteach all the math that was not taught or not taught well in the elementary grades. The 2008 6th Math MCAS scores for our local schools include these results:
The percentages of students in the top two categories (Advanced and Proficient)are Crocker Farm - 70%,
Fort River - 76%, Wildwood - 77%,
Marks Meadow - 95%, and Pelham - 100%.
The Overall Performance rankings that are given to schools take into account the percentages of students in these top two categories. Local results are Pelham - #1 in the state(out of 565schools), Marks Meadow - #2 in the state, Wildwood - #70, Fort River -#94,Crocker Farm - #143.
MCAS results don't tell the whole story, and it is true that roughly one-fourth of our 6th graders enter 7th grade having found themselves in the other two categories (Needs Improvement or Warning) though I would bet that a significant percentage of them have been identified with learning and/or attention issues. The results do seem to suggest that there is quite a bit of math being taught in our 6th grades, and in several cases it's being very well done.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And me again:

JoelW - yes, excellent point! A lack of AP classes can increase college costs for low income students considerably.

Anonymous 5:07 - thanks for providing those MCAS numbers. Given that we are doing pretty well on MCAS, it is really surprising that we aren't doing better on moving kids into algebra in 8th grade, I think. Here is some data from a report I did last summer as part of my work on the Math Curriculum Council on the % of kids in Amherst versus other MSAN (Minority Student Achievement Network) schools: In Amherst, roughly 35% of 8th graders take algebra, and then take geometry in 8th grade. In some districts, most or all 8th graders take algebra and move on to geometry in 9th grade (80% in Chapel Hill; 80 to 85% in Princeton; 100% in Brookline). In other districts, approximately half of 8th graders take algebra and then move on to geometry (52% in Arlington; 50% in Framingham; 55% in Newton). In still other districts, fewer than half of students take 8th grade algebra and move on to 9th grade geometry (43% in Champaign; 34% in Evanston; 26% in Windsor). In Cambridge, no 8th graders take algebra. In sum, our percentage of 8th graders taking algebra is lower than that in the majority of these districts (Arlington, Brookline, Chapel Hill, Framingham, Newton, Princeton).

Although one explanation for the lower percent who take 8th grade algebra in Amherst compared to many of these districts is that our district is demographically different (e.g., poorer), the data does not tend to support this explanation. For example, Arlington and Framingham both have much higher percentages of low income students compared to Amherst, but have a higher portion of kids taking 8th grade algebra. In fact, the districts which are most similar to Amherst in terms of the percentage of students finishing 8th grade algebra (Champaign, Evanston, Windsor) all have approximately 40% low income children (more than double that of Amherst - which has 17% at the regional level). Again, this seems to me to suggest -- as do your MCAS numbers, if the MCAS is a good way of assessing math readiness for algebra (and this might be a REALLY wrong assumption) -- that MANY of our kids could achieve at higher levels than what we are currently seeing.

Nina Koch said...

I was interested to read that "100%" of students in Brookline take Algebra in 8th grade and move on to Geometry in 9th grade.

I just visited the website for Brookline Public Schools and inspected the Program of Studies for their high school. This kind of data is very tricky to gather. You have to know what you are looking at.

In fact, Brookline offers several different pathways through the math curriculum, some of which lead to Calculus in the 12th grade and some of which do not. They do have an impressive variety of offerings, perhaps due in part to the fact that Brookline is a larger high school than ARHS is.

But they too have students who struggle through the curriculum, as evident by the course offerings. On one pathway, students take a non-honors Geometry in 9th grade and then repeat Algebra 1 in the 10th grade. Then they take two years to do Algebra 2/Problem Solving. So that subset of students has taken neither PreCalculus nor Calculus in high school. I'm not saying that to be critical of their program-- not at all. I think it's good that they accommodate those students. I am only pointing out that the original statement about what "100%" of Brookline students do is highly misleading.

I am still unaware of any district that has all of its 8th graders in Honors Algebra, who then move on to Honors Geometry in the 9th grade and eventually take Calculus in the 12th grade. Even the elite private schools I have looked at do not have 100% of their 9th graders in Honors Geometry.

So, if Amherst did that, we would be the only ones doing it!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina: Thanks for your posting. I should have clarified -- according to the Deputy Superintendent in Brookline (which is how I gathered all of this data -- by talking to superintendents or math chairs in all of the districts), Brookline does not have any grade 9 students enrolled in Algebra -- they all take Geometry at some level (so, yes, my 100% number is correct). However, as you note, they do have a few (usually between 20 and 30 students) that take algebra 1 at grade 10. These include students who have been in "pull-out" SPED math through grade 9 and some students who came from out-of-district without having Algebra 1 at grade 8. So, I think it is still clear that 100% of the 9th graders in Brookline are in Geometry, compared to 35 to 40% of the students in Amherst.

And just to be clear -- I don't believe I EVER said that all students at any of these schools took calculus, only that taking calculus isn't even an OPTION (without doubling up on math) if you don't take Geometry in 9th grade. Here is the comparison data: In Amherst, about 90 students (of 300) take a calculus course (30%). Virtually all schools on our comparison list report that between 30 and 50% of students take calculus (Brookline: 35%-38%; Champaign: 31%; Chapel Hill: 40 to 50%; Evanston: 28%; Framingham: 30 to 40%; Newton: 53 to 55%). Note, however, that in many of these schools, students COULD take calculus in 12th grade but instead opt for AP Statistics (which virtually all of these districts offer). Again, these data suggest to me that we could be putting more kids in 9th grade geometry than we are now, which was my only point.

Nina Koch said...


What I said was that your 100% number was misleading because it compared apples to oranges. It suggested that Brookline is doing something with 100% of the students that we are doing with only 40%. And that is not true. You were comparing a mixed population to an honors population.

Look how different the comparison appears when you report the calculus figures: Amherst 30%, Brookline 35-38%. Apples to apples.

A more important question would be: is it necessarily advisable for all students to take Algebra in the 8th grade and Geometry in the 9th grade? Is there any evidence that this practice eventually results in a more mathematically literate student?

And by the way, Brookline has an IMP program that starts in grade 9, so some percentage of the students are taking that instead of Geometry (as they do at ARHS).