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, May 7, 2009

Education Matters: Could school mission be hurting student achievement?

Education Matters: Could school mission be hurting student achievement?
Published on May 08, 2009 - Amherst Bulletin

Today marks the introduction of our new monthly column, Education Matters, which will address education issues relevant to Amherst. As elementary school parents, School Committee members and Amherst College faculty conducting research on adolescent behavior (Catherine) and the economics and sociology of education (Steve), we approach these topics from multiple perspectives. We hope to bring alternative viewpoints and encourage discussion on a number of issues in upcoming columns. The opinions expressed in our column reflect our own views and not those of the Amherst or Regional school committees or the Amherst Regional Public Schools district.

Our initial column will focus on the issue of social justice, a core tenet of the Amherst schools. As stated on the district homepage, "Our mission is the academic achievement of every student learning in a system dedicated to social justice and multiculturalism." But a fundamental question is whether our policies and efforts actually succeed in fostering the academic achievement of all students. Specifically, we wonder whether concerns about inequality in family resources and academic preparation might contribute to lowered expectations for students and families in ways that unintentionally widen differences between students in academic achievement and career opportunities.

One example is a belief often held by teachers and principals that homework at the elementary school level should be avoided or minimized to avoid creating distinctions between children who will successfully complete the homework, perhaps with support from adults at home, and those who will not, perhaps because they do not have the same level of support. However, we believe that this approach may actually increase the achievement gap. First, many parents from across the income spectrum, but more easily for those with higher incomes, will replace the absence of homework with supplemental math, reading, writing and even science at home or with paid tutors. Second, regardless of knowledge of a particular subject matter, all parents and guardians have the ability, and indeed responsibility, to compel children to complete homework assignments, particularly since these assignments should serve merely to reinforce skills that are taught by teachers during the school day.

A second example is the low level of math and science courses required to graduate from Amherst Regional High School. Our high school requires only two years of math and two years of science (compared to three years of social studies and four years of English), whereas many Massachusetts high schools require three years of both math and science (including Belchertown, Brookline, Cambridge, Hadley, Newton and Northampton). On the one hand, some students may find these courses difficult, which could lead to lower grades and a higher drop out rate. On the other hand, our low requirements may actually increase the achievement gap. Students with parents who are not well informed about the importance of math and science preparation may be more likely to take the minimum required course load regardless of their potential for success in math and science courses. In contrast, students with parents who are better informed are likely to take courses beyond the minimum, which in turn is likely to improve prospects for college admission and financial aid and expand career opportunities regardless of whether students attend college.

Although we applaud and support our district's commitment to social justice, we worry that current policies and strategies might widen, rather than narrow, achievement differences and lead to lower outcomes for disadvantaged students. Because it is imperative that we determine whether our current efforts actually foster the academic and intellectual development of all children, we support the rigorous evaluation of our programs as well as an examination of alternative programs with demonstrated success in other similar districts.

Such objective measurement is the only way we can know whether some of our district's actions in the name of social justice unintentionally harm the most disadvantaged students, thereby widening rather than closing the achievement gap.

Steven Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.


Anonymous said...

Great article. I think its important to keep in mind that great leaders like Barack Obama got where they are today because of rigorous academic preparation from a young age. A great education stays with a child forever and can take them far. This includes encouraging children to take on academic challenges. Right now the Amherst elementary schools do not offer academic challenges for many kids across racial and socio-economic levels because they fail to offer differentiated or gifted learning programs. This hurts ALL kids.

Anonymous said...

I oftern think of how our family is able to afford music teachers, tutors, sports teams, camps, instruments and equipment -- and worry about the kids in families that cannot. Every year, the schools cut these so-called extras of art, music, languages, sports teams -- programs that kids love and can't always get someplace else. The school district I grew up in provided all these programs and more, still does, and remains a high-performing school district. My family could not afford these activities when I was a kid and I never would have gotten them.

When did we turn our backs on the poorer families, all the while claiming to speak for them and protect their interests?

Rick said...

Catherine: This article is the first thing you have said that really disappoints me.

You start the article by saying this: "Our initial column will focus on the issue of social justice, a core tenet of the Amherst schools."

But what the article goes on to say is that the way to close the achievement gap is to challenge students more and give them more work to do.

The way to close the achievement gap is to give extra help and support to underachieving students. That is just common sense, but has also been documented in studies all over the place. For example, the book Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell) which we have both read, talks about how a huge factor in the achievement gap is how some kids – poor kids – go backwards during the summer, while wealthier kids don’t. So, supporting those kids in the summer somehow is one big way to close the gap.

Of course we should not be dumbing things down for all students thinking that will somehow help underachieving kids – it won’t. If we are in fact doing that, we shouldn’t be and should stop.

But you make is sound like removing the dumbing down factor (if it exists) will somehow magically close the achievement gap – it won’t.

So far, that just makes the article wrong. The part that really bothers me is that you say this in the name of “social justice”. If you are concerned about social justice and the achievement gap, then why not offer something that clearly will support underachieving kids?

What you offer in the article is no direct help for the underachievers – so where is the social justice?

Anonymous said...

This is one of many articles written in a 'higher than thou' stand as far as I read. As one of the poor families that could not afford, sports lessons, swim lessons, summer camps, music lessons, tutors of any subject, I can speak to how this widened and contributed to the 'achievement gap' in my children who are now adults. They struggled with learning and one was tracked out into the special education pool where s/he learned to swim without the advantage of a personal swim coach.
Rick--there is a program called PipeLine run in conjuction with Amherst College that encourages kids to find a way to enjoy being educated and not intimidated by learning. It's a great and much needed entity and keeps tabs on its kids all summer long and into their following school year. Others who need this continuum in their education or 'go backwards in the summers' can only receive summer school after they are put through the grinding mill of being singled out from their peers, isolated in 'special spaces' and tested until their nose turns blue! Only then will public school pick up the tab to teach these children during the summer break.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Rick: I agree that support should be given to all students who are currently underachieving (in all grades), but I don't think Catherine and Steve were suggesting increasing high school academic requirements in lieu of this support. I think both are necessary and desirable for all students. I am thrilled with the message Michelle Obama is trying to spread among children, that "being smart is OK and even cool!" Role models like that can only help narrow the achievement gap and send a much-needed positive message to all students. Raising the academic requirements in our high school, I believe, would send a similar message to our students--a message that says, "yes, you can do it," and "this is necessary and valuable to your success in the future."

Anonymous said...

From my observation, closing the achievement gap at the Middle School has in the past involved making kids who are eager to learn sit around and wait for challenges, challenges that sometimes never come. Yes, there are kids in our public schools twiddling their thumbs in certain classes. And parents of these kids hear about it when they get home.

Thankfully, there have been exceptions to this pattern, like Jennifer Welborn. And it's the recognition of teachers like her that is at the root of the unhappiness of the big pay increase coming in the Superintendent's position. For those of us who were teachers in the past, we know how exhausting the job can be, and we want to reward those who are good at it, not administrators, with whatever treasure we have left in the public till. That's what the bitching is all about.

I still think that there's a belief in town that the education of certain kids will take care of itself, because those kids are assumed to have the initiative and drive to seek it out on their own, and the parents (apparently including those "wealthy white women" Kathleen Anderson was sneering at several months ago in a SC meeting) to get it for them. It's a strangely anti-intellectual approach to take in a town like Amherst.

Rick, I don't believe Catherine and Steve said what you think they said. But I'm sure Catherine will respond.

Rich Morse

Rick said...

Alison: You said “I don't think Catherine and Steve were suggesting increasing high school academic requirements in lieu of this support.”

I agree with that.

But they specially said that what they were suggesting will close the achievement gap - that was the whole point of the article. It’s just a fact that it won’t.

There is nothing in the article about how to help underachieving kids achieve the high standards. It just talks about the high standards themselves as though that is all that’s needed.

So here is a suggestion: Catherine and Steve’s next article could be on how to do that.

Anon: thanks for the info on PipeLine.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Anonymous 8:47 - excellent point about Barack Obama (could also make the same point about Duval Patrick!). I believe many kids from ALL backgrounds can achieve if higher standards are set. But I believe that some kids suffer more than others when we don't hold high expectations.

Anonymous 9:19 - I agree completely -- and this is one of the reasons why I've pushed to maintain instrumental music. Wealthy families can and will pay for this on the side ... so who is hurt most if we cut it from our schools.

Rick - thanks, as always, for your candor! Let me make two points. First, our article does NOT focus on high achieving versus low achieving or underachieving kids ... that is an important topic, but it isn't the one we address. I think there are underachieving kids from lots of different backgrounds (including, I'd imagine, white and wealthy backgrounds). Our article focused on family support more broadly, and in particular, level of homework expectations and high school course requirements. But then you actually MAKE OUR POINT about the summer drop (this was in our column initially, and then we ran out of words so we cut it). I think underachieving kids MIGHT be underachieving because they don't get the practice that other kids do at home -- so they are, in a sense, experiencing the "summer drop" every night (and I totally agree that we should be providing summer school, as an aside). I also think kids from ALL backgrounds are totally able to succeed in math and science courses ... but we expect that they can't, because they are poor or of color (and I've had parents of color tell me that their kids who want to take higher level math/science are told by their peers that they are "acting white"). Our article does NOT say force all kids to take calculus ... it says lets assume that all kids have the ability to complete three years of math and three years of science ... and of course IF kids needed support to do that, we would, as a district, need to find ways to support that (just as we do now with kids who are struggling with English or math or whatever). Our column never says "these steps in and of themselves will eliminate the achievement gap," nor does it say that no extra support should be given (you jump to both of those conclusions in your post). But do I think there are PLENTY of kids at the high school who COULD take more math and science and actually do WELL if these were required (as they are in Belchertown, Cambridge, etc.)? I do. And I think we do kids a disservice from not setting high expectations, and I think these low expectations hurt some kids more than others -- hence I do believe that low expectations do NOT work to foster true social justice in our schools (which should be about increasing opportunities).

Anonymous said...

Well, there are at least two ways to close the achievement gap. One is to reduce/slow down the high-fliers until they are closer to the kids at the bottom, thus closing the gap (but resulting in a less-educated group of kids on average). I believe that having the lower educational standards (fewer math/science requirements) in Amherst vs neighboring towns is a good way to make sure the entire group as a whole stays on the lower end. Of course the parents who can afford it and/or the ones who understand the value of a more rigorous education will still push their kids to do more (via tutoring or Kumon or private school, extra home-study, or others avenues).

The other way to close the gap is to raise the bar for everyone, by setting standards that are more on par with our neighbors, the ones that our kids will compete with in college. Sure, this may have to be supplemented with additional tutoring/homework clubs for the strugglers - but at least everyone is aiming for a higher level. Kids WILL achieve more if they are pushed more. Just like adults. I definitely do more and do better under pressure. Why are we afraid to push our kids to do more and better in school?

Are we so afraid that the kids will crack under all this pressure (to take one more year of math or science, for example) that they will throw up their hands and give it all up? And why do we assume it's the poor people who will be the first to throw up their hands?

Why would anyone argue against raising the bar? Remember, we are not talking about raising the bar so that our highschoolers are doing college-level work. We are talking about raising the currently very low bar to the average level of our neighbors.

In the real (non-Amherst) world, no one is going to lower the bar for the quality of work that will be required of our kids to succeed in their careers. They need to learn this sooner rather than later. In some ways, this might be a more important lesson for the poorer people in town because they won't have the financial support of their poor parents when they are on their own.

Rick said...

"Why would anyone argue against raising the bar?"

Where above was anyone arguing that?

I know I wasn't arguing against that, and I think standards should be high - for all kids.

All I was saying is that high standards alone will not close the achievement gap.

Anonymous said...

Even if kids don't ace chemistry, biology, environmental science or physics, shouldn't they learn about them in high school? What science area don't you want your child to learn? Why not? Same question for math.

The curriculum and requirements should reflect what the school board thinks children need to know. Not just to go to college, but to work, understand the world, handle money, read and understand information, write coherently, vote, communicate, understand statistics, the country's budget, Pakistan, and on and on. If other towns are requiring that their children learn more subjects, what's the rationale for Amherst kids not having to learn them? How does this help our students?

When my child found out that he only had to take two math courses in high school , he was thrilled until I told him he had to take more because he needed to learn more math. What about parents who look at these lighter math and science requirements and think that's all their children need to know? It could affect their children's college future -- and their ability to do many other jobs that require math skills and science knowledge.

Why do we hesitate to fully and richly educate our children?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 12:12 - I'm not sure why you start your post with "holier than thou" and then basically make the point that the public schools need to provide art, music, etc. to all kids (a point I've regularly and consistently agreed with). Are you saying that we therefore shouldn't have homework and/or require more than 2 years of math/science? I don't think this is an either/or. I am highly familiar with the Pipeline program, having just supervised an evaluation of the program -- and yes, it is great (and our data shows that kids in this program score higher on MCAS in math and English than those who aren't).

Alison - I agree with everything you wrote. Thanks.

Rich - two things. First, I agree absolutely that our schools divide kids into two groups: those who will be "OK" (and yes, that is right, because they have parents who will make it be OK), and those who we (erroneously, I believe) will suffer if we institute more rigor/challenge. And this, I believe, contributes mightily to the achievement gap. Public schools should be the great equalizer -- but they can only do that if teachers, staff, and principals believe that all kids are indeed capable of doing great work (albeit it, and I think this is Rick's point, at times with some support). You know how I voted on the superintendent's salary.

Rick - I do NOT think we meant (and I'm sorry if we implied) that this alone is enough. But if you read the column, we suggest that our current practice may in fact WIDEN (which is the opposite of close) the gap, and that is our concern. We do not say ELIMINATE the achievement gap, and I'm quite certain neither of us believes the two strategies we propose would do that. And thanks for the suggestion for a future column (and personally, I do believe we need to not just have strategies for providing support, but also to assess whether these strategise WORK as intended -- one of the reasons why I was very glad to take on the Pipeline evaluation this year).

Anonymous 1:06 - I agree with much of what you wrote. Thanks for sharing your views.

Rick - We agree! And I think the issue is that we are indeed setting FAR lower standards than our neighbors in terms of math/science. So, raising this bar might in fact be a good place to start.

Anonymous 1:48 - thanks for sharing your thoughts -- I particularly liked your example of how your kid was going to HAVE to take more math/science than he/she wanted ... that was really the point of our article ... parents who "know" will push this, and others won't. I also think that kids experience peer pressure to NOT take certain courses (e.g., my example from earlier of "acting white," girls hearing they shouldn't be good at math/science so maybe they shouldn't take those).

Anonymous said...

Where can we get a copy of the evaluation you did on the PipeLine program?

What are your thoughts of how kids are recruited into the special education programs in Amherst?
I feel strongly that is the 'tracking system' alive and well that was fought against in a court of law by the NAACP in Amherst a while back, but I may be wrong...

And I did not say anything about "holier than thou"--if you read it correctly. I felt after reading your article that you stand at a place where what you say and observe is the way to go. I just think it undermines those without 'college' educations or degrees in whatever because it speaks down--that's all I meant.

I don't think that standards should be lowered to accommodate those who struggle with academics by any means. Let me share the word I heard about ACE with you. It's a group of upper class elite residents who are angry at all the time and attention the sped kids (except for intensive needs) get from teachers and take away from their kids.
Just sharing what I have heard...

Emily said...

I think this is a great opening salvo to a rich and open debate (and I think that's how it was intended, rather than as a "case closed" approach). I think Rick makes good points about making sure we don't simply raise the academic standards in the name of social justice, and leave it at that (which would only demonstrate that doing so wasn't really in the name of social justice!). But I also don't think that's what Catherine and Steve intended. I think both Obamas will prove to be transformative figures for pushing beyond the knee-jerk progressive response--what the "dumbed-down" approach would seem to be--and into a truly progressive solution, encouraging achievement for disadvantaged kids.

Rick said...

Emily: perfect!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 4:00 - thanks for your post, which I am going to try to fully answer. First, my student (thesis student) just finished the thesis -- literally TODAY -- but we are writing up a briefer version right now (it is like 60 pages now). I will submit that to the school district soon, and will post a brief version on my blog. Second, I don't know enough to comment on how kids are recruited into the special ed program -- I do know an evaluation of the special ed program is being done, and I think that is a good idea (for many reasons). I think this would be a very appropriate question to have the answer to. Third, I do have a college degree, so I guess in that sense, everything I am writing reflects that knowledge/experience. But the research I've read (again, as part of my college and graduate school education) really does suggest that holding high expectations is a powerful way of reducing the achievement gap, and I do agree with this work -- and I think you agree with me on this, right? Fourth, I have heard (of course) the comments you express about ACE ... and I think these types of comments are a very effective way of trying to shut down real conversation about what our schools could be for all kids. A few things you should know -- first, ACE was signed by many, many people (over 300), and those included many people of color (e.g., Irv Rhodes, who is now on the SC, Nate Whitaker, who teaches math in the AIMS program for African American kids in our schools), and many people with kids on free/reduced lunch (I'm not going to name the people who I know in this category out of respect for their privacy), and many people with kids who have special needs (I'm not going to name these, again out of respect for privacy, but I will name Stephanie Gelfan, who signed ACE and has been a VOCAL proponent of how our schools could do more for kids with special needs). I think people made a very, very offensive assumption that if parents pushed for rigor and challenge in our schools, surely that would ONLY be good for white and wealthy kids (again, I find this assumption not only inaccurate, but also highly offensive -- I don't think intelligence is linked with race or income). If you want to learn about what ACE actually wants, go to the website: You can see our list of priorities, which include:
Emphasize evidence of success or the potential for success in attracting, mentoring, and retaining excellent teachers from diverse backgrounds as a key component in the principal searches; conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the policies focused on raising the achievement of children who do not reach proficient levels on MCAS or in their course-work; and establish a goal that all students complete a rigorous algebra course by the end of 8th grade. Can you point to which of these priorities works best for the white/wealthy/high-achieving kids?

Emily - Well-said! Thanks!

Rick - see how great this column was for inspiring dialogue?!?

Anonymous said...

"Can you point to which of these priorties works best for the white/ wealthy/ high achieving kids?"

You named it right there Catherine. No where in my dialogue did I place a color on who is achieving and who is not achieving in the Amherst schools.

And I disagree that the comments I have heard circulating about just exactly what ACE is is a means to close down this conversation or this work. We can both agree that intelligence is most definitely not linked to race or income, but if you are a child and your father/mother is not sure where tonight's dinner will come from then income does play a role in how well your homework gets done that night.

Anonymous said...

I'm fine with the idea of setting high expectations for all students in our schools but I'm not convinced that more homework in elementary school is the best way to go in terms of promoting student achievement or closing the achievement gap. I think there is considerable controversy on the impact of homework on achievement at the elementary level. It might make better sense to look at instructional practices during the school day.

Jocelyn said...

I am not sure what to think about this article-it really does not talk about social justice and I fear that many do not have a clear idea of what social justice really means, especially if one is speaking from a position of privilege. Social justice really has nothing to do with not assigning homework because a poor, single parent might not be able to help her child. My children have had homework since first grade and even had a little homework in kindergarten. My first grader has reading and spelling homework everyday so homework policies are inconsistent from teacher to teacher and school to school. It is not the social justice policy that impedes achievement in the schools. I may need to do an op ed piece about social justice since a lot of people throw the words around and do not get to the heart of its meaning historically and what it means for our children and our schools. I agree with Rick that more support is necessary for underachieving students to help close the achievement gap. There also need to be programs for gifted children to keep them challenged but we need to make sure that basic education needs are being met for all children. Another factor that contributes to the gap are inequities caused by classism and racism. I fear that closing the door on social justice as a school policy will widen the gap more because yes, classism and racism exist in a clear and tangible way in the Town of Amherst and in our classrooms! I do not like this anti-social justice agenda that is being promoted!

Rick said...

This is what Wikipedia says about Social Justice:

“…the concept of a society in which justice is achieved in every aspect of society, rather than merely the administration of law. It is generally thought of as a world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.”

That sounds about right to me. The way I like to think of it is that the playing field is level – or as level as we can make it at least.

My argument against the article was that it just doesn’t have anything to do with making the playing field more level, so I didn’t see what it had to do with social justice. It’s not that what it talked about was a bad thing – high standards for all is a good thing and there is no disagreement from anyone on that – it’s just that, again, high standards alone has no direct bearing on social justice that I can see.

Sure I get all the talk about the Obama’s telling kids they ALL can achieve and that’s awesome, but do you think the Obama’s think that alone is going to do it?

But I am beating a dead horse here and I guess and am not really getting that message across.

I would just like to see more discussion about how to directly make the playing field more level. Catherine, what would be cool is if you could post something about all the programs that the school system has to help underachievers do better – that would be interesting to me and something to get involved with and help out with. The PipeLine program at Amherst College was mentioned. There must be something similar for UMass? And what programs are there at each school?

BTW I have heard that this is a fantastic summer program: that I believe was started by a buddy of Obama’s. I think its mainly for urban areas, but maybe ARPS has studied what they do and can learn from it.

Anonymous said...

I have a quick question about ACE. Why was a certain school which about to shut down, not included in that, from the beginning, and it also seems currently?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 5:55 - I'm not totally sure how people's perceptions of ACE are relevant here ... but ask me a question about ACE and I'll answer it! My point is that I don't think we do ANY kids a favor when we hold lower expectations of them. Sure, it is much harder to get your homework done if you are living in poverty ... but does that mean we shouldn't give kids homework to give them a CHANCE to practice much needed skills (e.g., learning spelling words, practicing multiplications tables, reading a book)? A wonderful guidance counselor in one of our schools gave me an article from a book called "Rethinking Our Assumptions" that describes the hazards of setting low expectations for "at risk" children. One chapter in this book is written by a teacher who is describing how the principal at her school has low expectations for at risk children. Here's a quote: "I see him as being so sensitive to the many difficulties and disasters which often occur in children's home environments that he cannot accept the notion that even in the midst of crisis they have a responsibility to get an education, and we have a responsibility to expect them to go about acquiring one. He focuses on the idea that by being tolerant and understanding of their difficulties in the school setting, and not pushing too often or too hard, we can help them to develop higher self-esteem. I, on the other hand, assert that if children are firmly and continually encouraged to function in school by develpoing appropriate school behaviors to facilitate their learning, their self-esteem will rise beause they will see themselves as learners, capable of functioning fully in an academic setting." For me, that's it. Sure, kids have all different advantages and disadvantages that they come to school with every day. But I think the schools therefore have a responsibility to make sure that all kids are seen as being capable of learning and held to high standards.

Anonymous 12:06 - I certainly agree that what happens in the school day is also important in terms of reducing the achievment gap. My issue about homework (and the lack of it) is that in its absence, some kids are doing intellectually challenging things and others are not. I know of parents of means who have bought math textbooks, or require certain amounts of reading of their child, or who encourage their kids to go on educational website to practice spelling, math, etc. Those kids are getting the daily stimulation. Other kids are not.

Joceyln - your experience may have been different, but I've specifically heard many teachers and principals express the desire to not assign homework out of a fear of creating distinctions between kids. So, I believe a true social justice policy for our district might, for example, require consistent standards across schools in setting homework expectations for all kids. Our column does NOT say throw out social justice as a core aspect of our school system ... it says that we need to really consider whether our programs and policies are in line with social justice or NOT. That is not anti-social justice in any way! I disagree that we need gifted programs ... I just don't think that is necessary, IF the schools are allowing and encouraging differentiated learning(which is much more fluid than a program in which some kids are tracked as "gifted"). I also agree that we need to figure out ways to help under-achievers, but I think this problem is complex, largely because under-achievement can be caused by multiple factors (and hence there are multiple solutions). Some kids may in fact need extra support, as you (and Rick), point out. Other kids may benefit simply from having teachers BELIEVE that they are capable of higher achievement (research on stereotype threat and self-fulfilling prophecy, two psychological phenomena that I teach about, suggests that simply the BELIEF that someone is capable of great work can have an impact on performance. In sum, I think we just have to be careful about assuming that some kids are just less capable, and hence we need to be more "realistic" about what we expect them to do.

Rick - two things. First, the Pipeline project is actually a program in the Amherst schools designed to help kids in the 6th to 9th grade (the "pipeline" between elementary school and high school). I don't know of any programs at U Mass that work with our students. Second, I disagree with your concerns about our column -- I think our column precisely addresses leveling the playing field, in a sense. Let's level the playing field by having all kids practice academic skills after school as homework. Let's level the playing field for college admissions by having all kids take three years of math and science. Those are both ways of leveling the playing field. I teach in my intro to psych class about research on IQ differences and achievement differences as a function of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. So, if you look at this work, Asian students tend to out-perform other students (supposedly showing that these students are the smartest). But then if you look at how many hours of work Asian students are doing outside of school, it is like twice the amount of other students. So, you can explain this supposed achievement difference NOT as biological, but as work ... meaning we should level the playing field by requiring more work of all students. Similarly, I hear from parents of color WITH KIDS IN THE AMHERST SCHOOLS that teachers approve of whatever their kids do -- without pushing them to do more (which the parents KNOW they are capable of doing). So, leveling the playing field would be holding all kids to high standards. Do I think that some kids need extra support/intervention to achieve? I do, and I think we should examine whether such approaches are in fact working (such as the Pipeline program). But I also think that there are other things in the district we can, and should, be doing to help all kids achieve to the fullest potential.

Anonymous 9:24 - the ACE letter was sent entirely by word of mouth -- from parent to parent to community member and so on. Anyone could sign it -- anyone can still join! No one was excluded, and it is hard for me to imagine that parents from all schools weren't sent the letter (I know there are parents from Crocker Farm who signed it, and that is certainly the school with the highest percentage of kids on free/reduced lunch). I don't know off-hand if any parents from MM signed it -- and if they didn't sign it, whether they weren't sent it or if they were sent it and chose not to sign it. I also published a column on ACE (I'll post it on my blog sometime this weekend in case people missed it) in the Bulletin, and other people saw it there and called me to add their names (this is actually how I met Irv Rhodes!). Anyone is STILL free to sign it ... and of course that would include parents from MM.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Jocelyn raises some very pertinent points. Racism and classism most certainly do exist and in full force in Amherst, in the town itself, and in the classroom. Every day every child is effected by it. Unless and until we can place it on the table for a free and open discussion it will continue to hurt and keep those meant to be kept down by it down. And by free I mean a conversation open where by what may be said by those entering this conversation is not shot down by high falooting terminology that one might need their pocket dictionary to look up what is being said to them.
And Catherine--how can you profess the responsibilities of parents? In your article you state the responsibility of all parents to compel their child to complete homework assignments. I never thought of this as a 'responsibilty' of parenthood and I think this is an example of someone speaking down and thinking they've got a better grip on being a parent than those who do not 'compel' their child to do the night's homework for what ever reason may be.

Nina Koch said...

Catherine, could you please provide a link to the data that you gathered as the basis of your column? I know you don't like to rely on anecdotal evidence, so I am sure you have done a careful study to determine the widely held beliefs of teachers and principals in our district. Certainly, you would not be attempting to characterize those beliefs on the basis of stories you have been told.

Terry said...

I have sent this letter to the Editor of the Amherst Bulletin in response to the first "Education Matters" column.

Dear Editor,

Up to this point, I have appreciated that our newest School Committee members have asked for specific facts in order to make informed decisions. However, the broad statement in “Education Matters” (5/8/09) that said “… a belief (is) often held by teachers and principals that homework at the elementary school level should be avoided or minimized…” is simply not true at the school in which I have taught for over twenty-five years.

I can state emphatically that the majority of teachers in our school consistently give appropriate homework to all students. Appropriate homework means that the work is a practice of what has already been taught and that all students are given the necessary materials to do the work. It is the responsibility of a school to provide students the information and resources needed to complete assignments independently. Homework for special education students and English language learners may be modified yet homework is always provided. In fact, over the last ten years, we have increased our homework workload due to the augmented demands fostered by MCAS assessments. I personally feel that our homework practices have been a major factor in our students doing well on the state testing.

Social justice and academic achievement should go hand in hand. When schools create a welcoming environment for all students and their parents, set high standards, teach the curriculum and provide appropriate homework, the majority of students will flourish regardless of race, culture or socioeconomic background.

Terry Johnson
Mark’s Meadow School

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 2:22 - I certainly agree that racism and classism exist in our schools, and of course in our society. And I believe that one of the principal ways to combat these biases is to hold high expectations for all kids. Do you mean to imply that some children shouldn't be expected to complete homework, and/or that all parents shouldn't be expected to have their children complete homework? I believe that those assumptions -- that low income people are less able to complete homework -- feed into such biases instead of help defeat them.

Nina - I am not really sure what you mean -- the high school requirements for math and science are available on the website, as are the requirements for the other schools we name (one can google any of those schools to check their requirements). In terms of the homework expectation, Steve and I have both attended meetings in which the expectation that no homework is given was specifically noted ... at Fort River, but also elsewhere (including a meeting that you and I attended together regarding the math curriculum, actually!).

Terry - I commend this policy at Marks Meadow (or tendency, if it is not an official policy?) ... and I certainly agree that this approach may indeed contribute to the success this school has had on MCAS and in other ways. I would hope that other elementary schools in Amherst would adopt a similar perspective/policy -- thank you for sharing this great success story, which I think frankly is indicative of the different expectations held by different teachers/principals in our district (in my own experience, this is NOT the norm in all the schools). And your last paragraph is PERFECT in stating what I see as the link between social justice and academic achievement.

Fort River parent said...

Classism and racism may exist in Amherst, but as JWolfe pointed out in another posting, the reverse is also true. White students at Fort River have, in the past, been made to feel inferior due to the outspoken biases of the former principal. Years of that propoganda has left my white children feeling apologetic about their skin color. Before they entered Fort River, they were color blind but after their experience there, they are not. Fortunately for society, they have turned that inward, to feel ashamed of their white skin rather than outward against those with darker skins and they have friends of many races. Reverse descrimination is still racism.

Anonymous said...

Fort River Parent
I admire and relate to what you say about racism. This is a much, much needed discussion to be had with our kids and teachers and administrators alike. Racism most certainly does exist in the reverse of its common understanding.

Ms. Catherine--I am not saying anything that you chose to take from from my words about homework and income levels being connected so that one might excuse the poor child from not doing their homework and therefore lowering the expectations of said child, but instead I am saying what right do you believe you have to dictate the responsibilities of parenthood up to and including the responsibility to have your child complete their homework? In some households, homework is simply not the top priority of the evening where in others it may be.
Do you see any correlation between the "disadvantaged" student and his/her family income?

Anonymous said...

Catherine, I have applauded your support for higher expectations for all of our children in all of our schools, and I am a member of ACE. But I must disagree with you about the need for gifted programs. I believe that they are desperately needed, because teachers differ so profoundly in their willingness to support and challenge high-achieving children. My son has had teachers who tried to challenge him (but were not very successful) and teachers who had no interest in doing anything except teaching all the kids the same material (ignoring the fact that it was wasting time for many of them, my son included). We have pointed out to teachers that homework assignments are a perfect opportunity to provide extra challenge in an easy-for-the-teacher and discreet fashion (the other children don't need to know!), yet the homework we've seen come home is ridiculous busy-work that is killing our son's interest in learning.

I hope you'll re-consider your position on gifted education. When the economy recovers, I hope that the schools will do better by all children.

(Not signing my name to protect my family's privacy, and to avoid public criticism of particular teachers.)

Alisa V. Brewer said...

I am perfectly happy to change most everything about the current classic American public school (agrarian) schedule: longer school year with different break schedule, longer school day, earlier start time for younger rather than older kids, time to physically move their bodies from preK-all the way to 12th grade, etc. That's a whole other discussion, but all those pieces -- if the stubborn American population was willing to entertain them, meaning willing to redesign our employment lives to work with such a schedule -- could help all kids achieve more, as has been shown in studies of other countries where teaching is considered an important profession, where families get paid leave for caring for young children, and where work and school schedules are not at odds, but coexist.

In the meantime, let's not get too caught up in the homework issue without reconsidering: is the homework your kids are getting worth doing? Because in my experience K-6, a lot of it is not (and yes, I've shared this with my kids teachers, and they obviously do not agree). And if it isn't worth doing, then who cares who is doing it?

It's all well and good to say, 10 minutes per grade -- 10 minutes for 1st graders, 20 minutes for 2nd graders, etc. *plus* 20 minutes reading -- that's been our MM experience. So go ahead and apply (enforce?) that district-wide, sure -- but is that even part of a real solution? No, not if the homework isn't worth doing. Let's be careful to measure the things we want to measure, not just the things that are easy to measure.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:54
Thank You! I completely agree with you and am frustrated that this issue isn't brought up more. The response from some in this community is that the rich folks can just send their kids to private school, but how many people have an extra 20k/year/kid for private. It seems to me that the public needs to do more to stimulate all kids.

I think that homework (in the face of this horrible budget crisis) is a great place to start. Give the kids who want/need more challenge harder spelling words, a more detailed writing assignment, help from the teachers to pick out books that will provide more challenge. This all can be done at no cost to the school system.

Anonymous said...

1.Why do you use the word 'suffer' when referring to keeping MM open? 2.Where can parents find the ACE letter sent out to the elementary schools? 3.Where can one find the form that is being drawn up for MM parents (according to Andy Churchill), who the school committee is in agreement with, who have no voice in this decision?
4.And please explain the OutReach Project. Thanks...

Anonymous said...

"Sure, kids have all different advantages and disadvantages that they come to school with every day. But I think the schools therefore have a responsibility to make sure that all kids are seen as being capable of learning and held to high standards."

Is this not happening?!

"I know of parents of means who have bought math textbooks, or require certain amounts of reading of their child, or who encourage their kids to go on educational website to practice spelling, math, etc. Those kids are getting the daily stimulation. Other kids are not."

Are you referring to the need for high standards for each child or for the same standards for each child? Because an equitable education entails equal access to learning resources, whereas a fair education entails providing every child with what they need in order to be a successful learner. I know you realize "kids have all different advantages and disadvantages that they come to school with every day" so I'm sure you don't mean that "higher standards" means the same conditions for each student across the board.

This is evident also in your opinion on the need for differentiated instruction: "I disagree that we need gifted programs ... I just don't think that is necessary, IF the schools are allowing and encouraging differentiated learning(which is much more fluid than a program in which some kids are tracked as "gifted")."

Do you believe that homework will remedy the discrepancy between academically advantaged and disadvantaged home environments? If so, how/why? (I haven't formulated an opinion on this issue as yet. What I do know though is that my first grader receives homework every night. If there is a school whose policy is to not assign homework, perhaps the issue should be with that particular school? I'd be interested in hearing their views on this!)

"Similarly, I hear from parents of color WITH KIDS IN THE AMHERST SCHOOLS that teachers approve of whatever their kids do -- without pushing them to do more (which the parents KNOW they are capable of doing)."

Really?! They really feel this is on the basis of skin color? I've worked in all these schools and have never noticed children being treated differently in a classroom due to skin color, though perhaps this has just been my experience. Do these parents notice children of a different "color" than their own being challenged by different expectations? Have you worked in any of these schools Catherine? What has been your experience?

Regarding ACE, you wrote: "I don't know off-hand if any parents from MM signed it -- and if they didn't sign it, whether they weren't sent it or if they were sent it and chose not to sign it."

This is the first I've heard of it. ACE, that is.

"I certainly agree that racism and classism exist in our schools, and of course in our society. And I believe that one of the principal ways to combat these biases is to hold high expectations for all kids. Do you mean to imply that some children shouldn't be expected to complete homework, and/or that all parents shouldn't be expected to have their children complete homework? I believe that those assumptions -- that low income people are less able to complete homework -- feed into such biases instead of help defeat them."

There's an assumption "that low income people are less able to complete homework"!! Well, this is a social injustice! As a low-income white woman with a child recipient of the school free lunch program, I had no idea my child's teacher was even aware of our class standing. (I'd actually been under the impression that there were more of us in the economically-challenged boat these days than not.) Fortunately, my child gets such a great education during the school day so typically does her homework without my asking, even if that means doing it in the backseat of the car while I run all the errands I handle as a single parent.

Perhaps a more accurate point to have made in your recent commentary to the Amherst Bulletin, Catherine, would be that "a certain specific Amherst school (or schools) chooses not to hold children to the high expectations other schools hold their students to with regards to the assignment of homework." Then we could discuss whether this entails unequal access to learning between schools, rather than between children of different class or skin color? This might at least have helped to salvage the credibility of your point.

Anonymous said...

What would happen across K-12 if emphasis is on kids' effort at school rather than achievement?

Migdalor Guy said...

I am concerned that the authors of the "Education Matters" article fail to perceive how their writings can and are easily perceived as racist and classist. I urge them to take a good, hard, look at what they wrote. Perhaps their words do not reflect accurately their internal thoughts in a manner that all readers could perceive as respectful.

There is a pervasive fallacy prevalent in our society that equates "equal" with "fair." History clearly demonstrates that equality and fairness are not the same. There are times when redress of existing and past inequalities require an unequal balance shift to correct the existing inequities. (Affirmative action comes to mind.)

The idea that ONE STANDARD across the BOARD applied to all is fair is a ridiculous notion given the known inequities in our society, and in Amherst. This is the same sort of wrong-headed thinking that led us to NCLB, and no greater fraud has ever been perpetrated upon the American people than NCLB. The idea that a level playing field is all that is required flies in the face of statistics and realities.

I wish people would stop hiding behind the fallacy of equal as being fair. It is a disingenuous position.

I invite people to read on my blog,, two articles written by others that every citizen of Amherst should read, so they can get a balanced view of the realities.

I am amused how the call for the closing of Marks Meadow flies in the face of what the research shows is necessary to achieve the improvements the writers of the "Education Matters" article seek at the High School level. Handicapping elementary education would work directly against the desired outcomes.

Adrian A. Durlester aka Migdalor Guy

Anonymous said...


Corrected link:

Likewise, closing Mark's Meadow would cease to allow for differentiated learning with respect to the suitability of certain school sizes for the diverse needs of our student population. Amherst would be left with large schools only, two of which include open style classrooms often proven unsuitable for children (and/or staff!)challenged by sensory integration issues.

I have overheard parents saying they will enroll their children in private schools should MM be closed. I'm sure there are those who will follow suit once it becomes obvious closing MM will not save arts and music programs as we know them and as they have been led to believe, as well as in realizing that the schools their children presently attend are going to become even larger and more crowded every year as a result of that closure.

How's that for an issue of class inequality? Children of privilege would then be capable of foregoing public education altogether, while the have-nots would constitute an even larger population of the overall student body.


Anonymous said...

Attached is a URL to a pertinent recent finding that a academically rigorous, no excuses approaches can reduce the achievement gap.

Set the standards high, and enforce them.

It's Charter based, but has an important lesson, so however this debate and vote ends this study would say it's clear that the teachers and administration of our children have a very important stake in this, and also should be held to very high standards themselves.

Rob Spence said...

Migdalor Guy,

Exactly which past or present inequalities are addressed by lowered expectations or less rigorous curricula?

I am concerned that you fail to perceive how your comments can be easily perceived as condescending and dismissive. Perhaps your words do not accurately reflect your internal thoughts in a manner that all readers could perceive as consistent with an open and thoughtful discussion. When you casually throw out charged (though inaccurate) accusations, the expectation seems to be that people with opposing opinions will fearfully close their mouths. However, I feel that your claims that the authors of "Education Matters" are classist and racist are simply wrong, and I am not afraid to say so.

Anonymous 1:35,

I understand how one could be fearful of overcrowded elementary classrooms, and I understand how one could be fearful of current Amherst families pulling their children out to go to private school; but I cannot understand how one can be fearful of these occurring at the same time (seeing as if families pull there children out to go to private school in increasing numbers, then the classrooms will not be overcrowded).

Finally, if some feel that small schools like Marks Meadow are the only way to go for a positive learning environment, and feel that the physical structure of WW and FR are so detrimental to learning, then the only fair and equitable position to take would be to advocate to make Marks Meadow open to a lottery for any child in Amherst, so that those lucky 10% who get in can have a good education.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 5:02 p.m. Thanks for this site. It's great reading. Part of their reform case study includes "reducing class size" and not making class size larger by clsoing MM.
The McKinsey report entitled "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in American Schools" is another must read. "Recent national and international tests show significant differences in student achievement. Students in the United States perform behind their OECD peers. Within the United States, white students generally perform better on tests than black students; rich students generally perform better than poor students; and students of similar backgrounds perform dramatically differently across school systems and classrooms."
Amherst seems to be a bit behind the times in realizing this and pretty late in its attempt to remedy this impact happening every day in our classrooms!
For more than 25 years I can flatly state that an overwhelming majority of the special education kids beginning at the elementary level are from low-income families and among this group a disproportionate number of children of color! Once children have been funneled into this department--I have first hand witnessed the "regular" education teacher release her/himself from teaching these children.
What a huge contribution to the existing achievement gap Amherst has been making for all these years...

Abbie said...

to anon@6:22,

If indeed you are correct that the overwhelming majority of SPED kids are low-income what is your data to show/prove that it is some sort of prejudice? I could come up with many alternative hypothesis if indeed low-income kids predominate in SPED. For example maybe as a group the moms had fewer access to prenatal care and thus some of these kids didn't get the best start while in utero.

My experience, albeit limited, is that SPED kids at WW come from all sorts of socio-economic backgrounds, but then I haven't asked to see their tax returns. Have you? I am sceptical of your basic premise.

To Rob: I whole-heartedly agree. If we were to keep MM open then it ought to become a lottery school for those masses of parents who see a very small school as the only acceptable education.

Rick said...

In reference to the article Anon 5.02 pointed out:

That article does state that high standards was part of the formula for success. But it also says this:

“Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City.”

The “twice as much time in school” is really the extra help and support that I have stated is needed – not just the high standards. So this school did not JUST have high standards, they supported their kids with LOTS of time.

What if they had had the same high standards but also kids spend the same amount of time in school as other NYC students? I doubt the results would have been the same.

Nina Koch said...

Yes, Catherine, I was in a meeting with you where someone expressed a belief about homework similar to what you present in your column.

The difference is, I attributed that belief to the person who expressed it rather than inferring that the belief is widely held. You don't in fact have that information. Your approach is clearly anecdotal, based on a lot of "I have heard." You need to realize that there are lots of things you have not yet heard. You hadn't heard from Jocelyn. You hadn't heard from Terry Johnson. And yet you were ready to characterize our beliefs and practices.

I am wondering just how many principals you have heard from. You state that this belief about homework is often held by principals (plural). Could you please do one of the following:

A) List all of the current principals who have publicly avowed this belief;


B) Retract your statement.

Similarly, when you say something like this:

"Other kids may benefit simply from having teachers BELIEVE that they are capable of higher achievement"

you are implying that teachers do not currently believe that these students are capable of higher achievement.

Again, I don't think you have any basis for that assertion. Was I absent on the day that you interviewed all of the teachers about what they believe?

Anonymous said...

Rob Spence said:

"Finally, if some feel that small schools like Marks Meadow are the only way to go for a positive learning environment, and feel that the physical structure of WW and FR are so detrimental to learning, then the only fair and equitable position to take would be to advocate to make Marks Meadow open to a lottery for any child in Amherst, so that those lucky 10% who get in can have a good education."

I'm sorry. I've been under the impression that there is in fact school choice for all students within Amherst?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Fort River parent - I have heard this story from many parents, and it is really unfortunate. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous 8:47 - I do believe that kids should be expected to complete some homework, and that parents should enforce this. I also believe that not all parents can/will, and that the role of the schools is therefore to help ensure that all kids do have this extra practice. When my 5th grader goes to school without finishing his homework, his teacher makes him stay in and do it at recess ... which has made quite an impression! More low income kids are on warning/needs improvement categories on the MCAS, which I think points to the importance of making sure these kids DO have extra practice at home -- which was one of the main points of the column.

Anonymous 8:54 - thanks for your post ... and let me clarify what I meant. I do believe strongly that all kids should be challenged at whatever their level in a particular area is ... and that kids in a given grade/class are at different levels in different domains. I believe that the schools should have a rich differentiated learning program (in practice, not just in name) to make sure that all kids get challenged at the appropriate level (and yes, that includes giving kids different in class assignments at time, extra enrichment, different homework, etc.). What I am not in favor of is a special "gifted program" in which kids are tested, and then pulled out for separate classes. I think there are a bunch of problems with this type of approach -- which I can elaborate on if you or others would like! I know some parents are very frustrated with the lack of real differentiated instruction, and I think we need to focus on making this instruction REAL, not just abstract.

Alisa -- you make a bunch of good points, and frankly, it seems like MM is doing a great job of homework norms (better than what I've seen at Fort River, at least). I think you raise a good point about is the homework worth doing, but I also think part of the point of homework is to practice SKILLS (e.g., spelling, multiplication, etc.), and another part is to learn about this as a routine/practice (which comes in handy later on). I'd hope that good homework accomplishes both.

Anonymous 10:15 - thanks for your post. I agree completely with what you said.

Anonymous 10:55 - to answer your questions: 1. If MM stays open, we have to cut $700,000 in another way, which means ALL kids will experience larger classes, fewer intervention teachers, less music/art, etc. I call that suffering! 2. The ACE letter is at 3. I really don't have any idea what form you are talking about in terms of MM parents -- you should talk to Andy directly if he's mentioned this to you or others. 4. I don't know what the OutReach Project is.

Anonymous 11:28 - you have a LONG post, so I'm going to try to hit a few key responses. I do NOT see all kids being held to high expectations in our schools. Sorry. And I do think there should be high standards for all children -- such as three years of math and science (I don't even know if I'd call that a HIGH standard or a MEDIUM standard). To be clear -- I am in FAVOR of differentiated instruction, which is not the same as a gifted program (which is much more fixed and stable and typically has strict admissions criteria). I do not believe that homework ALONE will remedy the difference, nor do we make that claim at any point in the column. But I do believe the absence, or virtually absence, can widen the achievement gap (again, because kids without homework from disadvantaged environments just aren't going to practice those skills, whereas those from advantaged backgrounds will do so often even in the absence of specific homework). I do think schools, and principals, and teachers vary WIDELY in their views on homework, so your own child's experience may not be typical of the district. I do hear from parents of color some pretty horrible stories (your kid will be OK because he'll probably be pretty athletic). I also heard from a parent (white) who were told about their 4th grade daughter, "math just isn't her thing." That strikes me as WAY too early to give up on a kid in ANY academic area! Although I haven't worked in the schools, there is certainly a ton of research showing that race and gender and income influence people's expectations -- that is quite well-established. If you want to learn more about ACE, see our website: And I FULLY agree with your statement that of course low income kids can complete homework! But I've heard from parents and teachers in different schools who share the homework belief ... I do not believe it is isolated to one school/one principal. I think it is a more general philosophical view held by at least some (many?) in our district.

Anonymous 11:45 - this is actually what many psychologists (e.g. Carol Dweck most famously) are now suggesting!

Adrian Durlester - we do NOT argue in the column that equal is the same as fair. And I'm pretty concerned if you believe that the assumption that low income kids and kids of color can complete homework and take three years of math/science is racist and classist. Are you suggesting that we should in fact give low income kids less homework? Or that kids of color are less able to succeed in math/science? Steve and I take the shocking view that ALL kids can succeed! I am not really sure what the MM debate has to do with our column, but surely you aren't suggesting that we should keep MM open when we know that it will increase class sizes across the district, right?

Anonymous 1:35 - I'm really struggling to follow your point here ... we know that keeping MM open increases class sizes at all schools, and we know that the schools are in districts based on where you live (it is not that kids who need a small school necessarily go to MM), and we know that there are many, many kids happy and thriving in the schools you characterize as unsafe and bad learning environments (FR and WW). So, you think we should keep MM open, thereby allowing YOUR kids (and it is pretty clear your kids go to MM) to keep going to this school, while the majority of kids go to unsafe schools with bad learning environments, and all kids have larger class sizes? That is your preference for an Amherst education? But I'm also confused because you suggest that MM parents will opt for private school if their school closes, but I've repeatedly heard that the rich parents go to WW and FR (and hence have the "voice")? But the rich parents seem happy with WW and FR? Again, I'll vote to keep MM open as soon as MM parents can tell me what they'd like me to cut ($700,000) next year. I'm still waiting.

Anonymous 5:02 - thanks for posting the link -- I was actually going to do a whole blog post on that! Thank you!

Rob Spence - thanks much -- all very well said! I've actually made the point about redistricting to three schools and having the lucky 13% in a lottery get to go to Marks Meadow. But maybe in fairness, kids could just stay at this school for a year or two so that all kids could have the experience of this superior learning environment?

Anonymous 6:22 - FOR THE RECORD: if you keep MM open, class sizes are LARGER than if you close it (because if you close it, you cut some of the $700,000 in a principal, nurse, librarian, secretary, etc.). So, if you want larger class sizes for all kids, push to keep MM open. The issue is NOT that we don't have enough class rooms ... the issue is that we don't have enough money to PAY teachers to teach in those classrooms (we have empty classrooms at all four schools RIGHT NOW). I do agree that the achievement gap is well-established -- but we now need to focus on trying to close it, by helping lower performing kids do better (and this is complex for many reasons).

Abbie - I agree with both of your points. Thanks.

Rick - assuming that the Amherst public schools can't require twice as much time in school as a charter school (and I think this is a fair assumption), I'd certainly say that holding high standards AND giving homework for practice outside of school might be good things to try, right?!? Again, we are not talking the "best option" but at least a step in the right direction?

Nina - If you don't like anything I write in a column, you can exercise your own first amendment right and write a letter to the Bulletin pointing out how stupid my column was. I've attended many, many meetings with different principals and different teachers. Steve has attended other meetings with principals and teachers. We've heard this belief expressed by multiple people in multiple schools, and when the statement about not giving homework is made, it is virtually always affirmed (as it was, in fact, at the meeting you and I attended) -- it is not immediately refuted by others in the room who disagree. I feel quite confident that this view is held by many teachers and principals in our district -- hence we wrote it in our column. We did not, however, write "all teachers" or "all principals." But I'm certainly not going to "out" people on this blog in response to your query. Finally, there is just volumes of research showing that even people who consider themselves totally not prejudiced DO often hold different expectations AT AN UNCONSCIOUS level about what people in different groups (race, gender, class) can achieve ... do you not know of this research, or do you think that Amherst teachers are able to automatically erase the implicit stereotypes that we all grow up with in a society? Of course, this type of bias wouldn't be found in an interview, because people don't admit to it. But when you have a district that has very low requirements for, say, math and science in a high school, you have to wonder WHY these requirements are so low, and WHO these low requirements are supposed to help, right?

Anonymous 9:43 - not really ... there is very limited School Choice depending on space at a given grade and in a given school. So, Rob's point is totally valid -- if MM is a vastly superior learning environment to all the other schools (which I've heard repeatedly over the last few weeks), we really need to change this school to a lottery system in which you don't get to experience this better learning environment simply based on where you live.

Anonymous said...

You see Catherine--it does not jive with common sense that if you close a school you are thereby contributing to the smaller classroom size, but if you keep a school open you are contributing to larger class size. I am trying to follow this logic. If you take the 180 children from MM and sprinkle them over the district and do not create any more classrooms to the existing classrooms in the other 3 schools and do not hire any new teachers, but keep only the teachers already teaching there, how on earth can you be reducing class size???
And where in this conversation did the word superior come from in relation to MM???
I am amazed at your inflation of the figure gained in MM closure--first year $530,000 not the $700,000 amount you continue to use. Doesn't seem honest to me that you use a misleading amount that adds to your debate.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 7:36 - let me be very, very clear ... we have a LIMITED amount of money. We have to cut expenses. We can cut expenses by closing MM, which means that we cut SOME teachers, but we also cut a principal, a nurse, a librarian, a secretary, a custodian, etc. If we keep MM open, we then have to make MORE cuts to classroom teachers to equalize the same savings -- this is all in the report on line by the superintendent. She has clearly stated that class sizes will be LARGER if we keep MM open than if we close it. The issue is NOT that we don't have enough classrooms -- we have empty classrooms now at all of the schools. The issue is that we have to PAY teachers to teach in the classrooms -- that is the money we don't have, and will have LESS of if we keep MM open and then pay for the support staff. The word "superior" has been used by many MM parents and teachers -- who seem to believe that this is the only good school in Amherst. The number given by the superintendent in terms of yearly savings is $671,000, but she has even acknowledged that this is a very low estimate of the savings: it doesn't include any of the savings on health insurance/benefits to any of the staff who are reduced, it doesn't include other staff who would likely be reduced (e.g., it doesn't include ANY cuts to art/music/PE teachers and this would likely occur), and it doesn't include ANY payment from U Mass or use of the building. But if you are more comfortable with the $671,000 figure -- that's fine. I stand corrected (but that $29,000 isn't going to be a big factor in my vote). And the first year savings take into account transition costs -- the real savings are NOT seen in the first year (although a half a million is a pretty good amount of savings!) -- the real savings are seen in the year after year reduced costs of running our elementary schools. So, the $671,000 figure is the right one to focus on since it represents the on-going savings after the transition.

Rick said...

Catherine: You said: “I'd certainly say that holding high standards AND giving homework for practice outside of school might be good things to try, right?!? Again, we are not talking the "best option" but at least a step in the right direction?”

Yes definitely good things to try (if we are not doing it already) – I am all for it.

But as far as being a “a step in the right direction” – while these are good things to do, they do not do anything for social justice or closing the achievement gap without the missing part – the extra help and support.

That’s all I am saying. I’m not saying don’t do it. I am just saying don’t do it thinking this will fix the achievement gap or serve social justice.

Anonymous said...

Catherine, you wrote:
"...and we know that there are many, many kids happy and thriving in the schools you characterize as unsafe and bad learning environments (FR and WW)."

Just to clarify: I have NOT characterized FR or WW as "unsafe" or "bad" learning environments. I think all of our schools are great! What I suggested is that many children (and staff) have sensory integration issues and that open classrooms make it more difficult for SPED children to concentrate.

You wrote: "But I'm also confused because you suggest that MM parents will opt for private school if their school closes,..."

No. I said that I have heard *parents* saying they will put their children in private schools if MM closes. A child said this to me in the hall of MM once, though otherwise I have heard this from parents whose young children would likely be enrolled in MM for the fall of 2010.

You wrote:..."but I've repeatedly heard that the rich parents go to WW and FR (and hence have the "voice")? But the rich parents seem happy with WW and FR?"

I don't know anything about that. I've never heard this.

"Again, I'll vote to keep MM open as soon as MM parents can tell me what they'd like me to cut ($700,000) next year. I'm still waiting."

It's too bad, I think, that you're "still waiting". I wish you would instead make more of a creative effort to engage and facilitate Amherst residents in cooperative solution-finding to the crisis we presently face as a community.

I have very little respect for your apparent intent to pit the schools against each other in order to create or maintain support for your opinions. I work in other school systems also, in 4 other towns, and can tell you that they are all aware of the dynamics taking place between school committee members and the general community here in Amherst.

Closing a school, however small, is a very big deal. People have invested time and energy for decades to create an environment conducive to learning, respect, and a sense of belonging for all students. Suddenly some board members from the ivory towers of one of the most expensive colleges in the country step-in and immediately assert that it's "instrumentals and the arts OR close MM".

Levels of trust hadn't even been established between the board and the community and yet everyone is supposed to simply accept at your word that closing a school that has been with this town for 30 years is the only option?! You haven't seemed to want to consider any of the other options or considerations that have been proposed by those members of the community who have been making real efforts to find other creative solutions. Closing MM should've been a last resort, whereas instead it's become the first.

Oh but that's right, excuse me. This column is about social justice.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Rick - I think there are a lot of different theories about what causes the achievement gap, and some of those theories point to extra help/support as being important (as you point out). But there are other theories that hold that the achievement gap is created in other ways -- the theory of stereotype threat, for example, suggests that simply the fear that someone will underperform based on their race/gender LEADS to underperformance. This isn't about support or extra help -- it is about fear of doing badly and thus performing bad stereotypes about your group (e.g., girls are bad at math). Work by Rosenthal and Jacobsen indicated that teachers who BELIEVE that particular kids are about to experience an IQ spurt do better the next year actually create higher IQs in these kids! So, I believe (and I believe Steve shares this view) that in some cases/for some kids, it isn't extra help or support that is needed ... it is high expectations (like, all kids can do 3 years of math/science!). One more thing - there are people who believe that extra help/support programs CAN be problematic in terms of reducing the achievement gap, because they can lead to stigma (e.g., you can't do this class unless you have this extra help), which then leads to under-performance (Claude Steele, an African American psychologist at Stanford University has talked about this in the popular press). So, again, as Steve and I note at the end of our column (and I know this column disappointed you!) we think we should study what programs have been found to work in other districts (and MSAN districts would be a good place to start). If extra support helps some kids, fine. But I am less confident than you are that this is the only, or even the best, answer. (I am going to post a new article on this soon -- which showed that just self-affirmation led to higher grades).

Anonymous 10:44 - there is so much anger in your post that it is a bit hard for me to know how/where to start to respond. But I'm going to try. First, I would be very, very happy to discuss with any members of the community how to meet the needs in our schools of kids/staff who have sensory integration issues. That would be a productive discussion, and certainly I'd be receptive to such a conversation (including giving the option for THOSE kids/staff to request Crocker Farm). We need to remember, however, that there are SPED kids in all the schools, including FR and WW, and we could learn from teachers/parents how such issues are handled in that building. If you want me to look into that, just ask. That seems like a more constructive approach than just an anonymous attack on my blog. Second, I too have heard parents say that if MM closes they will choose private school. I have also heard from parents who say that if class sizes get larger, instrumental music is dropped, etc., they will choose private school. So, as a School Committee member, I'm doing my best to try to balance the budget in a way that creates as good a learning environment for all kids as possible. My decision in that regard is to close MM, because I actually have to listen to ALL of the community, not just those with kids at MM. Third, tell me what more I can do to get a creative solution that doesn't involve closing MM -- we've heard from many parents and teachers, we've had individual meetings at each school, I have a blog in which I personally respond to all suggestions. That seems like a huge amount of information I've seen -- and sorry, but NONE of it has led to another solution that better serves ALL the kids in Amherst. Here's an option I've thrown out now to several MM parents -- and it is a TOTALLY serious offer because it actually saves about the same amount as closing MM: MM stays open, with one class per grade, and that class is set first come/first served to kids throughout Amherst (we still redistrict to three districts) until the maximum district class size at that level is reached. There is NO bus service to MM, and there is no art, music, PE, or librarian. Do you prefer this option to closing MM? Because if you do, let me know and I can push for it as an alternative (again, my rough calculations show this would save about the same amount) -- this would let families who really prefer MM opt for this school, but the reality is that small (less efficient) school size would come at a cost of art/music/PE/librarian/bus service. That is a creative solution that I've thought of -- and I've given this option to many MM parents now, and NOT ONE has suggested they like this. But as a School Committee member, I have to make a budget-driven decision ... so if you want to save MM, you do have to tell me what I can cut to do it. I'm still listening. Is that pitting the schools against each other? The reality is, we have to cut something ... you tell me how we can do it! You may believe that the Amherst community hates what I'm doing -- and you may well be right (and if I run for re-election in two years, everyone will have a chance to vote for me or against me!). But I'm doing what I think is right for the greater common good. I know that some kids and some families will be worse off, and of course I feel really bad about that. But I think that more kids will be hurt in more ways from keeping four schools, which is the basis of my decision. And maybe I'm naive, but I would assume that "People have invested time and energy for decades to create an environment conducive to learning, respect, and a sense of belonging for all students" would be willing to bring that same work to another building! Surely the MM teachers and staff could work effectively in other schools, and with other kids? Both of my sons at FR this year have teachers who are brand-new to FR -- one moved to FR from WW and one is in his first year of teaching. Both are great -- they have certainly created environments of trust, respect, learning, caring, etc. Again, I don't think this is something that can only occur after decades, and I don't think it is something that only occurs at MM, and I don't think it is something that the MM teachers couldn't do JUST AS EFFECTIVELY in a new building! I guess I'm really not sure why it is relevant that I work at Amherst College -- if I worked at Holyoke Community College, would you like this motion more? But regardless, the reality is, we have a FINITE amount of money. My family does, so we make choices (e.g., we can take a more expensive vacation and eat out less or a less expensive vacation and eat out more). The schools also do. So, if we keep MM open (and pay for a principal, a nurse, a librarian, etc.), we have LESS money to spend on other things (e.g., arts, music, smaller classes, intervention teachers, etc.). That is just how budgets work! Again, you tell me what the trade off should be, but it IS something because our resources are FINITE. Finally, don't worry -- I'm not the ONLY member of the board who gets to vote on this -- I'm only ONE vote. So, no one has to "simply accept at your word that closing a school that has been with this town for 30 years is the only option?!" I am going to vote this way, unless I soon hear some creative solution that I haven't, but MM stays open unless two other board members join me in that vote. They may, or they may not -- but don't believe for a second that it is "my choice" when I'm just one vote. And my offer reamins -- I am willing and eager to "consider any of the other options or considerations that have been proposed by those members of the community who have been making real efforts to find other creative solutions." Send them to me and I'll react to each and every one of them, as I've been doing for the last few months. But I disagree completely that it should be last resort -- I'd far, far rather close MM than increase class sizes to 30 (as they are doing in Northampton, because they don't want to close a school).

Rick said...

Catherine: You said “But I am less confident than you are that this is the only, or even the best, answer.” Where did I ever say that was the ONLY or BEST answer? Isn’t that misrepresenting what I said?

But moving on…

If you read your last response to me, and then re-read your article you’ll see they say different things – or at a very minimum, they stress certain things over other things. I more or less agree with what you say in that last response, but most of what is said there is not said in the original article. Most people who read the article will come away with the idea that you think that just raising standards is the right fix for the achievement gap. Reading your last response, one does not come away with that impression.

But the article is seen by a lot more people than this blog, so what you stressed in that article will trump whatever further explanation you do here on your blog, and that cannot be undone…
….unless, as I previously suggested, you address those things in your next article. Write not just about high standards but how we can help all kids to achieve them. If you don’t do that, it looks like all you care about is helping the high achieving students get into top colleges, not the lower achieving kids to graduate ARHS, with a better chance of going on to any college, or simply living a good life no matter what they do because they have been taught how to think for themselves.

So enough from me; this is my last comment. I gotta get some work done… ;-)

Anonymous said...

I so like and appreciate Rick's response to you especially where he states the fact that along come two very well standing professors from the highest ivy league college in the country and decide to close down an elementary school that has been in existence since, at least you Catherine, were ten years old! Amazing--and such an absolute and extreme example of just what money can do!
If we knew where the money is you keep screaming for the MM parents to find don't you think we would hand it over????? And anyway I thought the correct handling of the school's money was the job of the school officials (one of whom I thought you were.)
Such a corupt system I never thought I would live to see how well it operates!!

Rick said...

Anon 6:09: Huh? Where did I say that? MM is nothing to do what I'm talking about and I agree with Catherine on closing MM. Nor to I care one way or the other that she and Rivken are professors – who cares?

I’ll say it again what I said somewhere else on this blog:

We ONLY have bad choices. It’s either closing MM or some other bad choices. There has been ZERO specific solutions offered that are not bad – it’s just a matter of choice. In many other posts Catherine laid out all the bad choices and came to the conclusion that closing MM was the best of the bad choices. I read it all and it seemed like a very rational argument to me. You can, of course, disagree with that, but if you do, tell us what bad choices you would do instead.

Anonymous said...

To Anon. 6:09 p.m. - Sorry, but you're not very bright. If I didn't think it was such a stupid word, I might throw the term 'classist' at you (it works both ways, you know.) Apparently if you're well-educated you are no longer qualified to have an opinion? Hello??

Anonymous said...

Sorry Rick, if I misread or mispoke about something I thought you said.
I think the bottom line is we are all on the same page in wanting the best education possible for our kids. The reality is it just doens't happen that way. I can say this after over 25 years and two generations of observations and experiences with the Amherst schools. Not all cultures trust what goes on in the public school classrooms. Not all cultures or families read books or do algebra as a passtime.
And to believe and go forward thinking or claiming that closing an elementary school is for the better of ALL KIDS as so stated in this blog is nothing more than a fallacy. Kids will be effected when MM closes and families will be as well and not in the same way, or nearly in the same way as some not getting their flute lesson that day! So bad as a choice as this may appear, music lessons are a privilege, not an educational right--at least not on the elementary level. And I say this as a music listener and appreciator, but for pete's sake don't shut down a school and displace a whole community of people and then present them as nothing more than a group who think themselves "superior" to ease your conscience for doing such an unbelievable and destructful thing...

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:09:

I think you may have meant to reference my earlier comment ("Anon 10:44"). Pretty easy to misquote people or reference the wrong author of a comment the way this board is set-up.

Catherine wrote: "Third, tell me what more I can do to get a creative solution that doesn't involve closing MM -- we've heard from many parents and teachers, we've had individual meetings at each school, I have a blog in which I personally respond to all suggestions. That seems like a huge amount of information I've seen -- and sorry, but NONE of it has led to another solution that better serves ALL the kids in Amherst."

Catherine, I do understand we need facts and actual alternative plans to account for the projected budgetary shortfall if MM is to remain open. This is what, I believe, has been being requested by so many members of the community all along, and perhaps the budget has since been made available for public review, but I have repeatedly heard requests for it to be made available that people might begin to formulate creative alternative plans to "better serve ALL students in Amherst". Is the budget available at this time for that purpose?

MM scored first and second in the STATE for 6th grade MCAS last year. UMass gives us the building, utilities, and its maintenance for free. If we close MM that building will be lost to us forever. It's not just a school it's like a village...representing so many of the different corners of the world.

Please at least allow the new Superintendent an opportunity to weigh-in on this decision by delaying the vote that will decide the fate of this very successful small school.

Rick said...

Anon 9:30 – It sounds like you are making the argument that closing MM hurts all kids while cutting back on programs, such as music, hurts just some kids. We’ll, that’s a reasonable argument to make.

I guess I would say this about that:

Closing MM hurts MM kids only in that it moves them to another school, where in theory, they can get the same education they get at MM.* Plus the redistricting – which I guess I going to happen at the same time – is going to move lots of kids around (I think) – and so it’s not just MM kids that would move.

[* This is the big question I guess, that I am not sure anyone has an exact answer for. If we were sure MM kids would get as good an education at anther school, this would be an easier decision.]

Whereas closing down a program – such as music – completely takes that away from whatever kids were doing it. How does that balance out? A few kids losing 100% of part of their education versus all kids losing X% of their education?

This is not easy.

Abbie said...

Just so people don't get caught up in the music vs MM false dichotomy- If the budget turns out as bad as recently predicted we might not get *any* music even if we close MM. However, if we didn't close MM, we would lose all music, plus about 10 more teachers on top of the those already projected to go. Just closing MM and cutting music may not save us from letting even more teachers go...

Its not looking good folks.

Anonymous said...

Here is a solution, proposal, answer, creative idea, money saving practice--call it what you may, but if someone could only take a deep, honest and unbiased look at the administrative overlaps and high, overpaid salries of said administrators and unnecessary administrative positions, and extra administrators that perform the same tasks and have the same responsibilities as their co-partners in all this and cut $$ off the tops of these positions and eliminate the extra positions I believe this would produce a huge savings enough to keep MM open and probably even build another elementary school!
After all closing a school hurts students more than any mission statement might and hurts students in a way that can never be repaired. If your true concern is not to hurt students in this town then leave this building alone and let the excellence in this school remain.
Focus your energy on something postive--this is not a positive move. Please--I just honestly do not understand the logic here. Why does anyone have to suffer in this picture? In one of the most wealthiest towns in the state, why do the littlest ones have to suffer anything?

Bill said...

So many of the postings here are responses to comments that have been misinterpreted, misread or misunderstood. Sometimes it is because the writing is unclear, and sometimes it is because the blogger has not read the post carefully. A large percentage of space is taken up by extended, reworded versions of what has already been written. This repetitive back and forth dialogue adds little substance to the topics we are debating, and often does not result in an improved understanding at all. I think we lose track of some intelligent and provocative opinions when we get stuck on this rotary of "I said, you said."