My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Regional Meeting, May 12, 2009

This was a REALLY long meeting in which a lot happened, so I am going to be as brief as I can be to get the update out.

First, we heard public comment/announcements. Several Middle School students presented science fair projects that were going to a statewide competition, and Tom Flanagan (7th grade computer teacher) talked about a "common assessment" that he has been working on this year (and offered to come present it to the SC, which I think sounds like a good idea).

Second, Maria made a number of announcements. These included that she has recommended the adoption of Impact 1 math series for the 6th grade (which will feed into the Impact 2 and 3 books now used in the MS, which I think is GREAT), that there is more bad budget news (presented by Rob), and we need to add a School Committee member to the search committee for the new assistant superintendent (Kathleen and I will both serve -- originally there was only going to be a single volunteer, but she and I were both interested, so Maria suggested we both serve). Rob also created a line by line budget for the MS/HS, which he distributed (and I think will be very helpful). I asked a question about middle school music, based on what I've heard from parents -- and learned that MS orchestra and band will go from EVERY day to every other day (as part of budget cuts) and that some new type of "music elective" will be added (to be determined). Maria also announced that Dr. Rodriguez will be visiting next week.

Third, we discussed the comprehensive review of the MS that I had proposed last week. The good news is that a survey of the MS will be done, as will surveys of all the schools (which I think is great). I am also very impressed that Maria talked to Dr. Rodriguez about whether having this type of information would be useful on his arrival, and he felt it would be. So, let me be the first to thank Dr. Rodriguez for interest in data! We then heard from a number of MS teachers who felt that their school should not be singled out for attack and criticism, and that when such concerns appear in the press and on blogs (!), it is demoralizing.

So, I have a few thoughts I'd like to share about this (I tried to share these at the meeting, but Marianne did not call on me). First, I assumed that staff time was short/limited, and that a motion asking for ALL schools to be surveyed would have been overwhelming -- and hence I focused only on one. Second, I do think this is a critical time for the MS in a way that it is NOT for the other schools -- because we are having regionalization discussions that could lead to 6th grade moving to the MS (and there are no other such major plans that impact any of the other schools, making this one more urgent). Third, I do hear far, far more complaints from parents about the MS than I do about other schools -- and as an elected official, I don't think it is my job to just say "everything is great in our schools." I think that has occurred for a long time by members of the School Committee, and I actually think that erodes trust in the school leadership. My decision to call for a survey was to figure out whether what I'm hearing is in fact accurate -- maybe it is NOT (perhaps it is just a small number of unhappy parents/kids, but most are really happy!). Again, the best way to learn this is to actually survey the parents and kids about their experience.

It is clear to me that the MS teachers felt threatened by the idea of the survey, and I'm sorry about that. But the reality is, I work for the community, and the only way in which the community has input in the schools is by electing SC members ... so, if I keep hearing things that concern me, it would be irresponsible for me not to try to figure out if there is in fact a concern.

I guess I'm also a bit puzzled about why there is so much concern about an evaluation. Here is a highly personal example -- the president of Amherst College asked last summer for the psychology department (of which I was then chair!) to be evaluated by professors at other schools. So, literally yesterday and today, a visiting committee of four professors (Williams, Pomona, Yale, Brown) spent two days talking to people at Amherst College. We did a survey of all students in psych classes and all psych majors. The committee met individually with students and asked questions. The committee met individually with each member of the department, and the president, and the dean of the faculty. And then they gave some recommendations about what our department could do better. Is this somewhat scary/intimidating? Sure -- maybe the students said I was an awful professor, maybe the committee would insist I teach a new course or teach one of my current courses in a new way, etc. But the reality is, this experience was really valuable to me and my colleagues in learning about the strengths AND weaknesses of our department, and I'm really glad that we had this opportunity. I guess I would hope that the MS teachers would take a similar view about all the good that can come out of these surveys -- let's learn what is working well, and let's learn what could work better. This seems like a win-win for teachers, parents, and kids (and School Committee members and superintendents, for that matter).

We then turned to a motion Irv Rhodes made for making it a policy that we conduct annual surveys (teachers, parents, students) at each school. After some discussion, this was tabled for a future meeting (probably after the arrival of the new superintendent).

Fourth, we had a pretty brief discussion (it was getting late) on superintendent/district goals for 2009-2010. This will be discussed at a meeting in June (we are NOT meeting on May 26th). We also accepted a gift. I think those are the "highlights"!


Ed said...

I don't know about Amherst College but for most places I know, not are there outside evaluators, but they are required for accreditation.

In other words, not only do you have to have these folk in your classrooms but these are folk with the ability to say that your college can continue to receive federal financial aid.

The K-12 equal to this would be all of the state money being tied to a positive evaluation....

Karen said...

I too am puzzled by how threatened some Middle School teachers are by this evaluation. Evaluations are common in academia and are for the sake of understanding and improvement. My academic classes are also routinely evaluated and I welcome the feedback to know how to shape the courses better to meet the needs of students etc. It concerns me that some teachers do not feel that feedback would be helpful and do not want to know what could improve the school and their teaching. In fact, the attitude concerns me. Don't they want to do better?

Alison Donta-Venman said...

What was the bad budget news? How could it get any worse?

Baldteach said...

Tom Flanagan (7th grade computer teacher) talked about a "common assessment" that he has been working on this year (and offered to come present it to the SC, which I think sounds like a good idea).

The Gentleman who spoke was Tom Fanning, not Flanagan.

It is clear to me that the MS teachers felt threatened by the idea of the survey, and I'm sorry about that. But the reality is, I work for the community, and the only way in which the community has input in the schools is by electing SC members ... so, if I keep hearing things that concern me, it would be irresponsible for me not to try to figure out if there is in fact a concern.

I do not recall any of the teachers who spoke saying that they were threatened by the idea of survey. I spoke about the nature of the questions and the need to clarify some terms that you have used in the past, such as "rigor." I do recall questions about the rushed nature of the survey and about the ability to reach all the parties you wish to poll. I also remember that several speakers: Ms Reckendorf, Mr Price and Mr Ranen encouraged you, and all the members of the committee to come by the school and see what we do. It seems like this is a way to know for yourselves what a lot of what you hear about from all parties with an interest in the Middle and High Schools.

I guess I'm also a bit puzzled about why there is so much concern about an evaluation. Here is a highly personal example -- the president of Amherst College asked last summer for the psychology department (of which I was then chair!) to be evaluated by professors at other schools. So, literally yesterday and today, a visiting committee of four professors (Williams, Pomona, Yale, Brown) spent two days talking to people at Amherst College. We did a survey of all students in psych classes and all psych majors. The committee met individually with students and asked questions. The committee met individually with each member of the department, and the president, and the dean of the faculty. And then they gave some recommendations about what our department could do better. Is this somewhat scary/intimidating? Sure -- maybe the students said I was an awful professor, maybe the committee would insist I teach a new course or teach one of my current courses in a new way, etc. But the reality is, this experience was really valuable to me and my colleagues in learning about the strengths AND weaknesses of our department, and I'm really glad that we had this opportunity. I guess I would hope that the MS teachers would take a similar view about all the good that can come out of these surveys -- let's learn what is working well, and let's learn what could work better. This seems like a win-win for teachers, parents, and kids (and School Committee members and superintendents, for that matter).

You seem to equate an objective evaluation of data by what was essentially an impartial peer board with a subjective poll of three groups: parents, students, and teachers; to be evaluated by who knows whom, (perhaps a committee of elected officials with several ideological interests) all having a direct investment in the product that they are evaluating.
Surely you know that this is not a one-to-one correlation. Perhaps there would be a different reaction from the professional educators that work in the middle school if you had suggested an evaluative instrument similar to the one that the professional educators at Amherst College employed to get objective information about their Psychology department
The invitations to visit the school is your most baffling omission about last night's meeting. It is improbable that any of the members of the Regional School committee would not have seen the Regional school in action. Mr. Rhodes defense that you all "have jobs" is not really acceptable. All of you took the time to run for the offices you hold. Many of you work less that 5 miles from the schools, many spend your days within 1.5 miles of these buildings. Please make seeing the schools in action a priority in the near future.

Anonymous said...

In general, teachers don't like being evaluated. They are doing something very personal to them. They are either very insecure about what they are doing, or very pleased. If they are pleased, they are not always confident that an outside evaluator is going to "get it". I say that as a former teacher.

I'm sorry, I know it sounds unfair. But as of three years ago, there were some great teachers at the MS and some teachers who were fairly egregiously coasting.

Anonymous said...

None of the staff that I work with at the middle school are threatened in the least by the evaluation. In fact, we are interested in feedback. We are just tired of being singled out, which we are, once again, in this blog.

Anonymous said...

I was at the meeting last night and was dismayed to read some of your post-meeting comments. When you wrote that middle school teahcers are clearly threatened by the survey I felt that you were not listening to the speakers at all, and your comment was a mis-representation of what was being shared at the meeting. (And you just said yourself that your job is to listen to people) Not a single speaker questioned doing the survey at all. As a matter of fact one teacher talked about a survey currently bering done at the school and offered to come back to share results.

In fact, the actual spoken comments were centered around asking you and others to refrain from public and inappropriate criticisms of the school ("poor stepsister of the district" I believe). It was said that these types of comments, especially from someone in your leadership position, can be demoralizing for staff, students and parents. Not to mention that they can taint the results of the very survey you are proposing. One is not supposed to tell people ahead of time what you expect them to say, I believe.

You also made no mention of the invitation for you and other SC members to come to the school anytime to see first hand what we do, rather than to just throw lightning bolts from afar.

It strikes me as a perfect example of the problem here that you could have heard(?) the comments last night, but come away with the very self-serving and misleading interpretation that the teachers and/or school are threatened by the survey. And then you pass on this interpretation based on your poor listening skills to readers of this blog who were not in attendance.

JWolfe said...

I was struck by the aside in your post that the chair of the committee, who has finally admitted that her child attends private school, did not let you speak at one point.

If she is going to treat an elected member of the SC with three kids in public school that way, how is she going to treat parents of Amherst school kids who aren't on the SC?

I imagine administrators at Williston-Northampton are more sensitive to parental concerns than she is to even those of SC members.

Anonymous said...

I have an 8th-grader at the middle school. This needs to be said: It's been a good two years. Not GREAT, but very good. He's smart, and he's been challenged. His teachers care about him, even as they work to help those who struggle more. I'd like to counter the general assumption on this blog that the m.s. is some kind of hellhole.
Also, I think reservations about the types of surveys that have been proposed are appropriate. I don't blame teachers for wanting one to be done carefully. They're not paranoid, unreasonable people. (And no, I'm not a teacher, nor do I work for the school district.)

Anonymous said...

I don't want to exaggerate what's wrong at ARMS.

It's not a hellhole, it's a very supportive place.

But it's also a place where some kids don't get challenged. My child had a great experience at Crocker and she's having a great experience at ARHS. She was bored out of her mind at ARMS, bored to tears.

Conversations with others revealed that that was not an unusual experience.

Nina Koch said...


Several people have invited you to visit the schools and to learn more about what we do before you form your conclusions.

I have to wonder why you decline. Perhaps I should follow your example and try to infer your motives. Is it because you feel threatened? Is it because you don't care?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Ed - Amherst College does indeed have outside evaluators for accreditation. I don't know of an equivalence in K to 12 education.

Karen - I too was troubled by the resistance to the idea ... and again, it seems to me that either (a) they are doing a great job and most people are happy, which would be shown clearly in a survey, or (b) there are some issues, which would clearly be shown in a survey and then could be solved. They were very concerned about the "singling out" of the MS, but again, this is the school that I hear the most concerns about, and that has the pressure of a potential grade change. I don't know why this isn't a logical place to start (but I do applaud the superintendent's commitment to doing evaluations in all schools).

Alison - good point! We are waiting for the senate vote ... but it sounds like more cuts to local aid EVEN for this year. More news on this to come soon (I think the Senate votes today?).

Baldteach - sorry about the name ... I was writing fast and I guess I misheard. People can watch the meeting on ACTV for themselves, but I think it is very fair to say that there was some resistance to the survey. I also disagree that it is "rushed" -- the parent group at the MS last year did a survey in JUNE. I also added to my motion NOT just a survey of parents, but also kids and teachers -- that seems like a great way to find out multiple perspectives on the school. And although I appreciate the offer to visit the school, and will do so, I believe a lot of learning/education occurs not just in the classroom. I would have questions about how many books are assigned, whether feedback is given, expectations about writing/homework, etc. Some of those aren't seen clearly in a one day visit to the classroom, but would be reflected in a survey. And the questions I've suggested speak to the concerns I've heard -- about level of rigor and challenge. So, those seem like the appropriate things to ask! Again, if what I'm hearing is wrong, that will be shown in a survey, right? I certainly would LOVE to have the MS evaluated by outside evaluators who are education professionals -- but I can pretty much imagine what the reaction would be if I had suggested that, right? But why don't you (I assume you teach at the MS) suggest this to the regional SC and the superintendent at the next SC meeting? I would welcome that type of a review, and believe it would be especially powerful if suggested by MS teachers and staff -- please bring this great idea up at the next meeting, and I will do what I can to make sure this occurs. It was late as I posted my blog entry, and I should have noted that many offers were made to have us visit the MS -- although I do believe such a visit would not replace the need for a survey for the reasons I noted earlier. However, this offer was made, and you should also have noted that I was the first SC member who asked specifically how one could go about making such arrangement and said I was interested -- and I do plan to visit sometime in the next month.

Anonymous 6:54 - yes, I get this ... and I see the same thing at Amherst College, where of course I am also a teacher! But the reality is, I was elected to be an advocate for the education we do for kids ... I was not elected to be an advocate for teachers. I assume that teachers want to know what they are doing well and what they could do better. I hope this survey is a tool that lets them learn valuable information.

Anonymous 6:54 (#2) - you are concerned with being "singled out" -- but if you truly want feedback, why not be thrilled to be singled out? You'll get the feedback earlier than those at the other schools (if my motion had passed to just evaluate the MS)! But I still don't see how I should just ignore concerns I hear in the community ... if I'm listening to the community, I need to be responsive to the concerns that I hear, and right now, the concerns that I hear focus more on the MS than the other schools. Take another analogy -- I hear a lot of concerns about special education, and I hear NO concerns (literally not one) about the music program. So, if I believe that there may be legitimate concerns about special education, should I also push for a review of the music program to be "fair"?

Anonymous 7:30 - again, people can watch the meeting themselves, but I would say there was definitely resistance to the idea of the survey and the nature of the questions (whether they would be biased, who would write them, etc.). I noted in my blog that a teacher had been collecting data and was willing to share it -- but that data did NOT include parent views, which I think are important to have. And if you know the context of the "poor stepchild" remark (made by Steve Rivkin), it was in the context of pushing the superintendent to give the MS more resources -- because the initial budget we saw cut dramatically from the MS budget and much less so from the HS (which seemed unfair to many of us on the committee). I have EVERY confidence that people will respond honestly and accurately on the survey ... as has clearly already occurred on my blog, some people express concerns about the MS and others express great delight. I don't think for one minute that parents are reading this blog or the newspaper to LEARN what they should report about their child's experience at the MS! I think parents would be eager to express their views (good and bad) and that those views will be informative to the committee -- and will be informative to the committee in a different way than observing a brief snippet of a class. Again, if the MS teachers are doing a fabulous job and everyone is really happy, challenged, embraced, etc., a survey is the best way to shut me up. It will PROVE that this school is providing a rigorous, challenging, engaging education to all kids, and I'll look forward to posting those comments on my blog later this year.

JWolfe - it was indeed discouraging that she shut of the discussion prior to allowing me to speak, even though a number of comments had clearly been directed at me (and my "attacks" on the school). Marianne also spoke against doing a survey at all two weeks ago, which I found discouraging. I continue to be surprised at the resistance to data on the part of several members of the committee -- but am hoping Dr. Rodriguez will share my interest in getting such information (and hey, early signs are promising!).

Anonymous 8:11 - I'm glad your child is having a good experience -- and a survey of all parents will allow those type of good experiences to be widely shared, which will be very helpful. No one is intending for the survey to be done poorly -- many districts do such surveys regularly, and I have already found 10 surveys specifically for MS that are now in use. Surely one of those would be very, very easy to adapt for our MS, and again, if you use Survey Monkey, it seems like it would require very little work and could reveal some very valuable information. I continue to see that as being only helpful.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 8:34:
I've heard the 'I'm bored' complaint from my kid, too. But hey - it's within most kids' power to create challenges. (Some kids 'don't get challenged', you write. Isn't that kind of passive?) Also, there's an accepted culture here for smart m.s. kids to complain of being bored - it's popular to say so. It reminds me so much of the summer vacation complaint of kids who say they're bored. To which we say: Get out there and find something to do! The same thing applies at school. Start a project, start a club, take up a sport, ask teachers for additional work. Show some spunk! I'm not saying ARMS is creating Einsteins right and left; it's not and it should raise the academic bar. But I think many unquestioningly accept the 'I'm bored' assessment.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 8:34 - this is the type of thing I hear again and again. I do NOT know how typical it is (again, maybe it is a small group of very unhappy parents), but doing a survey is the best way to figure out whether this experience is common or unusual. And I can't imagine this isn't an important question to have answered!

Nina - I'm not sure who the "several people" are -- and I have NEVER declined such a visit. In fact, as I noted earlier in this post, I do plan to visit the MS, and if you watch last night's meeting, I specifically asked the superintendent and Glenda how such a visit could be arranged (there are actually rules about when SC members can visit a school -- it is not supposed to be unannounced). However, I have NOT formed a conclusion -- if I had formed a conclusion, I would not have to have the survey! I want the survey data so that we can figure out WHETHER the school is working well in all possible domains or whether there are areas for improvement (and if so, what those areas are). I also think the things that I'm hearing would not necessarily be "seen" in a one day visit to the school -- do kids get feedback on their writing? how many books are assigned to be read for English class? are kids at different levels provided with work that is appropriately challenging? Those things aren't able to be seen by a one day visit to a class. Again, your criticism of my motives (I don't care? I feel threatened by MS teachers?) is just rude -- if I didn't care about how the school was doing, why in the world would I want a survey? Perhaps you could offer some suggestion of what an elected member of a school board should do when she continues to hear systematic concerns about a school. Should I assume all those parents are crazy? Should I visit a school for a day and then tell those parents that everything is great, based on my one day visit? What would YOU advise?

sza said...

Thank you for taking the time to respond to every comment. I referred in my earlier statement to the "poor stepchild" comment from Steve and you offered me a context for it, of which I was unaware. I had only seen it in print on your blog, and it turns out that was being quoted in an article from a newspaper reporter. I feel that the way she used it in the paragraph in question gave it a quite different meaning than perhaps was intended when it was first uttered. Maybe the lesson there, as we often are disappointed in how our quotes are used by others, is to be more careful in choosing our words when they then become public domain.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear you are going to visit the Middle School.

It also would be nice if you acknowledged that in an earlier blog post you DID in fact express a disinclination to see the teaching that goes on at the MS.

Seems to me that this "counts" as declining, which you now claim you NEVER did. I believe in an earlier post you wrote something like you "prefer data" to a subjective experience.

I can't find the comment today, but I've only gone back through 3 or 4 of your postings. Maybe you made it earlier than that, maybe it was in relation to another issue, or maybe you deleted it.

In any case, please do make good on your current promise to visit the Middle School.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Anonymous 9:01 - I agree that some kids just complain about being bored ... I've made the same point at a SC meeting that all college kids say the dining hall sucks. And I agree that kids could do more to challenge themselves. But I also think some of the challenge needs to come from the teachers -- are kids being asked to read books regularly? are they getting feedback on their writing? It is, as you point out, a two-way street, and I think it is possible that the bar could indeed be set higher.

SZA - Glad that my interpretation was helpful -- and yes, I think the quote was confusing in the newspaper. But I also think people should recognize that the newspaper is NOT always accurate in quoting people, right?!?

Anonymous 11:38 - you can do a search of my blog for "middle school" or "visit" to see if I've posted anything expressing a lack of willingness to visit -- I do not recall EVER saying that (I think you might have read that I was disinclined to visit MM?). I have never removed a post of mine or a comment I made. However, two other points: First, I have already emailed Glenda asking for a time I can visit. Second, I DO prefer data from a broad set of people than a one time visit. Again, let's say I love what I see -- should that lead me to discount any concerns I hear expressed by parents/kids? And more importantly, I think a lot of what I've heard has to do with stuff that doesn't occur in the classroom -- I've heard now from several parents that their child has received only a SINGLE paper with written feedback on it. I've heard from others that their child was assigned only ONE book in a period of two trimesters. Those seem to me to be problematic (again, I don't know if these are accurate, or widespread, etc.) -- and this type of concern would NOT be able to be observed by watching a single day of a class, right?

Anonymous said...

I applaud Catherine for pushing along a survey for the middle school. It is long overdue. I have had 2 children go through the middle school and aside from a few select teachers/programs here and there they were not challenged nor engaged. The current middle school seems to concern itself with the social/emotional well-being of the child, and not the academic. It's fine to have programs for the social/emotional aspects, but this is a SCHOOL after all, and we send our children there to learn and be engaged with material, and yes, to learn to work hard and live up to their academic potential.

Someone here speaks here about having the students challenge themselves, when? When they are sitting in class having the teacher explain the directions for the third time because one child in the class (out of 25) didn't get something? Yes, my children challenged themselves (tried not to lose their sanity) by bringing their own books in to school and read them after they finished their in-class assignments/projects, as well as their homework from other classes. Rarely, except for in 8th grade Algebra did my middle school students bring home any homework in 2 years. They worked harder in 6th grade than in the middle school, even though past School Committees claimed that all middle school students brought home homework each night.

Not all children are challenged and engaged in the middle school. Many lose interest in learning while there. Luckily, the high school adds some much needed challenge and engagement.

Anonymous said...

Is it any wonder why anyone referenced in one of these blogs would feel threatened? Mrs. Sanderson has a threatening tone. She comes on very heavy. I suppose this is a learned behavior that she could work on to try to change, but if she asks anyone within earshot, and then waits for an answer, I think she'll hear that yes her tone is often overbearing.

This is also the #1 characterisitc of a bully.

It's clear to me that Mrs. Sanderson chose the MS for her first survey because her kid will soon be in that school and she wants to straigten it up.

Some people in town are fearful of this elitist group of educational professionals, ACE, of whom I think only Irv Rhodes has actually taught in a public school setting, PreK-12.

I'm not afraid of the elitists taking over because there are a lot of people in Amherst who are used to loud mouths, and if push comes to shove, they will step into the light and vote these rich white folks out of office.

Is that how it works in Newton and Belmont, too?

Alison Donta-Venman said...

As an ARMS parent, I was happy to hear that the SC had proposed a survey/evaluation of the MS, not to single it out as "bad" but because I hoped such an evaluation would help give the principal, teachers, counselors, etc. there the support and resources they need to do what I think is a very difficult job. Living with a few middle schoolers is hard enough--imagine teaching hundreds of them every day!

In our family's experience, much of the middle school experience depends on which team you end up on and what your child's personality and interests are. Thus, I think the experience is varied.

I also think that, as a two-year-school for adolescents, it faces some unique challenges. Even my daughter, who is active, engaged, and never complains about going to school, feels very little investment in ARMS. Part of the rationale for doing an evaluation of the MS, I thought, was also to gather information relevant to the possible regionalization of K-12 and the potential moving of the sixth grade to ARMS.

I think evaluations of all schools would be great and very valuable, but I don't think the specific request to evaluate ARMS first was made out of malice or to single it out as "bad."

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 2:02 - thanks for your posting. I appreciate it! I certainly hear this stuff a lot in private, and again, the only way for me to tell how prevalent it is is to do a survey. That seems like the appropriate next step.

Anonymous 2:06 - in what will probably not be a really shocking bit of news to you, I didn't run for SC to make friends or to be liked or to promote the schools as excellent. I ran to make a difference in the education that all kids experience K to 12. For me, that means I have to understand what is working and what is not working -- and that can't be found out without ASKING parents/teachers/kids and examining how our kids are doing compared to those in other districts. I'm sorry if that strikes you as over-bearing or threatening, but I came to SC meetings for a year BEFORE I ran, and I saw virtually no change being made, and no interest in examining data. Is it being a bully to ask for teachers/parents/staff to give their thoughts about a school? Or to ask for an evaluation of a required 9th grade science program that has never been used in another district? I guess it would be a lot easier to just ask the teachers how they are doing -- but I do believe having some additional information is important, and I understand that this goes against every norm and tendency in our district which is to just "trust the experts" and assume all is well. Hence, I assume, the name calling of "bully." I'm glad it is "clear to you" that I chose the MS for my first survey because my child will be there in a few years. I will have three children at Fort River next year, so really, that should be my current focus, right? And why did I first waste time asking for an evaluation of the HS science curriculum, when my child won't be there for 4 years? Would you be more comfortable if I had no children in the district and/or sent my own kids to private school (true of some members of the committee)? But then it is odd that you use the phrase "wants to straighten it up" -- do you actually agree that it could use straightening up?!? And if so, is that a bad thing to do?!? If you believe the schools are doing a great job right now for all kids, then by all means you should vote me out at the earliest opportunity -- that is indeed precisely how the democratic process works.

Alison - thank you for your thoughtful post. I agree with each of your points - and indeed, the MS was "singled out" in part because of the potential push to regionalize and move the 6th grade.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:06 --

What is elitist about conducting a survey? Or about pushing for higher standards and expectations for all children in our schools? I really don't get it.

And as for Catherine being a "bully" or "threatening," I can only assume that you personally must feel threatened. I sure don't. I'm thrilled to pieces that somebody in this town is actually willing to present data, consider those data, and then ACT on those data instead of talking and wringing their hands endlessly (the dog that bit 3 separate people and still wasn't taken as a serious threat comes to mind).

It's true that not everybody will be happy with the outcome of the action, but that doesn't make Catherine (or anybody else on the school committee) a bully. She only gets ONE VOTE.

Anonymous said...

As the sayng goes - "Trust but verify." I think that is a good motto to go by. Amherst over the years has had alot of trust but not much verification. I think it is time for a little verification.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 2:06 p.m. I just love your blog....the characteristic of a bully....ahh yes....Amherst breeds many of these fine people--many, many indeed. We have classes where gudiance counselors come into to speak to 8 and 10 years old on what bullying is and how to deal with it when someone is bullying them. I think these workshops mught be helpful for adults to sit in on and learn tactics to deal with the likes of CS! I have often felt threatened by Ms. Sanderson's tone and could not agree more with you that this learned behavior is indicative of one who stands on a higher throne than the rest of the world beneath her...=)
ACE is this the Amherst Classist Elite group we heard is angry with the poor kids and the sped kids for taking away time from their kids????
And one vote or not, its a bad one!

JWolfe said...

Yes, classic bullying.

Having a blog, inviting anyone who wants to post to do so, even anonymously, answering the community's questions, providing detailed responses to questions and even attacks, these are all classic signs of bullying behavior.

I'm trying to keep track. Catherine and many of the people in town who want to improve the schools for all kids, especially those whose parents don't have the resources to send them to private school, Kumon, and other private, costly enrichment programs are (and please let me know any that I've missed):







Bambi Killers

Litter Bugs

Poster of Bills where it explicitly says "Post No Bills"

New York Yankee fans


People who don't clean up after their dogs

Dick Cheney's illegitimate love children


Pomophobes (people uncomfortable with post-modernism)

Fast Food Eaters

Clear cutters of forests

Tools of the military industrial complex

The guy who injured Tom Brady in Week 1 last year

Landlords who rent to more undergrads than is allowed by Amherst law

People who speed through intersections

People who drive too slowly so that you get stuck at the red light, but they don't give a shit because they drove right through the yellow when it turned red at all of say 8 mph in a 40 zone, god I hate those people, get off the phone and drive

Johnny Damon


the suspiciously ambidextrous

men in gray flannel suits

People who don't think the last three Star Wars movies completely sucked

well, you get the point

Anonymous said...

To all the CS critics out there: I have spoken to CS several times (and I am just an acquaintance, not a close friend) - and what I've seen is that she is energetic and motivated, and willing to do what's right by the underserved. What's elitist about that? What is so bullyish about that? I've never heard of a bully whose main motivation is to take care of the underserved. My kids are not part of the underserved (but nor are they white) - but I believe she is doing the best she can for the underserved and at the same time, for the majority of the kids in Amherst.

Why would you degrade someone who is finally willing to stand up for the kids? Would you support her if you thought she was poor? Or non-white?

Her genetic makeup or her financial status should not impact your opinion of her at all - you should only look at her words and actions and ask yourself: Is she doing what you (or others) voted her to do? Is she standing up for educational excellence for all? If you question her actions or words based on what you perceive as her race or her class, then maybe you are making classist or racist assumptions.

Don't call her names if you won't sign your own.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:06 said it well. Narcissism and hubris are timeless afflictions.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

What a lot of fun on my blog today ... my thoughts:

Anonymous 3:25 - thank you. Great points.

Anonymous 3:51 - I fully agree. Great new motto for our district.

Anonymous 6:25 - I'm sorry if you don't like my tone or feel threatened by it. I'm doing the best I can, and at times it is exhausting. But I think you should be fair -- point out ONE thing ACE has pushed for that is only good for wealthy kids/high achieving/non-SPED kids. One thing. Do you not think lower income kids benefit from algebra in 8th grade, or AP chemistry as an option in our district (as it is in many others), or differentiated instruction so that they are challenged at an appropriate level? I think it is offensive to assume that only wealthy/elite kids benefit from those opportunities. And there are many, many parents with kids in Special Ed who signed ACE -- because they don't see the schools serving their kids as well as they would like. Criticize me all you want, even anonymously -- but at least base the criticism on reality.

JWolfe - didn't that Bart-man guy, who caught that baseball in the Cubs game that meant they didn't go to the World Series also sign ACE? You forgot him on your list.

Anonymous 7:05 - thank you. I'm really touched by your post. I am really trying my hardest to do right by all the kids in Amherst, and I am glad that this focus is recognized by some.

Anonymous 7:21 - name-calling isn't going to change my opinion or help us reach solutions for all kids. How about an idea, a question, a auggestion?

not from Amherst Woods said...


Wouldn't a survey using the web based "Survey monkey" have a built in bias against those important and vital members of the community who are unable to access a computer and/or the internet?

It seems to me that this suggestion comes from privilege and elitism. Who are you serving?

Anonymous said...

not from Amherst Woods:

there is internet access available at the library. The public library. (Heck, maybe at all 3 of them!)

Choose a better target for your criticism, or -- better yet -- make a concrete suggestion.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Not from Amherst Woods - if you attended or watched the meeting, you would know that the survey will be available on line AS WELL AS in a paper format. I know it is more fun to just criticize, but believe it or not, the goal of the survey would be to get a broad response, so obviously it would be available both ways.

Anonymous 8:43 - thank you for pointing that out! Excellent point. Amherst College (that elitist institution) also has free internet service in its library, so that makes four (maybe U Mass does as well?).

not from Amherst Woods said...

In what way is telling people they can go to the library to access a computer not biased?

"Let them eat cake"

Your approach to the survey clearly favors those with easy simple computer access that comes from privilege. Are you going to poll students and parents ahead of time to find out who has internet access? Can we then single them out further by handing these few students bright orange paper surveys while the ACE crowd can submit with a couple of clicks over their wireless broadband. I would think a single parent working 14 hour days could hardly take time & money away from their lives to fill out your internet "Survey Monkey." Never mind the necessity of technological prowess that we regular computer users take for granted. Get real.

Also, who is going to create the survey? I for one am far more concerned with a potential HS drop out than someone inadequately "challenged." Will your survey uncover the Amherst School's abilities to reach and help these students.

Abbie said...

to "not from Amherst Woods..."

CS said that paper surveys will be made available. Should we hire professional surveyers to visit every household of students?

What more would you suggest?

Baldteach said...

A Statement and A Question.

The Statement
You are energized, dedicated and doggedly determined to your cause. Your message is consistent in the face of a great deal of criticism, and you have gone the further step of putting your ideals into action by running and winning a public office that allows you to try and make the changes that you think are needed.

The question
What is it about you that engenders such a violent reaction from some others? please try to examine this question without putting the onus on the reactors

not from Amherst Woods said...

anon 8:43

Here is a concrete suggestion.

Have the school committee hire an unbiased, objective survey group from the outside. It seems that this item has become #1 on Ms. Sanderson's agenda so I'm sure we can find the money somewhere.

not from Amherst Woods said... Abbie said...

Paper ballots available?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Not from Amherst Woods - a paper survey will be available. It can go home with all kids. If that's important to you, tell me and I'll make sure it happens. That's the kind of constructive suggestion that is pretty easy to implement. I'd strongly recommend you watch the meeting on ACTV -- the interim superintendent will be creating the survey, along with her staff and the principals, and I believe incoming superintendent Rodriguez. I don't think any of them are biased?!? Surveys were done last year (for free) at all of the schools, so I'm frankly not sure why you are so concerned about whether the survey is biased and who writes it. But if you have questions you'd like to have answered, send them to the superintendent ( -- she specifically asked for suggested items at the meeting.

Abbie - yes. Thank you!

Baldteach - thank you for the statement. I do appreciate it! In terms of the question -- I think that I have a "strong personaity" and, yes, that turns some people off. In my experience (especially in Amherst), people either love me or hate me ... so I would say people have an "extreme" reaction to me. I know there are people on this blog who clearly hate me and are very critical and suspicious of virtually everything I say and do. I will also tell you that there are people who I do not even know who email me privately and tell me "thanks for sticking your neck out there," and "you are doing a great job." I just think people see what I'm doing in different ways -- and I think a lot of how people are reacting to me has to do with NOT what I'm like personally (or my energy, dedication), but rather what I'm trying to accomplish. I get a lot of heat from MM parents for my blog -- but I am very, very willing to bet that if my blog pushed keeping MM open at all costs, they would have NO issue with my blog at all! So, I think I do have a "strong personality" but I also think people's reaction to me is being driven in part by their real dislike of my goals. And that is frankly people's right -- in a democracy, people are free to vote for or against those that reflect their own views of what they want to see in the schools. People may like me or hate me -- but I would say people at least know exactly where I stand, right?

Not from Amherst Woods - I am pretty darn sure that if I pushed for hiring an outside person (and paid that person out of district money), I'd get a huge amount of criticism -- probably from YOU. But really, I don't think this is a complex thing to do -- the superintendent has said she and her staff can do it ... and it has been done at every school every year. If you have questions you'd like asked, email them in (as I've noted before). But I can't imagine the superintendent is going to write a biased survey (e.g., "How bad do you think the MS is? Very bad or just bad?"). It is silly to assume that the district staff isn't highly able to write a clear and objective survey - I'm sure that is completely their goal, and the principals will be able to contribute their own ideas for questions as well.

And finally -- YES, the survey can and will be ALSO given on paper (as it has been in all schools in the past).

sza said...

This conversation has certainly covered a lot of ground, some comments only tangentially connected to the original topic.

I would ask to bring back a thought directly related to the conversation from last night. That is the reminder that there is a HUGE DIFFERENCE between a survey and an evaluation. This was mentioned by a speaker at the meeting, and reiterated by Baldteach early on in this blog journey.

When Catherine shared her meant-to-be-inspiring tale of not being threatened by the evaluation of her own department she was talking about an independent evaluation done by outside professionals. This is so different than "let's throw together the best survey we can in a couple of weeks and see what those that are inspired, interested, or merely able to respond feel like saying". Not to mention any personal agendas, hidden or otherwise, that might come out in such a survey.

I know those that are putting together and distributing the survey will do their best to do it well, especially given the time and the budget. I believe some interesting trends may very well be revealed. But please do not compare it to, or confuse it with, an independent evaluation from expert and non-biased individuals. Please do not over-react to comments in any direction that it might inspire.

I think educators are always open to evaluation. We
constantly reflect on how we are doing, and we respond to the answers constantly, and often very quickly. We share ideas and reflections with colleagues. We are evaluated by administrators who actually watch what we are doing. I think a professional and unbiased evaluation would always be welcomed by any educators who take their work seriously. And the teachers at the middle school do take their work seriously!

I worry about the importance that might be given to the results of this survey. I feel some will treat it as an equivalent of a real evaluation, which, I repeat, IT IS NOT.

I know that it was agreed last night that the results would be published and this concerns me as well, and not because I am threatened or have something to hide. I think people who participate in the survey (and others who didn't) would want to, and should get to, see the results. I am worried, though, that important policy debates and decisions might be fueled by making public the results of what we all agree is merely a taking of a pulse of public OPINIONS. Many of these opinions will be based on fact and experience, but many may also be based on hearsay, second-or-third party comments, biased pre-survey comments (even those made by elected officials),
and personal agendas.

I hope we stay realistic throughout this process, and after it, as to exactly what we are conducting here (it's a SURVEY!) and that we view and utilize the results appropriately.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response to SZA - two things. First, my original motion did ask for an evaluation, and I agree with you that that would be more useful than a survey. But it was pretty clear to me after my colleagues' reluctance to do this at the last meeting that I wasn't going to get a vote to do this (and in fairness, I do think this would take some time to organize, find people, plan, etc.). I do like the idea of having this done, however, and I think it would be GREAT if the MS staff/teachers could band together and ASK for this. That strikes me as very useful (and this is from one who literally this week had four people spend two days with my department doing this). I am hopeful that the survey will be the first step in this -- and it will tell us what people are thinking, and that is valuable (again, my department had all students do a survey, and those results were interesting and in some cases surprising). Another thing that I think is important -- people's PERCEPTIONS matter. So, even if a survey is just testing PERCEPTIONS (and I think this is pretty much what it does) of rigor or challenge or support or warmth or whatever, that is valuable information. If people PERCEIVE the school in a certain way, EVEN IF THAT WAY IS INACCURATE, that might be good to know, and it might be something we could solve. I ran for SC because I wanted to try to help improve K to 12 education in Amherst -- and I have to assume that principals, assistant principals, teachers, etc. all share this goal, right? So, I might be going about it in a different way than other people might want, but I'm really doing the best I can. I'm not allowed to reach out to teachers personally (as my SC role), but if anyone wants to be in touch with me -- with ideas, suggestions, thoughts, etc. -- email me privately ( I don't think of this as "parents" versus "teachers" or whatever -- I have to assume we are all on the same side of wanting things to be great in our schools for all kids.

Baldteach said...

Your last post touched on the idea that I was getting at when I asked my question.

We are all engaged in the same mission, it would seem, and yet I, as a teacher, have felt like I was under attack since the very first time I heard/read your name. (The same holds true for Mr. Rivkin, but he almost immediately stepped back and your voice was the more prominent of the two) ACE as a group and you as a candidate have enjoyed a bully pulpit in the Bulletin and have made political hay out of bashing the schools. (Yes, you have in the past given passing kudos to the teachers, but it has been a weak salve applied to a large wound)
I have consistently felt, as I read your writing, and watched your campaign, that you believe you're the only person really seriously in this effort to improve the schools. I cannot recall that you have ever acknowledged that we the educators are constantly engaged in improving the middle and high schools to meet the needs of all the students. This is not lip service, but an active effort in which we are deeply invested. You seem to present ideas as proclamations, as if no one in the entire system has thought of such a thing before. (please note that this is how it seems to me, I do know what your thoughts are until you publish them) The end result is akin to having a passenger in a car giving you directions to your own home, all the while saying "just listen and drive, I'll get you there."
This is not endearing.
You have written that you did not run for office to make friends, but allies, outside the group that makes up the ACE voting block might prove useful in moving forward toward everyone's goal, the best schools possible. This might require a little less flat out school-bashing.
Or you could just wait until two more seats on the committee go over to ACE members and then you'll have a voting majority, (and you guys are nothing if not motivated) and then no one can stop you.
But at some point, for any of us to move the schools forward we have to work together toward our shared goal.

Just an idea...

Anonymous said...

I don't think any of them are biased?!?

One would hope that a psychology professor would know that experiments/surveys are biased. Blind and double-blind are an attempt to reduce bias but it is ALWAYS there.

Anonymous said...

In a town with residents that view themselves as intellectual and progressive, welcoming to change, welcoming to the exchange of ideas, we seem to be terribly wedded to the status quo.

That's the only way that I can explain some of the reaction to Catherine.

And we have a system of government that makes change about as difficult as it can be. Town Meeting feels like the rolling of a gigantic boulder up a very long hill. After all the effort, often the boulder rolls back down the hill.

This is why it's difficult to recruit people for Town Meeting service, because, once people have tried it, they may find that it seems like a substantial expenditure of time to very little effect for their community.

And apparently a substantial number of residents like it that way.

p.s. With regard to my daughter's boredom I referenced earlier, my daughter is perfectly capable of actively learning on her own, in fact, initiating her own learning. But, if you're going to require her to show up in a Middle School classroom and then sit there, you ought to have something worthwhile for her to do. That didn't happen a lot in 7th grade for her. This makes school like a prison for some really interesting kids. It was NOT the usual adolescent wailing, and I'm not hearing it now about ARHS. I think kids should be taken seriously about this.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Baldteach - I appreciate the tone of your post and the thoughts you share. But I also think it speaks to the real problem with "me" and "ACE" -- it is parents and community members saying strongly and clearly that the schools aren't working for their kids, and that feels like "teacher bashing." It isn't, and I think it is unfair to describe it that way -- and it suggests to me just such a strong resistance to actually examining what we are doing in our schools that those who dare to question the educational experience we are providing are immediately accused of being divisive and teacher bashing! Can you list ONE THING Steve or I have said in the press or at a meeting describing all teachers? It might surprise you to know that individual teachers at all of the schools have reached out to me to thank me for the work I'm trying to do -- who feel frustrated by the current system and the lack of support for challenging all kids. They appreciate my efforts, and the efforts of ACE, and see me/us as asking tough questions and not just accepting that "sure, everything is fine." (And we have met privately with a number of current and past teachers who share our frustrations and feel powerless, given their positions, to speak out themseslves). So, is asking for an evaluation of an unprecedented 9th grade science program to make sure it works as well as the more typical biology track used in other districts "teacher bashing"? Is asking for surveys of the middle school to see how the school is working for all kids "teacher bashing"? Again, I don't see either of those as teacher bashing, and I think it is a real shame that efforts to actually evaluate what we are doing FOR KIDS is seen as criticism. That to me speaks volumes about how/why I get so much heat -- I'm daring to say let's have evidence, and not just rely on anecdote and intuition -- or a room full of MS teachers and staff saying that they are doing a great job. One more point -- about 350 people signed ACE. I was elected with over 2000 votes. So, the majority of people who support me in this town did not sign ACE. I'll repeat the offer I gave to you earlier -- contact me privately anytime to tell me how you'd like to work WITH me to make change. But frankly, I see asking for a survey to help inform MS teachers/staff about strengths and areas of concern as a great way of working TOGETHER to improve the school -- yet I am pretty sure that is seen as "teacher bashing," right? One final thing -- you say that you and others are focused on improving the schools, and that this is not only my goal (I don't think I've implied that it is only my/our goal, but regardless). But here's the thing -- this focus on improvement is NEVER seen by the community. So, if you, or any of the teachers had stood up at the SC meeting and said "we know there are some problems with the MS, and the things we continually hear are X, Y, and Z, and we are therefore trying to fix them by doing A, B, and C," that would have been AMAZING (and maybe even eliminated the need for the survey). But instead, any parents who raise issues and concerns (and I've talked to a number of parents who have described this to me) are told either "your kid will be OK" and/or "middle school is a difficult time". This does NOT give parents confidence that you and/or others actually are trying to work to make it better for all kids. I believe Steve and I are the only ones who have been willing to state openly that there may be some problems that need to be addressed -- but it would be GREAT if we could hear those things from people in the schools, so that the community would understand that there is at least awareness of such concerns (which I believe really do exist) and hopefully some specific steps towards solving them. So, here's my deal to you -- come to the next SC meeting and describe in an opening meeting what you see as the problems in the MS and how you think these problems should be solved. That would go a LONG way towards helping the community understand that progress can/will occur, and then I don't have to take that on because I'll truly believe that others are aware and focused on making such changes themselves. Deal?

Anonymous 6:47 - Blind and double-blind are terms used for experiments, not surveys. We aren't doing an experiment, meaning that experimenters won't be interacting with people while they complete the survey. Surveys can be written in a biased way, sure, but I think it is difficult to imagine that Maria and the principals will write a biased survey to deliberately elicit negative responses, right? But if that is your concern, send them specific questions you'd like to see answered.

Anonymous 7:18 - thanks for your post. It does seem like protecting the status quo is extremely important in this town. The other thing that is noteworthy to me about this academic town is that it seems like the "best data" we rely on is what people say -- e.g., anecdote and intuition. But gosh, there are so many examples in which this type of "data" has really, really bad consequences (we can start with virtually any decision by the Bush administration). The single thing that is the most shocking to me about all of this is that simply asking for DATA -- is this program working? how many kids are going to private school? how is this school working for all kids -- is seen as suspicious, biased, and divisive. And yes, I agree that kids' views should be taken seriously -- I've heard from many kids that they experience different MS classes in different ways (so it is not just that MS is boring, but that this one class is boring and the other one isn't). That suggests to me that it is not just a common "let's complain about boredom," since it seems quite specific.

an amherst parent said...


Good job on the ARMS survey. You seem to be taking a disproportionate amount of grief but, you know, I think you are doing more than you realize. The school boards are out of the habit of acting and now you are training them away from this because you don't just drop issues and move onto the next inconclusive discussion. It will get easier as they get into a groove that moves beyond the formulaic, cursery discussion.

It seems we always have to speak of the dispossessed, attack those with money (or internet service), education or any achievement, talk about the parents not in the room and so on -- and then we subside into inertia. Everyone wants to talk, make no one feel bad except people who are successful in some way or have any benefit by birth, reiterate what great schools we have and then move onto the next agenda item. But then there you are with your ideas and persistence -- and so you are attacked. It's remarkable to me how much energy people put into making sure nothing is done.

Nina Koch said...


You missed the point of my post. I don't think that I can infer your motives, just as I don't think that you can infer other people's motives. I was trying to show you how silly it was to try to do so.

You found it rude that I would say you feel threatened or that you don't care. But that is exactly what you say about people who disagree with you.

Look back at all the things you have said about your fellow school committee members, people you work with. You have depicted them as head-nodding group thinkers. You have explained their votes as coming from fear. You suggested they didn't read a report because they didn't see it the way you did. You imply that people without children currently in the schools don't truly care about the schools. You say things like "Oh, so you're in favor of bad evaluation, then?" How is someone supposed to respond to that?

And in fact, you have been invited to come see what we do. Look back to the day when you found one quote in one article with one footnote that allowed you to proclaim that the practice of intervention teaching doesn't work as well as small class size in early grades. Someone then posted a comment inviting you to see what form intervention teaching takes in our district, to see what we are actually doing (which might be very different from what is included in a nationally aggregated study). You declined the invitation because that would be anecdotal evidence.

I think there is in fact a lot to learn about what we do. I am fine with surveys; that is one tool. You can also learn by asking questions and being open-minded as you listen to the responses. So, rather than stating that the high school has low standards, you could ask us to show you what we are doing to provide all students with academic challenge. You might be surprised by some of the programs that you would learn about. You could ask us what changes we are considering to increase the level of challenge. I am not saying the high school is perfect. There are lots of things I would like to see changed. Middle school teachers might feel the same way.

The only effective way to bring about change is to work with people. You can't strong-arm them into submission. To work with people, the first thing you have to do is talk with them, and assume that they bring the same care and devotion to the task that you bring.

Anonymous said...

As the parent of a preschooler who has heard a lot of negative perceptions of ARMS, I think a survey is a great idea--and would think that ARMS stakeholders would, too, since they must know that there's a lot of parent-to-parent judgment being bandied about, and this will at least get things out in the open. I don't think Catherine and Steve discussing this perception openly biases the survey--the perception is out there already, BIG time. I mean, my daughter isn't even in kindergarten yet and I'm already being warned! I've wondered how much of that is accurate, how much of it is overblown (people do like to have something to complain about). At least this survey will capture a wider scope of opinions.

And when it comes to the personal attacks, the defensive tones, the overheated reactions... I am very grateful to Catherine for demonstrating that strong personalities are important instruments of change. I mean, do you see how much time and energy goes into this blog, answering each and every comment, alone? And then people assume she has some nefarious goal?

I just remembered that after all, we are in New England, and that accusing strong women of witchcraft must come with the territory.

I might not agree with all of Catherine's opinions, but at least I know what her opinions are, and how she came to them.

Anonymous said...

Middle school years are the toughest. No matter where, in every community that's the school people think of as the weakest/worst/scariest/least successful - take your pick. We're no different.

Andrea said...

As a social worker and a person who works daily with the 'underpriveledged' who apparently according to this blog do not have access to a computer, I am appalled by these conversations. The way that we talk about socio/economic and race status in this town is incredibly offensive. Many of these 'underpriviledged' people are quite happy and enjoy their lives and families. Their children sometimes have specific needs in the schools, but not always. Just as some rich, white kids sometimes have learning disabilities or autism, etc... The tone of these conversations though seems to be coming not from a position of a person who is underpriviledged fighting for themselves. Rather, it sounds like it is coming from a different group of 'priviledged' parents who are trying to 'imagine' what it would be like to be in someone else's shoes. I believe that is more offensive to this group of people than anything you 'perceive' that ACE has done. If you want to know what offends this group of people, go and talk with them. I can assure you it is not what you think it is.

Anonymous said...

First, I'd like to say that I don't "hate" or "love" Catherine. I think she's a woman with strong ideas, who wants to see/make things happen and isn't going to wait around for other people to "discuss" everything to death (which seems to happen A LOT in this town). I also think that Catherine put it best when she said she had a "strong personality." That's for sure! But that does NOT make her a bully. I think people are threatened by or feel uncomfortable about Catherine because she's steadfastly proactive and not afraid to say what's on her mind, the exact way it came to her mind.

As a teacher in Amherst, I have of course felt the sting of criticisms or questioning by a parent. I'm lucky that this has not happened to me much [yet?], but it has indeed happened. Questions or "concerns" are always math related, wherein parents worry that their child won't be challenged at some future point in the year (consequently, these parents are always "financially comfortable," but NOT always white).

Any challenges I provide are challenges I've had to research and track down on my own. I don't have books or materials for enrichment, unless I've bought them myself, nor have I had much Professional Development surrounding methods for challenging "high flying" students. I've learned much of what I've learned through talking to other teachers, trial and error and lots of reading (on my own). It's not fair to place blame solely on the teacher (which a lot of parents do) because we all do the best we can with what we've got.

Parental questions and concerns are NOT the issues that teachers have - it's the accusations. I have colleagues who have been verbally attacked both privately and publicly by parents who don't even stop to ask for rationale on an assignment before placing judgement. The teacher is automatically to blame.

Some questioning should be directed to teachers, sure, because we're providing the direct instruction, however, many more questions should be about the resources and professional development opportunities (or lack thereof) available by the district surrounding how to challenge "high fliers."

sza said...

I appreciated the comments in Nina's recent entry (11:37AM) and found them telling. I think some of what she said could have served to answer Baldteach's question about why people are reacting the way they are to you, Catherine. (which, btw, I didn't feel that you answered in the self-reflective spirit in which it was asked).

I don't think the reactions are simply because you have a "strong personality" as you offered in your reply to the question. I think it has a lot more to do with your tactics (ironic note: that contains the word "tact"), your confrontational style, and your approaches to people. Please re-read Nina's second paragraph where she points out that the very behavior you were calling her on, is what many feel that you yourself do to others. Food for thought, I think.

Now as you said yourself in an earlier reply to me "perceptions matter"and they can tell us a lot. Well, if many people out there have the perception that they have been disrespected, attacked, insulted, put down, (fill in other words here), is it all in their heads, or is it just "their problem"? Could there just be lots of people who don't happen to like someone with a strong personality? I would ask you to reflect a bit more on what people are saying to you (the thoughtful, civil ones, at least) when many are sharing such remarkably similar perceptions with you of how they have felt treated.

lise said...

Anon 7:34

I don't know at what level you teach, but as a parent of a child who suffered through ARMS version of differentiated teaching of 7th grade math (before the current textbook)I want to offer a parent perspective. Whenever the issue of math was brought up at public or private meetings with school officials parents were told that teachers all were expert at providing differentiated teaching in the classrooms. All we had to do to get our children some extra challenge was to ask the teacher. It was the standard excuse as to why there was no need to discuss, align and/or upgrade the math curriculum. Our talented teachers had it all under control.

In fact, I believe the situation is more as you describe. Teachers are expected to provide differentiated instruction without the support of any curriculum, tools or training. In a class with 20 some kids, with diverse levels of skill and preparation, this is an almost impossible task. Yet parents were repeatedly told that speaking to the teacher was their only option. The end result was general frustration on the part of the students, the teachers and the parents.

This is my big issue with the differentiated instruction espoused by Amherst schools. It is a great idea, poorly executed. In my daughter's experience most extensions were extra busywork rather than truly a challenge. I hope that with the assistant superintendent position dedicated to curriculum development and alignment this will begin to change. I also hope that teachers can be open to identifying and sharing best practices, and to using some standardized tools across all classrooms. In this way they can have more time to focus on teaching and supporting students at all levels.

Anonymous said...

anon 9:28 PM, This is a problem I am facing now. I have had wonderful conversations with my child's teacher asking for a higher level of math. We were given packets to do. There isn't any verbal instruction with them and my child sits through math he knows, not allowed to work on packets during class. We do it together at night. I am afraid this boredom will lead to disliking school if it is not addressed. Also, I am just a middle class mom who didn't make it through college. I won't be able to help much longer!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

An Amherst Parent - thanks much. I agree with all of what you said ... and certainly have gained a lot of insight into why so few people run for SC!

Nina - OK, I totally apologize -- I have no idea at all why someone would oppose a survey of how a school where they teach is doing. I gave some guesses, and maybe I was wrong. Regardless, I still do NOT understand why the MS teachers aren't thrilled with some attention being focused on learning about how their schools is perceived from a broad set of perspectives (including their own). You are a teacher at the high school, so I can imagine that you are defending other teachers ... but again, I'd maybe focus on the benefits of such a survey for ALL teachers -- I'm not hearing a whole lot of that.

You can, and have, criticized what I've written about my fellow school committee members -- and the community of parents who have attended meetings, watched meetings on TV, and tried to make changes in the school can decide whether they agree with my description of the relative inaction, and the motives for such inaction, on the part of the SC (past and current), or whether they agree with you. The community can also decide how it feels about SC members who elect private school for their own kids, but make policy and curricular decisions for the kids in Amherst. That is the great thing about a democracy -- and yes, if the community feels that more agreeable and consensus-building SC members is a priority, I very much hope they will vote accordingly. I ran on a very, very clear platform -- a platform of change, and dissatisfaction with the current way of making decisions. I'm now following through on this intention, in part out of respect for the 2000+ people who voted for me. So, people may not like what I'm doing at all -- but really, they shouldn't be surprised, right?

But fundamentally, you and I disagree on how decisions should be made in our schools. You ridicule a footnote in a research study that suggests small classes are more important than intervention teachers (an article that summarized published work on the benefits of small class size, for the record) -- even though I just posted that article for conversation on my blog -- I didn't bring it up at an SC meeting, I haven't pushed it as a platform for making decisions, and so on. In fact, if you read through my posts, you clearly see that I've said one of the reasons to close MM is that the cuts to the intervention teachers would be too great! But nonetheless, you'll criticize my lack of interest in spending time gathering anecdotal evidence (again, I still don't believe that a one day visit to a school discussing how intervention work occurs is a reasonable way to make a decision about how to spend valuable dollars -- if that day convinced me that intervention teachers did nothing, would you be comfortable with me then encouraging their elimination? I hope not).

I am glad you support the idea of a survey -- although I can't imagine what could be more open-minded than having a blog, receiving constant suggestions/criticisms, and replying to each and every one.

I think the low standards for math and science at the HS is a concern -- do you not? Even if all teachers are providing all kids with maximum challenge, simply listing the requirements (4 years English, 3 years social studies, 2 years math, 2 years science) conveys a very powerful message about what is valued and typical in our school. Even if EVERY SINGLE STUDENT takes four years of math and science, I think it is too bad that we currently expect fewer years of math/science than does Belchertown. Finally, I'd love to hear what you think could be better about the high school -- and for middle school teachers to say what they think should be better about their school. Might that be a more effective way of sharing information with a SC member than constant criticism? I've heard many views over the last months about how to bring about change -- I have also watched the inertia in this district (and this town) for a long, long time, and I think there are real consequences to the kids in our system of what we are doing, and what we are not doing. Again, I think it is a real shame that you are describing my focus on DATA -- how is the MS working? how is the 9th grade science program working? -- as strong-arming people (similar, I guess, to being a bully). I just want to know the answers about what is working well (and for who) and what is not -- but the resistance to even finding out these answers continues to astonish me. In my great ignorance, I assumed that other people in our schools would welcome the opportunity to get such answers -- instead of portraying even the question about "is our policy the best" as teacher-bashing and being strong-armed. What a sad, sad statement when my desire for INFORMATION that should benefit all teachers, all principals, and all kids is portrayed in such a negative light. It is truly telling about the state of our district.

Anonymous 2:24 - thanks much for your post! I too heard concerns about the MS before my now-10-year-old entered school ... and those concerns weren't spread by me! I am glad you support a survey -- and appreciate your remarks about the hazards of being a strong woman (I guess I'm lucky that they are not -- yet -- trying to burn me at the stake?). But I actually believe that some people think I do have a nefarious goal -- change.

Anonymous 3:29 - I think you are frankly probably right ... but that also means that we should be doing all we can to try to make sure these years are as good as possible, right?!? I'm hoping a survey will give us valuable information about what the MS is doing well, and what could be better.

Andrea - thanks much for your post. It does seem to me that many of the posters who emphasize the "underpriviledged" are speaking in a pretty patronizing tone. And I think it is really dangerous (and inaccurate) to assume that lower income kids wouldn't also benefit from extra challenge, etc. You added a really valuable voice here - thanks.

Anonymous 7:34 - thanks so much for your really thoughtful post ... I found it very helpful, and very constructive. I agree that parents can and do say some awful things to teachers -- I've heard these directly and indirectly, and I'm sorry for you and your colleagues on this front. I also think you raise a really important point -- how do we support teachers so that they can appropriately differentiate instruction? You suggest professional development, and I know those funds are being really, really cut. Can you think of other things that would help? Smaller classes? Added books/supplies? Informal mentoring from older/experienced teachers to younger/newer ones? This is something I'd really like to learn more about, and I'd appreciate any suggestions you might have on this blog or privately ( For the record, anyone who emails me on that account will receive a totally private response, and that communication will be completely confidential. Thanks again for your post -- I really appreciated it.

SZA - I'm doing the best I can -- and to then be criticized for not answering yet another anonymous post in the "self-reflective spirit in which it was asked" strikes me as a little much. Can you give a specific example of my tactics? I have asked for data at meetings, which I think is my role on the SC. That seems like a pretty good approach for getting data. Can you give me a specific example of my being confrontational, or how you (or others you know) have been "treated" by me? You must have several since you feel comfortable describing my personality, right? I remain completely puzzled about why people wouldn't want a survey -- I guess in my ignorance, I would assume that people, in a spirit of self-improvement, would see this as an opportunity to learn what is working well and what is not working well at a school where they teach. I will assume you teach at the MS, based on your earlier post -- can you tell me, even anonymously, what YOU think is working well and not working well? Any acknowledgment from anyone in the district of what things are NOT working well and how they ARE being fixed would really go a long way in making people feel hopeful about even the potential for some positive change. But we hear nothing like this.

You note that "many people out there have the perception that they have been disrespected, attacked, insulted, put down..." but I guess I don't know if this is true at all (this is the problem with relying on data from a very small number of people -- which is why I asked for a survey of all parents, to figure out if the complaints I have heard from a few are representative or not). You say perhaps "lots of people who don't happen to like someone with a strong personality" -- so, are you describing 50 people who don't like me? 100? 200? I certainly hear concerns about me -- and my style, tone, etc. And for every one of those, I hear another one who says thanks for having some balls, thanks for taking the heat, thanks for saying what we want to say but just can't take the criticism. Are there more of one than the other? I have no idea. But I think the key thing here is that this isn't about me, and it isn't about you -- it is about the kids in the schools. I can't make the education experience for the kids better unless I know what is and is not working -- it would be irresponsible for me to guess, and it would be irresponsible of me to just ask the teachers "hey, how's it going?" to find out. I'm doing the best I can to find out, and I'm sorry if you, and others, don't like my tone/style/personality. But this isn't about me and whether you like me. It is about whether it will be helpful to our schools, and to our new superintendent, to at least know what parents, kids, and teachers think about our schools. If you are agree that a survey would be helpful, you can support one even if the idea was proposed by someone you hate.

Lise - thank you for your post -- it speaks to the frustration that so many parents experience when they try to find a way for the child to be more challenged, and it speaks to the tremendous challenge of teaching children with different skills, temperaments, interests, and attributes.

Anonymous 11:40 - thanks for your post ... and I've heard this story before from other parents. You also raise a really, really important point that hasn't been made before - that bored kids can start to dislike school (and bored kids can start to act up and misbehave). Teachers often assume that parents who want extra challenge for their kids are trying to prove their kid is smarter, or to prepare them for Harvard or whatever -- but the reality is, there are real consequences for kids who are bored and then get turned off by school, in part because they are deprived of the really great feeling of NOT knowing something, struggling with it, and then mastering it (which really should be the joy of school).

Anonymous said...

So there seems to be a problem in some classrooms in some schools with an uneven quality of differentiated instruction. As CS and others have said, there are real consequesences for bored children who are not being challenged IN school. This problem has consequences for some children at all levels of income and diversity.

What is the SC going to do about this problem?

Anonymous said...

Any acknowledgment from anyone in the district of what things are NOT working well and how they ARE being fixed would really go a long way in making people feel hopeful about even the potential for some positive change. But we hear nothing like this.

Hmm, seems like the presentation that the HS science teachers about the 9th grade curriculeum made to the SC fits that description. And what was your response? You blew them off and, even better, used their presentation as more ammunition to fuel your agenda.

Or in the last SC meeting, when the MS teachers expressed what they thought would make a good survey. What was the result? You(perhaps intentionally) mistinterpreted the statements which were offered in a cooperative and collaborative spirit as a general opposition to a survey, which from reading the posts here at least, it is clear that they do not.

Is it any wonder why anyone who isn't patting you on the back feels that they are simply wasting their breath offering you helpful suggestions?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 6:50 - good, and fair, question! I think the SC needs two things. First, is there a district-wide commitment to differentiating instruction? I'm not sure that there is ... and I've heard stories from teachers suggesting that this is not necessarily encouraged (e.g., some kids getting "ahead" is seen by some as problematic - I don't know how widespread this is). Second, if there is a district-wide commitment to differentiating, what do teachers NEED to be able to do this well (e.g., small classes, professional development, mentoring from experienced to newer, etc.)? I guess those are the two things that occur to me that the SC could suggest the new superintendent tackle.

Anonymous 8:01 - I sat through the entire presentation by the HS science teachers -- what would you say was acknowledged to be "not working"? Some minor lab assignment that was then revised? I didn't see any data on how the experience of this course compared to the old bio/earth science courses, nor did I see any data on how the course was working for different kids (e.g., those with more versus less math, by gender, etc.). I do have an "agenda" -- I'd like our schools to prepare all kids for whatever they want to do in life. I'm pretty blatant about this agenda, so this probably isn't a surprise to you. But if you design a course that is not being done anywhere else, I think the bar is pretty high to show if it is working -- and I am disappointed that there seems to be no acknowledgment that this is an unprecedented course and hence we really need to seriously and rigorously evaluate whether this is the best preparation for later science or not (because many other districts have reached a different conclusion on this). The example of the MS teachers suggest "what would make a good survey" is NOT an example of saying what is and is not working in the school, which is what I thought would be helpful to the community -- a recognition that there MIGHT be some things that aren't working for ALL kids as well as they could.

I continue to not understand the resistance here -- none of this is personal. I think good, smart, thoughtful people can be wrong -- that happens all the time (including to me). And I don't think finding out the MS isn't working so well in some domains and/or for some kids is a personal attack on the MS teachers/staff/principal. It is an OPPORTUNITY to learn about one's school. I work at Amherst College, and I can tell you right now three or four things that I think really aren't working well there, and should be changed. Same with my department, and same with my teaching. That isn't because I hate these people or they are bad or evil ... it is just that all organizations can benefit from thoughtful reflection and outside feedback -- and I wish this opportunity to get such feedback was in fact taken in a spirit of "great, this will be really helpful to us as we try to make the school as good as it can be," instead of this constant criticism on the person who dares to violate all Amherst norms and state in public that maybe one of our schools could benefit from improvement. Only in Amherst is such a thought so very, very scary.

Anonymous said...

If what you say, that you are trying your best to make it good for all kids in this system then you won't mind listening to a voice that has experience, with kids being effected in mostly negative ways, from both sides of the coin. I have parented children who I believe have been funneled into the sped program therefore releasing the classroom teacher from any responsibility to teach this child. This is the truth, plain and simple, to what happens to the majority of these kids. I have also sat in classrooms where this same teacher will not deal with behaviors of this child that disrupt his/her lesson and rightfully so I suppose, but what has placed the child in this circumstance in the first place is my main concern.
Special education might be renamed as the Amherst tracking system, well and strong and in disguise. An overwhelming number of kids in these programs are low-income and kids of color.
Take a survey, create yet another committee, and collect your concrete data from the 80's, the 90's and 2000 on and my point shall be well proven!
This can be a good starting point to unveil the harm being done in the public schools.
Do you oversee the East Street and South Amherst High Schools as well when you sit on the Regional School Committee board? Why are these schools hidden? Why aren't they posted on the ARPS website? Why can't you find them on their telephone directory? How can a superintendent who once directed the special ed department be now responsible for evaluating this department? Please--what is going there???

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:50 here.

I know that anecdotal evidence is not the strongest of evidence of how well something is working or not working. Nonetheless I think this story could indicate some of the damage and lasting affects that can happen to someone who is bored in school due to the lack of differentiated instruction.

This story concerns the daughter of a very good friend of mine. This daughter, lets call her Jill, is now 33 years old. She was a very bright child - reading at the age of three, able to understand higher math concepts at a very early age, etc. She was clearly much brighter than many of her peers and capable of doing math, science, reading and other subjects at levels above her own grade-level. Many of her teachers provided her with differentiated instruction and she was blossoming.

Then she ran into a teacher in the fifth grade who did not believe in differentiated instruction and this teacher made this bright, engaging child do the same work as everyone else in the class. She was bored to tears. No matter ow hard my friend worked to try to get her some enrichment she was not successful. As my friend puts it - this teacher "broke" her daughter. After the fifth grade her child was no longer birght and engaging. She no longer enjoyed school - she had no interest in school. She graduated from high school and went on to college but was not really vested in college. She dropped out in her first year.

She finally decided to go back to school a couple of years ago and is getting straight A's and is again very engaged in learning - over 20 years after her experience with the teacher who "broke" her.

This is only one story of how a teacher uninterested (or incapable for whatever reason) of differentiated instruction can have a huge impact on a child's life. I am sure there are many more.

It is important that every teacher is on board with differentiated learning and that they are given the tools and information they need to do it well. The SC should make is a priority to look into how well the Amherst schools are doing differentiated instruction.

Nina Koch said...


Thanks for asking what teachers need to be able to differentiate instruction.

I think learning how to differentiate instruction is actually really difficult, especially in math. It's even harder if you grew up in a very traditional math environment, where the teacher stands at the board and demonstrates algorithms, you passively watch the teacher, and then attempt to replicate the teacher's actions with or without understanding them. Many people have had this experience. They may have spent their entire school mathematics career simply mimicking procedures, most of which they do not now use in adult life. Not everyone has this experience, of course, but it is common.

If that is your experience, then it's hard to see how math can be an arena for creativity and collaboration. It's hard to push kids to figure things out for themselves if you have never done that kind of discovery yourself.

So what do teachers need? Depending on their background, one of the things they might need is a different experience with math. They need to see themselves as mathematicians, capable of making conjectures and proving them. Professional development and coaching can provide that experience.

I heard Steve say at a school committee meeting that we wouldn't need math coaches if we had a better math curriculum. But actually, the coaching model is a central feature of all the reform curricula. Newton, for example, uses the coaching model for implementing Everyday Math.

coaching at Newtonand more infoEven for teachers who do already feel confident thinking mathematically, it's always helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off of, whether that be to find one more way to help a struggling student or to look for higher levels of abstraction that will engage an eager student in a particular content area.

So the presence of math coaches is one thing that we need, along with lots of other things. Unfortunately, in this budget climate, I don't know how we are going to get any of the things we need. But thanks for asking.

Anonymous said...

sorry, I messed up the links above. here they are again. (I hope!)

math philosophy statementeffectiveness of coachingNina

Abbie said...

to Nina:

I hope you will still be teaching when my daughter gets to HS, just 7 more years. Please.

You sound like a fantastic teacher!

Anonymous said...

I’m not against a survey, but I want it to give us meaningful data or it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Here’s a section from “An Introduction to Survey Methodology and Design,” by James K. Doyle, a professor at WPI. The fourth bullet concerns me in particular. While I known Superintendent Geryk and the principals will do their best, they just don’t have the time to devote to this undertaking at this point in the year. We only have 6 weeks left in the school year.

• Survey studies rely on "self-report" data, that is, they depend on participants to truthfully and accurately report on their attitudes and characteristics. This does not always happen. For example, some respondents may deliberately answer questions incorrectly or flippantly. However, if the survey is conducted in a professional manner, this occurs less often than you might think. A much greater concern is that subjects may simply commit "honest" errors of omission, confusion, or false memory.

• Survey studies are subject to well-known types of bias. For example, since respondents know they are being studied, and have at least some idea why, they may change their answers, either consciously or unconsciously, to show themselves in a better light or to conform to the expectations of those who are studying them. It is also possible for experimenters to deliberately or inadvertently write survey questions that bias people to respond the way they want them to.

• If conducted properly, surveys can accurately represent the opinions and judgments of a population of people. However, this doesn't mean that these opinions are correct. Although survey data can be used to inform decision making and public policy, they cannot substitute for expert judgment and analysis.

• Finally, conducting a scientific survey is not a trivial undertaking. Scientific surveys require careful research and planning, are labor intensive, and can take weeks to implement and analyze. If your project team has less than a full 7-week term to devote to the survey portion of your IQP, you would probably be well-advised to try to answer your research questions using another method.

It makes more sense to me to develop this survey over the summer and perhaps use open house as a place to distribute them.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:45 AM9:45 AM,
I was curious so I looked to see if I could find contact info for the other HS locations. I found the phone numbers listed in the verizon book and also contact info for both on the web site. Maybe you should take it up with the web designer to make it easier to find.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering if anyone read the recent letters to the editor in the Amherst Bulletin, one from a Biology professor at Amherst College, from local scientists and science educators, that praise the new 9th grade science curriculum.

There is some sound thinking in there from people in the field.

Take a look:

"This year, Amherst Regional High School launched an ambitious new high school science program. As a parent of children in the public schools (eighth and fifth grade) and as a science educator, I have closely followed the development of this program. Here, I explain why I strongly support the new program, and I address some concerns I have been hearing in the community.

The key change is the introduction of a required ninth-grade course in ecology and environmental science that addresses important goals in science education: First, it aims to establish a solid foundation in basic scientific concepts and rigorous quantitative analysis that will underpin and enhance all subsequent science courses in biology, chemistry and physics. Incorporation of math topics exceeds national standards, and I commend the teachers for this emphasis. When I see college students struggling with biology, it usually reflects weak analytical and quantitative skills. Second, the course aims to attract more 14 year olds into science by tackling topics with tangible applications toward global threats such as climate change and the energy crisis.

Concerns about the course appear to reflect several misunderstandings. The new course does not detract from education in the essential core sciences (biology, chemistry and physics); instead, it primes students for these three subjects in grades 10 through 12, enabling each course to start at a higher level. Furthermore, ecology is a component of biology; the new curriculum moves ecology out of the 10th/11th grade biology course, thus freeing up space for expansion of other biology subjects. A more challenging honors option has not been removed, as the new ninth-grade course is offered at both college prep and honors levels. The honors course uses a college-level textbook, and parental surveys overwhelmingly report that the program is challenging. Advanced students still have the option of taking AP biology, as the 11th grade three-trimester AP biology class remains in place. The new curriculum is being extensively evaluated and monitored for effectiveness by the science faculty. The critical assessment will come in four to five years, when data are available on student enrollment and achievement in subsequent advanced science courses and their performance on standardized science tests (MCAS, SAT II and AP).

One source of anxiety is that ARHS is among the first high schools in the country to introduce a required ecology/environmental science course in ninth grade. This is true, but it would apply to any innovative new idea. With the current status of science education in our country - our 15 year olds rank 21st in science when compared to other countries - we desperately need innovative ways to attract more students to science and solidify the scientific foundation of all our future adult citizens. Indeed, this is a focus of our new federal administration. I applaud the ARHS science teachers for charting a new path toward better science education. Notably, their efforts have already received national attention (last year ARHS was one of 16 schools in the country to be recognized by the National Environmental Education Foundation with an award for a module in the ninth-grade course).

To glimpse how the new course is being received, I sought the opinions of several scientists with children currently in ninth grade and without exception, they are pleased with the science training their children are receiving, and impressed by the quality of the course material, the level of mathematical application, and the push toward critical thinking.

An important ingredient of successful science teaching is passion for the subject matter and its pedagogy. The ARHS science teachers deserve recognition for the devotion, creativity and hard work they have invested over the past two years to revamp the curriculum. Let's support their efforts and give the new science program the chance to achieve its full potential."

This letter was written by:

Caroline Goutte is a biology professor at Amherst College

Here's one from another local scientist and science educator:

"I would like to express my enthusiasm for the new honors ecology and environmental science sequence at the high school. As a parent of a ninth-grader, I can say that my daughter has enjoyed these courses, finding them both interesting and quite challenging. I find that the labs are clever and engaging for the students, and that the courses set high expectations for lab reports and overall learning.

As a scientist and science educator, I initially liked the idea of this new curriculum: what a tremendous opportunity to capture student interest by teaching about the integrated application of a range of sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) to environmental topics of current interest in our society. I have not been disappointed. It's great to see the course teach students to be quantitative about real-life things, such as calculating the work (in joules) of moving themselves up a hill. From what I've seen, the course material is ideal preparation for subsequent courses in biology, chemistry and physics.

It's also important to show students that some of the most interesting science happens at the interfaces between disciplines. Interdisciplinary science is so important that NIH funds a program at UMass specifically to train students to be conversant in areas that span the interface between the core disciplines of chemistry and biology. ARHS is ahead of the curve with its new ninth-grade science curriculum that can start students off on the right foot, using any and all scientific disciplines and reasoning to tackle important issues related to energy and the environment.

I commend the teachers for their work and creativity in designing and implementing these new courses, and I hope the school community will support this endeavor and give them time to develop the potential of these courses to attract student interest in the sciences: an important goal."

Anonymous said...

Anon... 1:34 I searched and searched the ARPS website and did not find any clue that the South Amherst Campus or the East Street Alternative High Schools exist. Also when you call the main line and get the automated telephone directory there is no mention of these schools there as well. This has been in place for many years now and not an okay thing neither for the kids who go there or their parents. I wonder in what little corner you may have found mention of them? I see listed on the home page ARPS, ARHS, ARMS, Crocker Farm, Fort River, Marks Meadow, Pelham, Wildwood. On would leave this site believing Amherst Regional Public Schools consists of 7 schools and 7 schools only. Why--again I ask, are they hiding the others?? This so goes against the every student every day motto. Sure, every student in every other school but these!

Anonymous said...

...those who dare to question the educational experience we are providing are immediately accused of being divisive and teacher bashing!... Can you list ONE THING Steve or I have said in the press or at a meeting describing all teachers?

One of the first public, published statements attributed to you was: Amherst needs to attract and retain qualified teachers.

Here are some data: 100% of the people I surveyed believe that statement could be perceived as implying that the Amherst teachers, as a whole, are not up to snuff. It was a random sample. In an attempt to reduce bias, participants did not know why I was asking the question (blind study).

Now, I will write your response: I don't know why anyone would find that statement offensive! Don't we all want highly qualified teachers for our children? OF COURSE WE DO!!!! But, that is not the point of this post! :-)

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 9:45 - I have asked for a survey of parents with kids in special ed, and I have said (on this blog and in meetings) many times that I believe the special ed program needs to be examined (again, to see what is working well, and what could be working better, for which kids). I agree that this is an area of concern, and something that should be carefully examined. I am encouraged that the superintendent is intending to have a review of this program in the upcoming year.

Anonymous 10:00 - Thanks for sharing the story ... I have heard similar examples, and it really points to the hazards of NOT differentiating instruction. I agree that making the effective use of differentiated instruction should be a real priority -- and I will ask that this be put on the agenda for a future SC meeting. I would also REALLY like to hear from more teachers (I've heard already from several today privately with GREAT ideas) about what they need to do this work well -- I do understand the challenges of differentiating in a heterotgeneous class, but I need help from teachers in understanding how to help make this more possible.

Nina - thanks for your very constructive ideas -- I might even post the Newton stuff in a separate blog entry, because I love their approach to demonstrating that this works to raise achievement! I also think we need to be able to think beyond math (this may be the area of greatest concern, but I think it must also be true in other areas, yes?).

Anonymous 10:58 - Thanks for your post, and as one who actually does scientific research (including survey research) for a living, I understand the challenges inherent in this type of tool. However, I think it is really important to remember that we are NOT looking for a scientific study -- we are not going to publish research based on the surveys, nor are we going to hire/fire teachers based on the surveys. So, many of the concerns noted in that piece you quote just aren't so relevant in this situation. Surveys also tend to be much more accurate when they are ANONYMOUS, which they will be in this case, and when people are not interacting with the "experimenter" (which they won't be in this case). Although survey questions can be biased, we are currently using surveys in all of the schools already, and there are MANY established surveys that could easily be revised for use in Amherst (I've sent 10 samples I found via "google" to Maria already). So, this is not a case of Amherst needing to "reinvent the wheel." As you in fact note, "survey data can be used to inform decision making and public policy" -- and that is what, I think, we are attempting to do (and remember, we are NOT going to do a scientific survey -- this is not a research study designed to test/prove a hypothesis, this is an opinion gathering). One final thing -- if you develop the survey over the summer, you are then surveying new 7th graders on how they are experiencing the school -- which will be worthless after a month (compared to asking families with at least a full year, and maybe 2, in the school). All of those reasons make me very happy that Maria and our new superintendent are supporting collecting this valuable data NOW.

Anonymous 1:34 - good idea -- I'll see if this information can be added.

Anonymous 1:45 - I did see these two letters ... as well as the one last week which you curiously did NOT post which raised real concerns about the course. It is pretty clear that different people have different opinions about this course (including parents as well as teachers, since teachers in other districts have NOT felt this was the best preparation for science, and instead have typically started high school science with biology or physics). So, maybe we should do an EVALUATION of it to learn whether the course is indeed working?!?

Anonymous 3:40 - thanks for bringing this to my attention -- I will try to learn more.

Anonymous 4:40 - your post is a great example of how people have chosen to distort ACE's position to try to make the group look anti-teacher. Here is the actual quote that is part of ACE, and is posted on our website ( -
"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." This isn't about we don't have great teachers -- it was about making sure that we HIRED new principals (ACE started when we were hiring new principals in 4 of our 6 schools), and we wanted to make sure principals were hired who understood how to hire great teachers FROM DIVERSE BACKGROUNDS. Our statement has nothing to do with the current teachers at all -- it was to ask that this criteria of hiring great teachers be specifically asked of CANDIDATES for principal positions. But sure, if you take part of that statement and poll people, it surely could imply that ACE was anti-teacher (and in fact, didn't care about DIVERSITY in taechers, whereas the opposite was true). Hmmm, I wonder why someone would present such misleading information to a random sample of people?

Anonymous said...

Here is the actual quote that is part of ACE, and is posted on our website ( -
"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."

The quote referenced earlier was, in fact, from the newspaper--not from the website. Therefore, it was not misleading and the intent was to show that peoples' perceptions are important, and legitimate and should be acknowledged, just as you mention over and over again.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 5:51 - I'd be really interested in seeing where that quote appeared in press to verify it appeared as you are writing -- can you send me the link? I've read most things that have been written about ACE, particularly things that I think I am quoted as saying (which I believe you imply), and I frankly think we would have asked for a correction if it appeared literally as you wrote it (so, again, I'm surprised that the quote as you state doesn't jump out to me as one I had to correct early on). It would have to have appeared in the Bulletin or the Gazette, so it shouldn't be hard for you to find it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me the lack of intention to publish any research is not a good reason to rush the process and end up inferior data. As far as I know, the current 8th graders and their parents should be fairly easy to find at the high school next year.

Nina Koch said...

I remember the quote, actually. It was that Amherst needs to hire and retain excellent teachers (not qualified teachers).

At the time, I had a similar reaction as did the anonymous poster above, which was that the quote made it sound like the current teachers were not excellent.

It was the first article about ACE in the Bulletin, from December 2007. Here is the link:

bulletin articleThe headline of the article was especially unfortunate. (I think the headline writer is usually not the reporter who writes the article.)

This article is a good example of why some teachers are wary of ACE. For many of us, it doesn't feel like an attempt to collaborate, to work together to make our schools better.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts:

Anonymous 6:35 - given that we are talking about a pretty brief survey that will ask really straight-forward questions, and that many other districts have already designed questionnaires that are in use (including our own -- we did surveys last year in the MS and HS, and I am quite certain neither of those took 7 months to develop), I can't see what is rushed about this at all. Moreover, there are costs of delay -- accuracy goes down as kids move away from a school (this is one of the big factors that leads to bias in data collection), so asking parents/kids 3 or 4 months after school ended is NOT the same as asking them in the last few months. Finally, Dr. Rodriguez was asked for his preference -- would he rather gather the data after he's been here a few months, or would he rather have it waiting for him on July 1st? He chose July 1st, which I of course think makes a lot of sense.

Nina - thanks for finding that link. I think it is important to note that no one from ACE gave that quote -- it was written by the reporter (and obviously ACE did not write the headline). But the other thing that is interesting is that if you read the whole article, it also makes many other points -- that we don't want principals only building relationships with strong students and that I was one of the leaders of the override campaign only a few months before (hard to get a lot more pro-teacher than fighting for an override, right?). It still strikes me as sad that people would jump to such conclusions about ACE without reading our website and/or reading our priorities (and the priorities were all read aloud at a SC meeting as well), and that people who paint ACE as anti-teacher ignore my leadership role in pushing for the override, which went largely to help save teacher jobs/salaries.

One more thing (and this is NOT to you, Nina, but just more general) -- I know many teachers and staff and principals in our district -- and I've written letters of reference on behalf of several this week -- and I have very good relationships with virtually all of the teachers/staff I've met with in various contexts. So, this might be a case of taking some time to get beyond what you perceive as my style/tone (particularly based on an erroneous newspaper article from 18 months ago), and to actually have a dialogue with me. So, here is my offer to all staff/teachers in Amherst -- I'll buy you a coffee at the place in town (let's support Amherst with our tax dollars) anytime you want to talk about education in Amherst and share your views. Email me privately so we can find a time/place to talk. THIS IS A SERIOUS OFFER.

Baldteach said...

Some clarifications, some observations and then I think I am done with this.

re:SZA - I'm doing the best I can -- and to then be criticized for not answering yet another anonymous post in the "self-reflective spirit in which it was asked" strikes me as a little much.

My post is/was not anonymous. My screen name is Baldteach. I am bald (purposefully), I teach at the middle school and I did ask you a question at the last SC meeting. Now I am even less anonymous.

I wrote "school bashing," which I think you have done. You replied about "teacher bashing" which I think you might have done but is open to interpretation

We are all educators. We pour ourselves into our work and at least at the middle school, my colleagues and I have a deep personal investment in the students we teach. I believe that the same is true of my colleagues at the elementary schools and the high school as well. This makes what people say and how they feel about the schools very personal, despite what you may think.
We are not afraid of scrutiny, or change, or holding our practice up and viewing it in the light of day.
That being said, I am wary of the current survey proposal because, as you have stated, the town seems to thrive on anecdote and intuition. A rushed opinion poll at the end of the school year will be anecdote fodder as people spend the next two months discussing their responses. No matter how neutral the bias of the instrument, discussion of the survey will fall along well worn ideological lines. No matter if the results are publicized (but especially if they are not) the discussion will probably only serve to solidify people's existing positions about the school.
If you want data, measure the schools against standards based criteria. Measure the schools against benchmarks and best practices published by national associations that compile such data. Use instruments that will eliminate the opinions of anyone deeply invested in the undertaking and actually gives us clear criteria about what meets standards and what needs improvement.
Pushing through the survey (even if Dr. Rodriguez wants it) seems like a bad plan because what it will produce will not be objective, and, honestly, subjective, qualitative data is what has led us to this juncture.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Baldteach - OK, so, I'm wracking my brain, but I still have no idea who you are (remember, there are a lot more people in the audience than at the front). And I really want to keep this blog focused on EDUCATION, not on whether people like me or not and why (hence my reluctance to spend a lot of time self-reflecting on the "violent reaction" some people have to me).

But two things (hope you are still "listening"):

First, there WAS a survey of the MS last year which was presented to the SC last August (by Glenda in her first 6 weeks or so), and I don't think it generated ANY heat/newspaper coverage, etc. It was just informative for her as she started her job. I think lets do it, see what it says, move from there. I can't imagine there won't be many good things said, and I think that will actually be really, really good to publicize (I promise to lead with ALL the good on my blog).

Second, I love your idea of the whole best practices thing/national standards/objective data. Sure, that'd be ideal. Would you send me some stuff that I can read on this stuff related to MS, and/or how districts go about this? Post it on the blog OR email me privately (since you've already given up your anonymity): I'd love to see that happen (obviously that would have to be next year), and I would be glad to work with you on trying to do that (is it expensive?).

Nina Koch said...


I really appreciate that you are making overtures to teachers to talk to them about their ideas about education. I don't know if people will take you up on the free coffee or not, but I hope so.

Part of the problem is the wariness that I mentioned in a previous post. You invited me to state what I would change about the high school. Well, my first thought is that any information I gave you could become ammunition for later criticism. So I would be wiser not to give it to you. This is what I mean when I say it doesn't feel like collaboration. (and by the way, being wise and keeping my mouth shut is really hard to do!)

A damaged relationship has evolved, not simply from one quote in a newspaper article. It's from a series of events. Just one simple example would be last year when the science department was presenting their idea for the new 9th grade course. I went to the school committee meeting to support my colleagues, so I saw how it unfolded. I remember very clearly seeing you sit next to someone (I think it was Joel but I am not sure) and the two of you were talking to each other and making various gestures of disapproval as the teachers were presenting. At a certain point, one of the teachers suspended his presentation and asked you to stop your behavior, since he had listened to you when you spoke and he would like the same respect.

I am guessing that you didn't intend to be disrespectful and what was showing through was how passionately you felt about the issue. But it appeared disrespectful to others and burned some bridges. The behavior also gave the appearance of a disinterest in the content of the teachers' presentation-- that you had already made up your mind and didn't want to listen to what they had to say. Again, that might not have been your intention, but it gave that impression to me.

If you are now ready to rebuild some of the bridges, you have some work to do. For me, we could rewind back to that first December 2007 article and start from there. The article refers to shortcomings in the math and science program. What I wish the reporter had done and I wish you would do, is to come ask us about our program. Find out what we are doing to provide students with opportunities for excellence. We should be able to demonstrate that. Ask us what we are working on, what we would like to improve. Find out what we think is important, what our vision is.

My principal has taught me the difference between inquiry and advocacy and I think that applies here. All the different constituencies need to try some inquiry before they engage in advocacy, because that is the only way we will actually learn from each other.

sza said...

In your most recent response to me, Catherine, you stated that you were “still puzzled by people who do not want the survey”. That had nothing to do with what I had written, and I have not said that in any of my posts. Also, and here I repeat, I don’t believe anyone expressed that sentiment at the SC meeting, although it was offered as one of your interpretations of the evening. I really think that you can stop saying that.

I WILL say that people have been offering comments about the survey itself, such as being clear about the goals of the survey, that care needs to be given to the writing and distribution of it, that we need to understand exactly what it will be able to and won’t be able to tell us, and that as strictly a survey, not an evaluation the opinions on it should be used to indicate where further study might be important, rather than to let opinions dictate any policy changes. These are thoughtful comments, not indicators of fear.

As I have been re-reading posts on this blog that speak negatively about the middle school I notice that many are in the past tense. One talks of an experience from two decades ago, and many are from families with children well into high school. Schools are VERY dynamic places. We currently have many relatively new staff in the administration and faculty at the middle school. (sadly we will be losing some of these great teachers by next year thanks to the budget-a topic for another day) Not to mention the fact that 50% of the student body is different every year. I feel it is counterproductive to keep hearing how the school WAS, as opposed to how it IS (and could be). It is clearly important that we be sure that the survey focus completely on the latter opinions rather than the former.

I would like to share an anecdote that relates to my above point. I was recently in a room with about a dozen parents of sixth graders in one of our district towns. I asked them how they, or their children, were feeling about coming to the middle school in the fall. One couple shared (a bit nervously) that they had negative impressions of our school from a child’s experience of a few year’s ago. The rest of their comment, however, was that their current 6th grader was very excited about coming in the fall. They said she had an older friend who was at the middle school now who regularly brought home glowing reports. I am glad that they were able to look past negative thoughts from the past, and focus on what they are hearing about the present.

I was interested in the post by Lise (9:48) who spoke of her daughter’s experiences in 7th grade math. I am very familiar with the 7th grade math program over the last three years, and equally versed in the goals of the extension program during that time. The extension problems are very deliberately planned so as not be “extra busywork” as Lise felt they were for her daughter. I am assuming that your daughter’s experience was a few years ago, as I would be personally concerned if they were the views of a current student. Either way I would be glad to talk with you more about this, but not via this blog. Perhaps we can figure out who we each are, and chat sometime.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:10AM: I am a current ARMS parent and our family also found the CURRENT practice of "extensions" in the seventh grade math curriculum frustrating. In order for our children to complete the extensions, they had to get the instruction at home because they were rarely given support to complete the work in class. There was also a lot of peer pressure NOT to do the extensions! We found that the math teachers seemed overwhelmed when parents asked for more class time devoted to extensions.

I know everyone seems to be in support of differentiated instruction in all classrooms, but I think it is time for non-differentiated (yes, tracked) math classes in the seventh grade. One to prepare students who are planning on taking algebra, and the other for students who are not. In the former, extensions could then be considered required work. In the latter, they could offer extensions for all students and those who did them and did well could then join the algebra group in eighth grade. I'm sure this will not be a popular suggestion.

Anonymous said...

I want to pick up on Nina's last post. She is right at meetings, where you are not in favor of something or not interested, your body language and facial gestures give you away. You are rude. Take last years Town Meeting, when the SC was presenting it's budget, you were sitting up front with the SC, CORRECTING PAPERS and not putting any input in or even pretending to listen to Ms. Brightly's presentattion. Please self-reflect on your behavior, and then perhaps you will get more respect and not be perceived as a bully. You are a psychologist!!!
And Nina keep up the good work and I agrree with you, "anything you might say to a SC memeber can be used against you and your fellow teachers." Work with your principle and fellow teachers to continue to improve an already great educational system...with great teachers.

sza said...

Anon: 748
I am sorry to hear of your frustrations with the way you and your child experienced the current extension program. I will point out though that on numerous occasions at the start of the year we pointed out to students and parents that problems the extension students received on their assignments would not always be explicitly taught ahead of time. One of our goals is to ask our students to apply prior knowledge to new situations, in hopes they experience what is required to be problem solvers, not just repeaters of what they were shown. We would suggest parents at home not "instruct" how to do them but rather guide their child through the inquiry and discovery process useful when faced with an unfamiliar problem. While we may not pre-teach everything about these problems we are always willing to discuss afterwards some strategies that could have been applied, and prior knowledge that could have been used to solve them. I hope that any child who asks their math teacher for help with an extension after they worked on it would get a satisfactory answer in class. AND doing extensions during class time is important not only for the extension students, as the students doing regular math work can only benefit by the exposure to them in class.

I was taught in an earlier education model (in the 60's!) that had the teacher show us how to do everything and the students just regurgitated the steps back. This made us feel smart I guess, but it left us unprepared, and often unwilling, to deal with any problem that had not been taught to us ahead of time. We were all too quick to say "I don't get it" and stop trying at anything that didn't look immediately familiar to us. More important to our future success, I feel, would have been to develop in us patience, strategies, and persistence to be willing to sit with and try to solve problems that we might not have experienced before.

I do agree with you that teaching math students in tracked classes would likely be easier for the teacher. For many reasons we are committed to teaching in heterogeneous groupings. It's probably worth mentioning that in the upcoming budget cuts teachers that are still here after the dust settles will be teaching more classes and larger classes. All of the things we aim to do, such as instruction, providing meaningful feedback on student work, and regularly and effectively communicating with parents will be more difficult to keep up with next year. (That's one man's opinion, at least)

As you can tell this is a topic of interest to me, but it does seem to have taken us pretty far afield from the original theme of this blog.

lise said...

to sza

My daughter is a ninth grader so 7th grade was only two years ago. I would be happy to talk about her experience, as well as compare to the experience of my older daughter who went through a very different math approach in MS in a different district. If you are who I think you are we may have already had some conversations on this topic. My email is

As regards tracking, I do not think that is a viable solution. Math abilities seem to be very fluid in MS. I would hate to see a kid blocked out of 8th grade algebra because thay weren't quite ready at the beginning of 7th grade to do more sophisticated math. It would be particulalry difficult for a student who just happened not to have a great 6th grade math experience, and therefore was just a little less prepared.

I have seen leveling classes work well in another district. The keys were the ability to keep things fluid and have kids transition between levels from year to year, or even sometimes within the year. It is also critical that the school be very proactive in keeping any stigma of smart vs stupid or nerdy vs cool out of the levels.

Here is another idea. How about ability grouping within the heterogeneous class that is self-selected by the student. We already do this in English with literature circles where students select the book they want to read from several choices of varying lengths and difficulties. How about letting kids work in groups within the clasroom. For example; today we are studying multiplication of fractions. If you are very comfortable with these basic concepts go to this table where you will work on problems that include decimals, complex numbers and variables. If you are confused or worried that you have not learned the basics well enough, go to this table and we will start with concept review. Otherwise pick one of these two other tables to practice these problems. Students could pick different levels based on different topics, sometimes taking the extension option, sometimes not.

At any rate, just an idea. I think there are many possible solutions. However, what my daughter experienced in 7th and 8th grade was not working very well for her or for many of her friends.

Shoot me an email if you would like to discuss further. In terms of the topic's appropriateness for the blog I think talking sbout curriculum and education issues is much more useful than the discussions about who is attacking who.

Anonymous said...

It's impressive that CS has enough energy to read and respond to all these comments - I'll give her credit for that!

But isn't it just a bit ironic that when it comes to using data and evaluation to determine a course of
action, CS pushes for it at ARMS (kudos and good luck to her) but seems to have ignored it at MM:
based on data (MCAS scores among the best in the state) and evaluations (anecdotal, from present and
past parents, teachers, administrators, education professionals) it also gets superlative ranksings - and yet she's hell-bent on closing it ASAP, and has
made it clear in public that she's not going to change her mind in spite of any evidence to the contrary.

Could it be this kind of (mis)behavior that doesn't simply turn some folks off, but categorically disqualifies CS for a politically responsible position?

A former TM member has described what is needed - on the Select Board as well as here on the School Committee - as a "judicial temperment"
which I take to mean both an ability to listen to evidence and the capacity to form judgements based on the evidence. Despite her protests to
the contrary, what we see more and more of in CS
is a "PREjudicial temperment" wherein her conclusions have been reached beforehand and
her primary effort is to defend her pre-made decisions in the face of criticism from those who
will suffer the consequences of those decisions.

Ultimately this will lead to poorly considered decisions and almost court-challenges, further
draining the funds of of the district. And it will
all be laid at her (CS's) and perhaps SR's doorstep.

-Someone who voted for CS and now has great remorse....

Abbie said...

To anon @949:

What you seem to ignore (willfully) is that a lot of people (likely the majority in town) think, based on the data and using logic and reason that closing MM is prudent. Again, to repeat what has been said again and again (to the deaf ears of many MM pro-lifers) is that the reasons why MM has high MCAS scores likely reflects the student population (ie. ~30% children of grad students, children of Higher Ed professors) and excellent teachers (who would hopefully move to the other schools).

If you find any legit reasons to doubt the above then state it (along with a name- its so hard to keep track of all the anonymouses). If you have another way (something reasonable/feasible) to come up with $600K- $700K then tell us. After listening for several months now I have yet to hear any ideas from MM pro-lifers that could actually work.

You can attack the messenger and the way that she provides the message but she is far from the only person that thinks closing MM is the best of a lot of bad options.

Don't you think the fact that Steve Rivkin was elected to SC, who he made no secret of his position wrt MM, reflects that a lot of people in Amherst agree with idea that MM ought to be closed. Why I bother writing this stuff again is a mystery... it seems nothing will alter the position of the fervent MM pro-lifers.

Rick said...

I agree with Abbie. Whatever else you think, CS’s arguments on MM have been very rational and not at all one-sided, laying out all the bad options with pros and cons of each.

The messenger is not the problem here. The problem is the lack of money.

Anon 9:49: Did you vote for the 2007 override? If you didn’t, go away. And if you did, offer a VERY SPECIFIC alternative because something has to be cut. It's all bad choices, so don’t knock the people who have to make them.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Nina - thank you for your post - and I share your hope that teachers (and staff) will take me up on my coffee offer. I will say that I've had NUMEROUS conversations with different teachers/staff already ... some who I know, for whatever reason, and some who I didn't know but have reached out to me to share their views. I've learned a lot already from those discussions, and hope to have more of them. But I find it depressing that you use the term "ammunition for later criticism" -- in my view, teachers and staff and principals should fully share my goal of providing the best education we can provide ... I don't understand how telling me what isn't working is then "ammunition"? Let's say a teacher reached out to me privately and said she'd like to differeniate elementary school education, but she isn't giving tools/materials/strategies for doing so, and then I bring up at a school committee meeting that we need to make sure we are providing all teachers (but especially new teachers) with these these tools/materials/professional development. Is that ammunition? I don't see it that way -- and I think it is kind of weird that an acknowledgment that we have some limits is bad to even acknowledge. That is why makes parents/community members feel in terms of a lack of transparency about strengths/weaknesses in our district. I think we should be shouting our strengths, but also announcing our weaknesses (and there is NO SHAME in having weaknesses -- we ALL have them!). But I sure can't try to help with solving weaknesses if I don't know what they are -- and since I'm not a teacher/administrator/student in the district, I frankly HAVE to rely on learning others' views (again, part of my reason for doing the survey -- which people seem to have ignored included asking TEACHERS' views as well as students/parents).

The 9th grade science meeting in January 2008 was for me a huge wake up call -- and it was very, very upsetting. I do NOT blame the teachers for their presentation or for their course, and I do hope the course is highly successful (and that eventually someone will care about actually testing that in a rigorous way). But I blame the superintendent and the SC for agreeing to a new required course without both (a) describing what other districts were doing and why, and (b) setting up a clear plan of evaluation (including process and timeline) to see if the new course was working. So, I found the meeting very, very depressing, discouraging, and so on. That is NOT the fault of the teachers, and I'm sorry if they felt and/or feel that way. I wish the SC had demanded some of the information on other districts AND had insisted on also knowing the process by which the course woudl be evaluated. And their failure to do so led to my decision (literally the next day) to run for SC.

I am pretty sure you and I disagree on this topic of the new 9th grade science curriculum, and I think I've expressed my views and why I hold them about 800 times on this blog and elsewhere. So, let me use a new analogy. Let's say Sean Smith, head of world languages in the HS, decided that from now on, we would only offer Italian in 7th and 8th grade, because learning Italian was the single best approach to giving kids a foundation in all the languages, and would let them easily pick up other languages starting in 9th grade. That might be a great idea, and from what I hear, Sean is a truly excellent teacher, respected, smart, etc. I would STILL say this is a BAD idea, even if proposed by someone GREAT, because (a) no one else starts world language with Italian (and we have to assume some other teachers in some other districts are also smart), and (b) we would have no plan to evaluate whether or not this plan would be good. That's why I don't like the plan, and yes, during that meeting, I was really, really horrified and upset.

One more thing -- I don't think the key thing (again, I'm sure you and I will disagree on this) is to spend time asking teachers about the math and science program to figure out if those programs are good. Many parents in this district see a real lack of emphasis on science in the elementary schools (this is pretty widely discussed), and it is quite clear that we do NOT offer AP chemistry (making us the ONLY MSAN school without a second-year chemistry class). And I think this is a case in which we can learn from what our schools are offering, but we can also learn from what other schools are offering -- and there isn't shame in doing that. That is fundamentally I guess what I don't get about our district -- why do we think that our teachers are the ONLY ones who have good and thoughtful ideas, and why do we assume teachers in all other districts don't? If the science teachers had come to the SC and said "a lot of other districts are finding that physics first is a great way to get kids excited about science, and they have research showing it really works to increase success in science -- but we need $50,000 to get new textbooks and do some professional development," I would have been 100% supportive of that endeavor -- because it would consider what kids in other districts were learning, and it would have been based on research. That's really how I'd like to see our district operate across all domains/disciplines -- and I think this would be a major, major step in the right direction that would benefit all kids.

SZA - two quick things. I can't speak for others, but for me, the usefulness of the survey is to tell the principals and Alberto Rodriguez how people (teachers, kids, parents) feel about each of the schools. That will let them have an understanding of strengths and areas of improvement, and I hope give us goals to work on for the next year (or more). I am seeing it as information gathering, not evaluation, and with the goal of not just learning, but ACTING on that learning.

I agree that the MS has been through a lot of change -- I mean, three different leadership teams over the past 5 (?) years has got to be hard. But I hear NOW from parents in the MS that things aren't working ... that their child had YET (in MAY) to get a paper returned with comments, that their child spends a huge chunk of a given class watching movies, that they are paying a tutor to teach their kid "extensions" because it is not taught in the school day, and that their child has been assigned a total of 2 books and a few poems to read during the entire year. Those are all examples that I've heard from current parents of 7th graders over the last few weeks alone. I'm not trying to "teacher bash" and it may well be that these parents are wrong, or their kids are wrongly presenting their experience, etc. But when I hear those things, I do get concerned, as I think you can imagine. And I think a survey of ALL parents/kids will help me (and others) figure out if those are a few very isolated examples of very picky people and the vast majority of kids/parents are feeling the school is challenging, engaging, etc., OR if these experiences are more typical). I do believe the adoption of the new math books has really improved the math curriculum -- at least that is what I hear. I also hear that there are some FABULOUS teachers in the MS (including some, as you note, who we are now in danger of losing, given their relative newness to our district). And I hear that there are some FABULOUS teachers, but the curriculum could be more rigorous (so, teachers are teaching what they are told to teach really well, but the bar could be set higher in terms of reading/writing, etc.). Again, this is what I hear, and I am totally acknowledging that people who contact me are NOT a random subset of the population ... hence a survey seems to me to be the only way to really get a sense of where the strengths/areas of concern are in any of the schools. I promise to be VERY, VERY loud about promoting all that is good about the MS -- and I believe that often what is good about anything is just talked about less than what is not so good -- so, you eat at a restaurant and you get food poisoning, you tell 100 people ... you eat at a restaurant and it is good, you tell 10 people (this is NOT to imply the MS is like getting poisoned, which I'm sure someone will later quote in the paper!). Thus, a survey should, I hope and expect, be a great opportunity to learn what is really working great in the MS, and to then hopefully build on that strength.

Anonymous 7:48 - I hear similar stories from many CURRENT parents about the frustration with extensions. Again, I do not know how widespread this is, but the reality is, some kids/parents are seeing this as a tough option (and are hence relying on paid tutors and/or expert parents to teach it, which certainly benefits certain families more than others). I hope a survey will help us figure out whether this is a generally effective approach to differentiating math instruction for most families, or not.

Anonymous 7:54 - let me explain two things to you. First, when Elaine presented the SC budget, I had already heard that budget presented at an SC meeting, and in fact had voted on it. I did NOT grade when people asked questions about it or expressed concerns -- but I had already heard this budget discussed, and had commented on it myself, during several SC meetings. When we present it to TM, there is no role for any SC member to play ... our role is BEFORE TM. Can you tell me why my grading during her presentation influenced the outcome, the vote, the process, etc. Second, I am a full-time professor with three small kids, and I'm devoting a huge amount of time to School Committee. I have attended EVERY town meeting except for one (in which I was the guest speaker at an awards banquet at Amherst College), and I have attended EVERY school committee meeting except one last August in which I was out of town. But last spring, during spring TM, I was in a mad rush to complete my grading which we have VERY little time to do after exam week (less than a week) and the grading MUST be turned in so that students can GRADUATE. I have never graded during an SC meeting ... but I fail to see how my grading during the presentation of the SC budget is relevant at all to my effectiveness as an SC member. Would it have been better for me to not attend the meeting at all, to finish my grading at home, or would I also have been criticized for that?

Anonymous 9:49 - thanks for your nice comments about my energy. However, I disagree that I haven't examined data to reach my conclusion about MM. I do not believe, for one second, that the high MCAS scores are due to the building ... nor do I believe we've heard from a neutral group of MM parents (I've heard privately from several who would prefer their kids go to a larger school, but don't feel comfortable saying this in public, for fear of attack). In fact, I've heard wonderful things about both FR and WW from many families and teachers. I think the phrase "hell-bent on closing it ASAP" is extreme (I mean, why then didn't I push to close it THIS YEAR, which would have been much faster than a year later!), as is the statement "she's not going to change her mind in spite of any evidence to the contrary." If you read my blog, and listen to anything I've said in public, I've said that I would absolutely change my mind 100% IF people would rally around what else we could cut. Stating that we should keep it open for the 13% of students in it WHILE we cut programs and increase class sizes at all of the other schools seems to me to be ignoring the very real data on the limits of our budgets and the potential hazard impact of making such cuts for ALL kids. And it really doesn't strike me as political reasonable -- to pay attention to the very small group of outspoken MM parents (who have dominated meetings and the newspaper), but have yet to present a real solution that would save $700,000 a year. Give me the evidence that we can make $700,000 a cut a year in a way that will impact all the kids LESS than closing MM ... and I promise I'll listen to it, and even change my mind. But you have to show me the cuts you'd make -- I have very carefully considered numerous options (it is factually incorrect to say I am defending a "pre-made decisions"), and I reached the conclusion that closing MM was the best option -- yes, "even in the face of criticism from those who
will suffer the consequences of those decisions" when those who will "suffer" have not been able to provide another way to achieve this savings in another way. I can't imagine a decision to close a school is going to be court-challenged ... or at least successfully court-challenged (so, I guess it is up to others to decide if they want to waste our district's resources fighting a decision to close a school we don't need in order to educate all our kids)! But I do have a good idea about how to cover those legal expenses -- we could sell the portables that we purchased for $380,000 that we don't need this year and don't need next year!

Abbie/Rick - thanks ... it is indeed amazing to me how much the "shoot the messenger" is going to continue.

Abbie said...

"-- in my view, teachers and staff and principals should fully share MY (my caps) goal of providing the best education we can provide ..."

While it may be your goal, it is also a goal shared by many. I hope that "my" could be substituted with "the" or "our" (i.e. the goal or our goal). I think everyone who reads and contributes to your blog wants the best possible public education Amherst can provide.

This may be part of folks' issues with the way that you present things as things you exclusively own.

Heh- no one is perfect (myself very far from) but in this venue every word you write is examined for nuanced meaning...

Folks can also share the same goal but have legit and different ideas of reaching that goal, which might not be the same as yours.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Abbie - point well-taken. Thanks. I do hope that "my" goal is shared by many and truly is "our" goal or "the" goal. Though I also think, as you note, that there is much more agreement about the GOAL than the PROCESS. To me, it is very hard to achieve the goal of having a truly excellent school system (which yes, I agree most share) without having a process which includes gathering data, doing comparisons to other districts, and acknowledging strengths as well as weaknesses. I have not (yet) felt a lot of support broadly (from the SC, teachers, administrators) for the use of this process.

Anonymous said...

AJ: No comment.

RH: Yes, I voted for the 2007 override. (I would happily raise and pay taxes to pay for the public schools at all levels, including universal preschool.
So - sorry to disappoint you - I won't "go away"!)

CS, RH and all other dear readers:

1) Thousands of people work at UMass who don't live in Amherst. MM (and perhaps WW) has been (and could be) an attractive option for educating their children. So why not allow open enrollment at those two schools? For every 20 students who would come there, that's $100,000.

Let's estimate 30 more students at each school could be accommodated and achieved (though, unfortunately, the PVCICS has compromised one of the attractions of WW, its Chinese ELL program, to nonresidents of Amherst).

That's $300,000 per year.

2) Do what Chancellor Holub has recently done (or promised to do) at UMass: ask the new Super'nt to reduce the elementary administration budget by another $300,000 per year (by attrition or part-timing several poistions).

Now were at the $600,000 which closing MM would (or would claim to) save.

3) Keep going (as again has happened at UMass this year, where all salaries have been frozen): The outgoing Super'nt negotiated a contract last year which is unfair and unsustainable in a time
of wage and price deflation, as well as growing unemployment. This contract cannot be honored.
Ask all staff to reduce or forego their COLAs and steps this year; and ask them to propose a system of fees for perks otherwise unavailable to UMass employees.

Depending on how much the staff cares about educating kids (and helping their colleagues keep their jobs), these could raise another $1-2M per year and close the elementary budget gap entirely.

Abbie said...

Anon@5:59 (I guess the same as 9:49)

1) why don't you just use a nom de plume (it is still anonymous but allows others to follow what you say blog to blog)... Jane Doe, John Doe, Ziggy Pop?

2) Does your estimate for choice include the cost of educating those choiced in kids? As I understand it it costs between $7000-8000 of Amherst money (not including ch 70) to educate a child. I think choice brings in $10,000. That would make the net gain between $2000-3000/kid. Do you have different numbers that are the correct ones?

You forgot to mention the other thing Holub did to save ~$300,000. Merge 2 colleges. Sound familiar?

I think your last suggestion will have to be examined. However, it is different than what happened at UMass, they did not have a contract that needed voiding or renegotiating. Again, correct me if I am wrong. I do agree, though, that to blunt the additional cuts that we will possibly (likely) have to make, it seems like an option that will have to be seriously considered.

In the end now that "Amherst" knows that there is the capacity to educate all Amherst kids in the 3 other schools, I'm not sure that they will think its fiscally prudent to pay for 4 schools when we can't pay for what many think we also desperately need - firefighters and police. I may be wrong...

Abbie said...


If you didn't catch Obama's speech at Notre Dame today, I highly recommend you find a way (YouTube?)...Some very wise words. Anyone one got a really really big boat?!

Better than his inauguration speech, in my opinion.

Nina Koch said...

Abbie, you are getting your cultural references mixed up-- it's Iggy Pop, which is different from Ziggy Stardust! Just kidding, but I agree that nom de plumes would be a good idea.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 5:59 - thanks for the suggestions. Here are my reactions to them:

1. School Choice has been seriously considered -- and yes, it would definitely bring in money. But the problem is, you also have to hire teachers to teach additional kids. So, if you take in 60 students, that would mean roughly 5 more kids per grade at both MM and WW. That would require hiring at least 3 more teachers at MM (they are currently projecting three grades with only ONE class per grade, and an extra 5 kids in each of those grades would definitely push the numbers over to needing two classes per grade). That means you make $150,000 because you also hire three more teachers. So, we could take in 60 kids, and save $150,000. That is a MUCH smaller savings than closing MM (by over half a million dollars a year).

2) The current superintendent has already tried to find ways to reduce the elementary budget -- and remember, since the School Choice plan only saves $150,000, we'd be asking the the new Super'nt to reduce the elementary administration budget by another $550,000 per year. Over 80% of the budget is staff/teachers, so it isn't a mystery how those cuts could be made -- I've laid them out, and the report by our interim superintendent lays them out -- you can increase class sizes, or you can reduce services/programs (e.g., less art, less music, fewer intervention teachers/guidance counselors, etc.). There just aren't that many ways to cut. Your proposal to "have the new superintendent find ways" isn't a plan ... it is suggesting that he will arrive at our district, and in the first few months find a great way to come up with saving over half a million that the current long-term staff have yet to find? But here is my promise to you -- if Dr. Rodriguez arrives (remember, even if the vote passes, MM stays open ALL next year) and figures out a great plan, I'll ask the SC to consider changing their vote and keeping the school open. But the reality is, there is NO WAY to save $550,000 a year without increasing class size OR cutting services, and I don't think Dr. Rodriguez is going to find a new way to save that type of money that our HIGHLY experienced staff haven't thought of this year.

3) I can't talk about issues involving the union and salary freezes. But this issue has been mentioned repeatedly, and of course the union COULD vote to reduce or forego their COLAs and steps this year. But this is NOT in my control -- and I frankly don't feel great asking teachers/staff to forgo wages so that we can keep a school open that we do not need to meet our current and projected enrollment.

So, you have some good ideas, but again, NONE of these are ideas that are within the SC's control and that save anywhere close to the $700,000 that closing MM does. Here is what I'll support -- we keep MM open, but redistrict into three districts. Families can sign up for the small school environment of MM on a first come/first served basis, until we've reached the maximum class size in a given grade. There will be one class per grade only, and there will be no music, no art, no PE, no librarian, no principal (principal is shared with CF) and no bus service. The dollars saved in this plan are roughly the same as those saved by closing it, but it would preserve the small school option and keep the space in the district's control. Would you say this is better than closing it? I've offered this now to several MM families, and none of them have liked this idea -- but this is the kind of thing we need to do in order to achieve the cost savings of closing it. Otherwise, we would really decimate ALL four of the schools (arts/music/intervention teachers/increased class size), and I think education in Amherst would suffer for all kids. Tell me if you like this idea, and if so, I'll bring it forward for serious consideration.

Abbie - we get $5,000 per school choice child. But as you point out, you also have to educate those kids, and adding 60 kids would definitely mean hiring additional teachers (especially at MM). I agree with your assessment of what Amherst will pay for -- especially since leaving MM would give us the option of negotiating for some type of payment from U Mass to educate the kids in U Mass housing, AND since we have already had the town pay for two portables which are NOT being used as classrooms as promised. Did not see the speech -- will try to catch the NYT tomorrow to read it. And I agree with your "make up a name" suggestion!

nom de blog said...

The idea is to open enroll ONLY in those classes where (projected) enrollment was below capacity, which wouldn't entail new teachers. This might
not be easy to coordinate and it might reduce the number of open enrollees, but it could bring us closer to $300,000 than $150,000.

Asking the new Super'nt to find $300,000 (or more) in administrative cuts would have start with himself. He should set an example by giving back $30,000 himself in salary or perks - and then identify positions which can be reduced to 80%time (Wednesdays off, anybody?), or shared among schools, or even eliminated altogether.

CS's idea of MM as an open-enrollment-only school only is interesting and should be explored.
It is consistent with the suggestion that folks from who spend their days at UMass may also want to have their kids in school closer to where they work, even if they don't live in town. Shouldn't
be first-serve for those who live within walking distance, then next-serve for those whose parent/guardian works within walking distance, etc. (These are details best left to a later time....)
Exploring this should go hand-in-hand with redistricting, but it is refreshing to hear CS raise
the idea (a ray of hope for those who see MM as
a valuable, "organic" institution, something more than the sum of its parts?)!

As a union member and organizer, I'm not happy to suggest that union contracts (or similar contracts for professional staff) should be up for renegotiation, but these are extraordinary times requiring extraordinary measures. Closing a school seems (to me, at least) a much more drastic and irreversible step than renegotiating a labor contract. And the latter would save enough to close the gap, while the former doesn't even get us to first base.

It was mentioned that Holub consolidated some colleges to save administrative costs, but that not
the same as closing a school. Departments remain intact, and that's where the real teaching/research
(and service) work is done. The Amherst (and regional) schools could learn from the Chancellor and trim more on administration than proposed above, but that may take more than one year to carry out - shouldn't it be among your very first charges to Dr. Rodriguez?

Nina Koch said...

"nom de blog"-- very funny!


I think we are making progress here, but I am not sure. You're right; there is no need to re-debate the 9th grade science course. I only brought up the meeting since you had asked for examples of why teachers might feel mistrustful of you. I think you now see how your conduct might have burned a bridge and I note that you apologized for that. That apology might go even further if you sent it to the science department, since I doubt they will see it here.

I am still worried, though, when I see your example of the hypothetical new language program. You are sure, in advance, that it is a bad idea. I prefer to listen to the content of an idea before I decide if it is good or bad.

If we only consider ideas which are already widely applied and thoroughly researched, then there will never be any new ideas. Innovation starts somewhere. The first few districts who piloted Physics First probably encountered quite a bit of skepticism.

I think you also missed the point of my suggestion that you ask us about our program. The asking doesn't substitute for an evaluation of the program. Rather, it is a way to build a bridge while also learning what the program actually consists of, what we are working on, and what we are trying to accomplish. I don't believe you have a complete picture of that. There is surely no harm in asking, and perhaps a lot to gain. This is one of the steps that you will need to take if you want to start collaborating with us to make our schools better.