My Goal in Blogging

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

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why We Need Data

The single most frustrating thing to me (and you might think this would be a hard call) about my experience with the Amherst schools is what I see as a total reluctance, and indeed almost opposition, to looking at DATA. If you even mention wanting data, you get accused of all sorts of evil things -- being elitist, having a PhD, working at a wealthy institution, living in Amherst Woods, caring only about numbers, and teacher-bashing. But in all seriousness, we can see many, many examples of times in which relying on anecdote and intuition is really problematic.

One of my favorite examples comes from of the hallmarks of the Bush presidency -- a focus on abstinence-based sex education as the best approach to preventing teenage pregnancy (here is a case in which most people agree that unwanted teenage pregnancy is a good thing to prevent, but people disagree with how we go about this prevention). Under Bush's leadership, the federal government provided states with considerable sums in order to teach youth about abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage (many states ended up turning down the funds because they prohibited comprehensive sex education). But when research examined the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs, it revealed that participants had just as many sexual partners as nonparticipants and had sex at the same median age as nonparticipants ( As stated by Dr. Ned Calonge, Colorado's chief medical officer, "To show no benefit compared to nothing. That was striking. These are tax dollars that are going for no useful purpose, and it would not be responsible for us to take those dollars."

Here's another example from a book called Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton). (And for those who are watching for my elitism, let me be upfront -- these authors teach at Stanford University, where I went to college).

"Almost any decision you make about any sort of intervention can be evidence-based in the sense that you can try to access what research literature and evaluation literature demonstrate about this. It’s a way of thinking more scientifically and systematically. An individual doctor can’t tell if Vioxx causes heart problems because one person’s practice isn’t big enough to determine that evidence. It’s similar if you’re one manager thinking about making a merger decision, or implementing ERP [enterprise resource planning], or putting in incentive-based pay; a good manager will look at larger evidence in terms of informing the decision.

The way a good doctor or a good manager works—we call it the attitude of wisdom—is to act with knowledge while doubting what you know. So if a patient goes to a doctor, you hope the doctor would do two things: first look at the literature and make the best decision given what’s available. Then actually track the progress of the treatment and see what unexpected side effects you’re having and what things are working."

OK, so I think we can pretty easily imagine the parallels to what we do in the Amherst schools here. First, asking one intervention teacher how effective he/she is at improving outcomes is just not a large enough sample to provide evidence of such effectiveness, nor is spending a day at the middle school observing classes, nor is visiting a small school for a day to see the beneficial outcomes. You get evidence by gathering data from multiple sources as reported in the literature (and there is a lot of literature on issues in education, although some of it is flawed in various ways), not through personal anecdote and intuition on the part of a very small number of people in one school system, and then you make the best decision you can based on that evidence. Second, you actually track the progress of the treatment and see what things are working and what things aren't (e.g., how is the new 9th grade science program working; what is the impact of having a trimester versus a semester system; how well is the "extensions" model of differentiating math instruction in 7th grade working; how well do our programs for underperforming kids help them ). Then, you either drop things that aren't working (and you can have clear and public criteria for what "working" means) or you modify them to see if they do work (and again, you are clear and transparent about what is and is not working and what will be done to improve outcomes).

OK, the key question for me is how do you get organizations (or, in this case, a school district) to start using evidence-based decision-making? This is what Pfeffer and Sutton say: "Encourage people to be noisy and nosy—it promotes wisdom." Here's a real world example described in their book: "Researchers in one study examined 194 patient care failures by nurses, everything from problems caused by broken equipment to drug treatment errors. This work revealed that those nurses whom doctors and administrators saw as most talented unwittingly caused the same mistakes to happen over and over. These “ideal” nurses quietly adjust to inadequate materials without complaint, silently correct others’ mistakes without confronting error-makers, create the impression that they never fail, and find ways to quietly do the job without questioning flawed practices. These nurses get sterling evaluations, but their silence and ability to disguise and work around problems undermine organizational learning."

This finding, and hundreds of others from research studies, led to the development of a model they describe as "The talents of wisdom: People who sustain organizational learning". Here are the types of people they believe are most beneficial to such a process:
  • Noisy complainers - Repair problems right away and then let every relevant person know that the system failed
  • Noisy troublemakers - Always point out others' mistakes, but do so to help them and the system learn, not to point fingers
  • Mindful error-makers - Tell managers and peers about their own mistakes, so that others can avoid making them too. When others spot their errors, they communicate that learning—not making the best impression—is their goal
  • Disruptive questioners - Won't leave well enough alone. They constantly ask why things are done the way they are done. Is there a better way of doing things?
"All of these characteristics help people act on what they know, and keep improving their own skills, peers’ skills, and organizational practices and procedures. The crux is, if you want better performance instead of the illusion of it, you and your people must tell everyone about problems you’ve fixed, point out others’ errors so all can learn, admit your own errors, and never stop questioning what is done and how to do it better. These actions can annoy doctors and administrators—or any other authority figure—who prefer quiet and compliant underlings, but if we want organizations that do as much good and as little harm as possible, these talents are essential."

I think this book (which I strongly recommend to those interested in thinking more about evidence-based decision-making in general) makes two key points that are relevant to the current state of our schools. First, it is really important to examine what people are doing and the outcomes of their behavior (meaning, it is not "nurse-bashing" to examine causes of patient care errors). Second, disruptive questioners (and I think I fit the bill pretty well here) are actually beneficial in terms of leading to better performance, instead of just the illusion of it (and I bet a lot of these disruptive questioners are seen as bullies). For a long time, people who raised any questions or concerns about the Amherst schools were seen as disruptive, divisive, only caring about their kids, elitist, and so on. But the reality is, our schools, like other organizations, really benefit from this type of an open dialogue, in which we are carefully considering what we are doing, and communicating this careful consideration broadly, not simply assuring everyone that the schools are great and that their kids will be OK.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

your point???????????????????
blah blah blah blah

Gavin Andresen said...

I thought Catherine stated her points very eloquently:

"it is really important to examine what people are doing and the outcomes of their behavior"


"our schools ... really benefit from this type of an open dialogue ... not simply assuring everyone that the schools are great and that their kids will be OK."

I agree, and hope Catherine continues to be a disruptive questioner.

Cathy C said...

Catherine, this is very interesting. It is so refreshing to encourage people in a school to look at what isn't (and is) working. I would love to enter an interview where the administrators were looking for questioners, complainers, troublemakers and mindful error-makers because they supported shared improvement.

So many things that happen in schools are very subjective. Even measurable outcomes are rarely tracked at the elementary level. Reports of "consistently, frequently, inconsistently, and rarely" are often judgements. When teachers make a "mistake" with a student, it is usually not a one time error like medication with a nurse, it is over weeks and months of considerable effort and multiple strategies. Then, although without any data, teachers might complain about a weakness in a specific curriculum area or model of education.

It has to start at the top. The School Committee, the Superintendent, the curriculum committees, and the principals need to ask the tough questions and create an environment where questioning and challenging are encouraged. I know you unfairly take the lion's share of the backlash, but your "disruptive" work has opened many mouths that would otherwise be silent. The environment and expectations have begun to change.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but note that, in this week's Bulletin, you are challenged from both sides. The faculty at ARMS suggests that you have failed to look at the data, and Michael Greenebaum suggests that all of life cannot be summed up with data.

I'm not saying that they are wrong and you are right, but it seems hard to reconcile those two critiques of the Sanderson/Rivkin agenda.

Just another observation from the "upper class bully" (who knew it was so easy to be tagged "upper class"?)

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

As the Indians (excuse me "Native Americans") would say: "You are measured by your enemies.

And at this point my dear, you stand 10 feet tall.

Rick said...

I don’t see the solution as just being “noisy”. We already have enough noise.

I see the problem as being one that people just don’t want to do the work. It’s a lot of work to do data collection and people don’t easily accept additional work.

If there was a way of presenting a data-collection-method on a silver platter to the SC and saying “all you have to do is say go” I think it would happen.

How to do that I have no clue; if we had the money I’d hire an outside expert to do it, but we don’t have the money. Any ideas?

In the meantime, there is data that exists. The ARHS School Council did a survey last year and supposedly all the elementary schools did also (ARMS is apparently in-process). Has that data been looked at? Is it any good?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Gavin - thanks for the support. I will do my best to keep questioning.

Cathy - thanks for the thoughtful post ... and I agree that it needs to come from the top -- administrators, superintendent, principals, and school committee members. I hope you are right that expectations are changing ... I don't always believe this, but I'll hope you are right.

Rich - yes, this week's Bulletin was a great example of what happens when people dare to challenge the status quo. I don't have any idea if we are right ... or if "they" (this would be any of the "theys" who wrote) are right. But it strikes me as disappointing that asking for data and evaluation of what we do is so problematic in our schools -- and after reading today's paper, one can certainly see why so many people are silent when they have concerns about our schools ... the attacks (including highly personal ones) are hard to take.

Larry - only 10 feet?!? Feels more like 100.

Rick - this was my view a bit over a year ago, when I ran for School Committee. It is no longer my view. There is lots of data produced in our district all the time about things people WANT data on (e.g., we know exactly what the cost savings of closing Marks Meadow will be, we know exactly how many people of color interview for and are hired by our district, we know exactly how many kids go to college and where they go, etc.). The issue is that some things there is resistance to having data on -- parents and teachers filled out a survey on their views about a semester versus trimester system, and those findings were never reported; I've asked for the number of kids who leave our district for private school and haven't been able to get it; parents filled out a survey a year ago about their experience of the social studies curriculum, and that has never been reported; and you saw the great concern about doing surveys of the schools. I think there is considerable resistance to data and numbers and comparison in general in this district, and it is much more deeply-entrenched than people not having the time to do it (e.g., there was a report done of the science program, and this report was costly in terms of time and money, but failed to examine the specific numbers/data that one would need to in order to evaluate whether the new 9th grade science program was better or worse than the old science options -- again, so one couldn't draw any conclusions from the report). Now, there are some "hopeful" signs -- the MS survey data was reported by Glenda Cresto last August (I have an old blog posting on this), and I know the principals at both Fort River (Ray Sharick) and Crocker Farm (Mike Morris) posted the findings of their school surveys last spring (I also have a blog posting on this, I think?) -- the other principals may also have reported their data from surveys, but I'm not aware of whether this occurred or not.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that there's such a push for DATA measuring success. You had some of the most important data these days concerning the success of Mark's Meadow School....highest in state MCAS, no students "choicing" out to another town, all around high performing school with the 2nd highest number of students on free/reduced lunch along with many ELL students.....How did it help to have data on a high performing school??? gets CLOSED. And yet, we have an under performing school that remains open...Crocker Farm. Does data REALLY matter??

Anonymous said...

"we know exactly what the cost savings of closing Mark's Meadow School will be".....Highly unlikely.....if you asked those who work there, you'll see there are mistakes all over the place in the so called "savings". It will be of great interest to see the REAL figures once it all happens next year.

LarryK4 said...

Last I looked we (the taxpayers of Amherst) OWN Crocker Farm and just recently spent $5 or $6 million to renovate/expand.

In fact in 2006 it received a Massachusetts School Building Design Award (although it did of course W-A-Y overrun its original budget)

Cathy Eden said...

I hope this blog entry is included in your next column in the Bulletin -- It's a great illustration of the need for dissent and "checks and balances".

It's unfortunate that when disagreements arise in this town people resort to character assassination instead of debating ideas.

Anonymous said...

And what will be done once all the data is collected? Are you saying that data, and who creates this data? is more reliable than actual situations people have experienced?? good or bad??
There was much data presented to the SC around closing MM, and yet it appeared ignored.

Where can find the 'data' on the sped program led by the current superintendent that might show the many mistreatments that students suffered while in programs run by her??

How about data that will show the abuses that paras endure while working under abusive superviors? Who has collected and recorded this data and what would you as a SC member with it if held in hand?
Thank you--I consider myself a very noisy and nosy complainer and trouble maker. =)

Rick said...

Catherine: I still don’t buy that the problem is that ARPS doesn’t want data.

Some data is a lot easier to get than other data. Data on “how many people of color interview for and are hired by our district” is dead easy – it’s just a number. Data on the four specific items you mention is a LOT harder to get:

1. how is the new 9th grade science program working
2. what is the impact of having a trimester versus a semester system
3. how well is the "extensions" model of differentiating math instruction in 7th grade working
4. how well do our programs for underperforming kids help them

It doesn’t make any sense that people don’t want data on the above, but it makes a lot of sense that they don’t know how to go about getting it – how to measure this is accurately is hard to figure out – very hard.

How does one even get data on #2? You’d have to take a school, change it, and see what happens, and even then it’s not accurate because of other factors that change during that time. You can survey how other semester schools do versus trimester schools, but would have to normalize for all the differences that each school has. ARHS did a lot of internal debate on this of the pros and cons – its not like they didn’t try to look at the issue – they tried really hard. It could well be that there isn’t a whole lot of difference so maybe that’s why it’s not clear cut. That makes practical sense – probably both systems work well, and assuming there is a definitive answer as to which is better is perhaps a bad assumption. .

For #1 (9th grade science) you and Steve Rivkin suggested this back in fall of 2008:

In that there are 800 words of introduction, some of which talks about how this is not easy to do accurately, then Options 1 and 2, and finally the conclusion:

“Data needed: The initial short-term outcomes were measured based on a survey of 9th grade science students (which includes interest in science and future intentions to take science). We agree that these are important questions, and that students should be surveyed on such measures again this year to evaluate the qualitative outcomes of the different science courses. It is also important to collect data on longer-term, and quantitative, outcomes of such courses, and to build such plans into the overall evaluation model. These outcomes should include scores on 10th grade Science MCAS (biology, chemistry), number (and type) of science courses taken, and achievement on standardized tests (e.g., SAT IIs, APs). Of course ideally longer-term outcomes (such as college attended, proficiency in college science courses, and occupation) would be measured, but such outcomes are probably not feasible, nor can such data be collected in a timely enough way for decisions about the current science program to be made.”

The only specific data you talk about collecting – other than data you say is not feasible to collect – are MCAS and SAT and AP scores, and those are being collected right? So in this case, do we have the data, but all that is needed to analyze that data? That’s the way I read it.

Rick said...


I still say the problem is that this is hard to do – to do it right, with meaningful results – not that on one wants to do it.

Personally I have seen no reluctance to gather data. For example, when I heard that there was an issue (only at SC) about ARMS doing a survey, I contacted Glenda and the ARMS School Council and they seemed to have no problem doing a survey. For them it was a matter of whose going to do it (the work) not that they didn’t want the data.

Another example is that ARHS collects data on school discipline, which shows that students of color get disciplined at a 2-3 times the rate of white kids. It’s extremely detailed data and has been collected for years. (Is the SC even aware of this?). It’s fantastic that such data is collected – the data is not the issue it’s what to do about it that’s the issue.

There is probably other data hanging around that nobody is looking at and nobody is doing anything about. Are we interested in data for data’s sake or are we interested in actually improving something?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 3:47 - I'm sorry that you are continuing with the "why close MM" school issue ... which just isn't relevant here. But to answer your question, data showing MM as a successful school doesn't show at all that it is the BUILDING. It is hard for me to believe that teachers/staff don't influence MCAS scores ... right? And those teachers/staff will still work in other buildings, and presumably will have the same beneficial results on MCAS.

Anonymous 3:53 - it will indeed be interesting to see what the "real" savings are next year. From what I hear, the estimates are real under-estimates -- they don't take into account cost of employee health insurance nor the greater efficiency for teaching art/music/PE, for example! But let's say they are off by $200,000 - I still think saving half a million a year makes it a good decision, and I still would have voted for it.

Larry - indeed. One of the most disappointing things to me in this debate was to see families start to suggest CF close!

Cathy - thanks for your post. I too wish people could focus on the issues ... and it has become very clear to me that the character assaults are quite effective in shutting down divisive voices.

Anonymous 6:48 - data can be collected from parents/teachers/kids (e.g., surveys), or it can reviewed in records (e.g., MCAS scores, enrollment, hiring, etc.). This data is therefore reflecting people's experiences -- surverys reflect how they think/feel, and more objective data reflects how they performed on the MCAS or whatever. I'm not sure why that isn't an "actual situation"? What data can you tell me was ignored regarding closing MM? I have no idea what you are talking about. As I've noted repeatedly on this blog, the current superintendent is having an outside evaluation of the sped program conducted. That seems like the appropriate way to assess what is working and what is not -- and is much better for gathering actual data from a range of people than relying on anonymous postings on a blog. As I've also noted, if you have serious concerns about abuse, mistreatment, etc., you should contact the school committee and/or superintendent to report this information, so that it could then be investigated. As a School Committee member, I would take this information VERY seriously IF it were brought to me to my private email ( by a person with a name.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - I certainly don't believe in data for data's sake -- and I assume you don't believe that I think that. I also believe that some data is harder to get/interpret than others. However, as a member of the School Committee, it has been, and it continues to be, very, very difficult for me to get data. I'm glad that you haven't experienced this issue, but I have, and others have. You note some examples of data that I wanted that was hard to get, but I just don't see this. One of the things I wanted was the number of kids who leave our schools for private school each year. This is also a number (like the number of people we interview for a job), and it is readily available -- we have to send records of any kid who leaves for private school. But I've never gotten it and I've asked in open School Committee meetings. This seems like important information in terms of learning why people are opting out of our school system. I think when parents complete surveys (which they do periodically), we should share these results -- which in turn leads people to want to complete surveys (but we've gotten no information on parent surveys responses on the trimester OR parent survey responses on the social studies curriculum). I've offered repeatedly to have my students input data and produce a summary (I did this for the math curriculum council), and I've offered to train a high school student to do this (again, because I believe that collecting data should also mean communicating that data) -- so again, this is NOT time or work load ... it is a lack of interest/willingness in having data reported. The 9th grade science evaluation that was done (again, which we paid for as a district) could have easily just presented a comparison of the experience of 9th graders in different subjects -- that data exists RIGHT NOW and could be PRODUCED and REPORTED ... but it hasn't been. So, I will repeat that in my experience -- and maybe you are just a lot more successful at getting data than I am! -- there is an absolute reluctance to providing data. Final point -- I've heard about the discipline data that has been collected, but that data has never been presented to the SC as long as I've been on the committee (so, that would be in the last year -- I don't know whether it was presented earlier).

Anonymous said...

Please elaborate on the 'discipline data.'
And what evalutaor will investigate sped and when?
Thank you!

Rick said...

Catherine: On the “data for data's sake” – I wasn’t talking about you, I was generally talking about the fact that there is probably data out there that people are either not looking at or not doing anything about. I should not say “probably” because I don’t know for sure – but anyhow, that’s what I was saying.

Also I want to be clear that just because this may be the case doesn’t mean we shouldn’t collect data that we need. I like data/facts a lot. My ONLY concern is that evaluating some things that you want evaluated – and I can see and agree with why you want those items evaluated – are not so easy to evaluate. You make is sound like the ENTIRE problem is that people just don’t want to do it, and I was saying that is not the whole problem, and in my opinion, the problem is more to do with it being hard to figure out how to evaluate those particular items. The letter you and Steve wrote did not offer any kind of cookbook method – it was very “academic” and you practically have to be a data collection expert to understand it (“propensity score matching”). If you want something done it helps a lot to make it easy for the people you want to do it.

But on the subject of reporting the data:

All of what you talk about in your last comment is about reporting data, not collecting it and I totally agree with this that you said: “it is a lack of interest/willingness in having data reported.”

My comment was all about collecting data, not reporting it. There’s a big difference.

So, which is the problem? That we are not collecting it or that we are not reporting it?

My guess is it’s mostly a reporting problem and only partly a collecting problem, and where collecting is the problem, it’s not being collected because it’s hard to figure out what exactly to collect and how to do it.

The lack of reporting and communication in general is a big problem at ARPS that, while I think its getting better, still needs a lot of improvement.

I don’t know why you are having so much trouble getting data that already exists. I assume you do more than just ask for it at an SC meeting? I see many meeting where people ask for things to be presented at the next meeting and I think “yeah sure I bet we don’t see that at the next meeting”. People go away and forget all about it. Can you make an appointment with the Super, bring a list of what you would like to see, and make a follow up appointment to get it?

Rick said...

Anon 9:03:
ARHS collects data on internal and external suspensions by race and by type of infraction. For example during the 2006/2007 school year, external suspensions for Latino students were 21.8% of the suspensions (75 suspensions) but the Latino student population was 8.3%. Similar numbers for African American students. For white students it was 44.0% of suspensions and the white population was 69.7% .

An easier way to look at this is where 100% is normal*, the multi year average is this:

African American: 196%
Asian: 108%
Latino: 285%
White: 67%

* “normal” means that the % of suspensions is in line with the % of student population that each race is.

Before bashing ARHS about this, realize that this is a country-wide problem, and not an easy one to solve. This problem is about a lot of things, from unconscious racism to the achievement gap.

I find “The Color of Discipline” to be a simple and concise article on possible causes:

The RaDAR Group ( has been working on this problem for a number of years, without much luck yet, but hopeful that good things are starting to happen on this.

Rick said...

Anon 9:03
I should have added that I don't know anything about SPED data. I only know about discipline data from my involvement with RaDAR.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3:47 - I'm sorry that you are continuing with the "why close MM" school issue ... which just isn't relevant here. But to answer your question, data showing MM as a successful school doesn't show at all that it is the BUILDING. It is hard for me to believe that teachers/staff don't influence MCAS scores ... right? And those teachers/staff will still work in other buildings, and presumably will have the same beneficial results on MCAS.

This is a blog post about data and the anonymous poster was citing MM data. So the post was definitely relevant.

I supported the closing of MM for budgetary reasons. BUT you are making a big mistake in suggesting that the MM data is irrelevant- that the culture of the school, the collegiality of the staff, their educational synergy and motivated community and results that stem from them are easy to replicate anywhere, and can be equally dispersed throughout the entire system.

This is one of the ctiticisms you face from SOME in the community; that you cry out for data, but if it doesn't support what you want done, you disregard it.

sza said...

To Catherine:

I only wish to comment on your first paragraph of this blog entry because of the very strong reaction I felt to it. I found it to be frustrating and disappointing to read, I thought it was insulting and dismissing to many people, and I believe that it was was quite misleading to those who choose this source to get their "facts".

I acknowledge that some writers are taking mean-spirited pot shots at you from afar and behind anonymity, which is counter-productive and unfortunate. But many other people have written to you with completely thoughtful and very sincere sentiments which I beg you to try to actually hear. (By the way how come only the ones that support you are acknowledged as “thoughtful comments” in your replies?)

It appears that you are just not listening (or hearing) what some people are trying to express to you about the effect of some of your comments and actions on the schools and the teachers. It is a very effective technique for you to sum up those comments as being inspired by people being opposed to looking at data, when, truthfully, the two have nothing to do with each other. I don’t believe anyone who asked you to consider the morale of teachers who are feeling overly criticized was doing so because you wish to collect data. To suggest that is as misleading as the way you described the impassioned pleas to consider the effects of your words, made in person at the school committee by some teachers. The next morning in your blog it was summed up as “ It is clear to me that middle school teachers are threatened by a survey”. That is either terrible listening, a serious disconnect, or being intentionally misleading.

Looking at data is nothing new to schools, districts and teachers. The middle school model that we use has been developed because of lots of data. We revise what we do because of all sorts of data. Teachers are very committed to self-reflection and constantly wanting to improve at our craft. I can’t think of anyone who would object to properly collected and useful data to help us improve our work. Some of your writers have even acknowledged that lots of data already exists.

I also wish you would not portray people who are questioning the upcoming survey as being “reluctant or opposed to data”. It is very fair to question the validity and usefulness of the information we will get from this particular survey. This survey at this time could be offered as a perfect example of why, if I may quote you again, “relying on anecdote…is really problematic”.

I am sure that you are a great professor, a great researcher, a great expert. What we need you to be right now is a great school committee member. To do that I feel requires excellent listening, accurate reporting, and people skills that serve to bring people together rather than to divide them.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rick - I think there is definitely some data out there (e.g., someone knows how many kids go to private schools each year). But there is also a resistance to collecting data, and I just don't know another nicer way of putting it. Let me give one very clear example -- in many districts, when families choose to leave the district for private school, they are given a form that just asks "why". As you can imagine, that helps districts understand what they maybe aren't doing so well (e.g., are classes too big, is there not enough challenge, are schools MCAS-factories and not focused on art/music/PE, etc.). So, I've asked for us to collect that data -- to just have a form (which we could get from another district) and to send that to people when they ask us to send their records elsewhere. I've been told "NO." This is not hard data to get, and it is not tricky to analyze -- but I've been told this is not something the district wants to take on (I asked Jere Hochman and I asked Al Sprague -- in fairness, I have not made the request for the third time to Maria Geryk). But when I asked, I was told "no" and not a single member of the School Committee shared my interest in this data. I don't know how to see this as other than a lack of interest in knowing why people leave our district.

What you didn't see in the letter Steve and I wrote is the cover letter, which said either/both of us would be glad to meet with science teachers, Mark Jackson, the superintendent, the person who did the survey, or anyone else to explain how to do the evaluation (which would not have been hard). In fact, I offered for the science teachers to pick any high school student and I offered to train that high school student to do the evaluation! Again, these offers to help (for free, by people who publish evaluation papers regularly for a living) were not accepted. So, again, it isn't a lack of knowing how or having the resources.

So, we might have some data that we don't report (I think this is probably true -- one of the reasons why I'm glad there is now a commitment to publishing the survey data we collect), and we should get better on this -- and I think there is actually some movement on this front.

But I think there is still a problem in terms of collecting data (as I note in my example of private school options), and I think there is still another problem in analying/evaluating the data we do have (and I think there is problem both a lack of understanding/time/ability/people-power to do this but also a lack of interest/desire/willingness).

And to respond to your last point -- what you see at SC meetings is what you see in terms of my attempts to get data (other than a few failed attempts to even get data questions on the agenda!). In fairness to the superintendent/staff, SC members can't just go meet privately with the superintendent/staff and say "hey, I want this and this and this." When there are requests for new data/information, those get voted on by the whole SC so that one member of the SC (such as Catherine) isn't wasting people's time getting data that only she wants. So, even if I want data that exists, unless that interest is shared by the whole SC (or a majority), we don't get it.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the link to the elementary school survey that was just sent out a few minutes ago?

Rick said...

Catherine: OK that stinks that there is no exit form for people leaving. But here’s the problem: “I asked Jere Hochman and I asked Al Sprague” – both useless. Go for it with Maria I bet it will happen.

As an aside, Hochman leaving and someone new coming in I am hoping makes all the difference here.

This is also too bad “…not a single member of the School Committee shared my interest in this data.” But I also have to say this is you saying that. If I ask Andy Churchill if he is interested in having this data I’d be REAL surprised if he said no.

“…there is now a commitment to publishing the survey data we collect” – good.

“So, even if I want data that exists, unless that interest is shared by the whole SC (or a majority), we don't get it.” – not good.

Wondering about something:

Is the reason the SC says 'no' that the Super says 'no' and they back up the Super? I bet there is never a case where Super say 'yes' and SC says 'no'. Again, a new Super can make all the difference and SC not being quite so cozy with the Super would be good too. SC need to actor like Super’s boss – because they are - not friend.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you all aren't listening to her. She is pointing out that it isn't about a building. I found the May 28, 2009 3:47 PM remark about closing Crocker Farm very rude.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 11:25 - OK, I'll get into the MM thing again. First, I have no idea whether MCAS scores in MM are better BECAUSE of the MM building. Maybe it is the building and the staff can only create such a culture in that physical space. Or maybe it is many other things (e.g., maybe the MM teachers are more experienced, so they are better; maybe the MM families are more pro-education in general since many are affiliated with U Mass, etc.). So, data showing that MM has better MCAS socres is NOT showing that the MCAS scores are CAUSED by the building. Second, even if there was absolute, 100% data that showed MCAS scores are higher at MM because of the physical building, what as a SC member do I do with this information? Do I say let's close another school with bad MCAS scores, even if all the kids can't actually fit in the classrooms? Or do I say that having 13% of the kids in our district in a school that produces great MCAS scores is worth cutting money out of all the schools and other programs? To me, even if I believed that the great MCAS scores were (a) a super way to evaluate a school's merit, or (b) caused by the physical building of MM, I still don't think that in fairness to the 87% of the kids in the district who are NOT in that school we should keep it open. Data doesn't mean choosing to keep a school open that we can't afford ... nor does my decision to vote to close MM mean that I'm disregarding data. It simply means that I'm examining what the data means (as in, do we value a school based on MCAS scores and where those scores created by the buliding) AND it means examining the data (as in, the financial realities) as the decision impacts ALL kids in our district. I looked precisely at all of this data, which is what led to my decision to close MM.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

SZA - my first paragraph referred to many, many things I've experienced in the district. It didn't refer just (or even at all) to the issue of evaluation of the MS (or any school). I've responded at length on this blog and via private email to any person who chooses the reach out -- and I will continue to do so (even in the face of personal attacks on this blog and in the press). But I was shocked at the reaction I heard at the last Regional SC meeting by many teachers (including, perhaps, you) -- I asked for a survey of all parents, and teachers, and kids, so that we could learn what was working well and what was not. This request followed numerous calls and emails I had received from parents all across town and representing different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds expressing concern about aspects of their child's experience in the MS. Then, at the meeting, my request was attacked again and again by teachers and staff at the MS -- how the request singled out one school, how the data would be biased, how the questions would be subjective, etc. Not one of the people who came to the meeting to express concerns had emailed me privately to share these concerns or asked me to revise the request. You are critical of me describing that reaction as "defensive" -- people can watch the meeting online via ACTV and decide for themselves whether those reactions are "defensive." This is my blog -- and I see that reaction as highly defensive. Again, can you give me a good way to collect information on how parents and kids are experiencing the middle school in a way that is NOT biased? I'm glad to hear that -- but I've heard no suggestions that avoid the problem of bias.

One more thing -- as I'm sure you've read (and perhaps signed), there is a letter that is personally attacking my role (and Steve Rivkin's) as a SC member and signed by many MS teachers in the Bulletin this week. You suggest at the end of your post that I need to become a good SC member by listening ... so you will be pleased, I guess, to know that I've received private calls and emails from people I don't even know thanking me for asking for a survey of the MS parents because they don't feel comfortable sharing their concerns with MS teachers and principals -- because they worry that they will be seen as indulgent, complaining parents, and then criticized (as in fact, I am). So, you may feel that I'm a bad SC member, and I'm really sorry for that. But there are others who feel that I'm an excellent SC member precisely because I'm listening to concerns from parents and kids and I'm following up on those concerns by requesting data from ALL families (not just those who feel comfortable reaching out to me) to get a sense of BOTH strengths and areas of concern. I ask you -- what type of listening should I do to parents who come to me, as an elected official, and tell me that they have serious concerns about their child's experience in the MS. What should I do with those concerns?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 2:57 - I just got an email with that link myself -- and I think the survey (the elementary one is the only one I've seen) looks great. Not so long to fill out, good questions about a range of topics, and room for free responses. I again commend the current and incoming superintendents for their willingness to gather feedback from all of the schools.

Rick - I share your belief that Maria would make it (exit surveys) happen ... and your hope that Alberto Rodriguez will have the same desire for information. You can check about interest in exit surveys at the SC minutes available on I asked on May 27th for such surveys and there are comments by both Andy and Elaine noting the lack of capacity of our district to do that (again, it is a one page paper form!). I emailed Al Sprague privately requesting such surveys, and his response is minuted in the September 2, 2008 minutes (in that he is looking into the legality of this, which seems very, very odd). I never had a response after that meeting.

You are right that the SC never says "no" when the Super says "yes." So, maybe it is backing up the super ... but I also think a lot of it has to do with both the SC and the super not wanting "bad things" to be said about our schools. For example, what if we did exit surveys or counted kids who left for private school, and realized that the numbers were increasing and/or people were really not happy? Then it might make teachers/principals feel bad, or might make people feel like they wouldn't support an override, or decrease property values or whatever. So, I'm kind of like the boy who said "hey, the emperor is naked" ... and people didn't really like that boy, right?!?

In terms of the friend/not friend nature of the SC and the super ... I like to hope (maybe I'm naive) that the SC and the super and the principals and the teachers and the parents are all on the same side -- and that is the side of the kids! I believe if everyone is focused on this as the goal, we can do a lot -- and it means that we aren't worried about finding out "bad things" (about schools or teachers or principals or superintendents) -- because finding out "bad things" is the first step in SOLVING the bad things. That's it - it isn't personal -- it is just information so that we can try a new approach if/when we find out that things aren't working. I feel like too often it becomes personal -- and really, shouldn't we all want to know ALL THE TIME what is working great for kids (all kids, not just some kids) and what is NOT? I don't see how you can find out this crucial information without data.

Anonymous 3:31 - that comment about CF was really rude. I agree!

Rick said...

“looking into the legality of this” – idiotic

“I also think a lot of it has to do with both the SC and the super not wanting "bad things" to be said about our schools.” – yes, SC overly sensitive about this, it’s dumb

“friend/not friend nature of the SC and the super” – I don’t mean it can’t be friendly and it should be. But someone who works for you may be a friend, but #1 is they need to perform or else, especially when they are getting paid $158k! Then there is ZERO tolerance for nonperformance (or should be) for that kind of pay. It should be boss first, friend second.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Rick - Yes, Yes, and Yes!

Anonymous said...

On this discipline is not news to me and not a surprise to me that students 'of color' outweigh suspensions of white students. I agree with Rick it is not the data or numbers that are important here but doing something to end the continuance of this unbalanced count. It involves teaching the child to respect the adult in their presence who is teaching him/her no matter if they are black or white. I know many families, yes in this town, who dislike and do not trust white people. I am not sure this is the forum to open this discussion , but with Rick's numbers of students of color being suspended and my suspicions of these same students being targeted in pre-school for sped programs something needs to be done here and now. There is so much hatred I see in today's culture that perpetuates racial hatred, from both sides, that it spills over into the schools and as educators this is the core of what we need to be addressing! A freind of mine told me s/he just went to a play at UMass where after the performance the discussion led to expressions of hatred of white people and the players were supported in this display by the audience members. My freind told me s/he ran away after the show...
CS--you sit too high on a seat where most of what you say, and I don't know if you intend this or not, is belittling. But, I thank you for this opportunity to blog...=)

Anonymous said...

What is rude about stating that CF is an underperforming school? It is plain and simple truth. How was it the principal and co-principal both left that building? Yes--one retired and the other went on in her search for social justice, but they left behind a disfunctional school and no one seemed to have noticed...

CF Mom said...

I think it is rude because it is missing the point of closing a school for financial reasons and making them personal. We can redistrict our schools to make them equals. Why is THAT wrong?

Baldteach said...

Let me say first that you do not deserve to be called names or personally attacked here or in any forum. Name calling is not discourse, and ultimately weakens the most compelling arguments.

I am truly baffled by your lack of understanding of some of the responses you have engendered and by your reading of some of the comments on this blog.

Your response to sza completely collapsed two different ideas that he expressed.

the first idea was
I only wish to comment on your first paragraph of this blog entry because of the very strong reaction I felt to it. I found it to be frustrating and disappointing to read, I thought it was insulting and dismissing to many people, and I believe that it was was quite misleading to those who choose this source to get their "facts".

I acknowledge that some writers are taking mean-spirited pot shots at you from afar and behind anonymity, which is counter-productive and unfortunate. But many other people have written to you with completely thoughtful and very sincere sentiments which I beg you to try to actually hear.

the second was:
It appears that you are just not listening (or hearing) what some people are trying to express to you about the effect of some of your comments and actions on the schools and the teachers. It is a very effective technique for you to sum up those comments as being inspired by people being opposed to looking at data, when, truthfully, the two have nothing to do with each other. I don’t believe anyone who asked you to consider the morale of teachers who are feeling overly criticized was doing so because you wish to collect data. To suggest that is as misleading as the way you described the impassioned pleas to consider the effects of your words, made in person at the school committee by some teachers. The next morning in your blog it was summed up as “ It is clear to me that middle school teachers are threatened by a survey”. That is either terrible listening, a serious disconnect, or being intentionally misleading.

Your response creates an amalgam of these two:
SZA - my first paragraph referred to many, many things I've experienced in the district. It didn't refer just (or even at all) to the issue of evaluation of the MS (or any school)... But I was shocked at the reaction I heard at the last Regional SC meeting by many teachers (including, perhaps, you) -- I asked for a survey of all parents, and teachers, and kids, so that we could learn what was working well and what was not...

and you end up focusing on a comment that was never actually stated.

I think that this is what he means when he says he wants you to be a good listener.

In addition, you continue to state that people who do not believe that the MS teachers acted "defensive" in the face of your proposal can watch the proceedings on ACTV and see for themselves... I will argue that if the passion present in the teachers opposing you was instead in your favor you would characterize it as reasoned support.

It was noted that the MS had been singled out, because in your original proposal you singled out the middle school. It was clarified by the chair that the proposal had been amended and the point became moot. I stood and asked that any survey use well-defined terms because even widely used terms like "rigor" can be interpreted subjectively. Dave Ranen and Kathy Reckendorf asked that the committee visit the school and see what is happening for themselves, and Norm Price gave an impassioned plea that you consider the negative power of your words, even as you use them to try and do positive things.
We are passionate about what we do at the Middle School. If you read that passion as defensive then you might understand why your passion might be viewed as an attack.

Baldteach said...


It's your blog. You are going to do as you please here, but when you write:
The single most frustrating thing to me (and you might think this would be a hard call) about my experience with the Amherst schools is what I see as a total reluctance, and indeed almost opposition, to looking at DATA. If you even mention wanting data.

it is infuriating and insulting to each and every one of us who have and do collect data in our classrooms and in our schools to inform and improve our practice.

Opposition to the current survey does not equal opposition to the idea of data, just an opposition to your method of acquiring it.

Rick said...

Catherine: I feel that Balteach is right about your listening habits. Your replies to some of my comments have at times contained things that had nothing to do with my comment.

If I may offer something: I think what happens is that you go on the defensive when you don’t need to. Yes people do attack you but not all comments are attacks. You sometimes – only sometimes not always – jump to the “attack back” mode when really all you need to do is:

a. Count to 10.
b. Listen hard to what the person is saying even if it is not what you want to hear.
c. Calmly rebut that person being carful to address only what that person commented on.

I just think you will get a lot farther getting your arguments across that way. I don’t want you to be attacked, I want to hear what you say and what other people say in response so I can learn, and I think this would help.

Sort of related to this: you say you don’t care what people think about you, but I think that’s a mistake. How you say something is critical, not just what you say. Every politician knows this and the ones who don’t follow that get hammered – this is no different.

Sorry to preach, and Balteach is also right that it’s your blog so you do what you want of course. We are just guests here.

Anonymous said...

excellent point rich...i have left messages to catherine to that exact point but she becomes defensive when people point that out...catherine you are a public figure and not everyone will agree with you but your job is too listen , if you do not like take rich's advice and do not become defensive or say the other person is wrong..try listening and will give yourself a lot more credibility

Rick said...

Just to be "fair and balanced", while I may be critical of how CAS says what she says sometimes, I am grateful for the ton of work she puts in providing info here on this blog.

Anonymous said...

The coaching of Catherine is obviously sincere, and I'm sure that she's listening.

But the flip side of this is that I think that we have effectively narrowed the range of allowable (or forgivable) expression in town for our elected officials.

They have to be a little bit Job, a lot Solomon, as judicial as can be in their temperament, as concerned about process as they are about substance, self-critical about their tone and body language in public, appearing to listen carefully at all times, transparent in their thinking, willing to engage issues even after they've been decided. AND they have to deliver harsh truths to those of us who think that we can have it all, AND they are expected to leave their jurisdiction better than they found it, i.e. they have to get something done.

It's too much to expect from anyone. And I believe that we will begin to see that realization reflected in the range of candidates we get in the future.

I take the thrust of Catherine's service to be the raising of this question: are we empowering every child of every background and at every ability level in our schools during every step of his/her education? I think that the answer to that is no. But I think that it's at bottom a question about justice which, by simply asking it, makes people defensive. I think that it's unfortunate that the Middle School teachers listed in the letter in the Bulletin, some of whom I deeply respect, decided to personalize things in the way that they did.

Meanwhile, parents are very quietly without fanfare "voting with their feet" and taking their children elsewhere. And other parents regret not having done so, at least for part of the time. That can't be good in the long term.

Rich Morse

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 7:43 - if you have concerns about racism in the schools, you should bring those concerns to the attention of the SC and the superintendent ... that would be the appropriate forum to get such concerns addressed.

Anonymous 7:57 - I think the concern was not saying something about CF school ... it was saying it should be CLOSED because of low MCAS scores (which does strike me as rude). I hear great things about current principal Mike Morris -- I would not characterize the school as dysfunctional.

CF Mom - exactly. Thanks.

Baldteach - my blog is my blog, and thus my blog is going to reflect my experience with the school district as a whole. It is not a blog about my feelings about the MS, or about teachers, or about the superintendent. It is a blog about my experience with the TOTALITY of the district. The first paragraph of my blog posting (which SZA found offensive) had little, if anything, to do with surveys of the MS. It has to do with my repeated requests for data of all sorts, and my repeated failure to get that data. That's it. The survey data is a tiny, tiny part of this ... so, my reaction to that post was to start by noting that this was NOT about the MS surveys at all. But SZA was concerned about the post as being offensive to people who do care about data, so I was clarifying that I'm not seeing this in a broader way in the district. That's it.

I think if people want to write me thoughtful advice about my tone and listening -- they should email me privately -- This blog is not intended to be "advice for Catherine on her personality and tone and body language." It is intended to discuss issues of education.

But to be clear about my hearing/listening -- I certainly understand the "effect of some of your comments and actions on the schools and the teachers." I get this, and I apologize for not saying earlier that I get this. But then, what do I do with this information? If I hear real concerns from parents/kids, how do I make sure that these concerns are addressed? I feel that for a long time, concerns by parents have been totally disregarded -- because saying out loud that there are problems is seen as a very, very bad thing to do (in part because it impacts morale). So, what would be more helpful to me from YOU and SZA would be specific suggestions on WHAT I SHOULD DO WITH PARENTAL CONCERNS in a way that does NOT disrupt morale. I think it is also important for you, and SZA, to remember that some people think I AM a good listener -- I'm just listening to different voices (voices of parents/kids). I hear the passion from you and other teachers ... I hear that and I get that. But I also hear intense frustration from parents about their child's experience in this school -- and they feel passionate about that. So, again, tell me how I can simultaneously bring actual concerns of actual people to the attention of the SC and superintendent AND not impact teacher morale? That advice would be most useful. And if you object to survey data -- tell me what type of data you'd like instead. Criticizing what I do and how I do it is less helpful to me than giving specific concrete suggestions about how I can do the job that many people in this town want me to do -- which is to improve the quality of education for all kids in Amherst.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - thanks for your comments. And I appreciate your willingness to use your actual name. I am listening to them, and I am trying. But the reality is that I am doing the best I can ... and I would hope that anyone who suggests I do a better job in any way should ask themselves how they would respond to each and every complaint about their style/tone/body language while working as hard as they can at an entirely volunteer position while they pick up the Bulletin each week to read letters (including letters from teachers that my kids may well have) criticizing virtually every single thing they do and say. This is not an easy position to be in. And I think it is therefore pretty natural that a person might eventually feel frustrated and defensive -- after facing attacks (many which are both anonymous and highly personal) day after day for months.

Anonymous 9:44 - this is a great example of a post that contributes nothing to the dialogue about education in Amherst, and takes the opportunity to criticize me (once again) from a highly safe anonymous perch. Post your response using your actual name and it will be easier for me to listen and take your advice seriously.

Rick said...

“I think if people want to write me thoughtful advice about my tone and listening -- they should email me privately” - that’s a good point. Wasted a bunch of blog space on this I guess. Probably should get back to data discussion.

Rick said...


I still don’t get how exactly one can measure these (from above):

1. how is the new 9th grade science program working
2. what is the impact of having a trimester versus a semester system
3. how well is the "extensions" model of differentiating math instruction in 7th grade working
4. how well do our programs for underperforming kids help them

My suggestion is to toss that to the new Super. Say you want to measure these and get him to tell you how he intends to do it.

Or is this something the SC won't agree to do (toss this list to the Super)?

JWolfe said...

In just in from mowing the lawn of my house in Echo Hill. Or, as so many of the Anons on the list read that: I've just cheated the mistreated grounds staff I keep here on my Amherst Woods estate. I may shoot one of them for sport later.

Okay, to the topic at hand: I teach at UMass and I am evaluated 4 times a year by students (promotions, merit pay, etc. are affected by these and, yes, we have a mild form of post-tenure review). My scholarship is always being evaluated.

Here's what I don't get about objections to the surveys:

1) If the Middle School is so wonderful then you should be eager to have students and parents provide feedback saying so. I'm sure none of you believe it's perfect and so you should want input on how to improve things. Nothing is beyond improving.

2) But, you seem to be saying, these surveys are biased. Catherine and Steve and others seem to have it out for you (no explanation as to why people who are volunteering to serve on the SC and who have kids in the public schools somehow are on a mission to tear down all that is wonderful about our schools).

I have two reactions to point 2. First of all, Catherine and Steve and all the evil ACE letter signers aren't writing the surveys. If, for whatever reason, they had nefarious intentions, they would be countered by the Superintendent, MS principal, and others involved in crafting the survey.

Next, the assumption by folks who oppose these surveys is that the town is divided into roughly three groups. The first won't respond at all for a variety of reasons opponents of the survey use that strike me as problematic at best. For some reason, lower income folks won't respond. I have no idea why that is, but it's held as an article of faith. The second group is the evil ACErs. We are intent on transforming the MS into Eaglebrook and the HS in Deerfield Academy. We are mindless elitists who don't even mow our lawns. Bad, bad ACE.

The final group, which the opponents of the survey seem to think is the majority, is made up of stupid people. Stupid because the evil, slanted, pro-gun, anti-environment ACE survey will trick them into responding in ways that say what Catherine & Steve already think, but that they as MS parents and students don't really feel or believe. It's all about smoke and mirrors and highly slanted questions. You either believe people are stupid and will be duped or you believe that they are smart and aware and will answer honestly. I believe in the latter, which is weird for an elitist.

I've read through quite a few survey answers done by parents and students in Amherst and they are, pardon my elitism, very smart and articulate. Our parents and students answer questions honestly and when they don't like a question they explain why in the generous comment area. So, unless you think this town is filled with empty headed pod people, expect lots of very honest answers on the surveys no matter how they're written.

Which gets me back to my original point -- not about cutting my own lawn, but about wanting feedback. I've never been to a great restaurant that doesn't want to be reviewed or known an author who isn't dying to have his/her book reviewed, and on and on. Why on earth don't people in the MS want feedback? And, please, stop insulting all of us by pretending we can be easily fooled by a survey you see as biased.

Rick said...

Who is “you” in “you seem to be saying, these surveys are biased.”?

I don’t see anyone saying that above.

JWolfe said...

Rick wrote:

"Who is “you” in “you seem to be saying, these surveys are biased.”?"

That's how I read SZA's post and Baldteach's. I've also heard this directly from opponents of the MS survey who have not posted on this blog.

Here's Baldteach from one of his posts in response to this thread:

"Opposition to the current survey does not equal opposition to the idea of data, just an opposition to your method of acquiring it."

Maybe you think I'm over reaching, but he seems to be saying that he has a problem with this particular survey. He thinks it will somehow have a bias that he objects to and that was my point. Opponents of examining the MS see themselves as brilliant critics of the hidden agenda of this yet to be written survey, but their intelligence is the mirror opposite of the majority who are incapable of seeing through the biases and will so provide an inaccurate critique of the MS.

The critics are smart and the general populace is dumb. That's what I see them saying.

Maybe they should work on their tone. . . .

Rick said...

Ah OK. BTW I am pretty sure ARMS is doing a survey (of parents, I think). The ARMS School Council was going to be doing it. Not 100% sure that is happening/has happened.

Anonymous said...

It is so interesting to me the number of teachers and administrators who are attacking CS over really silly things like the expression on her face during SC mtgs or the way her legs are crossed. Why are they so afraid of being evaluated? This makes no sense to me. Don't the middle school teachers and administrators want the best for all students?
Ditto the above on the 9th grade science issue. Since it's so unique it is basic logic to evaluate to make sure that its all its cracked up to be. I truly don't get all the CS and SR bashing.
Signed confused and very concerned parent.

Anonymous said...

I think that a survey would disclose that, at one time or another, a significant number of ARMS parents have been told very candidly by a ARMS teacher that he/she is not set up to engage every student in the class. I would like to be wrong on this.

In the Morse family, we estimate that we were told that about three times.

By the way, I'm not necessarily blaming the teacher.

Rich Morse

Baldteach said...


If you read that I think the populous is dumb, then you misread. some of the populous is VERY educated. Some of the populous are highly accomplished. But If you read that there is a bias, then you read correctly. There is a bias in this community about the middle school. It is present in nearly every interaction that I have with a worried parent who has heard "such horrible things" and is pleasantly surprised with the reality of the MS.

ANY SURVEY WILL REFLECT SOME BIAS. either in the nature of the questions or in the respondents. If the point of the survey is to inform, then that isn't such a big deal. everybody wants information about how they're doing.

But I suspect that, no matter what the stated goals of the survey are, that it will be seen as evaluative. My only concern is that an evaluative survey of the MS be done using objective measures.

Our scholarship is also being constantly being evaluated Mr Wolfe, albeit by students 11-13 years of age.

Sometimes their feedback takes the form of "I think this class moves too slowly"

Sometimes it is "we should have more time in the hall to talk to our friends"

Somehow I feel that "time to talk to our friends" during class time rarely comes up in any of the 4 evaluations you receive every year.

the bottom line is this. To state that we are afraid to be scrutinized, that we are reluctant to be evaluated, that we are defensive is untruth.
It is political speech, designed to sway the few people in town that are undecided or uninformed on this subject.

What is accurate is that we do this job every single day (we don't stop trying to improve just because the school year ends) we hear the informative data,
(Middle Schoolers are surprisingly honest, though not very objective) and we compare what we hear with what we know about teaching early adolescents and try to adjust accordingly.

I challenge CS opponents and allies to stop name calling and to stop posting anonymously. If you wish to toss barbs and opine in this forum, the least you could do is to name yourself

sza said...

To JWolfe:

I have to admit that when you said that you read my blog, (as well as Baldteach’s) as claiming that the upcoming surveys would be “biased”, I had to scratch my head. Then I had to go back to re-read my blog, but hard as I looked I could not find where I said that at all. (Thank you also Rick for corroborating that)

I am not down on surveys…I was on the school council that did a survey last spring. I was part of an inquiry group at the middle school; that did a school climate and bullying survey twice this year. I regularly survey my students as to how the course is feeling to them…too challenging, too easy, just right, etc.

The thing about a survey is, yes they can be biased, and that is just about unavoidable. It is the nature of the beast. But I never raised that issue, nor gave that as a reason not to do a survey. I know the committee that, along with some professional guidance, put together the middle school version of the survey did their very best to minimize any inherent bias.

I say full speed ahead with the survey. What I also say (and have been saying I thought clearly in earlier blogs) is that let's be very clear on what the “data” that we are getting from this survey really will be, and exactly how it can be useful to us.

I would think that CS would agree with the following comments on the above thought.
(Apologies, Catherine, if you do not). A survey will get you anecdotal information, opinions, and perceptions, not hard data. These aforementioned tidbits, can then inform as to what areas might need to be focused on, and properly and objectively evaluated. Please let’s not confuse this taking of the “pulse” as finding real data. Please when we make the results public remember how most statistics can be viewed in very different ways depending on the lens of the viewer, and lets discuss, and not overreact, in either direction. I will be glad if the new super gets to find out what the public is feeling, but disappointed if major policy changes happen based solely on survey results.

In your blog, JWolfe you interpret what we were saying with comments like we are “brilliant critics” who think we are “smart and the general populace is dumb”. And telling us about our “assumptions” about the town and its “majority of stupid people”.
These are ridiculous words to put into our mouths, into our thoughts, and into our hearts. Why exactly can’t you just accept our words as they are expressed and written. It might just be that we mean the things that we write and not that we are really saying hidden things that you, the reader must therefore infer or assume about. The only comment that you made that I can agree with is when you said “maybe you think I am over reaching”. Yes, I think you over reached and I actually think you went way overboard.

sza said...

To: Anonymous 5:28 How do you connect the two sentences you put together as such: “teachers and administrators whoa are attacking CS over silly things like the expression on her face” and “Why are they so afraid of being evaluated?” Why do people keep doing this? When we say something that is what we mean, yet we keep being told we really mean something else. If we ask for consideration at a school committee meeting we are suddenly “threatened by a survey”. If someone questions the way CS treats people at meetings (or her facial expressions) it might be a very silly point, (I can’t comment from any first hand experience) but why does that comment instead get interpreted to mean “they are afraid of being evaluated”. I keep being bewildered at these interpretations.

Please assume that when I write or say something that it is what I actually mean and it is what I intended to say. I am not writing a set of clues for others to decipher to get my real meaning. If I meant those other things I would say them. If you want my real meaning just read what I say, and please stop telling me that what I actually meant was something other than what I wrote. (I think that type of thing has happened to CS as well, and I imagine she is frustrated by it also)

And as I have said many times now…please don't call this an evaluation anyway. It is a survey, and just that. I am glad we are doing it and expect it to show us if there are areas of concern that could then be evaluated properly.

JWolfe said...

Balteach wrote:

"ANY SURVEY WILL REFLECT SOME BIAS. either in the nature of the questions or in the respondents. If the point of the survey is to inform, then that isn't such a big deal. everybody wants information about how they're doing.

But I suspect that, no matter what the stated goals of the survey are, that it will be seen as evaluative. My only concern is that an evaluative survey of the MS be done using objective measures."

I think that that sums up my confusion. Your write that any survey will be biased, but you want one based on objective measures. Bias is okay and not a problem if no one is going to evaluate anything or anybody, but if it's evaluative then the mythical objective survey must be used, even though it probably doesn't exit.

Look, the district will write the survey. Various people will read it. Different people will read and answer different questions in differing ways. Some of it will pass judgement on you and the MS. If the MS is doing a good job overall, that will be reflected in the survey's results. If not, then that will be in the survey's results. What's wrong with that?

I also think there's a very strong sense in some of the posts that something that is evaluative that says everything is terrific is fine, but something that is evaluative and points out serious shortcomings is to be mistrusted and avoided. Is that a healthy way to run a school?

SZA wrote:

"I can’t think of anyone who would object to properly collected and useful data to help us improve our work."

You oppose this, as yet unwritten survey, but say surveys are fine if they are "properly collected" and have "useful data." Why are you objecting to something that doesn't yet exist as flawed and improperly collected? I plead guilty to reading into that the idea that you see yourself as capable of seeing the flaws in some surveys, but you fear others cannot. That strikes me as what's behind your critique of the yet to be written survey. Right? I mean, if it's (or I should say, if it's going to be) so flawed, won't everyone see that? If you don't think so, then what are you saying about the people in Amherst?

I wrote that some of the opponents of the survey seem to be arguing that Steve and Catherine and others will use their Jedi mind tricks to bamboozle the general public with leading and unfair questions. Moreover, they also seem to be saying that they can tell that there will be bias in the survey, but that other will not be able to. If that's not what you're saying, then why are you so concerned with this yet to be written survey? What in particular, and please be specific, do you object to?

JWolfe said...

I didn't quote something else from SZA which is part of what causes me to read the post as opposing the survey:

"I also wish you would not portray people who are questioning the upcoming survey as being “reluctant or opposed to data”. It is very fair to question the validity and usefulness of the information we will get from this particular survey. This survey at this time could be offered as a perfect example of why, if I may quote you again, “relying on anecdote…is really problematic”. "

There's a lot in this brief paragraph, but the key for me is the phrase "this particular survey." I don't believe it's been written, so why the fear of this particular as yet to be written survey?

This is also behind my criticism that some people seem to think that they are capable of seeing bias in surveys, but that the general population will be tricked. Indeed, it seems as though some people can see bias in surveys by teleporting into the future to read survey questions that haven't even been written yet.

I'll end here the way I did just above:

What specifically do you find problematic or wrong or biased about this yet to be written survey? And, why do you assume that only the MS teachers will be able to understand those biases/problems but that the rest of the population in Amherst won' be able to? Please be specific.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rick - thanks for also noting the intense work involved in doing this blog and having this dialogue!

Rich - thank you for noting the very, very high expectations we now seem to have of all public officials ... and that the curse of trying to increase communication/openness (like in this blog) is to receive even more criticism. Thank you for also trying to return this discussion to the real point - "are we empowering every child of every background and at every ability level in our schools during every step of his/her education?" That seems to me to be the entire job of a SC member, and virtually all of my efforts on the SC have been in pursuit of anwering this question. I also think you raise an excellent point that "by simply asking it, makes people defensive." For a long time, I've heard that you can't criticize or question the schools and how they are doing -- because that impacts morale, support for the school, funding for the school, recruitment of teachers, and so on. But I think it also erodes morale (certainly of parents, and I'd have to assume of some teachers) when you can't have an open and honest dialogue about strengths and legitimate areas of concern. I have also heard from many parents who were very dismayed to see the letter in the Bulletin signed by many MS teachers.

Rick - glad you agree about sending comments on my personal tone/style to my private email! I really would like to keep this dialogue focused on the essential issue of education in Amherst!

Rick - I think the new super, and perhaps the new assistant super in charge of curriculum/instruction would be precisely the people to take this on. And my big emphasis is not on any particular program/curricula and whether that is working. My goal is to try to change the nature of the dialogue so that we actually think evaluating things is good and essential -- and that approach becomes the norm. So, when the SC voted to adopt the trimester system, there was no period of data collection to see how this move impacted learning (and the SC minutes following the move quote real and serious concerns from social studies teachers and world language teachers about negative effects -- which SC members then ask for data on and NEVER RECEIVE). That is then my concern about the new 9th grade science course -- I'd have been MUCH more comfortable if the program was implemented for say a three-year pilot, and specific types of data were going to be collected and analyzed, and then three years later, the teachers/super/principal/SC would look at the data and figure out whether to continue with this or not. Again, that's just an example, but that is the kind of thing I'd like to see -- when we choose to adopt a new program (e.g., 9th grade science, 7th grade "extensions" in math, trimester, Chinese in WW elementary school), we also have a clear set of standards by which we are going to collect data and evaluate the impact of the program in a set time period. This would then set up a new process by which innovations aren't just assumed to be good -- they are going to be tested to see if they ARE good, and if they aren't, we can move in a new direction (which doesn't mean that anyone is stupid or bad -- it just means someone had an idea, and some ideas turn out to be good, and some ideas turn out to be bad). In our current system, anyone who dares to even question whether something is working is assumed to be "teacher-bashing," which in turn really stiffles dialogue and discussion (which seems pretty ironic in a town in which education and inquiry should be prized).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rick - one more thing ... I am hopeful, though not certain, that the new SC will be interested in changing the approach. It will be interesting to see how people view the importance of asking the new super to answer these questions.

JWolfe - thank you for making the key point that people aren't idiots ... the district will have no motivation to create a biased survey (e.g., "how much does the MS suck? A lot or just some?"), and people will answer the questions in an honest way. The MS survey conducted last year, for example, revealed the MS does a great job of making kids feel safe and respecting differences, and less of a good job of holding high academic standards (again, I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like that). I think this survey, like all surveys, will likely reveal strengths and areas of concern -- and having a sense of those from multiple areas (parents, teachers, students) should be really helpful.

The MS teachers have said (on this blog) that they welcome the survey and that I'm mischaracterizing them as defensive. But when a group of teachers attend a SC meeting (and again, this is NOT a meeting at which we were physically writing the survey -- all concerns about bias/objectivity could easily have been shared with the superintendent at any point privately) and express concerns about the nature of questions and usefulness of the information, AND then write a letter to the Bulletin that states "Sanderson and Rivkin are not the leaders they were elected to be; they are simply misleading" -- it kind of starts to feel defensive. In contrast, the MS teachers could have attended the meeting and thanked me for prioritizing their school first because they really want to know what is working well and what could be improved, and then they could have written a letter to the Bulletin thanking me for taking leadership on getting answers from ALL stakeholders so that we could start to clear up some of the common misperceptions people hold about the MS. That alternative approach would NOT have been seen as defensive -- but rather as an acknowledgment that there are some concerns, and an eagerness to understand the magnitude of these concerns and to address them.

Anonymous 5:28 - I agree ... it doesn't seem like asking people what they think of our schools or asking whether our innovative programs are actually working should be seen as teacher-bashing ... and should lead to highly personal attacks on my tone, character, etc. I feel I'm doing what I was elected to do. And I share your confusion and concern.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Rich - I share your intuition about what a survey of the MS might show. And I've heard from many parents (including parents who live in different parts of town, with different financial resources, and from different ethnic/racial backgrounds) that they too have had MS teachers say that "he/she is not set up to engage every student in the class". I will be interested to know how common an experience this is ... and even if it is relatively rare, it strikes me as unacceptable (and something that the SC would need to ask the super to quickly address).

Baldteach - first, JWolfe is his actual name (you can look him up pretty easily from that -- he's at U Mass). And I agree that anonymous postings aren't as helpful ... and hey, could you write your ACTUAL name?!?

Second, you say that "There is a bias in this community about the middle school." I would say that there is a "negative perception" about the MS in this community. But to say that this is a "bias" strikes me as a possibility, not a fact (hence my desire for the survey). I do hear from parents who have heard "horrible things" about the MS and is pleasantly surprised with the reality of the MS. But I also hear from parents who say they can't believe how horrible it is -- and that they are seriously looking at private school for their next child for these two years. Again, those are both statements that I have heard as SC member during the last week. I have no idea, nor can I imagine do you, which of these is more "accurate."

Third, I know that all sureys have bias ... again, my professional life is actually publishing research using survey data. But I also think that surveys contain very useful information -- EVEN if they are assessing people's perceptions and not "objective reality." So, let's say that you believe the "objective reality" is that the MS is an academically challenging and rigorous environment for all kids. And then let's say that the survey shows most parents see the MS as not very challenging and engaging (I have no idea if either of these statements are true -- I'm just using this as an example). What would we then do? Would we say the parents must be wrong, because the teachers must be right? In this case, I'd say perception is really, really important -- and we need to try to change that perception, so that people see the MS in a new, and better, way.

My own research (you can google me) shows that perception EVEN WHEN IT IS INACCURATE has a major impact on behavior. For example, my research shows that women who BELIEVE that other women want to be thinner than they themselves want to be engage in more disordered eating (even if they are WRONG about how thin other women want to be). Again, perception matters ... and if there is a negative perception (you call it bias, though I don't think we know whether it is actually bias) of the MS, we need to understand it so that we can fix it (e.g., do all MS parents across the country think this way because all tweens complain about school in this way, or is there something unique about OUR school that contributes to this perception?). This isn't personal at all -- I don't think the MS teachers are bad or evil or "misleading" -- I just want to understand how parents, kids, and teachers are experiencing this school (and all the schools) so that the SC can figure out things we need to work on. And although I understand that surveys aren't perfect instruments, I don't know of another way of getting this information.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Baldteach (continued) -
One final thing (promise) - both JWolfe and I are professors. We too get feedback from students (more of our students shave, but they really aren't that unlike MS students -- they are often more concerned about their social lives than academics, they forget their pencils and notebooks and homework, etc.). And we get feedback like "this class met too early in the mornig," and "you talk too fast," and "the room was too hot." And we understand, as you clearly do, that some of their feedback is more useful than other. I'm hoping the surverys of all of the schools will provide at least some useful feedback about areas of strengths ... and areas we could strive for improvement. And I'd really like to work with YOU, and the other teachers at all of the schools, in using this feedback to set realistic and reasonable goals that could lead us to become one of the best public school systems in the country.

Anonymous said...

Can someone tell me what "7th grade extensions in math" is?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

SZA - thanks for expressing your support of the survey -- I too believe it will provide valuable data. I do agree with your comment that the "survey will get you anecdotal information, opinions, and perceptions, not hard data." Now, two things here are essential (to me). First, I think perception matters A LOT (see my earlier post to Baldteach) -- and even if all we are measuring is perception, that is important. Second, I think perception is sometimes, though not always, based in reality ... so, if one-third of the responses say "my child doesn't feel safe in the MS", that would strike me as worth considering whether some kids don't feel safe in the school (again, I'm using this as an example - I have no idea whether this is true). But then you say it is not "hard data" - and sure, it is not ... but what IS?!? Asking teachers if they are doing an excellent job is also, of course, a perception (and this perception is noted in the Bulletin letter -- "The faculty of the middle school is an outstanding one" -- which I believe both you and "Baldteach" signed). So, I'm not criticizing the MS teachers ... but how do you get "hard data" or "real data" on whether the MS teachers are "outstanding"?

JWolfe - I share some of your confusion here. I haven't seen the MS or HS surveys, but I've seen (as a parent who received one) the ES survey, and I thought it was really well-done. It was clear and comprehensive, and I imagine it will be really useful to principals/teachers/super/SC in understanding where we are really excelling and where we could improve. I can't imagine the MS survey will be any less good (MS teachers -- I assume you've seen the survey? Do you like it?).

One more thing -- we've both sat at SC meetings and heard people praise any number of things (including teachers, parents, and even SPOUSES of teachers, say how great a program or curriculum is). And people listen and nod and seem to accept that as "real data." But when parents raise concerns -- again, going to your point about evaluation is totally objective and real as long as it only shows positive things -- they are all of a sudden accused of being indulgent, elitism, only concerned about their own kids, etc. This different view about the usefulness of ancedotal information that points to strengths (in this case, such information is very useful) versus weaknesses (in this case, such information is biased and represents only a few voices) is confusing and concerning.

Anonymous said...

What is the ES survey? Could you please speak in full language not using initials for those of us who are not privy to what they all stand for? As a parent I have not seen this ES survey. I wonder why???

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 11:05 - 7th grade math extensions is a unique program used in Amherst Regional Middle School to allow for differentiated learning in heterogeneous math classes. Students can choose whether to complete additional homework in order to qualify for taking algebra in 8th grade. My understanding is that about 40% of students choose to do the "extensions" -- and their performance on these assignments, and their performance on a test at the end of the year, determines whether they will be in the honors algebra class in 8th grade or the regular 8th grade math class. This approach is designed to avoid tracking students into different math levels in 7th grade (which was previously done in our MS). Does that help?

Anonymous 1:11 - the ES survey is the elementary school survey ... which I had described as being a good one (along with the MS -- middle school -- and HS -- high school -- surveys). If you are a parent of an elementary school child, you should have received an email and/or call on Friday afternoon giving you the link to the survey (this is the same system used to alert parents to school closings, etc.). If you have a child in any of the elementary schools and did NOT receive a link to the survey, you should contact the superintedent --

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your explanation of 7th grade math extensions, Catherine. It was very helpful. Your explanation leads to a follow-up question. I have read on a blog (I don't remember if it was this one or another - I am a faithful reader of a number of Amherst blogs) that there are kids who get additional math homework but they are not given instruction on how to do the additional work and hence, have a very difficult time doing it. I am going to assume that "the additional math homework with inadquate explanation/instruction" is the math extensions program. If that is the case I do think this program should be looked at to see if it is successful and/or if there is a better way to do it.

I really hope that all the players, teachers, administrators, SC member, parents and students can work together to make APRS the best school system it can be. In these hard economic times it will be hard but with everyone working together (something that in these times is needed more than ever) I am sure the schools can provide a most excellent for every child.

Anonymous said...

I am just going to commnet on the title of this blog. Why We Need Data....If the need for data is so important then I ask why the 'discipline data' has largely been ignored by the Amherst schools?...for years and years and years....

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the explanation of the ES survey. What does the family who has neither access to a computer or a telephone do about their participation in this survey?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 2:28 - that is the math program you heard described on my blog or elsewhere. I have heard mixed reports from parents on how much instruction is given to students in class to complete the extra homework ("extensions") -- and have heard from some parents that either a parent (presumably with some math background) works with the child to teach it and/or that they are paying for a tutor. I've also heard from teachers that extensions work is in fact taught during the school day. Given that we are the only school district (that I'm aware of) using this model of differentiating math instruction, it seems like evaluating its success would be important.

Anonymous 4:41 - if you read the blog posting ... you will see that, in my opinion, there has not been a strong interest in/commitment to using data to make decisions in this district. So, that would include discipline data.

Anonymous 4:45 - my understanding is that paper surveys will be given to any family who prefers this method of completing a survey. I also understand that surveys will be translated for families who would like this. There is no way to make sure that every family completes a survey, but I really commend the superintendent for going to such lengths to get feedback from all families.

sza said...

To Anonymous 2:38 and to CS:

I'd like to chime in on the question of extensions, having taught 7th grade for 3 years now. Catherine gave a reasonable description of them with one exception. In both of your posts you refer to the extensions as "extra homework". There is a misconception that the extensions are just "more work" or, even worse, "extra busywork". The last thing I want to do is encourage that misconception, so please let me correct that particular language in your posts (And I assure you that I am not thinking there was any bad intent on either of your parts when you chose the language).

The extensions are designed to provide extra challenge, to encourage deeper understanding of the topics being covered in a unit, to expose students to more advanced concepts beyond what is being covered, and to develop their strategies for problem solving. Sometimes this does involve problems in addition to a regular assignment and other times it offers problems instead of some of the regular assignment.

As for the question of whether they are being "taught" or not, I will start my comment by quoting myself. the following are two paragraphs that I wrote on this blog a few weeks ago in response to a comment about whether they should be taught:

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. ("What could you try" "What do you know that might help?" etc) 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, but also for the students doing regular math work, as they too can 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 poorly prepared, 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.

HI! I am back live now:

So I can't help but say that I find it ironic that sometimes when we provide students the challenge of problem solving on extensions we get the complaint that we are not "teaching the extensions". EXACTLY! It's quite deliberate. To me extensions offer an example of the exact type of challenge that many people are clamoring for at ARMS.

If I lay out every step one could possibly need to solve a problem and ask my students to just "repeat after me", I feel I am not doing my job well at all. (And BTW it would be easier for me to teach in that model) I have many students who are very capable at copying what they are shown how to do, but I want them to experience a bit of challenge, a bit of discomfort, and, hopefully, inspire in them some persistence and willingness to deal with that feeling of not "getting it" right away.

OK, best stop here, as i could go on and on. Hope this helped.

sza said...

To JWolfe:

I, of course, want to respond to what you wrote at 9:36 AM today, but I truly am not sure how to. You say I “oppose this as yet unwritten survey” when I actually said I supported it. (CS thanked me for supporting it in her response) You yourself say that you are guilty of "reading into" a comment of mine that “you see yourself as capable of seeing flaws, …but you fear others may not” Please do get better reading glasses and stop telling me what I mean! And you also say “then what are you saying about the people of Amherst”. Where does that even come from? Not from anything I wrote, I know.

By the way, it is not an “as yet unwritten survey”. The MS one is quite finished, I believe. I have seen it in various forms as it was being revised and re-revised, with input from many sources, including members of the SC. Considering the time squeeze to create it before June, I hope people are happy with it.

You ask what in particular do I object to…when I was not objecting. You ask why I think it is flawed, when I never said that, either. All I have ever said is that surveys are different from objective evaluations but that they DO serve a purpose. I have asked for
the clarity of knowing just what that purpose is or can be. This survey will have limitations, because ALL surveys do. But it will still be useful and the information on it will be worth collecting. And if I find some of the information on it displeasing, I will not chalk it up to SC members doing Jedi mind tricks or Amherst being home to a bunch of stupid responders as you are suggesting I might.

Your response to me keeps saying “you seem to be saying” or you “seem to be arguing” followed immediately by things I was not saying AT ALL. I feel like my head will explode if you tell me anymore things that I am “seeming to say”. You have, for lack of a better word, an eloquent way of putting things, but wrong statements and misinterpretations in clever words are still wrong statements and misinterpretations.

Please don’t take it badly if I don’t respond to anymore of your comments, but I feel that I need to get off of this blog train while my head remains intact.

Nina Koch said...

I think the discussion about 7th grade extensions is a very good case study in communication. If you want to see an earlier discussion of it, check back in the comments on the post regarding the May 12 meeting. As SZA mentions, one parent described the extensions as busywork while another felt that they were too difficult to attempt without adult guidance. This is a good example of how two people can look at the same thing and see it very differently.

Different interpretations can be explained partly by differing backgrounds and assumptions. Many people's experience with school mathematics consisted of a teacher filling up a chalkboard with rule after rule, which students were expected to memorize and then apply to a set of 25 mind-numbing, nearly-identical homework problems. Students were not asked to derive their own rules or justify their conclusions. They just had to produce answers. If that is the picture in your head of what math class is supposed to be, then it is hard to imagine your child being asked to figure things out for herself. Thus, you might see that the material is "not being taught."

As SZA states, Catherine had some information about the extensions, but a key element was missing in her statements the program. If you read Catherine's response above you will see repeated reference to students being shown what to do with the extension. Either the classroom teacher is supposed to teach it in class, or a tutor will be hired, or a mathematically-confident parent will instruct the student. We do not see reference to the idea that SZA had presented in his earlier post: "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."

Of course, if parents are not familiar with that inquiry and discovery process, then we need to do a better job of communicating with families about it. (This is one of the purposes of the Family Math Nights offered at several schools.) You don't need to already know the math in order to help your child. In fact, it's often better that you don't know it, because you might tend to send your child down a certain path that is different from where his own thinking might take him. Instead, you can ask your child things like "What have you tried? What happened when you tried it? What are you going to try next?" If your child makes a conjecture, you can ask "Are you sure that statement is true? Is true all of the time? How can you be sure?" The child has to convince you; that's what proof is.

But back to the role of a school committee member understanding the program in the school. Would it be good to do a study on 7th grade extensions? Yes. But reading a study about their effectiveness would not necessarily give you a strong sense of what they are. To learn about that you need to see them in action. You could watch a couple of 7th grade math classes on a particular topic. You could then look at the extension connected to that topic and mess around with it a little yourself. You could then go back and watch a class after students have worked on the extensions independently and the class discusses the results of their exploration. Now of course it would be a very small sample and would not allow you to generalize about all 7th grade extensions. But watching the classes and talking with the teachers about their intentions could give you more information about the purpose and the nature of the program.

Gathering knowledge in this fashion does not substitute for evaluation. No one is suggesting that it does. It just means that you know more, that you understand what we are trying to do. It allows you to expand the picture in your head.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

SZA - thanks for (again) describing the extensions model. For me, I have no idea whether this is a good model or not ... again, I assume it is designed to provide, as you note, differentiated instruction/extra challenge for kids who need/want it. I just think the question becomes "is this the best way" of providing that challenge! It might well be ... I just am one who likes the numbers on things, and that is particularly true since other districts don't use this approach to providing extra challenge in math. I was not on the SC when the extension model was developed, but this is the kind of thing that I think the SC should have asked for data on -- how did kids (in general and in various sub-groups) do on math BEFORE versus AFTER this approach was used, how many kids took 8th grade algebra, how did kids score on math MCAS, etc. Then, we could see whether this approach was BETTER or the SAME or WORSE than another approach to providing extra challenge.

I do hear from parents that some parents are simply teaching the kids the extensions work (or hiring a tutor to do that) -- again, that isn't the goal (as you explain) ... but if that is occurring with some regularity (and again, I have no idea whether this is an isolated thing or more prevalent) then to me it raises the issue of how well is this model working for kids whose parents are "following the rules" or who don't have math knowledge/money for a tutor. That's the kind of information I think would be really useful. Again, this is not personal about extensions or math at the MS or you (or other math teachers) ... it is just saying here is something unique that we are trying in Amherst -- let's see how it is going based on objective data (e.g., MCAS, algebra success, whatever) to make sure we are doing right by all kids.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Nina Koch - thanks for also clarifying the nature of extensions. As I note in my post to SZA, I think data on the effectiveness of extensions could easily have been gathered -- not by reading a study or even by observing extensions in class, but by actually comparing based on some criteria how math performance/enjoyment/success/interest/whatever is different after this program was adopted. I'm a researcher ... it is what I do (and I've written textbooks that cover research methods in particular), so maybe this is just "my way of thinking." But it seems to me that one doesn't have to really understand extensions (or 9th grade ecology, or Chinese in Wildwood, or the Pipeline program) to evaluate it IF we are using some type of objective and agreed upon criteria. So, we could, for example, examine MCAS scores for kids at WW who have Chinese compared to those at FR who do NOT have Chinese, to see if exposure to early K to 6 world language was associated with higher MCAS scores (again, assuming MCAS scores are the criteria we care about -- maybe we care about interest in other cultures, or enthusiasm for world language in 7th grade, or whatever). OR we could compare whatever measures we want for kids at WW who had Chinese versus those who were at WW 3 years ago BEFORE Chinese was introduced. This is the type of evaluation that I'd love to see in our school for all of our innovative programs.

And having this type of evaluation is really helpful for many reasons. First, it can (if a program is working) lead to grant-funding. That is one of the reasons I did an evaluation of the Pipeline program -- because granting agencies like to fund projects that have demonstrated their effectiveness! Second, and of course more importantly, it can tell us whether a particular program is having the effect we wanted (and we have to assume that all innovative programs have a goal to do something "better" than we are doing now -- increase interest/skills in science, math, world language, whatever). And it seems to me that everyone in a district (teachers, principals, parents, SC members, superintendent, etc.) would all want to know if something is working. I think it is also important to recognize that smart, thoughtful, caring people can make (unintentional) mistakes -- we can't just assume that any idea anyone has is necessarily good or right. An example I describe in my Health Psych textbook is the focus a few years ago in the medical community on giving menopausal women hormone-replacement therapy to prevent heart problems. This was widely seen as the "state of the art" treatment, and many women took hormones as a result. However, after a research study was conducted, it was found that for some women, this type of hormone use led to cancer -- and thus many doctors now advise women to NOT take hormones (particularly women at risk of cancer). Anyway, this is just an example from the medical community that sometimes good ideas based on reasonable data and assumption turn out to have unintended, and negative, consequences -- which is why DATA is important.

Nina Koch said...

"But it seems to me that one doesn't have to really understand extensions ... to evaluate it IF we are using some type of objective and agreed upon criteria."How are we going to agree upon criteria unless we first discuss what we are trying to accomplish?

I would argue that there is no such thing as objective evaluation, because any choice of measuring stick involves value judgments. You have to identify what you consider to be important. That is part of the dialogue that we need to have. When people extend invitations to you, they are trying to have that dialogue, to build a bridge.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:38 here

Thank you, sza and Nina, for a good explanation of the math extensions program. I do not have a child in the 7th grade and before today did not have a very good understanding of the program. Thank you for your patient explanation.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I am pretty sure that the extension model was created to "solve" a problem ... and my rough understanding (I may be wrong here) is that it was designed to increase the % of kids in algebra in 8th grade. So, that is a pretty clear criteria, and I imagine that everyone (e.g., superintendent, principal of MS, math teachers) would agree that this is probably a pretty good goal. Then, the question is, did we accomplish this, and/or is this the BEST way to accomplish this. Similarly, the 9th grade science teachers had a goal of increasing interest/skills/performance in science with the new ecology/environmental science course -- and I think it is hard to argue with those goals. My experience across multiple grades and disciplines in this district is that there is total agreement about the goals -- by the principal, superintendent, SC, and teachers (obviously we want more kids taking 8th grade algebra, and more kids liking/being good at science, and more kids getting exposed to world language in elementary school, and so on). So, I think there is actually ALREADY lots of agreement about the goals of our innovative programs (that is why they always get unanimously approved by the SC and the superintendent!), and given that agreement, it should be pretty easy to design measurements to test whether those goals are achieved (e.g., you can measure interest, you can measure MCAS, you can measure how many kids are in 8th grade algebra, you can measure how kids do in future science classes or AP science or science MCAS or whatever). Thus, I see that we already have common and agreed upon goals, and these goals that are actually pretty easy to measure by some criteria that are also likely agreed on. What I don't see, however, is then the actual measurement of whether these goals were met ... or a timeline by which the success of such goals would at least be examined. That is, in essence, what I'd like to see as the norm in this district. Let's do the innovative programs and curricula -- but with very clear criteria, including a timeline, by which their effects will be addressed so that we know not just what they look like in a classroom or school, but by how they are meeting the goals they were designed to accomplish. If every innovative program that we adopted came with this "built in" evaluation model (which is actually what you have to do when you apply for grant funding to conduct a research study), I'd be totally thrilled -- because then we could see whether a particular program or curricula "worked" (again, by the predetermined criteria), and if so, for which students.

Anonymous said...

How can one get involved with RADAR? I understand this is a country wide situation where suspensions/punishment in general in this country out number people of color to nonwhite people. There is a book I studied for a ocurse called the The Color of Justice, where they talk about DWB (Driving While Black) as a great offense in a lot of towns and cities. Scary--but happening...
And what good does it do for our schools to collect this data--I am referring to the 'discipline data' if nothing changes??
I am currently facing this problem with the schools with an 7-year- old! Because the schools want to funnel him into their sped programs--where no actual learning takes place for the majority of the school day--especially once the winter break is over! It is easier for some teachers to take their frustration out the child who doesn't pick up the lesson as easily as his/her peers might by routing them down the behavioral lane...
'Discipline Data"--where can I access this and do they have keep it on the elementary level? Thanks.

Perplexed parent said...

I would love to see an evaluation of the Extensions program for 7th grade math. It has been a sticky wicket for many students and parents and it would be nice to know that it actually works better than the program it replaced. The program has been in place for several years and replaced a math prgram for 7th graders which separated kids into 2 levels. Are kids doing better under the Extensions program? Why would anyone oppose such a study or analysis, particularly in a subject that is so easy to assess knowledge? Our children are regularly tested and evaluated and no one claims that this is impossible to do. Why the opposition to testing and evaluating programs and -- gasp -- teachers themselves?

Anonymous said...

I am interested in finding out how Amherst schools rate state-wide. Where are the high school, middle school, and the different elementary schools compared to other Massachusetts schools?

Alison Donta-Venman said...

The most comprehensive ranking of school districts by MCAS score I have seen was reported by the Boston Globe. You can check to see how Amherst ranks for different grades and on different tests. For the 10th grade tests (the one required for graduation), Amherst ranks 81st in English, 72nd in Math, and 39th in Science (out of between 279 and 283 districts reporting.

Rick said...

Anon 12:24

RaDAR has monthly meetings – everyone is welcome – usually a group of 6-10 of us. Next meeting is June 17, 7pm – 8:30pm, Room 13 at ARHS (go in front door, turn right, walk down hall along the auditorium – room 13 is close to end of the hall on left).

Kathy Reck said...

I am one of the middle school teachers who was both at the school committee meeting and who signed the letter in the Bulletin. The following blog post is illustrative of why I felt compelled to speak up both at the meeting and to put my name to the letter:

“The MS survey conducted last year, for example, revealed the MS does a great job of making kids feel safe and respecting differences, and less of a good job of holding high academic standards (again, I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like that).”

This comment about last year’s survey is one of the reasons I am concerned about the surveys currently being conducted. A very small percentage of parents responded to last year’s survey – as I recall, it was less than 30%. Saying the survey revealed anything other that what a small percentage of the entire middle school parent community felt is misleading. If we do not get a much higher return with this survey, I continue to feel it will have been a waste of everyone’s time: we already know how ACE parents feel about challenge, and they are the party most vested in completing the survey. I would venture a guess that it was mainly ACE parents who completed the survey last year. This is why, in an earlier post, I suggested waiting to do the survey during open house when there would be a larger, possibly more representative number of folks available to fill it out.

You go on to suggest that middle school teachers should be “thanking me for taking leadership on getting answers from ALL stakeholders so that we could start to clear up some of the common misperceptions people hold about the MS.” Unfortunately last year’s survey did not get feedback from all stakeholders – I hope the current survey has a better response rate. If not, I hope my open house suggestion is revisited.

A bit later in the post you continued responding to issues being raised about the survey, “But then you say it is not "hard data" - and sure, it is not ... but what IS?!? Asking teachers if they are doing an excellent job is also, of course, a perception (and this perception is noted in the Bulletin letter -- "The faculty of the middle school is an outstanding one" -- which I believe both you and "Baldteach" signed). So, I'm not criticizing the MS teachers ... but how do you get "hard data" or "real data" on whether the MS teachers are "outstanding"?

I think hard data includes analyzing individual students’ MCAS scores grade to grade to see how they are progressing in math and ELA (rather than comparing totally different student groups year to year as the state does to determine AYP), determining areas of challenge we will need to address. Additionally, we give all incoming 7th graders and exiting 8th graders the DRP (Degrees of Reading Power) test to track their progress over the two years they are with us. Students have also been collecting artifacts in portfolios they created in their 7th grade computer class, and we could be looking at them. In the English department we also have decided that beginning next year we will administer a writing sample at the beginning of 7th grade, holistically score it and analyze the scores to see what the strengths and challenges are for individuals and the class as a whole and then administer it again at the end of 8th grade to track growth. We know what hard data is and we are looking at it and evaluating our programs and our teaching. There’s always more we could be doing, but I feel we’re moving in the right direction.

Nina Koch said...


Actually, I don't believe that there is total agreement about goals. For example, I heard one parent express a few weeks back that the sole purpose of the high school is to get kids into a good college. While we probably do all agree that we want kids to have the option to go to a good college, I don't see that as the sole purpose of the high school or even the primary purpose. I think what students learn in high school should be intrinsically valuable. The primary purpose, as I see it, is to create lifelong learners. Other people might see yet a different primary purpose.

Your most recent comment also shows that we don't necessarily agree on goals. You say "obviously we want more kids taking 8th grade algebra" but that is not obvious to me. Should kids have the option to take the course? Yes. Should we be concerned about equity issues in access to the course? Yes. Is it desirable for everyone to take the course? Not necessarily. I think some students are better served by waiting before they study formal algebra. (This is my individual opinion, of course, as is everything in this post.)

The number of students enrolled in 8th grade algebra is not of primary importance to me. I am more concerned about whether or not we are helping kids to become independent problem-solvers and I am not convinced that we are succeeding according to that measure. It is not my intention to debate this issue here but rather to show that 8th grade algebra is an example of an issue where you assumed that something was obvious, and yet it isn't.

You are also "pretty sure" that you understand the purpose of the 7th grade extensions, but I don't see it the way that you do. Increasing enrollment in 8th grade algebra is not the purpose of the 7th grade extensions program, in my view, although it might be possibly be a result of the program. I believe the purpose of the 7th grade extensions is to accommodate diverse learners, to give kids an opportunity to stretch their thinking as far as they want to take it. The extensions also serve as an improved screening process, which will help students, parents and teachers decide if a student is ready for the abstraction of a formal algebra course in 8th grade. In the past, this screening was accomplished with a single test given at the end of the 6th grade. In the new model, the screening process spans the entire 7th grade year and gives students a stronger sense of what they will need to do in order to participate in the accelerated math program. Based on that experience, some families may decide that accelerating in math is not the best choice for that individual student. So it may or may not increase the participation rate. That would not indicate a failure of the screening process.

I will reiterate that I have no objection to evaluation nor do I consider a dialogue to be a substitute for evaluation. I stated both of those things in previous posts and I don't see anyone here stating opposition to evaluating the extensions program. But before we evaluate it to see if it is working, we have to talk about what we mean by "working" and we have to figure out which piece of the program we are evaluating. Is it the extension problems themselves, or the practice of heterogeneous grouping in the 7th grade?

So again we have a case study in communication. Something seems obvious to you. You assume everyone sees it that way. And yet they don't. In order to find out how people see things, you have to ask them. Would you agree that something can be accomplished by dialogue?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 2:22 - although Amherst doesn't appear on either the Newsweek or the US News and World Report lists, those are listings that are interesting to see -- and there are Massachusetts districts (and MSAN districts) on these lists. I don't know of any Massachusetts specific lists that rank schools (and virtually all lists just rate based on high schools). Obviously all of the "best" lists have huge problems in interpretation (including the college ranking lists, of course).

Alison - thanks for posting that link!

Kathy Reck - thank you for posting and using your name. I want to respond to a number of things you said in your post. First, I was NOT saying that last year's surveys showed anything of note -- precisely because the response rate was very low (I think it was actually more like 15%). I was using, as I clearly state, as "AN EXAMPLE" in which of the people who responded (even if those were likely a non-representative sample) felt the MS did have strengths as well as areas of concern. I think that is what one typically gets in surveys, and so it should be seen as a positive that it likely will show good and not so good. I was NOT saying that we should use those data as anything particularly valuable -- in fact, if I thought they were useful, I wouldn't need the survey now!

Second, of course it is a waste of time if we don't get a good response rate. That is why I specifically stated in my original motion that we needed to conduct it as soon as possible (because the survey last year was actually send AFTER the school year ended, which would decrease the response rate). I can't imagine the superintendent's office doing a BETTER job of reaching all parents -- they had emails and voicemails go out to all parents and are providing paper surveys as well. Don't you think this is a really, really good approach? I also think the idea of doing the survey in the fall is really problematic -- 7th graders will have been at the school for a month! That is a very different experience to report back on then after one has had a whole year (I mean, how is a 7th grade parent in September going to respond to "there is meaningful feedback on assignments" or whatever?).

Third, I am really, really discouraged by your statement that
"we already know how ACE parents feel about challenge, and they are the party most vested in completing the survey." That is such a sad statement for so many reasons. It manages to stereotype a huge number of people -- who include parents with special needs kids, parents of color, parents who are low income, parents who live in apartments, and so on. It also manages to imply that "those ACE parents" really are worthless -- we don't need to know what they think, because we certainly don't care what they think. I hope that isn't what you meant, but it really sounds like it (and that is particularly since so many parents report that SOME -- not ALL -- MS teachers have specifically told them that they aren't willing/interested in challenging their child). Would you ever write "we know what those low income parents think" or "we know what those parents of color think"? Again, ACE parents represent people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences with kids who range tremendously in skills, interests, and abilities. I'd hate to think you would just willingly dismiss all of their concerns -- as you seem to do when you say "I would venture a guess that it was mainly ACE parents who completed the survey last year."

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Kathy (continued) - Fourth, since the letter from the MS teachers appeared in the Bulletin, numerous parents have reached out to me to thank me for taking the heat, and to express their own child's negative experience in the MS. NONE of these parents signed ACE ... but they said they were moved to contact me because their child was continually told "we're not going to worry about challenging you." It is probably pretty easy to just say "oh, it's a few parents, those ACE parents." But I'm hearing from many parents who did NOT sign ACE who are sharing these concerns.

Finally, I'm glad that the MS is collecting hard data ... but I think this data is also difficult to interpret. So, if a parent is working steadily with their child on math extensions and/or has hired a tutor ... does the MS get credit for improving that child's math score? I've also heard from MS parents that their child's DRP score DECREASED during this time in the MS ... I'm not sure how common this was, but I've now heard about it from a number of parents (and parents don't typically brag about declining scores in their children). Again, is that data being publicized so that the community can see how the MS is doing with this hard data? That might also help combat people's perceptions (if they are in fact wrong) about the type of learning and challenge that goes on in the MS. Given that you share my interest in hard data, I hope you'll push for all of this data to be presented at a public SC meeting (categorized as a group, of course, and not individual students).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I've heard from multiple people in the MS that extensions were specifically designed to increase the % of kids in 8th grade algebra. I've been on the math curriculum committee for two years, and this has been specifically stated as the goal. Now, you personally may not agree with this goal, but that is the rationale for this approach that was given when tracked 7th grade math was eliminated. So, again, there was a goal that was clearly stated, and hence we should measure whether that goal has been accomplished. If 7th grade math extensions was designed to increase problem-solving abilities or love of math or cooperation or whatever, we could also measure all of that -- but I don't think any of the programs/curricula/policies we are adopting are done without a clear goal attached to them -- the goal of whoever created that program, and hence THAT is the goal by which they should be measured.

I sat through the SC meetings when the 9th grade science course was proposed, and the teachers had very clear goals in adopting this course (again, you or I may not agree that these are good goals, but they were goals, and hence they can be measured).

Your example of whether the HS should prepare kids for college isn't really an example of a goal, because we haven't adopted some new approach to the HS in order to accomplish this goal. But, if someone said, I think we need a requirement of 4 years of music to graduate BECAUSE it would increase kids' musical fluency (or math skills, or cooperation, or whatever), then we could decide whether we want to adopt this new program to hopefully accomplish this goal -- and we could then measure whether instituting this requirement did in fact lead to this goal.

So, again, when we are talking about new programs/policies/curricula, I believe they are adopted to meet some type of need (we need to help kids who are underperforming on math so we started "double dipping" in math; we need to help challenge kids in 7th grade math so we created extensions; etc.), and therefore it would be quite easy to just develop a policy that new programs/policies/curricula are adopted for a set period of time (2 or 3 years?), and then are examined using a set of criteria (e.g., MCAS, % of kids in 8th grade algebra, % of kids who like math, whatever). I don't think the SC has to adopt the goals or even really identify the needs/goals -- I think that is the role of the teachers/principals/staff/superintendent. So, teachers could work together to create a program that meets whatever goal THEY agree on, and I'd be fine with that (and this is what occurs now). But the SC could ask that all new curricula/programs/policies come with a method (and timeline) of evaluating their effectiveness (and this does NOT occur now)! How does that sound as an approach?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to comment on ACE since it appears to be an issue of concern. As an educator when I first heard about ACE it was with a negative reaction. I didn't know why then, but it was presented to me as a group of wealthy parents ocncerned that their children were not being challenged in the classroom because of the behavioral issues of other kids in the room that took away the teachers' time. I must say the last part of this belief is mostly true especially during certain days of the week like Fridays and certain times of the year like the week before breaks. That said--after I learned more about ACE I came to my own conclusion that this is indeed a group (mostly) of a privileged select group of parents. Never in the years of my work with the schools have I or any family that I know of been approached by this group. If the bottom line is indeed that the concern is for ALL kids then why haven't ALL families been given the opportunity to join ACE? Please do not repeat the ways you advertise--via computer or e-mails, ect. You're group is joined by a common thread--money. And once again this represents the power of money--a voice that the schools listen to, or at least pay attention to!
I am concerned about the majority of the voiceless families that the system mistreats, abuses and wonder how as a SC member you deal with these families??

lise said...

A few comments on various posts:

1. The ARMs survey last year was sent by mail to EVERY MS family, not just the ACE mailing list. It was sent after the year ended, which probably accounts for the low response rate. However, as we compiled the data the answers were quite consistent, good and bad, so I will be surprised if a larger response rate substantially changes the data.

2. I applaud the goal of creating life-long learners. There are many things the MS could do to help encourage that goal. For example, independent reading requirements, summer reading requirements and suggested reading lists. These are techniques are used commonly in other systems and work at many different ability levels. The idea is not to read specific books, but to encourage students to read something. Creating life-long learners is a laudable goal, but other than some current events focus in SS I did not feel there was much happening at the MS that encouraged that aim. What do others see that I did not?

3. In many school systems most 8th graders learn algebra. In Amherst we make that a difficult goal by only offering Honors algebra in the MS. My understanding is that this is the same Honors algebra offered at the HS. Therefore algebra is only offered at a level appropriate to the most gifted and intuitive math students. As a result, the large group in the middle must decide between struggling in in a high-paced highly rigorous algebra course, or no algebra at all. How about offering regular garden variety algebra for the many students ready in 8th grade for a course at the non-honors level? This would help reduce both the number of kids with tutors in Honors algebra and the number of kids bored with Math 8.

I am glad to see a number of teachers on this blog. I hope it facilitates a way for the community and the teachers to have real conversations about curriculum. There are very few ways that conversation occurs in Amherst that are not set up as complaint and defense.

wondering said...

I am also glad to see teachers' comments, because their voices and experiences are rarely heard anywhere in the system other than the classroom.

I am interested in knowing why the MS is only starting the type of reading, writing and math evaluations that are regularly done each year in the elementary schools.

When I go to teacher conferences in the elmenetary school I am always shown their writing prompts from the fall and spring -- and prompts from previous years. It's clear their writing and math is assessed in many different ways and the teachers are all interested in tracking weaknesses, strengths and improvements. So am I.

Finally I am bored with the ACE bashing. Let's talk about ideas and facts and stop wallowing in resentment of others. My kids get alot of training in school and at home not to stereotype others and see people both as individuals and shaing many things in common with people of different backgrounds. They are taught to respect and listen to others. Does the fact that I have a college degree and advanced degree make you stop thinking about what I have to say? If it does, isn't that a pretty weird thing to say -- especially for a teacher?

Anonymous said...

To anon 7:46

I think most people would agree that money doesn't buy happiness. It does however buy comfort and security. Why is having money always painted as such an evil thing in this community. I just don't get it. I would think that comfort and stability would be the goal for everyone despite whether you are currently rich or poor.

Education can buy you financial comfort and stability. I'm not an ACE member, but I strongly support their goals because they are clearly trying to make the schools better for EVERY child regardless of their current socio-economic status.

Finally, ACEs mission of striving for excellence in the schools and challenging all children is great for all children. Not all children read and do math at the same level but the goal is to CHALLENGE every single child. A child who walks away from the end of the school day feeling like they were pushed a bit and achieved something greater than they thought they could is a kid who has confidence and a healthy ego. This is a kid Amherst should be proud of.

It's enough ACE bashing, time to move on.

Caren Rotello said...

I am curious about the results of last year's MS survey. Kathy Reck says, essentially, that because the response rate was low we don't need to concern ourselves that many respondents remarked on low academic standards in the MS. But Lise, who apparently was involved in data analysis for that survey, notes that the responses were very consistent. Low response rates are one reason for concern about survey results. But often it is possible to evaluate how representative the response sample was -- that is, do the demographics of the respondents roughly match the demographics of the population of people to whom the survey was sent? The numbers won't match exactly, of course, but the more similar they are the more we should value those earlier data. (I assume that demographic data were collected, as those data are requested in the current elementary school survey.)

I haven't seen the results of that survey myself, but even if 15% of the population says that the academic standards are too low, then it seems to me that they are too low *for those* students. That's true whether or not the survey is representative, and it says that a large number of kids' needs aren't being met. The other 85% of families may be thrilled to pieces, but I can't understand how MS teachers can dismiss the 15% who need more challenge. If the problem is that there simply aren't enough resources available to challenge those kids, that's one thing. But that's not what I read in the posts -- I'm hearing a distinct lack of interest in challenging them, and that troubles me. (And dismissing those kids as just ACE kids is simply not acceptable.)

Finally, anon 7:46 asks "why haven't ALL families been given the opportunity to join ACE?" and implies that one must have sufficient income to join (something like a country club, perhaps). I can't understand this, either. I signed ACE after reading their initial letter in the Amherst Bulletin -- I simply emailed Catherine and asked her to add my name to the list. As easy as that, and no money changed hands! It's FREE!

JWolfe said...


It isn't an exclusive club, it's a group of parents who want the schools to live up to their stated mission of "every child, every day." Many of us explicitly call for ALL students to have a supportive and challenging environment because it seems as though some teachers don't think kids of color or working-class kids can handle challenging work and we disagree with such characterizations.

Also, I'm often stunned by how class is discussed in Amherst. The "wealthy and privileged" ACE parents are largely middle and upper middle class with some working-class families as well. And the way poverty is discussed in town, you would think that we've got slums worse than those in São Paulo and Mumbai in Amherst. I don't deny that there are people in town who truly struggle financially, but we don't have anything like Houston's Fifth Ward or the Taylor Homes in Chicago.

There is racism everywhere, but a community that overwhelming supported Duval Patrick and Barack Obama with money, volunteer labor, and the vast, vast majority of their votes is talked about by some like a small town in rural Alabama or Mississippi. Amherst isn't New Orleans or Dallas, but talking about race and class here as if it were makes it nearly impossible to address the real issues we face.

One of the reasons these discussions about education are so muddled in Amherst is that the terms of the debate often have little connection to reality.

ACE is largely pushing to improve education for kids on free and reduced lunch because we sadly agree with many administrators who say that our kids (i.e., the kids of folks with college degrees) will be okay. Many of us worry that other kids, many of whose parents didn't have the opportunities we had, aren't given the opportunities our kids will get. And sadly, many of our kids will get those opportunities because we have the time and money to tutor them outside of school.

Moreover, there are very, very few truly rich people in Amherst. If ACE parents were so rich, wouldn't they just send their kids to Bement, Eaglebrook, and Deerfield? Those places are loaded with rich kids.

There is a steadily increasing number of people who are struggling financially and we have to make available services and support and the social mobility that a good education provides to everyone who needs them, but some of the ways that's discussed in this town does make it seem as though we have roaming bands of street kids, projects, and a massive homeless population.

So, let's do stop the ACE bashing. All I'm interesting in is having the Amherst schools be the best educational institutions they can be for every student, every day.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 7:46 - I have no idea why ACE was presented to you as "a group of wealthy parents concerned that their children were not being challenged in the classroom because of the behavioral issues of other kids in the room that took away the teachers' time." Nor can I imagine how you came to the conclusion that this is "indeed a group (mostly) of a privileged select group of parents." Read the ACE letter, and/or the ACE priorities on our website: Tell me which specific ACE priority do you think is about wealthy kids or privileged families?!? It is very easy to bash and stereotype a group of people ... and thereby disregrad their concerns as being invalid. But you should at least make sure those stereotypes are based on reality, so I'd like you to give some specific examples of ACE priorities (not what one parent who signed ACE said to you in private) that are about wealthy or privileged kids. The ACE letter was distributed by word of mouth, and widely announced in the paper -- ANYONE could, and still can, sign it. Over 300 people signed it, and I probably know about 50 of those ... if you'd like to join ACE, send me an email right now ( and I'll add you to the list. Many people who added their names read about ACE in the paper and then contacted me. So, just to be clear: ALL families DO have the opportunity to join ACE!

But let's say that ACE was a highly restricted group -- that we required people to submit proof of income/tax statements/ownership in Amherst Woods, whatever before someone could "join." Still, read the ACE priorities -- ACE is NOT about trying to make sure teachers ONLY challenge kids whose parents signed ACE, or only let kids whose parents signed ACE take 8th grade algebra, or only let kids whose parents signed ACE get a math textbooks, etc. EVEN if ACE consisted 100% of white, wealthy, privileged people (which it most certainly does not) -- it is still a group advocating for increasing challenge and rigor in the schools and that in fact benefits ALL kids (even those kids whose parents didn't sign ACE). One of the first women I met who had signed ACE did so because her kids were on free/reduced lunch ... and she felt that they were not receiving adequate challenge in their school, and she couldn't afford private school or a tutor like some of her kids' friends. That is what ACE is -- saying that all kids, regardless of race or income or gender, deserve an engaging and challenging experience in school. If you share that belief, I hope you'll email me and join ACE.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Lise - thank you for clearing up issues about the MS survey last year -- and I think it is important to note that the answers seemed quite consistent. I guess I'm also confused by Kathy Reck's assumption that only ACE parents would complete a survey -- all other parents are too lazy? Or too satisfied? I don't understand why we assume that only ACE parents care about our schools or want them to improve! Thanks also for sharing your thoughts about the many ways in which the schools could do more to create life-long learners. My own review of other school systems that are similar to Amherst reveals that we in fact have fewer students taking 8th grade algebra than many other districts -- and when I've suggested (at a SC meeting) that we offer regular 8th grade algebra IN ADDITION to honors 8th grade algebra, I was told that was "tracking." So, apparently we are willing to have two tracks (really hard, not hard enough for many kids), but don't want to have three tracks (which would let more kids take algebra even if they aren't ready for honors algebra) OR have two tracks (and push all kids to be raedy for at least regular 8th grade algebra). Either of those approaches seems better to me at opening doors to science and math inn HS and college than our current system. I share your belief that more dialogue between teachers and parents is good ... and my offer to buy teachers coffee to talk in person remains!

Perplexed parent (sorry, I forgot to respond to this one last night!) - I share your desire for an evaluation of extensions ... this might be a great success, but I believe that is an empirical question, and one that should have been built in to the adoption of this completely unique program. Let's figure out if it is working better than what it replaced or another program. That's it!

Wondering - I share your belief that having assessment data in the MS is a good thing (like we currently have in the ES). It will be interesting to see what that data reveals. I also share your concern about the ACE bashing ... in a town that prides itself on acceptance of diversity, it still seems highly acceptable to simple stereotype anyone who signed the ACE letter as privileged, indulgent, and wealthy -- and to then disregard any concerns expressed by members of this group. As I have said to numerous people -- let's say a group of 20 low income parents came to a SC meeting with their concerns about how class was treated in our district, and how it impacted their children's experience and learning. Can you imagine for ONE SECOND that SC members and teachers would say "well, it is just those 20 low-income parents who have these concerns, so let's ignore them?!?" I can't imagine this would occur - and it would be appalling if it did.

Anonymous 9:02 - thank you for your thoughtful post. You raise a number of good points -- and thank you for sharing the best (most accurate) description of ACE I've heard in a while on a blog!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Caren - You raise a number of very good points. First, I don't believe the MS survey last year did include demographic info (which I'm glad this year's survey does), so I don't think we can tell how representative the response sample was. But I certainly believe that "if 15% of the population says that the academic standards are too low, then it seems to me that they are too low *for those* students" (and one might even assume that some of the 85% of people who didn't respond would also have those beliefs). And I also hear (in these posts, but also from parents in private) that the issue (at least in some cases -- I do NOT want to stereotype all MS teachers!) it that there is in fact "a distinct lack of interest in challenging them" (and yes, "that dismissing those kids as just ACE kids is simply not acceptable".) Second, thank you for clearing up the very, very easy way one can join ACE (as many did) -- SEND me an email! All are welcome!

JWolfe - thanks for, once again, trying to point out that ACE (a) doesn't consist entirely of multi-millionaires, (b) consists of families from a range of backgrounds -- including those whose kids went through the schools some time ago and have NOTHING now to gain but see that their friends' kids aren't having the same rigorous and challenging experience, and (c) is trying to provide a great education for all kids (regardless of whether their parents signed ACE, or where their parents live, or how much money they have, or whether they have a college degree).

Anonymous said...


Is the math curriculum group you are on looking at the issue of 7th grade math? Is there any talk on that group of having just a regular (not honors) 8th grade algebra class for those who want to take it? Seems to me that if a regular 8th grade algebra class was made available to anyone who wanted to take it, it would not be tracking. Is that a possibility? That anyone who wants to take it just signs up for it. If they find once they get into it that it is more than they can handle, would they then be able to switch down to a less rigorous course? Also, now, if someone in the 8th grade honrs algebra finds they are in over their head what do they do? Switch down to basic math? It seems like we have a class for the 2 extremes but nothing for the vast middle. That seems a little silly to me.

Anonymous said...

I would like to see some data that supports the anecdotal evidence that members of ACE are not from predominantly wealthy and entitled households. Without some hard data, we simply don't know if this is true!

Perhaps ACE could produce a list of its members that includes what the assessed values of their homes are. This information is part of the public record and would be easy for Catherine, her graduate assistant, or Steve to compile.

This would go a long way in assuring ACE's critics that ACE is in fact what it claims to be.

Caren Rotello said...

Anon 2:32:

Suppose that you're right and the ACE signers are all white and wealthy. Does that somehow invalidate their view? Would your answer change if the ACE signers were all poor minorities?

I moved to Amherst because I thought it was a community that respected (and even welcomed) *all* opinions. I hope that I was not mistaken. Surely it's not possible that such a liberal town would only respect the views of an individual after first checking their income level and skin color.

JWolfe said...

Anon 2:32

LOL! You are hilarious!

Oh, wait, you're serious? Okay, please post your name, address, and telephone number along with your income and property tax information. I think that that's all we need for now. Oh, and any partner/spouse income details as well.

That way I'll know where to send all the data you've requested and we'll be able to plot where you stand in relation to the people who put their names on a letter that was published in the Bulletin. You know, not anonymously.

Anonymous said...

JWolfe is obviously very defensive and opposes data.

JWolfe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JWolfe said...

Am I defensive or just a little curious?

Let's start with one little datum, your name dear anonymous poster. Or, are you opposed to data? Hmm.

Caren Rotello said...

Anon 3:24 was trying to inject some humor in this discussion, I think. (I hope.)

JWolfe said...

Caren, I truly hope you're right. I thought the original post about collecting income information might be a joke, but I fear it wasn't.

7th grade parent said...

I think the idea of having a regular 8th grade alegebra class is an excellent one and I hope it's implemented next fall. It will help keep all the kids working at a comfortable and successful level. Doesl the 8th grade Impact textbook support regular alegebra?

It seems odd to bunch everyone together for 7th grade, then open up into a wide split for 8th grade. I'd be interested in learning the thinking behind this.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:32
Please tell us you are not serious.

Anonymous said...

Middle school math: Extensions don't teach, extensions are math busy work for students who are either highly motivated or have parents who are highly motivated. The teachers don't teach the work included in extensions. The idea that students would be exposed to the extension work by being in a classroom with students who are doing extensions is fantasy. I find it hard to believe that extensions are actually resulting in more kids taking and succeeding at 8th grade algebra. My experience as a parent was that the numbers of girls who took extensions in 7th grade and then who subsequently chose to pursue the 8th grade algebra option was terribly low. It seems that MOST of them had a disastrous esteem-lowering experience with extensions and it was that experience that discouraged them from pursuing what was billed as the more challenging 8th grade algebra. But at least 8th grade algebra is taught by a teacher. If we wanted to increase 8th graders who take algebra, let's implement Lise's suggestion and make all 8th graders take algebra, offering those who need additional support the support they need.

Kathy Reck said...

I certainly understand why SZA felt like his head was going to explode – the words that have been put in my mouth in this blog have flabbergasted me.

I said, “We already know how ACE parents feel about challenge, and they are the party most vested in completing the survey. I would venture a guess that it was mainly ACE parents who completed the survey last year.”

CS responded, “I am really, really discouraged by your statement that
‘we already know how ACE parents feel about challenge, and they are the party most vested in completing the survey. That is such a sad statement for so many reasons. It manages to stereotype a huge number of people -- who include parents with special needs kids, parents of color, parents who are low income, parents who live in apartments, and so on. It also manages to imply that "those ACE parents" really are worthless -- we don't need to know what they think, because we certainly don't care what they think”

I based my comment on the following mission statement from the ACE website: “Amherst Committee for Excellence (ACE) is committed to working with teachers, administrators and school officials to assure academic challenge in the Amherst public schools for every child every day.”
I’m disappointed that anyone could read my comment and think I was stereotyping “a huge number of people -- who include parents with special needs kids, parents of color, parents who are low income, parents who live in apartments, and so on. It also manages to imply that ‘those ACE parents’ really are worthless -- we don't need to know what they think, because we certainly don't care what they think.”

I don’t assume who is or is not in ACE; I just know what their focus is, so I assumed they would be sure to complete a survey on challenge. The main problem to me is that 15% of the school population is a good enough sample. I’m not a professional researcher or statistician, but how can anyone say 15% shows a trend? By the way, we did not ignore the 15% - challenge was a major topic of discussion in all departments this year. I just wish people would avoid making sweeping generalizations about students’ experience in the middle school based on a 15% survey return.

I will compile DRP data and send it to the school committee. I’m happy to share the good work we’ve been doing.

Kathy Reck said...

Long day - should have done a more careful proofreading before posting. Sorry for the repetition, and in the last paragraph I meant to say 15% is NOT a good enough sample

lise said...

Just to clarify---

Last year's ARMS survey was not a survey on challenge. It was climate survey designed to give the incoming principal an idea of the issues she would need to confront in the coming year. It was based on a survey designed by one of the incoming elementary school principals. It surveyed Learning, Communication and Safety and Well-Being.

Only three questions dealt with the issue of academic challenge. The results showed that slightly more than half of respondents felt that there were not high academic expectations, and approximately the same percentage felt that their child was not challenged by MS homework and/or schoolwork.

There were many positive things in the survey results, including that the vast majority of respondents felt that the MS was a safe, positive environment with an atmosphere of respect. This is a significant achievement given the social issues of this age group.

As one of the people who tabulated the results I can attest that as the reponses came in the percentages remained remarkably consistent. Responses that came in after the results were tabulated did not change the perdcentage results. Although there might be a difference with a larger sample size, I would doubt it.

There is no reason to believe that any particular population (eg ACE members) were more likely to answer the survey since it was not about any specific issue, nor was it sent preferentially to any subgroup population. It was designed by an unbiased person, the elementary school principal, and only modified to reflect the differences beween MS and ES.

So given that I suggest just taking it at face value. Here is the link to the survey results on the ARMS Family school partnership website:

sza said...

To: anon 5:21

Darn! I vowed to not spend any more time blogging, but I have to respond to your post about extensions. Those are some strong, unequivocal comments that you make. Clearly you are not a fan of the program, but I know that comments such as “they are math busy work” or “teacher’s don’t teach them” and that exposure to them helping other students is “fantasy” do not match my experience in this program. I don’t know when and where you are speaking of, and I can only truly vouch for my own classroom, but I can’t help but address your varied points.

You clearly have negative personal perceptions about what we are trying to accomplish in our heterogeneous 7th grade classrooms. I wonder how many classrooms you have visited to see for yourself the wide variety of students we have, who have been prepared by 7 different schools for middle school math. Extensions are just one facet of what we are trying to do to find each student the appropriate level of challenge. Exposure to all levels of work we do is a matter of equity and fairness for all of our students.

When people are screaming for more challenge why is it so unthinkable that we send a student home with problems to solve that they might actually struggle with, i.e. be CHALLENGED by? And isn’t it contradictory when you call extensions “busy work” and then complain that they are not being taught? Busy work implies something they already know well and shouldn’t have to keep doing, clearly not something that you would be upset if it wasn’t being taught? Which is it exactly?

While I have already discussed on this blog that I do not explicitly PRE-teach all extensions so students can be challenged to problem-solve, I will also say that I would never deny an explanation, or teaching of extension work to any students. I think my students will tell you that when they ask for assistance they receive just that, and in various ways. Extension work is absolutely covered for all to see in class. And assistance is also available after school three days a week in my room for students of all levels. I feel it is just as appropriate for a student being challenged by the challenges to come after school for help (and teaching!) as it is for those that are struggling and needing support with the basic math. I have had some of my best moments after school watching the excitement when an extension student was lead through a process of questioning that resulted in a great “I got it!” moment. (Notice the “I” in that sentence)

For every year I have taught I can name two or three students of mine who have “stepped up” because of exposure to extension work. These students would have been placed in a lower level class if we separated our 7th graders for math. They would have been content to remain at the level that was decided for them. Instead after watching and/or trying extensions for awhile (as students are encouraged to try them at any time) they came to me to say “I’m ready to do those”. Which of those students who availed themselves of this opportunity to raise their bar even higher should I inform that they are only “fantasies”.

As for the algebra comment at the end, I know there are different schools of thought on algebra for all in 8th grade. I can certainly find you articles that question whether many 8th graders are developmentally ready for it. But I'm not going to follow that tangent here.

sza said...

still to Anon 5:21:

Well. That was a bit more than I intended to write, but, obviously, I have my own personal perceptions of this program, as do you. I’d propose that this is certainly worth a conversation but that I think back and forth on this blog is not really the way to proceed, especially with anonymous people. I hear that there is a perception that teachers will not talk to parents. I hope none of my students’ parents feel that way, but I can only speculate. I have not personally received complaints of the nature of yours, but I can’t tell if it is parents afraid to speak to me and preferring to blog anonymously instead.
As I said, I hope not.

I can appreciate that you might not want to use your name here as it would also identify your possibly easily mortified teenager. But I invite you to reach me at: I will not promise to respond during these last busy weeks of school, but I will as soon as the dust clears on the school year if you want to be heard some more on this topic.

Nina Koch said...

Hi Lise,

I really liked your post because it sounds like you are interested in dialogue. I would like to respond to your points 2 and 3.

2. Lifelong Learners I feel this is the primary purpose of the high school, but that doesn't mean that I necessarily feel we are accomplishing it. I would like to see some significant changes to move us more in that direction. Your ideas about reading sound like very good suggestions.

I don't feel that the traditional math curriculum serves to create lifelong learners. I know that most of my friends, who are more highly educated than the average US citizen, do not see mathematics as a tool that they can use to help solve problems in their lives. That is not a satisfactory result, in my view.

Also, just because the goal of creating lifelong learners is of primary importance to me doesn't mean it is of primary importance to others. It is part of a school committee policy (which I know only because I formatted the policy manual for html), yet I don't see it discussed very often. I don't know if it is a widely shared value or not.

3 Math 8 versus Algebra Honors I am not an 8th grade teacher so I can't speak with authority on this, but I can give you some additional information. The Math 8 course, which was at one time called "Conceptual Algebra" does in fact include a lot of algebra. It is not a repeat of basic arithmetic. Students will do things like: distinguishing between linear and non-linear relationships; establishing the connection between tables, graphs and equations; investigating exponential relationships and so forth. You can see the curriculum map here:

MS Math

Both the Math 8 group and the Algebra Honors group use the Impact book, although they use it in different ways. The Algebra Honors class devotes more time to formal symbolic algebra.

So while some people may think that the Math 8 course is very basic, that is certainly not the design of the course when you look at the curriculum map. (The map has not yet been updated since adoption of the new book but I imagine that is on the docket for this summer.) I definitely would not describe the Math 8 course as "no algebra at all." This would be an example of another situation where we need to do a better job of communicating with the public.

Some people may be wondering what happens with kids who do need more review of basic arithmetic. The current set up gives those kids an extra boost of math (known as Math Plus), which they take in addition to the Math 8 course. The idea is that they join other students in learning the ideas of algebra in Math 8 while also improving their computational skills in Math Plus. I am not sure if Math Plus survived the budget ax or not. That would be a real loss.

Let's listen to what parents and kids are saying said...

Given the fact that so many parents have concerns about the middle school math program -- and extensions in particular -- do any of the math teachers think there may be a problem here? You see our children every day and so do we. Kids who had no problems with math in elementary school are having problems with the extensions. Does this cause any self-reflection -- or just a defensive reaction? We do need to evaluate the extensions program and not just dismiss the experiences of many children and parents.

Nina Koch said...


I have stated here repeatedly that I am fine with evaluation. Yet, you keep responding as though I am somehow opposed. I am not. In fact, I would like to see evaluation applied to some of the not-so-innovative practices in the schools. Some things stick around just because they have always been that way, not necessarily because they are effective.

My point is that we also need more dialogue. Evaluation and dialogue do not substitute for each other. I have not heard you affirm that you too think dialogue is important.

Caren Rotello said...

Given that Catherine is the only SC member with a blog (last I checked, anyway), it seems quite clear -- to me, at least -- that she *is* interested in dialogue and also in transparency. I know nothing of the opinions of other SC members beyond what I read in the paper, and it seems only fair to give credit where due.

Anonymous said...

Caren Rotello wrote: "Surely it's not possible that such a liberal town would only respect the views of an individual after first checking their income level and skin color."
I think it is possible, and in fact a significant influence on public discourse.

Annonyed at Amherst said...

Anon 11:30AM

Do you think there is a value-neutral assumption behind wanting to know a person's skin color and/or income in Amherst? Or is one/more groups opinions then given more weight? If so, is your personal opinion that the thoughts of whites or non-whites are given more weight? And is your personal opinion that the thoughts of low-income or other-income individuals given more weight?

I am truly curious about your thoughts. I don't disagree with you that many people in Amherst do want to know people's skin color and/or income as they are evaluating what people have to say.

Caren Rotello said...

Anon 11:30.
I actually agree with you. (I'm not new to town).

I find it strange that Amherst considers itself liberal: judging a person's comments differently depending on their income and skin color, rather than on the substance of their ideas, is a strikingly conservative behavior. For this reason, I can't understand why it matters if ACE signers are white and wealthy, white and poor, minority and wealthy, minority and poor, or a big mix of those groups. The real question is whether their goal, which is to encourage the schools to live up to the "every child, every day" slogan, is something that has merit. To my mind, that's a no brainer: of course every child should be challenged.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 11:38 - the math curriculum group I'm on has a "new policy" in which I can only talk about issues that are officially minuted and then approved. So, I'm not going to answer this specifically. However, in my experience (on this committee and on the SC), I have not seen interest in doing a systematic evaluation of the effectiveness of Investigations nor have I seen movement towards having a "regular" 8th grade algebra class. You can read the SC minutes on my blog for October 14, 2008 about this discussion. But here is what I wrote at the time: "Another issue that was brought up was whether the 8th grade should have the option of a regular algebra class (in the current system, we provide 8th grade honors, which is a very intense class, and a regular 8th grade math class that touches on algebra but only prepares students for algebra in high school). Although this idea was seen as too close to tracking (by Mike Hayes), it seems to me that our two classes are in fact tracks -- we just have opted for the highest and lowest options of tracks, and not a middle choice. I would imagine that a stronger elementary schoool math curriculum (which could include Impact I for all 6th graders) could potentially lead us to be able to offer two tracks at the middle and high level instead, which seems preferable." I share your belief that having 8th grade "regular" algebra would be a great alternative (either in addition to or instead of 8th grade pre-algebra)!

Anonymous 2:32 - I am hoping you aren't serious ... and that you don't value someone comments differently based on their race, ethnicity, or value of house. However, if you want such a list, sure -- go to the ACE website (, see the list of names, look up their addresses in the phone book, and then you can get the assessed housing values on line at the town clerk's office. I hope that helps you figure out whether you agree with the ACE "agenda" that the schools should hold expectations for and challenge all children.

Caren - excellent point. And I hope you are right.

JWolfe - indeed!

7th grade parent - I agree that having a regular 8th grade alegebra class is an excellent idea -- and I hope we could consider such a change (again, I actually would like us to aim to have ALL kids take either 8th grade algebra or 8th grade HONORS algebra). In theory, three years of Impact (6th/7th/8th) should lead to all kids mastering algebra by the end of 8th grade (this is the claim of the publisher). Of course we will have to wait to see how that goes -- and we will have to see how well this series prepares kids for high school math. Again, the thinking behind our current plan is to avoid tracking -- though again, it seems very clearly to be tracking -- just it is into a HIGH and a LOW track, and the middle (which probably is most kids) is forced to choose.

Anonymous 5:21 - I have heard this complaint from a number of parents. I do NOT know how widespread this perception is, nor do I know whether it is a function of the child, the teacher, the parent, or some combination of all of the above! That is why I will repeat what I continue saying --let's actually evaluate this approach to differentiating instruction! Maybe it is great - -maybe it isn't. This is actually a question we can answer ... and I'll also say that we are NOT the only district in the country -- or even in Massachusetts -- who is teaching math ... nor the only one who is trying to get more kids into 8th grade algebra. This would be a good opportunity to look to the experience of other districts -- and see what they are doing to differentiate math instruction and/or prepare kids for 8th grade algebra (and I haven't found ANY that are using an extensions model).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Kathy Reck - First, let me clarify my reaction to your post -- I was concerned precisely because you claimed that ACE parents were the ones who responded to the survey last year. However, it is NOT clear at all whether ACE parents responded to the survey at a higher, lower, or the same rate as other parents. So, your initial assumption in your posting was (and I'm using YOUR words here to not misquote you) -- "I would venture a guess that it was mainly ACE parents who completed the survey last year." Second, and I've made this point before -- IF I thought this survey was adequate, I wouldn't have asked for one now, right?!? Third, ACE parents are looking for challenge -- but they are often finding it! So, the survey this year is better than last year's survey (no offense, those who created it!) because it asks fine-tuned questions about discipline and grade. It is not that ACE parents in all situations are just "desperate for challenge." I know of ACE parents who say their child is very challenged in the MS (particularly in science). I know of ACE parents who say their child is "over-challenged" in high school (particularly in social studies). I know of ACE parents who say their child is very challenged in elementary school. So, again, to assume that ACE parents will always, in response to any survey, report "we need more challenge" is a real over-simplification.

I look forward to hearing about the DRP data, and I'm glad that is being examined.

Lise - thanks for clarifying the nature of the survey and the consistency of the responses. It will be interesting to see what this year's survey shows in comparison.

SZA - I know your post was to an anonymous person, but I just want to say that some parents really do have a bad view of extensions (like this poster). So, again, I say this is where an evaluation would have been REALLY helpful! Then, if there were concerns, the MS principal could say either "yes, we were concerned abou that too, so we did an evaluation and we found that kids who did extensions were even better at X or more likely to do Y," OR we could say, "Yes, we did an evaluation, and as it turns out, this approach wasn't quite as good as Y so we have dropped extensions." Again, I have no idea whether this is a great idea or not ... but I do know that it is a unique idea, and hence one that we might reasonably expect to evaluate in terms of its effectiveness by whatever goal it was adopted to fulfill.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Nina - two quick points. First, I agree (with you and Lise) that these are great ideas in terms of reading. Second, I think the concern Lise (and others) have expressed is not that 8th grade math doesn't have any algebra, but rather why do we teach 9th graders "regular algebra" but expect some 8th graders to be able to do "honors algebra" and not even give the "regular algebra" choice? In most things, there is a bell curve - some kids are at one end, some are at the other, but MOST are in the middle. So, it may well be that some of our kids can do honors algebra in 8th grade, and it may well be that some of our kids need extra support (such as "math plus"). But how about those in the middle (which is probably MOST of the kids)? Maybe some of those (most of those?) could do REGULAR algebra in 8th grade, and not pre-algebra? Just seems like an odd choice for a district to not give this alternative -- and it is an important alternative in terms of setting up options for HS math (and science).

Let's listen to what parents and kids say - I agree completely ... this is why, as I posted to SZA above, I think an evaluation would be really, really helpful! Then we could actually figure out NOT just what teachers/kids/parents say, but actually what the IMPACT of extensions is on learning. Again, to me this isn't about extensions ... it is about how we choose programs whether we have evaluation built in to what we do (particularly when what we do is unique).

Nina - if having a blog, and personally responding to each and every comment, isn't dialogue, I don't know what else is. Yes?!?

Caren - thank you for making this point!

Anonymous 11:30 - sadly, I think you are perhaps right.

Annoyed at Amherst - I am not sure of your point ... do you believe that some voices DO have more weight? Or SHOULD have more weight? I believe that all voices should be heard -- and that we should not in fact prioritize some voices over others.

Caren - exactly ... no matter who signed ACE, the only question should be do you agree with or disagree with the goal of The real question is whether the goal "to encourage the schools to live up to the 'every child, every day' slogan? That's really it.

sza said...

To Anon 9:03 (Let's listen to kids and parents....

Yes I hear that there are some concerns about the extension program, and I am all in favor of a dialogue and an evaluation, as Nina calmly suggests in her post.

I am sorry if you think I was defensive. If so, I think it was a reaction to the strong, blanket statements I am reading from anonymous posters like “extensions are boring” or they are “too challenging if they are not taught ahead of time” (contradictory statements by the way made in the same paragraph) or they are destroying self-esteem and further ambition in students. That’s pretty strong stuff to read, so I succumbed to human nature and offered a defense based on my first hand experience.

I do not dismiss the negative comments I read here, however I do have to view them in the context that I have. That context is three years of doing extensions having never heard any of this type of complaint from a parent. I can see some passionate opinions on this blog, but as they are anonymous, I don’t even know how many people it represents, or if it is all one person writing (I doubt that, but it’s possible). When you say “many parents” that is ambiguous data, that I can only add to the substantial amount of data, as in feedback, I have received from satisfied students and parents.

Extensions, by the very nature of the name, are meant to take students further than they have gone in the past, or might go in the regular curriculum. A student who does well in 6th grade math would likely do well in regular 7th grade math, but SHOULD expect to find challenge in something called extensions. Doing extensions is like a 7th grader taking 8th grade concepts out for a test drive. I would expect them to struggle with them, and not for them to come easily, or else they are not being appropriately challenged.

I still remember something my first grade teacher told us which was “If you are not making mistakes, you are not learning”. Some students think that being smart means everything comes easy and these students are sometimes uncomfortable when they meet a challenge. I would rather they learn that it is okay to not understand something right away and that they develop persistence and strategies for how to proceed when that occurs. Perhaps if we used a different name than extensions, (how about CHALLENGES), people would be more comfortable with the fact that they are deliberately designed to ask students to think and problem solve beyond what the regular work requires.

The bottom line is I am interested in hearing from and talking to parents. And I am quite cintent to any appropriate evaluation of our programs, given some of the constraints that we are working with (and if you want to see constraints, just stay tuned to next year!) I would rather not be responding on a blog to anonymous comments relating perceptions from contexts I don’t know about. I gave my e-mail address earlier and would be glad to discuss this further with you or anyone who wishes to get in touch.

Nina Koch said...


What I mean by dialogue is more than just people saying things back and forth to each other. Maybe I need a better word. I am talking about an inquiry process where people try to understand each other's perspective. I know that there are parents who look at math education very differently than I do. So I try to understand why they think what they think.

I have mentioned to you several times the idea that you could try to learn more about the school system by coming to see us, asking us about what we do, and listening to us. This is not to replace evaluation. It's a way to build a bridge and to help give you an expanded picture in your head when you think about various schools and programs. I mentioned this in regard to the extensions program. I think you should see it in action and talk to the teachers who are implementing it. I will repeat: the visit would not be in lieu of an evaluation.

From a pragmatic standpoint, this is simply a good tactic. If you want to bring about change, then you need to work with us. To work with people, you have to make a connection with them. You seem resistant to that idea. Perhaps I have misunderstood your position. Would you be interested in visiting our schools and talking with us to learn more about what we are thinking?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

SZA - just FYI ... I hear a ton from many different parents about extensions ... and have for a while (and my kids aren't even there yet). That isn't to say it is bad or good -- it is just to say that people may not tell teachers (or even principals) when they have concerns, because they often worry that their child will then "suffer" in some way (e.g., the teacher won't like my child, the teacher will think I'm a complaining parent, etc.). But the topic of extensions is a pretty common way for parents at birthday parties/soccer games/school pick up. Again, I think this is one of those things that is "uniquely Amherst" and although it was (I believe to the best of my understanding) adopted with the best of intentions, it is not something that we have data demonstrating its effectiveness -- and hence I do think people have concerns. I also hear from parents that their child was "peer pressured" to not do extensions -- and that some kids who are CAPABLE of doing extensions, choose not to. I wondered (and have suggested this) about requiring extensions of all kids ... and just calling it "MATH!" Now, maybe this isn't a good idea because some kids couldn't do it? But I do wonder whether having doing extensions be "the norm" instead of "some kids" might be something worth considering (maybe it already is?).

Nina - three points. First, I actually think you and I just think about the world differently -- and see different types of information as valuable. I could spend tons of time learning and talking with people (already do!), and still have NO IDEA whether kids benefit more from extensions than another program, or 9th grade biology than 9th grade ecology, or whatever. I understand that from your perspective, you find it valuable to "try to understand why they think what they think." For me, I just want the data/numbers. I just find that kind of information more valuable. I may not intuitively see "extensions" as the best way to teach math, but if there was some data showing that kids who did this actually did better, I'd be convinced!

Second, the job of the SC is not actually to propose programs or evaluate whether they think something is good (e.g., 9th grade ecology, extensions, Chinese in WW). The job of the SC is to set policies for the schools, and then make sure the Superintendent is carrying out those policies. So, I think it would be great if the SC created a policy that all innovative programs would be rigorously evaluated -- and we would then ask the superintendent to conduct (or find someone to conduct) an evaluation. I don't think each member of the SC has to understand each program/policy/curricula in all of our schools -- I think the superintendent does -- but I do think the SC needs to set up the expectation that these programs/policies/curricula are evaluated so that we can figure out what is and is not working.

Last point -- even after all that I've said earlier in response to your post, I actually don't know why you simply assume that I'm not trying "to learn more about the school system by coming to see us, asking us about what we do, and listening to us." I don't actually report this type of activity on my blog -- but teachers have privately approached me already (from ES, MS, and HS), and hey, I'm buying some coffees and having some conversations -- and would love to buy more! I really appreciate the private emails I've already received from teachers -- and I've learnd a lot from these (and because they are private, I'm not describing them or their content on this blog). I'm also spending tomorrow AM doing a "learning walk" at the MS, in which I expect I will see extensions (and other things) in action.

lise said...


A response to your entry on MS math and life long learning....

I understand that Math 8 is a pre-algebra course and does teach some algebra concepts. However, it is the symbolic algebra that is necessary in science applications and as a precursor to higher math. Many districts teach all or most kids this level of algebra by the end of 8th grade. I keep hearing that there is data saying that MS kids are not developmentally ready, but this is contradicted by the reality that it is being taught universally in so many districts.

In terms of being life-long math learners and using math skills to problem solve. I think HS science that requires math helps kids understand the value of math as a problem-solving skill. In MS it is more difficult to help them see the connection to daily life. One idea is to do it through projects and problems of the week. For example, here are two projects I remember from my daughters' experience in another district:

Make a deceptive graph - find a graph in the newspaper, a book, etc. Redraw the graph using a different scale and/or origin to show how the results can be made to appear totally different. Write a paragraph on each graph.

Spend a million dollars - Find 10 things advertised in newspapers, magazines, the web. Make a book page for each item and calculate sales tax to get to the total cost. Must use close to the entire million with a remainder (not more than 20%) donated to a charity. Create a checkbook page starting with a million dollars and show each entry and how it reduces the balance.

Both of these were projects for sixth graders in my old school district. There were other projects at other grade levels, and regular problems of the month (long word problems that could be solved with or without algebra). These kind of things are fun, teach how math is used in everyday life, and if done in all classrooms are also community building as kids share their projects and trade ideas.

So, long post on what is probably a fading blog chain....

Anonymous said...

Lise, do you mind sharing which district taught those amazing (and relevant) math problems? We are looking to leave Amherst and that district might be the place for us!

Anonymous said...

I keep hearing the comment that some 8th graders are not developmentally ready for algebra -- and that in many other districts most or all 8th graders take algebra. I think both things can be true to some extent. But I do wonder if Amherst has a strangely large amount of 8th graders developmentally unready for algebra -- or if lots of 8th graders in other schools are failing algebra. Any help on this from the statistics front?

Baldteach said...

Thank You for coming by the MS today.