By STEVE RIVKIN and CATHERINE SANDERSON
Published on June 12, 2009 - Amherst Bulletin
Shrinking budgets force administrators to choose how to spend scarce dollars. We believe that rigorous evaluation of existing programs and comprehensive comparisons of possible new curricula or programs are core components of prudent and responsible resource allocation regardless of financial conditions.
Although school district leaders have bemoaned the lack of capacity to enact evidence-based decision-making processes, we believe that lack of capacity has not been the constraint.
Rather we believe that the historical reluctance of the Amherst school district to conduct this type of evaluation seems to have been one of philosophy about how decisions are made, driven in part by the beliefs that Amherst is so unique as to make the experiences of other districts irrelevant and that quantitative data have little to offer.
Compare the recent processes used to adopt an elementary school mathematics curriculum in Amherst and in Framingham, MA, a district similar to our own in terms of student demographics.
In 2007, then Amherst superintendent Jere Hochman chose to purchase the most recent version of the Investigations math curriculum (the curriculum already used in our district) without conducting a serious review; money in the budget that had to be spent by June 30th was simply used to purchase this new curriculum. This decision was made in spite of a spirited national debate about the teaching of mathematics and in spite of some local concerns about the curriculum.
Like Amherst, Framingham had also been using Investigations in its schools, but Framingham embarked on a different process in its most recent consideration of elementary school math curriculum. First, a committee examined seven different math programs and narrowed the list to two (the new version of Investigations and an alternative). The committee then conducted a "pilot test" in which four elementary schools used one curriculum and the other four elementary schools used the other for one year, and all teachers reported their experience using a standardized rubric. The evidence collected from this one year trial strongly favored one of the curricula (which, interestingly, was not Investigations), and this new curriculum was adopted district-wide with substantial support. Note that no outside consultants were hired, as district personnel handled the entire process.
Encouragingly, we see a greater willingness to engage in such evaluation taking hold in our district over the last year. The adoption of the new middle school math textbooks last spring, coordinated by Amherst Regional Middle School Co-Principal Mike Hayes, followed a procedure in which teachers and staff reviewed multiple textbooks using a rubric, selected three finalists, and then sought feedback from parents and community members before making a recommendation to adopt the Impact math series.
One of us (Catherine) has conduced an empirical evaluation of the Pipeline Scholars Program. This is a program created by current Crocker Farm Principal Mike Morris to raise achievement by providing year-round tutoring with Amherst College students and summer classes at Amherst College to support students in Grades 6-10 who are members of subgroups who are underrepresented in honors/AP classes at Amherst Regional High School.
This evaluation, which was conducted at no cost to the district, revealed that students in the Pipeline program scored higher on both the English and math MCAS than students from these subgroups who were not in this program. Finally, both Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk and incoming Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez supported the collection of survey data from parents, students, and teachers/staff at all of the schools to provide valuable information on strengths and areas to target for improvement.
We believe that a commitment to a more rigorous, evidence based decision-making process as well as a belief that we can and should learn from the experience of districts all over the world will lead to a far better use of resources regardless of financial conditions. Moreover, it will send a powerful message to our community that money spent on our schools is money well spent.
Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are members of the Amherst School Committee.
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.