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, June 11, 2009

Education Matters: Let research, evidence guide the curriculum

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.


Anonymous said...

What could anyone find wrong, offensive, elitist or pretentious about wanting our School Committee's decisions to be based on real information and evidence?

Making sure our decisions and claims of success are based in fact as well as in our good intentions may be the only way to move this school system to being the kind of system we all say we want and to supporting all students to reach their potential.

Thank you!

Rick said...

This was a good article – much better than your last one. ;-)

The concrete Framingham example was good to illustrate what you are talking about. As mentioned before, I don’t see the problem as so much not wanting data, but rather in figuring out what data is wanted and how to get it, and that example showed us. We disagree on the source of the problem, but it can’t hurt to have examples like that to make it easier for people to see what you mean instead of just saying “data” is needed.

Anonymous said...

I'll be interested in reading the inevitable pushback, both in the Bulletin and on this blog, on what seems to be an entirely reasonable position on how we move forward.

Joel said...

What's the over-under on nasty letters in the Bulletin on this one?

Remember, if you dare write the Bulletin in support of anything Catherine and Steve write, Noah will relegate your letter to the online edition!

Anonymous said...

The Bulletin has become essentially a fan magazine for Hwei-Ling Greeney.

Rick said...

Just one piece of info: I wrote a letter opposing Catherine and Steve's last article (May 8) and it got relegated to the online edition.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 9:36 - I'm pretty sure there will be some critiques about a request for data ... which I believe is seen by some in our community as "antagonistic." Wanting data seems to imply that we don't "trust our teachers" to design the very best programs (that is what I hear repeatedly whenever I request data). So, asking for evidence is seen as disrespectful to teachers -- which is why the SC adopts many programs and doesn't require any data to examine whether something is working (e.g., the trimester system, the extensions math program in 7th grade, the new 9th grade science program). This Op Ed may not have seemed controversial ... but I guarantee you that it will be seen that way by some!

Rick - I hope you are right that people want data ... and that the issue is figuring out how to get it. I am much less hopeful about that than you are, but hey, I hope you are right!

Anonymous 1:49 - it will indeed be interesting. I'm quite sure that there is something in this piece that some will find offensive.

Joel - indeed.

Anonymous 8:46 - Hwei-Ling's supporters seem more willing to put their names in print than my supporters!

Rick - your letter did appear in print -- it was the first letter that appeared. It may have appeared the week before on line, but then it also appeared in print. There were two letters supporting me and Steve, and neither of those ever appeared in print (whereas all of the ones opposing us appeared in print).

Rick said...

Gee I missed it in print - I stand corrected. Per what you said, I guess the bulletin is biased - at least in this case.

Rob Crowner said...

Thank you for exposing the Investigations decision, which I sensed was not well planned. Certainly, some evaluation beforehand would have been a good idea and may have prevented a waste of money and time in addition to strengthening the curriculum.

There is a very interesting discussion taking place on the TM listserv about the budgets and how TM might handle them. In the course of that discussion, one correspondent listed fifteen personnel attached to the offices of the Dean of Students and Guidance Counselors at the high school, apparently in an attempt to refute the notion of "administrator bloat". He noted - and I concur with him on this point - that he does not personally know whether all of these people are needed.

The poster suggests comparing that number to that of other school districts, but I have another thought: Does current research and evidence support that level of non-instructional service? Doesn't this program warrant evaluation similar to what you have called for in academic programs?

Thank you for considering this.