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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Regional Meeting AND Amherst Meeting, June 2, 2009

The regional meeting began with announcements and public comment. Mark Jackson, high school principal, spoke about the upcoming high school graduation, which will take place the the Mullins Center. I asked whether the school district was charged for the rental of this space, and learned that we pay $13,000 to hold our graduation ceremony at this location (hmmm, perhaps this is a way that U Mass could help the schools -- by reducing or eliminating this fee?). Andy Churchill then suggested, in light of the many new SC members and the new superintendent, that the SC have an orientation meeting with a member of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC). We agreed that we would try to find a date to do such a meeting this summer, based on everyone's availability.

We then turned to the superintendent's update. Maria made three announcements. First, surveys have now gone out to parents at all of the schools electronically, and paper copies are available at each school (and are going out through PGOs). Work on translating the surveys into different languages is also now occurring. The staff survey will go out soon. A graduate student will work this summer on compiling the survey results and preparing a report for the superintendent and School Committee (and let me again convey my thanks to the current and incoming superintendent for their support of having this important data collected). Second, the search for an assistant superintendent has been suspended. Although a number of good candidates emerged, and 6 were interviewed by the search committee, the conclusion of the committee was that candidates with the particular range of desirable experiences did not emerge (this committee including the HS principal, an elementary principal, parents, adminstrators, and me as the SC representative). Thus, this budget line has been cut, and the roles this person would have taken on will be filled by a combination of current staff members (to be determined) and some paid outside consultants. Third, there was an update on the discussion with teachers/staff about opening negotiations regarding contracts. Thus far, the teachers union has declined to enter such negotations, the administrators (assistant principals, administrators) are accepting a 2% (instead of 3.5%) raise, and the non-unit staff (principals, directors) are accepting a 2% raise. In addition, the paraprofessionals unit has voted some changes in health insurance (including increases in co-pays for emergency room visits and prescription drugs) that will lead to lower insurance costs to the district. There was then some discussion about whether the teachers should agree to enter negotiations.

I am not speaking for the entire SC here -- let me be clear. I believe the teachers union needs to decide for themselves whether they want to enter such negotiations. These wage increases were negotiated in good faith, and thus it is up to teachers whether they would or would not like to enter such negotiations. Salary discussions are complex for many, many reasons, and I think teachers are in the best position to decide for themselves whether entering such negotiations (and of course agreeing to new terms) makes sense.

We then turned to a (very depressing) budget update. The only "good" news is that the Amherst Finance Committee is suggesting the use of 1.2 million in reserves (including $700,000 based on the projected savings from closing MM), which helps avoids some of the even worse cuts than could have been made. I'm summarizing the cuts here, but the key ones I believe are:

Middle School
A reduction of one assistant principal
Reduction of 5 core academic teachers, meaning a reduction of 1 team in 7th grade (leading to class size averages of 27) and a reduction of 1 team in 8th grade (leading to class size averages of 25)
Reduction of 2 exploratory/integrated study teachers (1 on each of the eliminated teams)
Reduction of either a guidance counselor or librarian
A .40 cut in instrumental music (meaning music will now occur every other day instead of every day)

High School
A reduction of one assistant principal
A reduction of one guidane counselor
7.20 teaching positions (meaning class sizes of 25 to 29)
A reduction of three paraprofessionals
A reduction of $100,000 to the athletic budget (and cutting three teams)

These cuts are at the bottom of Level 2, which is further than we had all hoped to go -- and between the Amherst and Regional schools, a total of 50 positions will now be cut.

There was a discussion of these cuts, and their impact on education. A number of people asked questions/made comments, which I'm not going to summarize all of (watch ACTV!). I do want to highlight, however, a few things. First, Mark Jackson announced that Amherst College had eliminated its cap on number of students taking classes at Amherst (it used to be 30 seats, and there was high demand for those seats). In these tight budget times, perhaps this is a way in which at least some kids can explore options outside of the high school offerings, and, in turn, reduce some seats in other classes. U Mass allows students to take classes as well, but charges students the full tuition rate -- about $1200 a class, which thus makes this option less viable for many students. Second, Mark Jackson announced that the high school faculty voted in favor of keeping the trimester system by a 2 to 1 margin (this vote was for the 2010-2011 academic year -- it was already considered too late to make a schedule change for the 2009-2010 academic year). I am discouraged by this news, given that the trimester system (under our current tight budget) requires students to have two study halls, whereas under a semester system, our students would have only needed to take one study hall. It also means that students now are going to spend 13% of their day in a study hall, compared to 7%. This seems very, very unfortuate -- which is why I was so impressed with Mark Jackson's recommendation to his faculty this spring that such a change to a semester system from a trimester system be considered (in light of this year's budget, but also the expected very poor budgets in years to come). If a student has 2 study halls a year for four years, he/she will spend a total of 8 class periods in a study hall during high school -- and since students have only 15 periods per year, this is equivalent to 1/8th of their education time.

We then conducted a few small planning issues. We received information on recommended school choice seats (to be voted on at the next meeting), voted to approve four clerical/media awards (I served as the SC representative on this committee, and it was great fun -- with many outstanding candidates), and conducted a calendar review (the last two meetings in June will include information about an upcoming report from the "How Are We Doing Subcommittee" and middle school/high school school improvement plans and information on the teacher evaluation process). Finally, we voted on a vice chair (since Marianne was vice chair but is serving as chair since Michael Hussin's term expired) to serve for the next month, until the final new member of the SC (from Shutesbury) joins us on July 1st (and we hold new elections). Andy Churchill was nominated by Tracy Farnham to serve as vice chair and was elected unanimously.


We then turned to the Amherst Meeting--which consisted almost entirely of a budget update. The final proposed budget cuts are as follows:
  • 3 classroom teachers (1 at 5th, 1 at 6th, 1 at 2nd) -- which still allows classes to remain at appropriate levels
  • 2.70 math/ELA coaches
  • 1.25 instrumental music cuts (meaning a one year delay in music instruction, so that orchestra begins in 4th grade and band begins in 5th grade)
  • 1 librarian and a library paraprofessional
  • reduction from full-year to school-year for all assistant principals
  • 1.0 specials (which will remain proportional at all the schools based on # of classrooms)
  • .80 computer teacher
  • 2.3 cafeteria paraprofessionals

These cuts are, of course, hard -- but I'm glad they are not worse than they could have been.

Our final meeting of the year will take place on THURSDAY, June 18th (based on conflicts of two members with the 16th). At this meeting, school improvement plans for WW and FR will be presented.


Rick said...

Like Catherine (I think) I am not sure how I feel about teachers accepting a reduction in negotiated pay. But so long as the townspeople are not willing to share some burden by accepting higher than 2.5% property tax increase then I am not sure why teachers and other town employees should be asked to accept less than 3.5% COLA.

If there was some way to do an even sharing, like 3.5% on property taxes and 2.5% on the COLA – or something like that – then that would seem fairer.

Another thing: people seem to think that nobody is getting raises at all these days because of the tough times. Not exactly true. Data is here:

For three months ending March 2009 is 1.2% annual rate, for “Elementary and secondary schools” it’s 2.8% annual rate.

Anonymous said...

I think we have to go through the kind of fiscal pain that is visible and demonstrable, the kind of pain that gets people who see the direct benefit of these services, including parents of school-age children, talking across the street with their neighbors who don't. Some of those conversations will be unpleasant.

And, since many Amherst residents seem to live in a parallel universe separate from Town Meeting and town government (if only to preserve their own sanity), it may take a lot to bridge that gulf.

In the last override campaign, my very nice neighbor, a former Amherst School Committeeman, said to me, "The children will be fine."

In the past, money has been discovered at the last minute. That will shape the expectations this time, too. And we will continue to seem like so many Chicken Littles to many, many voters.

Until senior citizens are on board with the need for an override, and the realization that this is really, really, really a crisis, we're stuck politically.

No visible short-term pain, no significant long-term gain. And, what's too bad is some kids will don't get a do-over while we come to grips with the problem of costs outrunning revenues.

Rich Morse

Rick said...

Rich: Exactly right.

JWolfe said...

I have a reaction to part of Catherine's report that most people will probably dislike. I was struck by the fact that we've been paying $13k to have HS graduation in the Mullins Center. Some people will react by saying UMass should donate the space, staff, etc, but my reaction is that its the sort of extravagance that the schools undertook over the years that cost us a lot of money without any real educational value added.

I attended a wonderful and huge public HS in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was incredibly well funded, but I think the town I grew up in would never have wasted money having graduation in a basketball arena. Why not have graduation at the school?

The trailers at MM cost $380,000, the graduation costs $13,000. I would really like to know what other truly wasteful spending is in the budget before we cut more teachers.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Good point, JWolfe! I realize that $13,000 isn't much in the scheme of things but I graduated in a class of 315 (not in Amherst) and we graduated in our gym!

Anonymous said...


Mariac said...

I say save the 13000 graduation cost. I too, graduated at my school. 230 of us sitting in chairs on the football field while the families and friends sat in the bleachers outdoors. Everyone looked forward to the graduation every year. Outdoors was a blast (in the gym if it rained). Save the $, toss around the beachballs outdoors!

Anonymous said...

Class sizes of 27 for the seventh grade next year?! In this pivotal transition year for them? This is really horrible. Isn't there anything else that can be cut instead? What about that Bridge program that was getting so much money. Is it still? said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel said...

My HS graduating class had more than 1,000 in it and we did just fine without a special facility.

As annoying as some of my posts may feel to some, I cannot stand being referred to by my gmail identity of "JWolfe," so I've joined a group of other public posters on Catherine's blog by using my first name.

Anonymous said...

"Until senior citizens are on board with the need for an override,..."

Gee, I'm not a senior citizen and I will work very hard AGAINST any override.

Anonymous said...

I very clearly recall that one of the things they said we would lose if the last override lost was the graduation at the Mullins Center. Still using it!

Anonymous said...

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."

--Walt Kelly (1970)

Anonymous said...

Is the debate over semester versus trimester ongoing or is it completely off the table.
I don't understand the logic of the trimester system. I'd like to see this discussion reopened next year in the hopes of changing it for the 10-11 school year.

Anonymous said...

I would hate to see the graduation moved from Mullins. It's a great reward for the kids, and a wonderful event. We ask much of them over the four years - study halls, reduced courses, diminishing opportunities. This seems like a small thing to give.
It's also hard to imagine how you'd fit a fraction of the people who attend into the h.s. gym OR the auditorium, both tiny spaces. Three thousand or so people attend graduation; those two space can fit maybe 400, max??

Alison Donta-Venman said...

I agree that graduating in the Mullins Center must be a treat for graduates (and families), but if I had the choice of having my kids cool their jets in two study halls per year for four years and graduating Mullins or cutting those study halls in half to graduate in the gym or in the field, I'd take the field/gym any day!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rick - yeah, we agree. I just don't think is something we can "ask" teachers to do. We negotiated (and they negotiated) in good faith -- and in that sense, we have to honor what we agreed to UNLESS they decide they'd like to open negotiations. But I think the ball is entirely in their court on this one, and i frankly respect whatever they decide to do. And thanks for posting the link to the statistics!

Rich - I agree with much of what you said. I also think there continue to be questions about how the schools are spending money, and these perceptions matter -- we need, and I'm speaking here as a member of the SC, to do a better job of conveying how we are spending our limited dollars (e.g., are we spending too much on administrators, or special ed, or whatever). Perception MATTERS -- as I think a lot of the responses to my earlier posts have noted. And the schools need to do a better job of acting in an open and transparent way about many things in order to rebuild not just the vote of the senior citizens ... but also the vote of the parents. The most discouraging thing to me about my (failed) work on the 2007 override was that my FRIENDS with kids in the schools wouldn't support it. That was a huge wake up call to me.

Joel - that is a really interesting point. I graduated in my high school football stadium -- for free!

Alison - true!

Anonymous 7:51 - so, maybe this is all the more reason to see about an alternative venue?!? Maybe the U Mass football stadium which they could loan us for free?

Mariac - in tight budget times, a free graduation site should at least be considered, yes?

Anonymous 8:10 - I think some of the Bridges money is now going to be spent by the federal stimulus dollars (money just for special ed). But the loss of a team is a real problem -- and it is hard to find the funds to save a whole team (which is three teachers). I think the alternative to class sizes this large (and I agree with you that it is too large) would be to cut world language in the MS ... and that seems like an even bigger problem to me.

Anonymous 9:16 - I hear this a lot. Again, the schools need to do a better job of showing how we are using resources -- and I believe creating truly excellent schools so we don't keep losing so many families to private school (and those families REALLY aren't going to vote for an override).

Anonymous 9:25 - I don't remember hearing this -- was this stated?!?

Anonymous 11:08 - ummm, can you expand?!?

Anonymous 7:09 - I have asked for a year to get this discussion on the table (see the SC notes from last August and my comments on my blog or on the ARPS website). I believe the merits of each system needed to be discussed openly, based on research. There has not yet been interest from other members of the SC in having this discussion. And the teachers voted AGAINST the moving to a semester system for the 2010-2011 year. If you feel this should be discussed by the SC, I'd communicate those feelings to the superintendent ( and the SC (

Anonymous 8:09 - I am not saying we should move it ... I am saying it should be at least discussed (as we are discussing many other cost saving measures). We could hold graduation outside -- we do that at Amherst College, and it is really nice. That is what many schools do. We could perhaps use the Amherst College gym -- which is what we do when it rains on graduation day at Amherst College. There are many more graduating students at Amherst College, and there is still enough room for family members. Maybe the U Mass football stadium would work -- that is where U Mass graduates. Again, I just think the point of the initial comment was at least this should be considered, given our tight times.

Alison - I agree. In addition, let's remember that a simple vote by the faculty to move to a semester system would automatically reduce the number of study halls IN HALF.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about the elementary school classroom teacher cuts:

You said:
3 classroom teachers (1 at 5th, 1 at 6th, 1 at 2nd)

Does this mean that the classroom teachers who got pink slips who are NOT in those grades (ie. K, 3rd, 4th) get rehired?

Does that mean that amongst all 4 elementary schools, only 1 teacher in 5th, 6th and 2nd has to leave?)

How will those three individuals be decided (purely on seniority, or number of letters or support, or principal opinion)?

Anonymous said...

And which school is going to have one less classroom in the 2nd, 5th and 6th grades?

Emily said...

What is the argument in support of the trimester system?

Nina Koch said...


I can give you my thoughts on the trimester. I have seen several schedules at ARHS since 1985. A schedule is a collection of attributes to juggle (period length, meeting frequency, etc) and all schedules have their pros and cons. Frequently you have to give up one thing in order to gain another. So it's a question of what you value most.

English teacher Bruce Penniman (now retired) found the trimester schedule at a conference he went to and it was seen as having many of the advantages of a block schedule while avoiding some of the disadvantages of the block. (In a block schedule, classes meet for double periods and finish in half a year.) I think the main advantage is that teachers have fewer students at a given time, and students have fewer courses to concentrate on at a time.

For some kids, it is difficult to keep up with five major subjects simultaneously. So, if we went to the 7 period day, some kids would still elect to have a study hall each semester, due to the increased number of simultaneous courses. This would leave them with 12 blocks to fill with classes. Under the trimester, there are 15 total blocks--two for study and 13 to fill with classes. So, while the change to the semester would eliminate a study hall for students who can keep up with their work, for other students it would actually reduce their elective options.

The trimester also has disadvantages. The one I hear most often is about "soak time." Some teachers would prefer to see their students over the entire school year, even if the course doesn't meet every day. And, as most people realize, the trimester schedule doesn't coincide with the college semester schedule, so that can cause problems, unless students take college courses all year long.

There are some other advantages to the trimester that are especially important for students who struggle. If a student fails a course, there is time to make it up during the academic year and still graduate on schedule. Under our old schedule, students who failed English would have to make it up in summer school or take two English classes simultaneously in order to graduate on time.

We also have a few classes like BC Calculus and AP Biology that meet over all three trimesters. This gives those students a very rich experience. Under our old schedule, the BC Calculus course had to start midway through the previous year in order to finish on time. It was awkward and students had to decide at the end of ninth grade which Calculus class they wanted to take as seniors. Of course, there are a variety of ways to provide a BC Calculus course but it happens to work out nicely under the trimester. Schools with a block schedule tend to offer it over the whole year, giving it the equivalent of two years of math in one.

We also have some remedial programs that take advantage of the trimester. Students who need extra help in math can get a year and a half of math over one school year in the 9th and 10th grade. Again, there are other ways to do this but the trimester is well-suited for it. Under our old schedule, students had to devote two full years to a program that we are now able to complete in a single year.

There are also other little things like saving money on books (we only need two-thirds of the books we would need under a semester schedule), but that wouldn't be a good reason for picking a schedule one way or the other.

We definitely need to do more evaluation and to communicate more with the public about it. During the first two years of the trimester, they collected data on student achievement (grades) to compare to the previous years. I don't know what happened to the data but I do remember that the grades went up. (All of those administrators are now gone.) They also looked at the students who took a class with a gap (Term 1 and Term 3) and it wasn't any different from students who took the same course in consecutive terms. But that was a long time ago and it should be looked at again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nina, for an excellent description of the history and pros and cons of the trimester system. I agree that it would be useful to continue evaluating it to see if its still working or to see if anything could/should be tweaked. I would also love to hear from students in the eval. Especially their opinion of courses where they have a trimester break between 1st and 2nd part of a course and those who have a possibly 6 month break (3rd trimester plus summer) between courses. I would imagine that long break would be hardest for math courses.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the explanation of the rationale behind semester versus trimester. However I still am left with very serious concerns.

If a student takes a language course that happens to fall in the first 2 trimesters of the year and they don't have it again until the last 2 trimesters of the next year they then go an entire year without the language. If I had been in that situation as a 15 year old I would have essentially needed to start over. I would think even more problematic for math courses.

It seems that trimester system is looking at the good of the few versus the good of many. Choosing a system that helps a few kids not have to do summer school over the majority of kids who lose so much in the long breaks between taking classes that build on one another like math then we have an educational system with flaws that should be examined.

I completely agree with CS in a previous post re: data. I think if Amherst HS is going to have such an unusual system (trimester v. semester) which is not done at most high schools, then it should be studied and evaluated and proven to be the best system.

Nina Koch said...

actually, some kids will tell you that their favorite thing about the trimester is that they get a break from math class! Seriously, a lot of kids do like the trimester, but they don't have anything to compare it to. I guess the comment I hear most often is that they like having fewer courses to concentrate on at a given time. I think that applies to a lot of kids, not just "the few." Being able to focus more on an individual course might allow you to do some in-depth, high quality work in the course.

As I said before, any schedule involves some degree of sacrifice. When the trimester was first being designed, teachers gave the strongest weight to having longer class periods (they had been 41 minutes previously). Another strong priority was to have the same two periods at the end of the day with a consistent Monday-Friday schedule so that kids could do internships and college classes more easily. Previously we rotated over 8 days and periods would drop and move around. Lots of things about that are undesirable. We definitely had reasons for dropping our existing schedule when we made the change.

I could tell you that Andover, Exeter and Choate all have a trimester schedule, or that 1/3 of the schools in Michigan have it, but I don't think that really makes the case for it. Those places might have different implementations of it and different reasons for adopting it.

Lots of schools in the 90s saw problems with traditional schedules and wanted to change it. Much more common than the trimester is the block schedule, where students take 4 complete courses in half a year and then start 4 new courses for the second half of the year. This actually matches the schedule of many colleges. But it has disadvantages. The learning gap, if there is one, is even longer than the trimester. There is less "soak time." Yet lots of schools have a block schedule and like it.

The tricky thing about the research is that you can't really look at the schedule as a whole, you need to look at its various attributes. So, for example, do students make more progress when class periods are longer? That would be a question to research. Is there really a learning gap? That would be a question to research. I did find one thing here from a school in Michigan. I think it would be good to get the same data for our school.

Retention Study

You won't find much research on trimesters, because they are less common, but there is quite a bit on block schedules. Here is one link:

Block Schedule Research

ARHS Parent Skeptic said...

Teenagers don't always know what is best for them.!! Most kids that age would enjoy having a break from homework too but that doesn't mean it is an educationally sound thing to do. I have read a lot about the block scheduling and talked with people in local districts who use that format and agree with Nina that there is more potential for too many gaps (and less "soak time") with that type of schedule. But why is the conversation about block versus trimester? Could we not just go back to a traditional semester-based currriculum? Yes, that would give students less time to take electives, but are electives the priority that is driving this decision?!

Nina Koch said...

dear skeptic,

I agree that we don't do things just because teenagers tell us that's what they want. Somebody had asked how the kids felt, so that's why I mentioned it. And of course not all kids feel the same way.

There are also parents who appreciate that their kids are not pulled in so many different directions. It can actually put a lot of stress on a family when a child is struggling in school.

We could go back to the semester schedule and maybe we will. But that schedule has problems too, which is why so many schools have tried something different.

The conversation is not about block vs trimester. I am bringing up information about the block simply because it is more common and there is more information out there about it.

I think just because the semester schedule is traditional doesn't mean it is the best. In fact, I could ask the semester advocates to present data to demonstrate that the semester is better. There are a lot of traditional educational practices that enjoy a certain status only because they have been around for so long.

But first we would have to decide what we mean by "best." What is the thing we are trying to maximize? That is tough to identify when there are so many different dimensions to consider.

Anonymous said...

Where are the results of the survey we did on the trimester system? I have seen this asked before and must have missed the answer.
Is it online anywhere?

Anonymous said...

I asked the question about what do kids think. The point of my question was to find out if the kids thought it was difficult to have so much time off. Do they find that they forget so much that it is hard to get back into the subject once it comes around again. My point was not to find out if they like it or not but to find out if it was difficult for them. To find out if they found that they were forgetting alot of what they had learned during the long layoff. Probably not all kids could give a thoughtful answer to the question but I am sure some could.

Anonymous said...

My kids had a hard time in both math and their chosen language due to the long breaks. And I put that on the survey.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 1:53 - good question. So, there are three teachers cut, but we don't give seniority based on grade taught (senior teachers can "bump" less experienced teachers). So, let's say your child's 3rd grade teacher got a pink slip. Maybe all of the 5th grade teachers in the district have seniority (didn't get pink slips), but we are cutting a 5th grade class. A fifth grade teacher this year could then teach 3rd grade next year. Similarly, a librarian position could get cut, but if that librarian has professional status, he/she could then (if certified) teach 3rd grade next year. So, no, other teachers are NOT safe just if they aren't in those grades. Sorry! Seniority is the big factor that influences those decisions -- I actually don't know if principals then make the final call.

Anonymous 2:14 - I haven't been told, but if in my read of the fall enrollment projections (which could have changed), my intuition is that Fort River loses 5th and 6th grade teachers and Wildwood loses a 2nd grade teacher.

Emily - I think Nina answered this one at length!

Nina - thank you for the thoughtful response. I've also heard from a number of teachers/staff/parents at the HS, and I'll just share also what I've heard (and I do hear your points -- I'm just expressing ones I've heard that I did not see you make). First, for some kids, the trimester system goes too fast -- they need more time to sit with material (work on reading, work on a paper), and although they only have 5 classes at a time, the term goes FAST (e.g., you have to master material from September to March instead of September to June). This is particularly tricky if a kid gets sick for a week and misses school -- the semester system is more forgiving than the trimester because of the speed with which you need to master material (maybe this is what you call "soak time"?). Second, I've heard pretty consistent concerns about breaks in material -- so, kids could have Spanish September to March one year, and then December to June the next year - meaning they are going 9 months without Spanish (or math, or whatever). This is more of an issue in classes that need continuity (e.g., probably not a big deal to have chemistry, then a break before physics, but hard to have interruptions in language, math). I hear from teachers that they have to spend a lot of early time each trimester REVIEWING to bring kids up to speed. I am not sure why the AP class thing is a big issue (e.g., BC Calculus and AP Biology) since those classes are offered at many schools with the semester system. And yes -- some actual evaluation and communication about that evaluation would be helpful! I know we PAID for a survey of parents/teachers two years ago - and I've asked for those results (which surely must have been compiled by someone?!?) -- and I have never seen them. Data may have been collected a while ago (about the impact on achievment), but that data was never presented to the SC (I've gone through old minutes). Again, this speaks to me about whether we really, as a district, are committed to evaluating what we are doing.

Anonymous 7:01 - I agree that an evaluation would be very helpful, and that such a break seems like it would really be problematic.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 9:06 - I agree with all you said. I hope that an evaluation will (finally) be done.

Nina - I agree that "any schedule involves some degree of sacrifice" -- I just don't know if the choice to have a trimester system has now reached the point of too much sacrifice (e.g., requiring two study halls a year, decreasing ability to take college classes, making many kids experience a break in the continuity of their studies, making some kids feel rushed in terms of mastery of material). This is why it really, really needs to be evaluated (and that means more than votes by teachers and students almost all of whom are most experienced with our current system!). I do know that many private schools have a trimester -- but they teach the core subjects continually (e.g., at Deerfield, they have a trimester, but students taking a language have that class ALL YEAR). I can't imagine that there isn't lots of data showing that kids who have time away from a given subject experience regression -- lots of research on the achievement gap actually shows that the summer is a time in which some kids really fall behind (low income kids) and others don't (high and middle income kids). Thus, the trend has been to provide year round schools to combat this. I can't imagine high school students who have have a continuous world language or math class don't gain better mastery than those who don't -- and again, if I'm wrong, we should data that shows my intuition is just wrong! We could, for example, right now test performance on the MCAS for kids who had a continous versus not math class, right?

ARHS Parent Skeptic - indeed ... if we allowed teenagers free choice, our cafeteria options would look different! And what the teachers voted down (2 to 2) was NOT a semester with a block schedule ... it was just moving to a semester system (which of course could, and I think SHOULD, be an option).

Nina - I know of parents who believe the trimester system goes too fast for their child ... it is a system that frankly rewards kids who master stuff quickly, and don't need/benefit from "soak time". I can say right now that there are three BETTER things about the semester system: provides continuity in learning a discipline, allows kids longer to master material, increases flexibility in terms of accessing college courses. Those seem like three key benefits that the semester provides -- that might in fact be why MOST districts have chosen that system!

Anonymous 12:59 - I've asked for the survey results ... haven't been able to get them. Will keep trying.

Anonymous 1:49 - this is certainly what I hear from parents.

Anonymous 2:41 - again, I hear this a lot. It would be GREAT to get those survey results!

Nina Koch said...

some data was presented to the school committee, but it was a really long time ago and the minutes are not on line. It would have been in 1999 or 2000, I think. I was at the meeting and each department gave their point of view on the schedule. I would like to see those minutes, too.

I still assert that just because a practice is entrenched doesn't mean it is demonstrably better. Colleges have been teaching intro courses in huge lecture halls for years and I am not convinced that practice is effective. Yet they continue to do it.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I have the old minutes when information was presented to the SC. On December 12, 2000 (you can get these at central office), principal Goldman presented the "trimester schedule evaluation." He says he believe it worked (that is the "data"). Then, he says that some members of the world language faculty are concerned about the gap in language exposure. Then, concerns about the trimester are expressed by two members of the SC, with reference to a survey regarding teacher effectiveness. Another member of the SC questions the negatives in the report, and some faculty's views that they aren't covering the same amount of material. David Mullins (math) says the math department favors the trimester. Mr. Penniman (English) says the English department favors the trimester. There is a reference to a memo which states that three department heads are "firmly opposed to the trimester," and a Kip Fonsh (social studies) says the "trimester does not allow teachers and students to develop solid relationships." He also says that "it is difficult for adults to effectively process the kinds of information being presented to them. Students need a prolonged period of time over the course of the year to absorb information." Then, a member of the SC says that members of the SC "were expecting an evaluation of the trimester schedule and its impact on learning and the quality of academic programming. She said that it was her understanding that the program would be evaluated, not that more resources would be assigned to it to make it work successfully." Again, the minutes continue for some time, but the key point here is that it is totally evident that (a) there was no actual evaluation on learning,a and (b) the faculty at this time was mixed.

Then, we see a repeat of this experience in the minutes of March 25, 2003. Mr. Werhli says that 76% of faculty prefer the trimester. Then a member of the SC notes that "surveyed staff found that breadth, depth, and the ability to develop good relationships with students were less preferable in the trimester system." Another member of the SC notes that she wishes the survey had been "more objective." There are then comments from faculty who are both in favor of the trimester (English, ESL, electives) and against (social studies, world language). Math and science seem more mixed -- see some problems, but like longer class periods. There is concern expressed by several SC members about a lack of information (how are students performing in certain areas, loss of time to cover subject areas), and then a statement that "the committee will consider a more comprehensive evaluation of the system at a future point." Again, no real evaluation -- just the same type of evaluation we always seem to have in our district -- some reports by teachers of what they like, so we stick with it. I can't find any references in any SC minutes of any data that has ever been received on the outcome of the trimester decision -- and my understanding from long-standing SC members is that they asked for this data and never received it. If you can find such data, or even the data from the recent parent/staff survey, please post it -- that would be great to have.