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.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Amherst super: 'We can do a lot better'

Hampshire Gazette
Saturday, July 25, 2009

AMHERST - To Alberto Rodriguez, the new superintendent of schools, this town where education is paramount has gotten a little too comfortable.

"That's reasonable, because the building's not on fire," he said in an interview. "We're doing OK, but my position is that we can do a lot better. We have all the ingredients to blow the roof off the system."

The Amherst schools aren't doing enough to help struggling students, and aren't pushing capable children either, Rodriguez said.

"A town like this should have National Merit Scholarship finalists coming out of the woodwork," he said. "It's not the teachers' fault; it's the culture of 'everything is fine.' I see a lot of lost potential. We have a well-educated populace, involved parents, little crime, no huge poverty and good schools, so why are we misfiring?"

Rodriguez comes from the rough political landscape of Miami, so he's not a timid soul. As he arrives, the Amherst schools are reducing staff by the equivalent of 55 positions and facing hot-button issues like the closure of Mark's Meadow moving the sixth grade to the Regional Middle School and regionalization.

He's got opinions

He has opinions on all of them. And he has views about education that challenge the status quo.

Rodriguez, 49, has lived in Miami almost his whole life, and has been a history teacher, principal and assistant superintendent there.

His wife, a school guidance counselor, and his two daughters, 19 and 20, still live there. He and his wife communicate regularly using online video and see each other in person every two weeks.

"Leaving Miami was not just a career change for me; it was a life change," he said. "I'm taking this position at great personal sacrifice." Lifting two framed photographs, he said, "This is all I have of my daughters."

Asked who his role models are, he cites his father, who left Cuba in 1955, and Ronald Reagan, with whom he shares a belief in limited government. But he resists political pigeonholing and said his beliefs come from both sides of the spectrum.

He saw Amherst's ad for a superintendent in Education Week magazine, and got a call about the job from the head of a search firm. "I felt I could create greater change as a superintendent," he said. "I was looking for a larger, bigger challenge."

Rodriguez is transitioning from a city where parents are not so involved in their children's schools to a town where every decision is scrutinized. The superintendent has a more hands-on role here, and he has to adopt a different mind set, he said.

"It's a small ship compared to a trans-Atlantic ocean liner," he said. "Which can turn more quickly?"

Graduate schools of education are not equipping tomorrow's teachers to teach today's youths, Rodriguez said. They're not teaching future educators that today's students need to be engaged and won over, he said.

"You need to sell (students) on the fact that they need to learn what you're teaching them," he said.

"If we keep addressing them the way we were taught, we're doomed to fail. We need to be probing, seeing what it is that awakens this spirit of curiosity, and it's not the same for every child."

Amherst teachers care deeply about students, but he wants to "change the conversation," he said.

"We need to use data to inform instruction," Rodriguez said. "We need to be mindful that this is a new generation, able to process information at many levels. We need to be at the top of our game on how the brain works. There are so many other media that teachers have to compete against."

Narrow the gap

He also wants to narrow the gap between low-achieving and high-achieving students. He favors frequent assessments, immediate return of data back to teachers, and monitoring of student progress.

Rodriguez had lunch with Town Manager Larry Shaffer Thursday, and has met with University of Massachusetts Chancellor Robert Holub. He said he wants to have closer ties with UMass and the area colleges in terms of mentoring teachers and learning about the latest instructional technology, he said.

The Amherst schools' staff cuts require a different approach to teaching, he said. But he also noted that he "won't dump more work on teachers."

At the same time, school supporters need to prepare for an anticipated tax override vote next year.

"We need to decide as a community what kind of education we want," he said. "If we need to go through another round of cuts, the kind of educational system we will provide will not be the same. It will be unrecognizable. We need to have a heart-to-heart with the community. Do we want bare-bones schools, with no frills and increased class sizes, or diverse and inclusive schools, the kind of quality system Amherst residents have come to love?"

Further cuts would impair the schools' ability to recruit, he said. "No one runs into a burning building," he said.

Rodriguez said moving the sixth grade to the middle school would enable children to start algebra and literature sooner. "If we want to push the envelope, the current configuration doesn't lend itself to that," he said.

He said he intends to visit Mark's Meadow frequently in its last year "to give parents assurance we haven't forgotten them." This year "counts very much" for students, and the time to pack up is next summer, he said.


A four-town committee has been looking at K-12 regionalization. Rodriguez said this could be more efficient in terms of aligning the curriculum and "getting all the systems talking to each other."

He called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System a valuable data source, but said it shouldn't be the only one. "To use one indicator of the quality of a school is wrong," he said.

Rodriguez said he knows he has to pick his battles. He's looking at three or four goals for his first year, but declined to name them before he can talk to the School Committee.

He hopes to be a consensus-builder in the highly charged political environment of Amherst where, as the T-shirts say, "only the H is silent."


Rick said...

This sounds great. I love this:

"You need to sell (students) on the fact that they need to learn what you're teaching them."

“We need to be probing, seeing what it is that awakens this spirit of curiosity, and it's not the same for every child."

Anonymous said...

I think the Middle School isn't the problem. I think the lack of consistency within the elementary schools is the problem.

The schools perform well, but they all "do their own thing." Then in 7th grade, you throw all these kids together in an English or Science class who are used to different climates and vocabularies and understandings and expect them to perform consistently. It doesn't make sense.

Then, by the time their varied skills are "meshed" together, it's time to move on to the HS.

Let's focus on lessening some of the autonomy in the elementary schools and see if that improves what's happening in the MS.

Anonymous said...

I'm very encouraged by what I read here but.........

A man needs his family by his side. We have a community that does not temper its demands on its leaders much. We have many people who simply do not take "no" for an answer. We have many vocal individuals who conduct themselves as if they firmly believe that they are smarter than any other person (or any other elected body of people) in town. In many ways, it's "a town without pity".

As surely as night follows day, there are going to be some bad days for the Superintendent, especially in these tough fiscal times that seem to be extending off over the horizon ahead.

A man needs someone (or two) to come home to who loves him unconditionally. This aspect of the Doctor's current personal situation is not conducive to long-term success. This needs to change soon or we are going to be looking for someone else within a surprisingly short time.

Rich Morse

Abbie said...

The school district ought to get the 2009-2010 calendar up on the web-sites asap. I can't even find when school starts up again!!

Might be toward the top of the to-do list...

Anonymous said...

Agreed Rick--you raise some excellent points--but what to do before the crisis of being forced to look for yet another superintendent???

Anonymous said...

Abbie, I found the calendar link on the HS website.

Nina Koch said...

Hi Abbie,

I am curious where you were looking that you didn't find the 2009-2010 calendar.

Were you on the front page of the arps site?


Nina Koch said...

Also, while I am on here, even though I swore I would not get drawn back in, I feel a need to respond to Rich's comment.

I don't think it's up to us to judge the decisions a family makes about careers and residence. I assume they made the decision that makes sense to them. There are also lots of single people in the world who manage to do their jobs, so it's not like someone has to have a family to come home to.

I do agree that being superintendent or principal can be a very difficult job and that people need support in order to remain in the position. That support can come from a lot of places, including the community. It's not the same as a family, of course, but I think it would really help if people would just try to be nice and not jump all over our leaders for the least little thing (like say the choice of a word in a letter they write).

Rick said...

Also in response to Rich:

Hopefully he is the type that does not let the “don’t-take-no-for-an-answer” types bother him. I also hope he is not afraid to tell those types that they had their say, so shut up.

Abbie said...


I went to and clicked on the "district calendar" in the WW website (


Nina Koch said...

thanks for the info, Abbie.

the page you went to (

is from the old site. The best thing to do is to go to and start from there. Taking down the old site is on my to-do list, but not at the top, I am afraid.

Following up on Abbie's information, it looks like some of the elementary schools have not updated all of their links and some of them still go to the old district site. People should be aware that most of the buildings don't have anybody paid to be the official webmaster. With cutbacks in clerical staff and technology teachers, I think we are probably going to be seeing even less updating of the individual school sites. I'm not stating that as an official position of the district--just thinking that it is one of many things that will probably suffer due to the budget cuts.

Catherine, perhaps you forgot, but I sent you an email a while back mentioning that your blog links to the old site. (the Amherst School Committee link).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rick - I agree -- I think he said a bunch of important things.

Anonymous 8:18 - I agree that the issue of consistency in the elementary schools (both within and between schools) is a real problem (and one that is only partially fixable, given that some of the elementary schools are not IN Amherst and hence have their own curriculum, which we can't solve). But I also think that the expectations of what students can do (reading, math, writing, etc.) are lower than those of many other districts, and that students are too often left to "teach themselves" (e.g., extensions, minimal feedback on writing, etc.). I think the MS (regardless of whether it is 7/8 or 6/7/8) needs more consistent rigor, and I hope that Dr. Rodriguez will make that happen.

Rich - Dr. Rodriguez and his wife will be flying frequently to see each other -- and I must assume this seemed like the best choice for them and their family. Hopefully this will be a short-term solution, but it also may make sense for him to "test the waters" here to make sure this is a good fit before uprooting his family (I actually did the same thing in my first three years in Amherst while my husband was in New Jersey).

Abbie - I think it is on the district homepage ... maybe not the inidividual school sites?

Nina - I'll fix the link today -- thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

I think that I understand what Dr. Rodriguez meant by saying that "I'm taking this position at great personal sacrifice." He wasn't talking about money.

But I hope that he doesn't say it again, especially after what I believe occurred during the negotiations to get him here: he forced us to reach further into our collective pockets than we initially wanted to, in a time of considerable fiscal austerity.

Any adventure in life is an experiment, that can be called off at any time. I think the fact that the man's family is not accompanying him up here makes this look more like an experiment than we might have anticipated.

I'm thrilled with what the man has to say at the outset, but I'm concerned about how we're starting out. It's not the same as being a single person: the man has left his roots elsewhere, and come to a community outside of his home region that has a track record of wearing down administrators.

The man is advancing his career at the expense of other personal priorities. To use a word that gets tossed around in Amherst a lot, I don't think, from an emotional, motivational standpoint, this is "sustainable".

Anybody want to bet on him staying longer than 3 years? I hope that I'm wrong, because we need him to succeed and we need some continuity.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Rich. The superintendent may be making "great personal sacrifice" but as far as I know he APPLIED for the position....and we're paying for his continuance of family life....though absences and $ for travel: something we didn't plan on.

So his "personal sacrifice" is a refrain that could get old really fast. Like already. Our community is dangerously capable of being so "caring" about others balance of life, we can lose sight of the relationship that is paramount. We hired him to be superintendent; it is NOT our concern how he maintains his personal life.

Having said that, I like everything else that I have read and the actions he has thus far taken.


Still Worried... said...

The consultant's report was great (and so true) and Dr. Rodriguez's response was encouraging...but how long before we find out what his key "three to four goals" will be?

It is clear from both the report and from his statement that universal preschool for low-income kids will be one of those goals. This worries me because how will we pay for it? Also, if Amherst now offers free preschool for low-income kids and other neighboring districts do not, I think we are at risk of tempting additional families to move into our community to get this benefit. Do we have room for this in our schools? And money? Preschool is VERY expensive and it would be well worth a family with young kids to move to a town where they are offered free preschool! Especially good quality preschool which ours currently is.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Rich and others who have stated that for this superintendent to declare he has made 'great personal sacrifices' is not really of anyone's concern, nor does it reflect on the work he's been 'hired' to do. This may be his warning to Amherst that if all does not go as he plans, for whatever reason(s), he will ditch out. I don't know how a man who can leave his family can be viewed as dedicated to anything...I mean except in times of war men don't usually leave thier families they?? Just a few thoughts...

Caren Rotello said...

I am very encouraged by the district report and the Super's recent statements. BUT, I agree with "Still Worried" that we can't afford to pay for pre-school for kids of low income families (or any families, for that matter). That has nothing to do with the merits of pre-school for those kids, and everything to do with the fact that we can't pay for existing K-12 programs.

In Amherst, we tend to make choices that reflect very confused priorities (e.g., keeping 6 language offerings in the middle school, while laying off the only librarian; keeping 3 town libraries open while closing an elementary school). So I worry that the free pre-school idea will take hold and become more important then maintaining or strengthening K-12 education. And I agree that Amherst already attracts some residents solely for the "benefits" (now, generous special education support); that could easily be exaggerated if free pre-school were added to the mix.

sza said...

A few thoughts.....

I agree that I expect, and hope, that lots of good comes from this new change at the top of our district. As we are all in this together with the same basic goals (is that a bit naive to say?) I hope this new energy, and attention, makes for an exciting and productive time to be teaching here in Amherst.

Catherine- I need to ask you to please be more careful with your words, as they do carry a lot of weight, and I think they can misinform. Here in this blog, and in an earlier blog stream, you have stated that math teachers at the MS are telling students to "teach themselves" the extensions. I think that makes for a nice dramatic,and quick line, but is a misleading way for you to sum up what has been explained at length here in this blog, as well as elsewhere, about the goals and attitudes of the extension program.

I can not speak for more than the last three years, and I can not speak for other teacher's classroom, but I would be VERY surprised if any teacher ever told those students they would have to "teach themselves". This statement trivializes the thought and intent that has gone into creating both the goals and methods of this program. Yes, there are supposed to be moments that these students feel challenged to apply prior knowledge to new situations, yes, we want them to develop persistence and strategies to be problem solvers rather than simply regurgitators (sp?), and yes, perhaps we are re-defining for some kids what it means to be "smart" (it does not necessarily mean knowing the answer right away), but I believe that each teacher in their own classroom provides guidance and teaching to these students, as they feel is appropriate. The program is ever evolving, and, of course, we always appreciate feedback and are looking to improve it. I understand the concern being stated here and it is indeed one that we take seriously. However, I would be very sad if your line about "teach yourselves" has ever been uttered to any of our students or parents,and I think it is a very poor way to sum up an entire program. To see it said twice on this blog I feel is inflammatory.

sza said...

I also want to weigh in a bit on the 6th grade move to the MS, which is sounding pretty inevitable. I agree that having kids and their families invested for 3 years would be better than for 2. It sounds like Dr. Rodriguez is planning to present evidence of why such a move would be academically sound, and I will leave it to others to determine the financial benefits. I am questioning it on the social "whole child" level, however.

I am wearing my hat as the father of a 5th grader (in another district). I am looking forward to my son's year to be a sixth grader at his elementary school. I would prefer at age 11 for him to have that year of being in the oldest group at his school. I look forward to him still being around some of the wonderfully sweet things that make his elementary school special. I look forward to him spending the year with his sixth grade teacher (who I have talked with at length) and letting him do what he intentionally does each year to start molding and preparing these kids for middle school.

I would not want my 11 year old to be suddenly the youngest at a school that goes up to 8th grade, and riding on buses with up to 12th graders. At that age I would still rather have my son being a role model for younger kids at an elementary school, than looking up to (and imitating) 8th graders as his new role models.

We constantly bemoan how society is forcing our kids to grow up too fast. I am glad that in my son's district they are resisting that ever so slightly by keeping the 6th grade in the elementary schools.
Academics are important, but NOT the only thing that matters when raising our kids. I wonder if there might be other ways (curriculum alignment, better training for teachers, etc) that we can use address the academic "needs" of these 11-12 year olds, without forgetting their social and emotional ones.

I am not dead set against the move, but clearly I want to be more convinced of it's benefits for the "whole" child.

Anonymous said...

sza at 8:56


Anonymous said...

I also add my Amen! Let's move cautiously and carefully here.

Anonymous said...

Regarding moving kids up to middle school. Both my kids attended a pre-k through 9th grade school. It never occurred to me to worry about them being around older kids. But then again, there was order, control and discipline. If you're afraid to have your kids around older kids, then there's something wrong with the people in charge at the school. In other words, no adults are in charge.

ARMS parent said...

It seems to me that the superintendent has already specifically listed two goals he plans to pursue. 1. Moving the sixth grade to the middle school. 2. Universal preschool for low-income kids.

At least goal #1 wouldn't cost any additional money. Would it? From the report it was clear that there was room at the middle school for another grade. Would we have to hire new/different teachers?

I am worried about the cost of goal #2. Also, would we now have to provide busing to this universal preschool? That will cost even more!

I am hoping that goals #3 and #4 are things that do not cost money since many of the changes suggested in the report could be done with little or no additional cost.

Anonymous said...

Parents of 6th graders would support this move if the middle school is a place they want their children to be. After staff cuts, cuts to the band and orchestra program, the librarian and no art in 7th grade what's on the table to bring parents around to the middle school?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rich - Dr. Rodriguez applied for the job knowing where it was located, and clearly made a decision about managing a commuter marriage, so yes, in that sense, he knew what he was getting into, and he presumably thought the potential benefits outweigh the costs. And although I'd hope he stays for more than 3 years, there is no guarantee -- and if he does good work towards moving our district in the right direction and then leaves after three years, I'm OK with that (I heard during the superintendent interviews that the average superintendent now serves only 4 years, I believe). Again, it may be that he is able to make significant changes in that time that will lead our district to be in much better shape in 3 years than it is now -- and/or that he will then decide to move his family up here for the long term.

Lenna - well said. I agree. Thanks.

Still Worried - although Dr. Rodriguez has some specific goals he'd like to accomplish (such as the 6th grade move and the preK), the goals that he chooses to focus on this year will be determined in part through a discussion with the SC in August -- and my rough understanding is that these goals will be broader than the types of things now discussed (e.g., they might be achieve greater consistency in the curriculum, or design a 3-year fiscal plan, or increase rigor at the MS, or whatever). So, I don't think that the goals you are assuming he will take on WILL be the goals he necessarily pursues (although this will be decided soon, I think). The point of the official goals is to evaluate his performance, and I certainly don't have the understanding (but could be wrong) that the SC will evaluate him based on whether he moves 6th grade or starts a preschool program. Two others things -- I have NOT heard him say "universal FREE preschool" -- it could be low-cost, or it could be subsidized by full-paying children (like the one at Crocker Farm is now) -- and it could be paid for through federal/state grants (this is one of the big pushes now in general). I think it might also be the case that universal free/low cost preschool could be cost-effective -- if, as some research suggests, it reduces the need for more expensive intervention support (e.g., for reading, math) later on. So, again, this is the type of thing the SC would have to ask him -- how much would it cost, what would we lose to pay for it, is there grant funding, where would it be, etc.

Anonymous 8:00 - I think people make decisions all the time about how to balance their personal and professional lives, and that is entirely up to them. I know faculty at Amherst College who live apart from their spouses due to job constraints, and this just isn't that unusual (maybe not desirable from a personal standpoint, but again, it is his choice as to how this works for him).

Caren - again, I think the question is, how do we pay for it, and what are the consequences of this decision (e.g., more families moving in who need it?). It still strikes me as we spend A LOT on intervention services, and some of those services may be less needed if we really had all kids ready for the start of school (which kids who attend high quality preschools tend to be). If we have a lot of intervention support now that is one-to-one (and could be eliminated with earlier intervention), even a preschool setting with a 1 to 8 ratio could be economically wise. But this would be a fair and reasonable question to ask Dr. Rodriguez -- and I'll make sure it gets asked.

Anonymous said...

To sza: My child was told (within the past 3 years) in the middle school to teach himself the 7th grade math extensions. It was one exasperating year.

Anonymous said...


Here's the link to the calendar. It's been there since at least June.

Anonymous said...

In my child's class extension problems were only put on the board and discussed every few days. Not much help to the kids trying to work on extension problems or the kids who supposedly are benefiting from being exposed to more difficult problems.

sza said...

to anon 8:11

Well, I will stand corrected if that is really what you were told. I will also stick with what I said in my earlier post and say it makes me sad to hear that.

I know during the last three years I met constantly with 7th grade colleagues to plan and implement this program and never once did we plan the strategy of "tell them to teach themselves" so I can't really comprehend that a teacher told your child that. While I know that I have never proposed that strategy to anyone, it does make me wonder if some of the ways that we have explained extensions work to kids/parents are been interpreted to mean that.

I am assuming that you spoke to the teacher and/or administration about your concerns about this "exasperating year", and am wondering what response you got.

I understand that a lot of the unhappiness with extensions are not so much what they are (which is the challenging end of a differentiated curriculum designed for heterogeneous classes) but what they are NOT (the tracked math classes that separated the kids into different homogeneous levels). While I am always happy to discuss and explain the program as we currently do it, it is not my place to discuss/decide the overall district/school philosophy of not tracking at the 7th grade level. That is a conversation for district/school leadership, which I am guessing will probably come up this year.

I would be happy to talk to you more about this personally if you would like. This blog is probably not the best way to have this conversation. Give me a call at the school (after Aug 25) at 362-1924 if you are interested.

sza said...

to anon 1:08

I am glad your kids had the good experience you describe at their K-9 school. That's what we all want, of course. I did not say that I was "afraid" to have my kids around older kids, just that I preferred the elementary influences for my 11 year old. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I would be just as glad my kid have another year of thinking legos are really cool before being exposed to issues that 7th and 8th graders are thinking about. My main point was why not work at providing the academic challenge in the sixth grade classrooms, rather than assume they have to jump to the MS to find it.

I do think you oversimplify when you say that my suggestion must imply that "there is something wrong with the adults at the school, that no one is in charge". While I do hope that the adults at any school have authority and influence over kids, it is true that what the kids share tends to happen most often in places where they are less influenced by the adults. I am talking about on the bus, in the halls and bathrooms, at lunch, etc. My second grader has said and done things at home that I found concerning and I always find out he got it from older kids on the bus. If you surveyed kids as to the most influential people in their lives I suspect friends would score higher, and adults lower, than we would wish. Not to mention that pre-adolescents brains are not fully developed, especially in the good decision-making and the not risk-taking areas.

In this rush-them-to-grow-up world, I am not afraid, but just preferring to keep my 11 year old in an elementary setting. I know that he will be a teenager soon enough!

Anonymous said...

sza at 6:51

VERY well put! I totally agree.

Anonymous said...

There was no rush to hurry them to grow up in the pre-k thru 9 school. As a matter of fact, forcing the older kids to be gentle and polite around the smaller kids kept the older kids nicer. But then again, it was a private school. You can't enforce a lot of the rules they had on public schools. It'll never happen. You're right, keep the 6th grade with the elementary school kids. Like they're so well behaved now...Not.

Anonymous said...

Hey- here's a thought: maybe it's time for us as parents to be more accountable for the way our kids behave at school and stop laying all the blame on the schools and the teachers.

If your kid isn't doing his/her homework- it's YOUR responsibility to monitor and follow up. If she/he is skipping school or being late on a regular basis-it's YOUR responsibility. If your kid is rude, disrespectful, suffers from affluenza, and doesn't want to be accountable for his or her behavior in the classroom- well my guess is is that's probably true at home too.

But of course, all these problems happen because Ethan/Emily aren't being challenged in the classroom because they are, of course, on track to being a Nobel Laureate in Math.

Anonymous said...

sza: can you tell us where is the evidence that ties success in extensions to ability to do algebra? i have never understood this since amherst kids do algebra problems starting in 5th grade. has this ever been tested by comparing students who do well in regular 7th grade algebra, those who pass extensions test and kids who do well on extensions but don't pass the test? my guess is that many kids in all these groups could do algebra well.

Anonymous said...

To: SZA. Thanks for the offer to call, but I don't feel the need to discuss this further. You did need to know though what is happening in your classroom was NOT happening in the other classrooms. This example highlights how learning takes place in this district -- if a child gets a great teacher, they have a fabulous year. If a child gets a mediocre teacher, who can't control/manage the class AND differentiate the curriculum, it becomes an intolerable year. Yes, I spoke to the principal/ administrators at the time of my child's 7th grade math experience, and the response was the same one I continue to hear repeatedly throughout the district and at the different schools: "Every teacher has a different teaching style. Give it some time, and I'll look into it." Nothing changes, nothing is acknowledged.

I am hopeful with the new superintendent, that things might actually change, and the weak teachers will be held accountable and perhaps escorted out of the disrict.

Anonymous said...

It will never happen. Who we (parents) think are bad teachers, and who administration and other teachers think are bad teachers are two completely different lists.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

SZA - I share your enthusiasm for the new superintendent and the potential for him to really move our district in a good direction!

In terms of the extensions model, and whether it is "teach yourself," two things. First, I definitely, 100% hear from parents and kids that not all teachers regularly teach extensions in their classes. You might, and that is great. But that is not occurring 100% of the time in all classes by all teachers -- it just isn't. Second, I think the key thing is how do districts teach this material when classes are tracked by ability/skills (as 7th grade math was a few years ago in our district, and as it still is in most other comparable districts)? I have looked and haven't found a SINGLE district in which an extensions model is used to prepare students for 8th grade algebra. And it is impossible for me to believe that the students who are doing the extensions now are receiving AS MUCH instruction as they used to get from teachers as when these students were in a separate class, right? I mean, we are now asking teachers to teach different material to different kids in the same class, and it is hard for me to see how that can't be experienced as a loss in terms of how much attention EACH set of kids is getting. Maybe that isn't entirely "teach yourself" (or at least it isn't in all classrooms), but it sure seems like MORE "teach yourself" than would be experienced in a classroom in which math was tracked by ability/skills.

In terms of the 6th grade move potential -- I look forward to hearing our superintendent's thoughts on this issue soon (I imagine in August, or at least in September). I think there are three key issues here:

1. Is it educationally better for kids to be taught by teachers with a specialization? (He would, I believe, say yes; you could potentially also start world language a year earlier, which many think would be positive).
2. Do you increase parent/kid support when kids are in a school for three years versus two? (Can't imagine this isn't true).
3. Does it make sense financially? (I think it is very clear that this would be cheaper -- better sorting of kids into teachers than if they are in separate elementary schools, better ability for the Amherst elementary budget to help the regional budget -- which is in worse shape).

However, and as you note, there may be some costs to this move -- particularly in terms of social stuff. As the parent of both a rising 6th grader and a rising kindergartener, I can see this in both ways -- I might rather have my 6th grader NOT on the bus with 12th graders (though I'm not sure how many seniors ride the bus?!?) ... but I can also say I'd rather have my kindergartener not on the bus with 6th graders! We have 13 years in which we provide a bus -- so, we are going to have one set (most likely) be a span of 6 years and the other be a span of 7 years ... either choice probably feels bad for the parents of the kids who would be the youngest! I do think it is fair and reasonable to ask Dr. Rodriguez about how such a move would impact "the whole child" and given that many districts do have 6th grade in the MS (most, in fact), I imagine he would be able to discuss the experience of these other districts.

Anonymous 11:25/11:28 - I encourage you both to come to August and September SC meetings -- I think this 6th grade issue is going to be on the table fast. You can then ask questions of the superintendent, and express your views to the SC.

Anonymous 1:08 - as others have noted, many districts are K to 8 (both Cambridge and Brookline, I believe). So, these schools are finding that having 6th graders with 8th graders is OK ... similarly, many districts DO have 6th graders riding the bus with 12th graders, etc. It seems like the potential negative consequences should be able to be dealt with (largely) by some clear rules/guidelines?


Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More responses from me:

RMS Parent - I talked about the issue of whether these are really his "goals" in an earlier blog respnose -- see that above. But to answer your questions -- moving 6th grade shouldn't really cost any money. It saves the number of teachers needed (as kids are combined from the elementary schools), and could provide extra funding for the MS (e.g., you could pay some portion of the administrative staff from the elementary budget, which is in better shape than the regional budget). You MAY have to hire new teachers, but I think the issue here is whether there are 6th grade teachers who (a) are already certified, or (b) could become certified this year (I don't know the answer to either of those). It would likely save some on transportation costs because you'd need fewer buses at the elementary level (going to different schools).

I've also talked earlier about the univeral preschool issue (and whether it would have additional costs). I don't think there is ANY way we'd have to provide busing for that (we don't know for Crocker, unless the kids are special needs in some way).

I also believe that many of the goals will NOT cost extra money (like more rigor, more consistency, etc.). I think the SC and the superintendent will have a good discussion about that in the next month or two.

Anonymous 5:14 - I agree completely ... and thus, to get buy in for the move, you have to increase the desirability of the MS for parents. I think the superintendent is well aware of this as a key issue.

Anonymous 8:11 and Anonymous 9:07 - I hear this from many parents. Thanks for sharing your children's experience.

SZA - I think the key thing you raise is that 7th grade math teachers are probably doing the very best they can (I imagine and hope this is true). But we may well, as a district, have put them in a very, very difficult situation (simultaneously teach all kids in your room, when these kids have different skills, motivation, comfort, etc.). It may be easier to do this in some disciplines than others (I don't know of other schools that track kids in non-math subjects in MS, but most other districts do track in MS math). And, as you point out, that is a discussion the SC, superintendent, and MS administrators need to have.

Also, I totally get that kids are going to learn/hear things from other kids in the halls, at lunch, etc. But I still don't see how in the totality of the district (not just speaking from the 6th grade parent perspective) having a 3 year school with a 6 year school is worse than having a 2 year school and a year year school! As you note, your 2nd grader saw/heard things from older kids ... and so moving the 6th grade up could be good in terms of reducing this exposure for younger kids, right?

Anonymous 9:45 - when the SC was considering pairing the schools (K to 2, 3 to 6), one of the big things we heard from teachers is that the presence of younger kids keeps older kids nicer ... so maybe the 6th graders would help the 8th graders be nicer?!?

Anonymous 10:51 - I actually have no idea what your point is. We shouldn't care if schools enforce attendance policies, or challenge kids, or offer a rigorous and conistent curriculum? That's just up to the parents to provide at home? Or we should move the 6th grade to the MS and force parents to make sure their kids are respectful? I don't think this is about getting a Nobel Prize, but that is a great way of blaming parents for wanting a rigorous and challenging curriculum for their kids -- probably just the elitist parents want this, right?

sza said...

Hi Catherine-

Yes, as always, the conversation does come back to the tracking question. I would agree with your statements that there could be more direct instruction in leveled classrooms, and that heterogeneous groupings can be more challenging to teach. I do know personally of many students/parents for whom the extension experience was very positive, and successful. Clearly I have been exposed to the opposite view here.

I know that we don't track in 7th grade mostly as a matter of equity and access for all students, rather than to pigeonhole them as they walk through our doors. When we do that we are in essence defining their future path for math before we have ever had them in our classrooms.

We also agree that this is ultimately a policy decision for the policy decision-makers to ponder. As teachers we should just be doing the best job we can, for the students we have, in the model we are told to use.

As for the 6th grade question, you are right that wherever the line is drawn there will inevitably be a year when a certain group moves from being the oldest in one school, to the youngest in another. When that year is becomes the ultimate decision, I guess. I know there are a lot of factors to look at, and I hope people from all sides end up feeling that their opinions are heard and/or considered during the process. It is hard for people when they feel the decision has been made before the discussion has been had.

I think I showed my personal opinion, but I also said it was not etched in stone. The real discussion for me lies in another district anyway, with my own children, so I will mostly be a spectator to the discussion here.

Anonymous said...

"It is hard for people when they feel the decision has been made before the discussion has been had."

Once again, very well said sza.

Anonymous said...

Amherst super on CBS3, "We need to start preparing the community for an override."

Maybe he should first become a tax paying property owner and demonstrate a commitment to the community by moving his family up here, before talking override. Just a thought!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say, but any one who leaves his family behind--anyone--is certainly demostrating some sort of a noncommittal character, of at the very least a 'look I am not in this for the long run' attitude. Why wasn't this apparent to those who selected this man? Yes--I think Amherst knows and has known for a few years now that it can do a h*** of a lot better....Why would any credit be given to the new super for putting this in writing?

when is a track not a track? said...

SZA-aren't the 7th graders automatically on a type of track? Students who take extensions start a track which can lead them onto Honors Algebra in 8th grade, geometry in 9th grade, etc, up to calculus in 12th. And 7th graders who don't take exentions can't take Honor Algebra in 8th, geometry in 9th and never be able to take calculus in 12th (maybe unless they take 2 math courses in one year of high school).

This seems like a tracking system that puts kids who take regular 7th grade math at a disadvantage for years. Am I wrong in this?

In contrast, in my junior high all kids took the same 7th grade math, then did alegebra in 8th grade -- back in the 70's when tracking was commonly down.

Anonymous said...

Tracking isn't politically correct.

sza said...

to "when is a track not....." 7:29

a couple of responses....

First of all I am concerned with your stated perception that the students who do regular 7th grade math are at a "disadvantage". How are you disadvantaged if you are doing the appropriate math for your grade level? Our regular math programs are solid, match state and national standards, and are perfectly appropriate (and challenging) for many of our students. Doing 7th grade work as a 7th grader, and 8th grade work as an eighth grader, should not be seen as a negative thing, as being disadvantaged. Doing the regular curriculum still gets you very far in math studies by the end of high school (pre-cal, I believe) and you can actually go on to be a perfectly upstanding human being (and, hopefully even balance your checkbook!).

For some kids because of their (or their parents) interests, motivation and aspirations want to "push the envelope" and go further ( AP calculus in high school). This is great for them, but not the right choice for everyone! By doing the path you mention, extensions, honors algebra, etc, they are choosing to work at a level about at least one grade ahead of the regular curriculum. Why should we start making 12 year old kids feel "disadvantaged' for choosing to do grade appropriate work that might just match who, and where, they are both personally and developmentally.

I understand what you are saying about extensions being just a different form of tracking. The BIG distinction, though, is they are available for everyone and students/parents can choose to do them or not. The old scenario is that sixth graders enter MS and are assigned to their tracked class. You are now either going to get only regular work or advanced work. The key word from my first paragraph was 'choice" and that was missing from the old model.

In our current model we are exposing all of the incoming 7th graders to the regular and advanced curriculum, and after some time, they (with input from parent and teacher) get to choose which level is most appropriate for them to focus on. This choice can also be flexible throughout the year, something that is not true once you are sent to a leveled classroom. Access, equity, and flexibility for self-discovery are enhanced in this model.

I have seen results from this program that would not have been possible in the tracked environment.
I have seen students that would have been pegged as "low-flyers" coming out of 6th grade decide to take on the extensions part way through the year and totally rise to the occasion. I have seen some who thought they were ready for higher level work decide that it was not appropriate for them, and be able to switch to the regular curriculum without having the stigma of having to switch classrooms. I have seen kids go back and forth throughout the year as they are "finding themselves" in math. When students are separated for the 8th grade classes at least they have had a full year of being able to sample from the buffet of 7th grade, and also to have a teacher who has seen them work all year help them make the right decision moving forward.

I know it is not a perfect system, and I know some families have been unhappy with it. I take those comments seriously and I hope we can keep improving on it and also do a better job of making clear our hopes, goals and intentions with the program.

If the school returns to a tracked system for 7th grade I will teach that way, but I will be concerned about replacing a system that allows for a year of choice and self-discovery, in favor of one that pigeonholes students as they enter our school.

Anonymous said...

Appears we have another bull in a china shop. Only this one is younger and didn't get his wife hired. I believe Catherine's first instincts were correct.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to get a sense of what percentage of 7th grade children have had a bad experience with the extensions program. And what percentage have had a good experience. I am not implying by my question that the program is perfect. There is no perfect program and all can be improved upon. What I am saying, however, is that we should not simply throw out the extensions program and move backward to tracking. We should look at the program to see how it can be improved and made more standarized across classrooms. What Sza describes sounds like a good program in the ideal. How can we make it work better and more as it was envisioned by those who created it?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

The current real estate market in Florida makes it much more difficult to sell property there than here. Did those of you who are already questioning his commitment to his new postition think that there MIGHT be such a simple reason Dr. Rodgriguez and his family are TEMPORARILY living apart? There are many variables that go into such a major decision, and no one should be looking to find something negative in such a personal and private choice.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 2:19 - I'm not so sure about this ... I've now had conversations in which I think it is pretty clear that parents/principals/administrators are all recognizing good versus not so good teachers in the same way. I think the issue is that getting rid of not so good teachers is hard!

SZA - Two things. First, it is, to the best of my understanding, true that we don't "track in 7th grade mostly as a matter of equity and access for all students, rather than to pigeonhole them as they walk through our doors." But I think we are also kidding ourselves if we think that the extension program gets rid of tracking -- or just creates another type of tracking. I have a PhD, so I'm going to insist that my kids do extensions, whether or not they want to. It truly won't be their choice, yet in a tracked system, my kids might not place into the "upper track". So, that benefits me and my kids, because I know how to play this system. On the other hand, there may be some really bright kids who would totally be able to do extensions, but CHOOSE not to and don't have parents who insist. Again, that is still tracking ... it just is tracking based on parental knowledge of the system, NOT on kids' ability!

I agree that there are a lot of views about the 6th grade issue -- and what I fear, and what I've feared for a while (and what I verbalized at an SC meeting in the spring, which was then followed by a pretty negative letter about me in the Bulletin from many MS teachers) is that parents' concerns about the MS are influencing how they see this decision. That seems appropriate, of course, but unfortunate, in that I think if parents were excited about having their kids have the MS experience, they might be more enthusiastic about such a move (especially if it were accompanied by some new academic challenges, such as world language). I also think people spend a HUGE amount of time connecting with their elementary school, so it is hard for them to imagine giving that up before they have to. It will be an interesting discussion this fall, since it does seem clear that the superintendent believes the 6th grade should move.

Anonymous 6:23 - I think it is the superintendent's choice about where to live, and also about how to finance the schools (e.g., whether to push for an override). But I'm not yet convinced that we need an override, and will be waiting to see the direction of the schools this year (including fixing some of the issues noted in the Hamer report as well as finding inefficiencies/cost savings) before I decide whether this is something I could support.

Anonymous 7:11 - When I took my job at Amherst College in 1997, I moved and left my huband in New Jersey. We did for three years, because I wanted to make sure this was a good fit for me BEFORE asking him to give up his job there (which he ultimately did do). I don't think my decision, or Dr. Rodriguez's decision, shows a lack of character - it may show a respect for not uprooting family for one's own career choices, or it may show a caution in terms of making sure things are a good fit. Again, I care about what he does to our schools, not where he lives (and I certainly haven't seen much awareness in our community that our schools could be much better until this report -- and when people made this suggestion, they were invariable called racist/elitist/classist!).

When is a track not a track - exactly. We are tracking. We just don't call it tracking, because we let students choose their own track. It is still 100% a track, and students who don't do extensions are at a distinct disadvantage.

Anonymous 8:13 - right. That's why we don't call it tracking, and we let kids/parents choose their own track (e.g., extensions versus not).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

SZA - I have a big concern about one thing you said, which is as follows: "How are you disadvantaged if you are doing the appropriate math for your grade level?" There is 100% no evidence that the "appropriate math for 8th grade" is pre-algebra, and the appropriate math for 9th grade is algebra. That is what we do in Amherst, but that is not any type of a universal level. Kids in Brookline, MA all take 8th grade algebra -- so by that comparison, we are a year behind. Kids in Princeton, NJ are tracked in 6th grade, and the "high track" does 7th grade algebra and the "low track" does 8th grade algebra. Kids in many other countries (e.g., Singapore, Korea, etc.) do 8th grade (or earlier) algebra. Again, as a college professor, I see kids coming to even highly selective schools (like Amherst College) with very different levels of preparation and that has a real consequence in terms of their ability to handle particular courses/majors. And to be clear -- if you don't do extensions in 7th grade, you can NOT take calculus in High School (without doubling up on math classes, which is very, very hard to do) -- it is not just AP calculus, but ANY calculus. This may seem silly to you, but students who arrive at college without having had calculus at all are in real trouble in certain departments/majors (math, many sciences, economics, etc.), because the reality is, many kids in other high schools do in fact arrive at college having had calculus.

I agree that it is not a good thing when students are pegged as "high flyers" or "low flyers" at the end of 6th grade ... but I think there are certainly ways that these groupings can be more flexible and not as fixed as you describe. So, for example, why not REQUIRE all students to do extensions in 7th grade? That would be a way in which all kids have the opportunity to take 8th grade algebra. I also wonder if for some kids, the difficulty of learning the advanced material is much more difficult in a heterogenous classroom -- maybe that would rise more if not fearful of seeming stupid in front of peers, or maybe that would master the material better if it was fully taught, and not just partially taught? Again, let's remember that we are doing something dramatically different from all other districts, and this might be a great opportunity to ask our peer districts how they avoid setting fixed tracks in 7th grade math and whether there is flexiblity in their systems, etc.

One final point -- when IS the right time to track? Many districts do so in 6th. Others start in 7th. We start in 8th. Again, this seems like a fluid question, yes, with no 100% right answer?

Anonymous 9:03 - this is our superintendent for the time being, and I think we all need to make sure we are keeping our eye on the prize - what he can do for our district. I remain optimistic that he can change our very fixed/resistant to change culture, but of course only time will tell.

Anonymous 9:12 - there might be some useful information in the MS surveys about this. I also think, as I've noted repeatedly, that we should ask other districts how they handle the issue of math tracking (when, how determined, how flexible, etc.).

Anonymous 6:21 - good point!

Anonymous said...

" supporters need to prepare for an anticipated tax override vote next year."

What, one month on the job and not a property tax payer? Not cool!