My Goal in Blogging

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

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Report From the Superintendent on Moving 6th Grade

Dr. Rodriguez has completed a report on the potential of moving 6th grade to the middle school, which is now posted on the district homepage (as are the appendices referenced in this report). For ease of my blog readers, I'm also posting the report here.



Introduction

This feasibility study/position paper is intended to inform the School Committees on an upcoming policy decision on whether to move the 6th grade students to the Amherst Regional Middle School. The School Committees’ desire to make decisions and have policy grounded on data driven, research-based facts is the driving engine behind this report. The report is comprised of several key components concluding with the Superintendent's educational recommendation in order to educate and inform the Committees in their decision.

The report is comprised of the following parts:

* A brief review of the history of middle grades education and its transition from junior high school to middle school;
* A cursory literature review of successful middle school "best practices" supported by such influential authors, works and/or groups, such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and its seminal work Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform (2006); the Education Alliance at Brown University under Ted Sizer and its Secondary School Reform (SSR) program; Turning Points 2000 and its study guide with Teachers College Press; the National Middle School Association (NMSA) with its companion This We Believe and "Schools to Watch" criteria, as well as, a position paper jointly adopted by the NMSA and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP); Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School (2004), funded by the Rand Corporation; conversations held at the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform; selected remarks by M. Hayes Mizell in Shooting for the Sun: The Message of Middle School Reform (2002), funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation; selected remarks by noted middle school expert, Joan Lipsitz;
* A brief discussion on different models, studies, and articles; and,
* The Superintendent's position and recommendation as to the educational imperative of whether to move the 6th grade students to the Amherst Regional Middle School.



A Brief History of Middle Grades Education

Many years ago, schooling rarely lasted beyond what we now refer to as the middle grades, and there are good reasons why. The onset of what we now call adolescence signaled adulthood. Historically, it was the age when youngsters went to sea, joined their fathers and mothers in the mines and fields and factories, and underwent the rites of passage into adulthood. Much of what characterizes middle grades education grew from a desire to offer the vast masses the intellectual skills and knowledge that a favored elite alone possessed. An attempt to achieve fairness helped lead us down a false path. We have extended childhood, but we haven’t figured out just what to do with it (Sizer & Meier, 2006).

By 1900, the predominant school configuration in the United States consisted of eight years of primary school and four years of secondary school. Due to societal pressures, such as increased immigration which burdened primary school enrollment in cities, rapid industrialization and the need to prepare a better-educated workforce for the factories and the demand from college presidents to start college prep courses before 9th grade (Eliot, 1898, as cited in Brough, 1995), the “Eight-Four” model was changed to the “Six-Six” grade configuration.


Although the National Education Association (NEA) published a report in 1899 arguing for secondary education to begin in 7th instead of 9th grade, historians such as Beane (2001) and Cuban (1992) contend that societal and political pressures had the greatest influence on the creation of the junior high school. In spite of the efforts of junior high schools to serve the needs of the rapidly changing society, only about one-third of students in public schools made it to 9th grade between 1907 and 1911 (Van Til, Vars & Lounsbury, 1961).

In spite of the apparent failure of the new junior high schools, there was a sixfold increase in their number between 1922 and 1938 (Bossing & Cramer, 1965). Alexander and George (1981) attribute this rise partly to generally increasing enrollments following World War I. Dissatisfaction mounted in the 1960s as it became clear the junior high was nothing but a “little senior high.” At the same time, secondary school enrollments were declining, and elementary school enrollments, in contrast, were expanding both because of larger birth cohorts and the increasing popularity of early childhood education and kindergartens (Wonder Years, 2004). According to Alexander (1984), the resulting shortage of space at the elementary level caused the 6th grade to be pushed out into the junior high level (Wonder Years, 2004). Thus, enrollment pressures and larger societal issues were important in shaping the formation of middle schools for grades 6-8 from the beginning of the 1900s through the 1960s (2004).

Alexander and George (1981), in their seminal work, The Exemplary Middle School, presented a new middle school concept stating that middle school children have their unique characteristics and needs which cannot be subordinated to the impact of the elementary school nor to the demands of the high school. The middle school should not be viewed as an educational “passive link” (Wonder Years, 2004).

Spurred by the findings of the 1980s, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development presented a different kind of vision with its 1989 report, Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. Using the conceptual model of a mismatch between the developmental stage and environment, the Council presented ways to bridge the gap or facilitate matching adolescents’ needs, capabilities, and learning environments (Carnegie, 1989, p. 32).

The Council made eight recommendations for improving education during the middle grades:

1. Dividing larger middle schools into smaller communities of learning
2. Teaching all students a core of common knowledge
3. Ensuring success for all students
4. Empowering teachers and administrators
5. Preparing teachers for the middle grades
6. Improving academic performance through better health and fitness
7. Re-engaging families in the education of young adolescents
8. Connecting schools with communities (Wonder Years, 2004)



In the 1990s, developmental responsiveness stressed students’ social-emotional needs over cognitive demands. This school of thought emphasized closer teacher-student relationships and making the middle school feel more personal (Lipsitz, Jackson & Austin, 1997). However, there has been a growing consensus that in spite of the correlation between the feelings of “connectedness” and higher academic performance (Goodenow, 1993), changes in the social climate alone are not sufficient to improve student achievement (Lipsitz, Mizell, et. al., 1997; Williamson & Johnston, 1999). Since 1982, the National Middle School Association (NMSA) published a series of position papers called This We Believe. The NMSA (1995) identified six prerequisites for developmentally responsive schools:

1. Educators committed to young adolescents
2. A shared vision
3. High expectations for all
4. An adult advocate for every student
5. Family-community partnerships
6. A positive school climate



The NMSA (1995) further identified six components that need to be implemented for schools to be developmentally responsive:

1. Curriculum that is challenging, integrative, and exploratory
2. Varied teaching and learning approaches
3. Assessment and evaluation that promote learning
4. Flexible organizational structures
5. Program and policies that foster health, wellness, and safety
6. Comprehensive guidance and support services



In recent debates and research findings regarding whether middle schools should stress students’ developmental needs over academic rigor, Lee and Smith (1999) suggest that students do best in educational settings that provide social support and emphasize academic rigor.

The historical review just presented shows that many of today’s concerns about young teens are the same as those of 100 years ago. However, the solutions that have been proffered over the years have often been more closely related to societal/economic pressures or practical issues such as overcrowding in school buildings (Wonder Years, 2004).

Literature Review of Successful Middle School “Best Practices”

Scholars, educators, administrators and policy makers have long anguished over the conflict of “where do you begin?” School culture? School structures? Instruction? Breaking Ranks gleaned from the experiences of schools 30 recommendations which formulated the following Nine Cornerstone Strategies:

1. Establish the academically rigorous essential learnings that a student is required to master in order to successfully make the transition to high school and align the curriculum and teaching strategies to realize that goal;
2. Create dynamic teacher teams that are afforded common planning time to help organize and improve the quality and quantity of interactions between teachers and student;
3. Provide structured planning time for teachers to align the curriculum across grades and schools and to map efforts that address the academic, developmental, social, and personal needs of students, especially at critical transition periods (e.g., elementary to middle grades, middle grades to high school);
4. Implement a comprehensive advisory or other program that ensures that each student has frequent and meaningful opportunities to meet with an adult to plan and assess the student’s academic, personal, and social development;
5. Ensure that teachers assess the individual learning needs of students and tailor instructional strategies and multiple assessments accordingly;
6. Entrust teachers with the responsibility of implementing schedules that are flexible enough to accommodate teaching strategies consistent with the ways students learn most effectively and that allow for effective teacher teaming, common planning time, and other lesson planning;
7. Institute structural leadership systems that allow for substantive involvement in decision making by students, teachers, family members, and the community, and that support effective communication among these groups;
8. Align all programs and structures so that all social, economic, and racial/ethnic groups have open and equal access to challenging activities and learning; and,
9. Align the schoolwide comprehensive, ongoing professional development program and the Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) of staff members with the requisite knowledge of content, instructional strategies, and student developmental factors.



In addition, attached to this document is the Executive Summary of Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform (Appendix A), listing the aforementioned Strategies as well as the 30 recommendations.

Lipsitz (1999), in a speech prepared for the grantees meeting of the Program for Student Achievement Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, identified successful middle schools or “schools to watch” as sharing the following traits:

1. Clear articulation of desired academic outcomes;
2. Strategic changes in curriculum, instruction and support services designed to help students achieve those outcomes;
3. Established benchmarks for implementing with fidelity the strategies and holding themselves accountable; and,
4. Concentrated energies on important focus areas in order to institutionalize the new “change culture.”



Included in the following narrative are excerpts from a speech entitled “SHAZAM! No Lightening Bolts in School Reform” made by the distinguished M. Hayes Mizell to grantees of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation regarding standards and its proper place in student learning:

You will hear a lot of talk today about standards, but this meeting is not “about” standards, just as it is not “about” implementing standards. This meeting is about learning. It is about teachers learning. It is about principals learning. It is about central office staff learning. It is even about the foundation learning. Unless we all learn more and become much more proficient at what we do, the middle school students we care about will not perform at the higher levels of which they are capable. Student performance is directly linked to our performance. Standards are a means to improve both….

Unless we are clear about what we want students to know and be able to do, students’ lives will be torn by rip tides of conflicting messages about the purpose of their schooling. This is the current situation in many of your schools. Students do not read your schools’ mission statements or school improvement plans, and, if they did read them, those statements would make no more impression on the students than they do on adults.

A school communicates its purpose through the attitudes and actions of individual teachers and administrators. Some teachers communicate that their purpose is to get through the day unscathed. Students understand this message very well, and their performance reflects their teachers’ lassitude and focus on the clock. Other teachers communicate that their purpose is to teach “the students who want to learn.” This message is not lost on the other students, whose performance reflects their teachers’ lack of commitment and misplaced priorities. Conversely, there are teachers, many of them in this room, who communicate every day through their fiery determination, dogged preparation, and unflagging support that their purpose is that students can and will learn. It is not surprising that the academic performance and on-task behavior of their students is the envy of many less successful teachers….

If we want students to learn, we have to get our message straight. Standards can help us. If standards are clear and meaningful, we can use them to communicate among ourselves and to others what students should know and be able to do as a result of their experiences in the middle grades. Standards can provide educators, families, and communities with a better understanding of the purpose of middle school education. We can use standards to focus ourselves, our schools, and our students on learning and performance. Standards can help us become more conscious of the quality of student work and prompt us to scrutinize that work more closely and agonize over it more productively. Standards can be a tool for teachers to use to help students understand that effort and completion of work are important steps toward carrying out an assignment, but that the quality of their work indicates the level of their performance. If we do it right, students will learn more and perform at higher levels. Even test scores will increase…

Some of you still consider standards-based reform as one more project, one more activity on your schools’ very long list of priorities. However, you cannot achieve this reform at the margins. If you try, you will see marginal results. Your schools will either use standards to mobilize the entire school community for student learning and hold yourselves accountable for the extent to which students do or do not perform at standard, or your schools will continue to conduct business as usual with the usual results. These may sound like harsh words, but they are not nearly so harsh as the consequences students will face if we do not help them learn how to perform at higher levels. If we do not believe that most students can perform at standard, and if we are not serious about implementing reforms that will enable them to do so, then there is no point in having standards because students will never know the difference. (Shooting for the Sun, Mizell, pp. 95-98).

Lee and Smith (1999) examined the effects on achievement of the support students receive from teachers, parents, peers, and neighborhoods (as reported by students). The researchers examined 6th through 8th graders in 304 Chicago K-8 public schools that varied in the degree to which the school mission focused on learning and the degree to which students reported that teachers challenged them to do well. The researchers found that students who felt supported and were in schools that emphasized academic rigor showed the largest gains in achievement in 6th and 8th grades (Wonder Years, 2004). Mizell presents a compelling argument in favor of the use of standards, changing the mindset of the different stakeholders responsible for students and the future implications of lukewarm attempts at middle school reform. Joan Lipsitz, noted middle school expert, acknowledges a sense of urgency that the academic performance of too many middle grades is unacceptable (1999). Rigor and relevance of the curriculum has often taken a back seat within the middle school concept. Mizell, along with Breaking Ranks and an increasing volume of research, supports strengthening the curriculum and instruction of the middle school.

However, equally important are the developmental needs of the adolescent student. One component of the middle school concept is advisement. Mitch Bogen writes in the January/February 2007 edition of the Harvard Education Letter, “A growing body of evidence supports the importance of personalized learning environments and strong relationships with school staff in keeping students engaged in school and motivated to learn. These findings provided much of the impetus behind the small schools movement, in which advisory programs are often a key component, and have inspired many larger schools to launch advisories as well. But the simplicity of the idea belies the challenges involved in implementing it effectively. Although many advisory programs have proven disappointing, even schools that have had problems with advisories are going back to the drawing board to get it right.”

As articulated in the vision statement of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, high performing middle schools are academically excellent, developmentally responsive, and socially equitable. Successful middle schools engage in building leadership capacity and a collaborative culture; improving learning, teaching, and assessment for all students; creating a school culture to support high achievement; data-based inquiry and decision making; networking with like-minded schools; and, developing district capacity (Turning Points 2000).

Review of Different Models, Studies and Articles

Today in the United States there are approximately 9 million students in public middle schools (typically, schools that include grades 6 through 8). Approximately 6 million students were enrolled in public middle schools that had the 6-8 configuration. This is by far the most common type of school for young teens. Students in 6-8 schools represented 12.6% of all students in K-12 schools; 1.6% were in 5-8 schools, 2.8% in 7-8 schools, and 2.3% in K-8 schools.

Simply in terms of raw numbers, most 6-8 schools were in rural areas. However, a higher percentage of all schools in urban areas had this configuration (11%) than those in rural (9%). Although 7-8 schools were more common than 5-8 schools overall, larger proportions of the schools in rural and suburban areas had one of these configurations than did schools in urban areas. In comparison, 6-8 schools were as common in urban areas as they were in rural and suburban areas (Wonder Years, p. 123).

There are a number of articles and studies that have been cited as evidence supporting either keeping sixth grade at the elementary school(s) and/or supportive of the K-8 model. The latter is not a realistic option since the elementary schools of the four towns are neither equipped nor have the capacity to house eight grades. Nevertheless, let’s review each study and/or article.

In a 1987-1990 longitudinal study comparing student achievement of 6th graders in elementary and middle schools in the Austin Independent School District, Texas, elementary 6th graders performed better, in general, on achievement tests (Iowa Tests of Basic Skills) than middle school 6th graders (Appendix B). However, after the first year of testing (1987-1988), there has been no difference between both groups on the same achievement test.

Additionally, when elementary 6th graders reached 7th grade, they did not perform as well on achievement tests in relation to 7th graders who attended 6th grade in a middle school. Also, the study is over 20 years old.

A 1971 Michigan study compared 138 middle schools with 138 junior high schools (Appendix C). The study revealed that most middle schools in Michigan were established primarily to reduce overcrowded conditions in other schools, whereas the grade and age level organization of the state’s junior high schools were retained mainly to provide a program specifically designed for students in the age group served (Gatewood & Walker, 1971).

There are several issues that bear a closer look:

* The purpose and reason as to why middle schools were built in this Michigan study (overcrowding) is not a factor in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District;
* The study identified junior high schools as either grades 7-9, 7-8, or 8-9 and middle schools as a “school separately administered and containing grades seven and eight and at least one grade below seven.” Therefore, 18% of the “middle schools” were 5-8, 4% were 6-9 and 1% were 4-8; and
* The study is almost 40 years old.



The Cleveland Municipal School District began phasing out middle schools by restructuring 21 of its 80 K-5 elementary schools into K-8 schools (Appendix D). The study found a statistically significant difference between K-8 and middle school outcomes, favoring K-8 schools. One of the reasons given is the discontinuity associated with transitioning to a middle grades school. Another reason given for this statistical difference is the emphasis on child development at the middle level of the K-8 schools.

Upon closer examination, the reason for the success of these K-8 schools is being attributed to a different approach to middle grades education provided in these K-8 settings. Another viewpoint to that would be that the real reason for the K-8 schools’ success would be a change in the culture rather than a change in the grade configuration.

Also, the study only uses only one set of data points (Spring 2002 Grade 7 Ohio Reading and Math Proficiency Test) as conclusive evidence.

A 1991 study on the “Impact of Transition from Junior Highs to Middle Schools on Science Programs” (Appendix E) uncovered several findings:

* Seventh and 8th grade teachers did not perceive 6th grade teachers’ teaching as “equivalent;” and,
* Sixth grade teachers felt a lower status due to the fact that their equipment and supplies were not equal to the upper grades’ teachers.



Again, this study had several noteworthy issues:

* The study was conducted when the school system had completed its first year of reorganizing into middle schools;
* Only three middle schools with grades 6-8 were included in the study;
* Seventh and 8th grade teachers typically stayed in their classrooms and the sixth (and ninth) grade teachers were displaced. This disparate treatment could have contributed to their feelings of inferiority; and
* The difference in teacher certification and preparation also contributed to the lower status perception. However, these 6th grade teachers staying in the elementary school would still have a problem with content area mastery when teaching science at the elementary level.



In Yecke’s 2006 article (Appendix F), the author claims that the middle school concept has “wrought havoc” on the intellectual development of many middle school students. She cites several cities that are pursuing the K-8 model over the middle school model (Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia) and then cites “Ten Strategies for Transition.” However, there are some inconsistencies in some of the Strategies:

Strategy 2: Add higher rather than lower grades.

This is actually contradicted by the Shimniok and Schmoker (1992) article “How We Made the Transition from Junior High to Middle School” (Appendix G) where they found a successful strategy on adding a lower grade level (6th) to convert the junior high into a middle school.

Strategy 5: Establish a strict transfer policy.

This strategy is really about exclusion. If middle schools were allowed to do this, they too would see an improvement.

Strategy 6: Modify facilities.

In an era of shrinking budgets, this is prohibitively expensive and not realistic.

Strategy 7: Have high expectations for both academics and behavior.

This can and should be done at all middle schools and it entails a difference in approach and philosophy not exclusive to K-8 schools.

Strategy 9: Provide greater access to advanced courses and electives.

This is actually a limitation of the K-8 model.

Strategy 10: Provide greater access to extracurricular opportunities.

Another limitation of the K-8 model.

Superintendent’s Recommendation

Many of the aforementioned groups invested in shaping educational policy and practice affecting middle schools stop short of recommending an appropriate grade level configuration (4-8; 5-8; 6-8; 7-8; 4-9; 5-9; 6-9; K-8; 6-12,etc.).There are legitimate philosophical differences about grade configuration, and there is likely no one "right" answer. The only "right" answer universally accepted is the following: "Regardless of grade configuration, policymakers, school boards, and superintendents must stop making decisions based on budgets and the transportation schedules and instead create schools based on what is best for young adolescents-schools that address the intellectual and development needs of each student" (Breaking Ranks/Executive Summary, 2006).

The conversation in this school district regarding moving 6th graders to the middle school is neither predicated on transportation schedules (since the current system is fully operational and sustainable, although there are possible areas for savings) nor on overcrowding (even after redistricting the elementary schools are within capacity and percentage of utilization).

I have used what I consider to be educational imperatives as the criterion upon which to base my recommendation. Keeping in mind that there are opportunities for community point/counterpoint and sophistry, it is my intent to provide a compelling vision as to how moving the 6th grade to the middle school fits into a larger theoretical construct designed, minimally, to raise standards and expectations for students and staff, improve the focus of instruction, enhance opportunities for students and staff, and ultimately increase student achievement and outcomes.

The benefits of moving the 6th grade to the middle school include, but are not limited to, the following:

* Expose 6th grade students to a more intense, rigorous, content driven curricula;
* Provide 6th grade students with opportunities to learn algebraic concepts, engage in scientific discovery/investigative paradigms, be exposed to literature, grammar, and writing in English/Language Arts, and become familiar with the major themes/concepts of political and physical geography in social studies (6th grade teachers do not possess the necessary credentials or certifications for this kind of specificity in the content areas);
* Begin a 6th-12th grade continuum designed to increase student enrollment in Honors and/or Advanced Placement courses in high school by building student and teacher capacity. This cannot be done effectively if 6th grade, as well as its students, are spread throughout several elementary schools; and,
* Start, if necessary, implementation of intervention programs earlier at the secondary level.



Additionally, there are also developmental issues that need to be considered. The adolescent stage is the most difficult phase in a student’s life. Students are beginning to mature physically, and to think of themselves as individuals outside their families. Their attentions turn to exercising independence and developing strong relationships with peers—while avoiding exposure and embarrassment (NMSA & NAESP, 2002). It is my belief that as these adolescents begin to view themselves and the world they live in differently, keeping them as 6th graders in the elementary school is delaying the inevitable and contradictory to their socio-emotional development.

The concern parents have, supported by research, is the actual transition from elementary school to middle school—regardless of the grade level. Transition to middle school is marked by several changes in educational expectations and practices (NMSA & NAESP, 2002). Children go from self-contained classrooms with a familiar set of peers and one or two teachers to interacting with more peers, more teachers, and with intensified expectations for both performance and individual responsibility.

In a position paper jointly adopted by the National Middle School Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (2002), it states the following:

Transition to middle school is marked by several changes in educational expectations and practices. In most elementary schools, children are taught in self-contained classrooms with a familiar set of peers and one or two teachers. Once students reach middle schools, however, they must interact with more peers, more teachers, and with intensified expectations for both performance and individual responsibility. Social, developmental, and academic experiences are affected, requiring them to adjust to what they see as new settings, structures, and expectations. All of this comes at a time when they are also experiencing a host of changes associated with the transition from childhood to adolescence….

A well-designed transition plan can restore the strong sense of belonging the entering middle school student once felt in elementary school - a key element associated with the positive motivation to enjoy and succeed in academic tasks….

The concerns most often expressed by students about to enter middle school focus on the routine of the new school: finding their way around and getting to class on time, dealing with lockers and combination locks, and mixing with older students. They also worry about choosing sports or extracurricular activities, and keeping up with homework and long-term assignments. Schools at both levels can mitigate many of these concerns by providing orientation activities that demystify new routines well before the first day at middle school. Involving students at both levels in the planning and implementation of these activities ensures they are appropriate to student needs and provide positive initial contact between younger children and their older peers….

The most common transition activities include meetings with incoming students and their parents and student visits to the new middle school. Typically, there is some type of information sharing between middle school administrators and counselors and elementary staff to help facilitate the transition initiatives….

The attributes of successful transition programs include the following:

* A sensitivity to the anxieties accompanying a move to a new school setting
* The importance of parents and teachers as partners in this effort

* The recognition that becoming comfortable in a new school setting is an ongoing process, not a single event.

The NMSA and the NAESP call on principals, teachers, counselors, and parents at both the elementary and middle school levels to work together in the planning and implementation of a “transition program” designed to ease the apprehension of incoming middle school students. It is clear that collaboration among all who share responsibility and concern for our children’s welfare is ultimately the most effective transition strategy we can employ (NMSA & NAESP, 2002).

Moving 6th grade to the middle school as an isolated strategy while maintaining the status quo at the middle school is insufficient. It is just one piece of a larger, strategic vision of creating in Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools a world-class educational system that looks beyond the MCAS and prepares our students for "a future we can't even describe" (David Warlike).

32 comments:

Fed Up Parent said...

Let's start by having more "transition programs" for incoming students. Last I knew, students didn't even find out their academic "teams" until the first day of school!! This results in chaos, public disappointment for those who suddenly find themselves without their peer group, and much confusion regarding how to get to varous classrooms. If students found all of this out beforehand, they would at least have time to talk to their friends and find out if they are on the same "team" and/or in the same classes and ideally to take some time over the summer to walk through the school and find their classrooms. As it is now, I'm surprised most kids even make it past their first week at ARMS!

Anonymous said...

Not a word about that north Carolina study! Interesting!!

Anonymous said...

I think they started keeping the team assignments unknown til the first day of school was to avoid parents going in and campaigning to move their kid from one team to another. Similar to what parents do in the elementary schools when they find out their child is in one particular classroom where they don't like the teacher or the other kids in the class.

Anonymous said...

Reading all these studies and theories, it sounds like middle schools are in a 100 year search for a purpose. How ridiculous it all sounds but then I am just a parent and not an educational professional.

What we have in Amherst are many excellent 6th grade teachers, many well-taught 6th graders and many satisfied parents. Maybe they haven't read the articles.

Anonymous said...

It seems like one of the first things the new super wants to fix is something that aint broken - the sixth grade. I think he and the SC should fix what ails the Middle School before sending the sixth grade there. The previous poster was right - we have alot of excellent sixth grade teachers and happy sixth grade parents. We also have alot of unhappy middle school parents. Let's fix the middle school's problems before sending the sixth grade there, if at all.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Fed Up Parent - my understanding is that this policy was changed last year, under the direction of Glenda Gresto (who started last July 1st). I believe all 7th graders are now told their team assignments in August, several weeks before the start of school -- which I agree is VERY important.

Anonymous 1:18 - the NC study should have been mentioned ... and I'm sure he will be made aware of it, and potentially will revise the report to include it. You could certainly email him yourself to make that suggestion.

Anonymous 1:32 - I agree that this was likely the intent of that policy ... and I'm glad the policy has now changed.

Anonymous 3:32 - I think the issue is NOT just whether we have happy 6th grade students/parents ... I think the issue is also whether we are preparing those 6th graders as well as we could for their study in 7th through 12th. I haven't had a 6th grader yet (though will soon!), but it strikes me as we are setting up the MS almost to fail ... we throw 300 or so kids in there in 7th grade from 7 different schools (and some of these schools have as many as 4 different 6th grade teachers), and then we tell the 7th grade teachers to teach all of them well (although there is, as the Hamer report notes, little consistency within or between buildings), and hey, you all only get these kids for 2 years. Again, I think it is possible that the experience of 7th and 8th grade would be BETTER if the 6th graders were all in the same building, and that the consistency of material/alignment would be easier to create if that were the case, which in turn could have benefits in the 7th and 8th grades. This isn't to slam 6th grade teachers -- from what I hear, they are excellent. It is just to say that we need to think about the district PreK to 12, not just "well, 6th grade works well now, so let's leave it alone." I think there will be a lot of opportunity for questions/concerns to be raised, and I hope you and other parents will come to the August 18th SC meeting (when this report will be presented) to raise these.

Anonymous 4:09 - if you read the whole report, it ends with the following: "Moving 6th grade to the middle school as an isolated strategy while maintaining the status quo at the middle school is insufficient. It is just one piece of a larger, strategic vision of creating in Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools a world-class educational system ..." From this, I think it is quite clear that Dr. Rodriguez does NOT intend to have the MS stay the same, and just grow by one grade, but is focusing on trying to change the current MS situation (which will be good regardless of whether 6th grade moves in or does not).

Anonymous said...

A few years ago a new leader arrived at Wildwood and immediately identified himself as a change agent. What ensued was a top-down, "I know better" approach to decision making. The wisdom of veteran teachers was dismissed out of hand. The opportunities for parents to influence decisions were non-existent. Occasionally, teachers or parents were allowed a token hearing, only to have their points of view disregarded. The consequences were devastating. The damage done was significant. Some of it remains. Some of it is permanent.
I worry we are about to embark on a similar sojourn.
It appears to me the Superintendent's mind is made up.
I don't see anything in his report that suggests input from teachers or parents would sway him (though he's depending on them to be partners in the success of the change). I have little faith that the SC would welcome the superintendent to town by rejecting his first major proposal, no matter what was said by teachers and parents.
Brings me back to Mr SZA's comment about the decision coming before the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Why not consider putting the 9th grade into the middle like my junior high? This could create more continuity between the high school and middle school in terms of rigor and expectations. The extra room in the high school could be used for a larger preschool or to house other programs now farmed out into different buildings.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 4:21 - community members elect SC members, so if community members think moving the 6th grade is a bad idea, they can certainly voice those opinions directly to the SC ... and teachers could do the same, of course. However, I will say that I personally have heard from BOTH parents and teachers who think moving the 6th grade is a great idea -- that their children would benefit from this move, that it would bring more support to the MS, that it would be good for kids from small towns/schools to have a broader peer group by then, that it would be good to get kids into the building BEFORE puberty hits for most of them. So, I think it is a bit odd that assorted posters -- ALL ANONYMOUS with the exception of SZA who has been pretty honest about who he is -- can critique this proposal from the start. This might be a good time for opponents of this move to start using their names, since that will need to happen (in public) to fight against this proposal (and I can't see how coming out against it is awkward at all -- unless, perhaps, you are a 6th grade teacher who is worried about where/what you will teach?). So, I'd encourage people who have opinions about this to use their actual names -- which will then carry more weight in influencing opinion (since then it will be clear there are multiple known people who are concerned and not potentially just one person repeatedly posting such critiques).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 4:43 - two issues with that idea. First, the focus of the report is on having 6th grade students get taught by teachers with specialty in a discipline -- that doesn't get solved by moving the 9th grade. Second, most high schools are 9 to 12 (which is why the addition was put on the HS), and there are 9th and 10th grade students in many classes (e.g., geometry for one), which means we'd then be duplicating resources by teaching that at both schools.

Not Afraid of Critique said...

It seems to me that the Anon posters who are asking questions and urging caution are not necessasrily against the proposal. What they seem to be for is to have a discussion BEFORE a decision is made. Which seems a very fair way to proceed from where I sit on my Anon perch.

"So, I think it is a bit odd that assorted posters -- ALL ANONYMOUS with the exception of SZA who has been pretty honest about who he is -- can critique this proposal from the start."

And what may I ask is wrong with critiquiing a proposal? You just want every proposal that you agree with to sail through without any critiquie, CS. If its a good proposal/good idea it will withstand the test of critique.

Anonymous said...

Whatever is done is going to be criticized.......vehemently with personal attacks on "the deciders". That's the nature of the place we live.

I don't know how you evaluate these moves without being somewhat limited in your perspective and understanding to your child's experience. I believe that my child benefited greatly from being in 6th grade at Crocker, with a veteran teacher Noel Kurtz on the brink of retirement, who had not lost his love of what he was doing, who knew exactly what he wanted to do with the kids each day. And I think he worked his magic more effectively in the Crocker setting.

Readers of this blog may recall a letter to the Bulletin months ago from long-time resident Ellen Goodwin, which was the first public comment I can recall on this topic, which argued for the social benefits to 6th graders of staying in the elementary schools and being leaders and role models there. I would imagine that it's still archived on the Bulletin's website.

It may very well be that there is far less enthusiasm in the region for moving 6th graders to the Middle School than there is for addressing the Middle School's problems BEFORE implementing that change.

But, as with all change in this very, very change-resistant community, we need to decide when we're going to stop second-guessing the folks that have to call the shots, stop trying to put the genie back in the bottle, and get behind making this the best school system we can. Once you've had your say, it's time to move on.

Rich Morse

Wondering said...

What do the 6th grade teachers think?

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, it is still impressive that our new Superintendent has now been the cause of two reports on our schools in less than a month here! Not only did he produce them; he also made them quickly available to the public. I think that is great.

My kids also had excellent sixth grade experiences in the elementary school but I'm less enthusiastic about the two years of middle school (from our experience). So then I start thinking about the three years as a whole. Is one good year worth it for two less-good years to follow? For me, I would be willing to accept the change of trying to make the three years more consistent and challenging. I also know parents whose kids didn't have as great a sixth grade experience so I do realize that all these kids (from 13-14 different classrooms just within our four towns...this doesn't include those from private schools or transfers) arrive at the middle school with potentially different preparation. I think teaching in and running our middle school has to be among the more difficult jobs in our district!

Anonymous said...

"it is still impressive that our new Superintendent has now been the cause of two reports on our schools"

We should be impressed that the person we are paying 15% more than the last very highly paid super is working? Didn't we hire him to work?

What kind of thinking is that?

Hey school committee, will you please explain to the public why the new supe needs 15K for the next two years for travel? Oh, I get it. We'll pay him to fly back and forth to Miami so his family doesn't have to move here. Will he be flying first class? This is a new plateau in decadence.

You cry poor to us all year about a budget, lay off the most teachers in these districts in anyone's memory and spend money on the guy at the top as if the money supply were endless.

This will likely go down as the darkest time in Amherst school history, and you will go down as the most misguided sc.

Don't ever come back to the teachers and ask for more money back. Your priorities are clearly not with the people who actually teach the children everyday.

That is appalling.

What has any supe done for us for the past 6 years except spend all of his/her time stressing over the budget? Where is any money for any new idea going to come from? The cupboards are empty.

You advocate cutting programs and then pay a lot of money for someone who doesn't care enough about us to move his family here.

Anyone care to explain that?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Not Afraid of Critique - I am not asking for no critique -- obviously I don't have a blog unless I'm willing to have a lot of that! My point, which I'll make again, is that it will be much easier for me, and I think others, to take the critique seriously if people add their names (as some people have done). That's my only point -- and I can't see how it would hurt you, or others, to share your concerns or questions USING YOUR NAME! As far as I understand it, the SC votes on this, so even if the superintendent recommends it, the SC can vote for or against it. Last February, the interim superintendents recommended keeping MM open -- I disagreed with that, so I brought a motion to close it. But again, it would not have closed unless at least two other members of the SC agreed. So, this is a proposal by the superintendent. The SC can vote for it or against it, and parents/teachers/community members can now all voice their opinions. But unless I know who you are when you share your opinion, I'm going to take it less seriously (e.g., I mean, maybe you are a resident of Belchertown who just happens to spend time on Amherst blogs, or really dislikes the new superintendent, or whatever). That is my only point. But I think to say that this proposal is a DECISION is not correct at all -- unless you believe that the SC will just blindly accept whatever the superintendent says (and the evidence for that seems quite weak, at least of late).

Rich - first, thanks for using your actual name! Second, I think criticism is fine -- when it focuses on the merits (or lackthereof) of the proposal. But, as you note, far too often the critiques focus on the person (where they live or work or their income, etc.). That strikes me as unfair, and all too common. Third, I think, and I've stated repeatedly, that there are real and known problems with the MS, and those need to be solved (whether it is a 6 to 8 school or a 7 to 8 school). I won't vote to put 6th into the building UNLESS I am convinced that the experience for those kids will be substantial better than it currently is for 7th and 8th graders -- because yes, on the whole, parents seem to be happier with the 6th grade experience than the 7th grade experience. I do, however, take seriously that this superintendent, as well as virtually all of the superintendents that we interviewed this year, thought that a 7-8 MS was probematic, for multiple reasons. That strikes me as important to note -- given its consistency coming from people with careers and experience in K to 12 education.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought I was a harsh critic. I think the two reports he's generated are great, and he's to be commended for doing all this leg work, getting up to speed before he even arrived. I'm impressed. My kids don't even go to the schools here anymore, and I think between the school committee and the new superintendent, things look very good. What rock do these negative people crawl out from under???

Anonymous said...

I believe that Ms. Sanderson was a voice for fiscal restraint in the matter of the new Superintendent's demands, to no avail

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Wondering - I think we will hear what the 6th grade teachers think soon. I think it would also be useful to know what the 6th grade teachers in other districts (e.g., Northampton) think, since they've had actual experience with a 6 to 8 MS.

Allison - I share your commendation for both doing a report and making it available so quickly -- those are two things I've hoped we would have in our district (more review of research/data to make decisions, more transparency/communication). I also think that having three years of an engaging, challenging MS could be a very good thing. I wonder if we might be able to offer world language a year earlier?

Anonymous 11:42 - I voted against the salary, as has been well documented. But even if we paid the superintendent EXACTLY what we paid the last superintendent, it would have saved one paraprofessional. So, I think it is a bit silly to say that his salary CAUSED the teacher layoffs. I also don't think you have the facts right -- I know of very, very few teachers who lost jobs (I believe ONE in all of Fort River). Many of the lost positions were administrators and secretaries, NOT classroom teachers. And if you read the report, the vast majority of ideas he proposes have NO cost -- rigor is not expensive, consistency is not expensive, moving the 6th grade is not expensive, etc. And what programs would you say have been cut? I can't think of ANY! Again, give specific facts about how you would have handled the budget better -- and those will be taken seriously. Finally, I care about how Dr. Rodriguez does his job, which is to improve the quality of the Amherst schools. If he can do that and live on Mars, that's fine (and if he can't do that, he should be fired, regardless of whether he lives in Amherst or Miami). Jere Hochman lived here ... and I'm not sure that the experience of the district under his guidance was truly outstanding, right?

Anonymous 12:49 - well said. Thanks!

Anonymous 12:50 - true (and I voted against the large salary in part because I knew he would face this type of criticism).

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it $15K a year for 2 years for travel?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 3:23 - yes ... and that was given INSTEAD of (the more typical) expenses to cover moving.

sza said...

to Catherine:

From your last post I agree with:

"So, I think it is a bit silly to say that his salary CAUSED the teacher layoffs."

but I don't really agree with

"very, very few teachers who lost jobs ..... Many of the lost positions were administrators and secretaries, NOT classroom teachers. "

I can't speak for other schools, but I know that there was a pretty big reduction in teaching staff at the MS. (some have argued that the MS took a disproportionate hit compared to other schools but I don't have the facts to argue that) We have gone from 6 teams to 4 1/2 teamsand the only reason anyone would have even considered doing that is to require fewer classroom teachers. (there are five teachers on a team, four core subjects and one SpEd liason). Three spots were opened because of one retirement and two sabbaticals, but there are others who simply lost their jobs. Also, besides losing teachers, losing things like guidance counselors and/or librarians can affect everyone as well.

I think part of the issue with budget cuts is the public always hears the dollar numbers that must be cut, but often that does not translate into understanding the actual effects and changes that will occur. Unfortunately, this time I think that will be different, at least at the MS. Last years seventh grader will be moving from teams of about 80-85 to teams of about 130. (Which means their teachers will have to share their attention with that many more students/parents) They will have classes of about 25-27 compared to 19-21 last year. On this year's schedule all teachers will be teaching more students, in more class periods, with less prep time. So I actually think there was a pretty big impact this time around, and we keep hearing it will be just as bleak next spring. It's hard to imagine.

I may not have all of my numbers exactly right, but I did want to make the point that I think that while it sounds good for people to hear that the cuts came mostly from "administration and secretaries" , I think they will see that there were actually quite a few positions lost from the ranks of those in the classrooms, and it will indeed be affecting their child's school experience.

Anonymous said...

My kids lost Ms. Jensen ( English) and Ms. Burke (SS) both EXCELLENT teachers. SZA- are you looping with the 7th graders?

Rick said...

Boy did we need all that history and studies in the report going back to 1900?

This report struck me as way too much about all these studies of places that are not in Amherst and not enough study about what is going on in Amherst. When you finally get to the part in the report where the Superintendent makes recommendations, there has been no discussion or study at all of what is going on in Amherst.

This is what I think:

You can make any system work. You could make K-12 all in the same building work. You could make every grade in a different building work. It doesn’t really matter that much what system you do, its how you do it that matters.

I think we are focusing too much on the various options for “who is in what building” and not enough on “what is going on in each building”.

Unless moving student to different buildings somehow makes better what goes on in those buildings, then why are we doing it? The only other reason would be to save money somehow, but that does not seem to be a factor here.

If you look at the four bullet points the Super lists as advantages of moving 6th grade to MS, it seems to me all of those things could be done without moving. Take the first one for instance:

“* Expose 6th grade students to a more intense, rigorous, content driven curricula;”

Why do you need to move students to do that?

I would feel a lot better about this if there were more advantages listed that are very specific to what is currently going on in the sixth grades and at ARMS.

Finally a comment above asked “What do the 6th grade teachers think?”

Very good question.

Rick said...

PS: Compare this to redistricting. Moving students for redistricting is a move I understand because it’s based on specific aspects of Amherst Elementary Schools – not some other places.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right Rick. Any combination of k-12 can work, it's more important if what is going on inside is rigorous. And that has nothing to do with where the kids are.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't hurry the decisioin on moving the 6th grade to the middle school. It should occur in context of a larger discussion of the weaknesses and needs of the middle school and an action plan for improvement. I certainly wouldn't make the decision at an August School Committee meeting when many parents will be unaware of it or out of town. Parents and teachers need to be brought into the discussion in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

Ed said...

In the 1990s, developmental responsiveness stressed students’ social-emotional needs over cognitive demands.

I can't believe they actually admitted this...

Translated to English: They are more worried about the children feeling good about themselves ("social-emotional needs") than actually learning anything ("cognitive demands")....

These are the people - hired in the late 80s and through the 90s, who are running K-12 today...

Need I really say more?

Ed said...

Reading all these studies and theories, it sounds like middle schools are in a 100 year search for a purpose. How ridiculous it all sounds but then I am just a parent and not an educational professional.

Well I *am* an educational professional and I agree.

And had I written the report, I would have gone back a century further. Universal public education (including for girls) came out of the "Old Deluder" law and the belief of the Puritan (now Congregational) Church that everyone had to know how to read the Bible. Remember that the Puritans were different from the Catholics and Jews - each person had to be able to read the Bible himself/herself - and the Congregational Church was the official tax-supported church in Massachusetts until 1855.

So everyone was given an elementary education, the so-called "3 Rs." And the wealthy went on to an academy (e.g. Hopkins Academy) which eventually evolved into the 4-year high school.

But prior to WWII, most people didn't go to high school - they had neither need nor desire to do so and went to work upon graduating the 8th Grade. And there were 8th Grade graduations...

Remember too that during the last Depression, education was used to delay entry into the workforce, much as Social Security was used to exit people from it -- to reduce unemployment by reducing number of available workers.

The problem has always been the 7th/8th grade - puberty and everything else is happening at this point. Are they kept in line by being the oldest amongst the elementary, or the youngest amongst the high school - I could justify either.

But instead, we have spent a century dumping them into their own purgutorial cesspool and still not realizing that they need to be anchored either to childhood or to adulthood - not left alone.

A 7-12 High School, which I don't believe has really ever been fully tried, would have the peer pressure and role modeling of the older kids reigning in the problems. A K-8 local school has the parents doing the same. But as to the middle school ghetto - I fear that all putting the 6th grade there will accomplish is turn a 2 year purgutory into a 3 year one...

Anonymous said...

Anon July 31,11:42 a.m.
I agree with everything you say. And whether or not we use our names as Ms. S screams in capital letters for us to do, the point is well received and so very true. How on earth can a system continue to cry poor and hand out raises and increases and oh yeah--a travel fee to the new super??? It is simply mind boggling to view a man who has left his family behind as anything but one with his eye on the prize--the money prize that is....sad...such foolish, foolish people--First you vote to close MM and then you move the x-super into an assistant super position, a bit secretively--Then you vote to raise the super's salary--an already inflated salary, and now just as long as you've got the whole community in an uproar--Why don't we traumatize the 6th graders and all involved in moving them into the middle school--a building with less than desirable air quality!

Anonymous said...

"move the x-super into an assistant super position"??

What? Since when?

Anonymous said...

Since...ahh...the new one took her old position...Cute, isn't it??