September 10, 2009
By Steve Rivkin & Catherine Sanderson
When discussing education in the Amherst Regional Public Schools, one often hears about the uniqueness of our town, such as our special mix of students, progressive environment, and strong commitment to social justice and diversity and, in turn, how this uniqueness means that we have little to learn from other districts.
Although we agree that Amherst is a wonderful community, we disagree that the challenges we face in providing an intellectually engaging, progressive and supportive education differ from those faced in other communities. Schools across the state and country must educate children who arrive at school with a range of interests and family circumstances on increasingly tight budgets. More important, we strongly disagree with the notion that we have little to learn from the experiences of these schools: a resistance to or simply a lack of interest in looking to the experiences of other districts when designing curriculum or examining programs handicaps our efforts to provide the type of education we aspire to provide for all of our children.
Outsiders provide invaluable perspectives and ideas, and schools that operate in isolation bypass opportunities to learn from others with similar goals tackling similar problems. As Amherst College faculty in departments that recently underwent external reviews, we experienced first-hand both the benefits and anxiety of having a small number of noted professors from prestigious colleges and universities review our respective programs. The reviewers read our descriptions of our respective departments and then came to campus and met with students, faculty and administrators. Several weeks after their visits, the external committees submitted reports and recommendations. The process and feedback provoked some dissatisfaction, but we believe that these reviews provide the type of perspective and evaluation that is crucial to improving curriculum, the quality of instruction and the intellectual life of a department.
Comparison with peer institutions and external reviews are certainly not unique to colleges and universities. In fact, the Brookline Public Schools conduct reviews of each program and curriculum area on a regular basis, with the goal of improving »student achievement through a comprehensive and rigorous examination of our programs.« These reviews, which are conducted by committees including teachers, administrators, parents and community members, have four distinct phases: assessing the current state of the program, determining what is necessary for improvement, implementing a plan for improvement and reviewing the effectiveness of the plan. In some cases, these reviews may involve hiring outside consultants to assist with data collection and/or provide objective information about strengths and areas of improvements.
Similarly, some districts regularly evaluate their own progress by engaging in comparison with other similar districts. The Newton Public Schools, for example, have selected a group of seven benchmark districts in the Boston area that share their strong commitment to education and have similar demographic compositions. Curricular and program evaluations in Newton use information on these other districts in judging performance and deciding whether to continue, modify, add or terminate programs. Similarly, the Worcester Public Schools have studied how students in their schools compare on various measures, including attendance and drop out rates, post-graduate placement, and MCAS scores, to those in other similar districts.
Looking outside Amherst for ideas, comparisons and feedback has not been central to the operation of the Amherst public schools in recent years, though we see signs that this may be changing.
Assistant Superintendent Maria Geryk is currently working on soliciting proposals for an outside review of our special education programs, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez began his tenure in Amherst by commissioning an outside review of our district by an independent consultant, and the Regional School Committee recently selected a set of 11 districts to use as comparisons when evaluating our school curricula, programs, and outcomes.
Gathering and processing data and paying outside reviewers are costly in terms of both time and money, and some may balk at these efforts. However, if they lead to more effective instruction, better outcomes for students, and a more efficient use of resources, it would be well worth the cost.
Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.