My Goal in Blogging

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Northampton High AP scores spur regional interest

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NORTHAMPTON - Northampton High School leads the region in Advanced Placement test results with a 59 percent increase in the number of AP students who qualified for college credit from last year - nearly 17 times the overall state average.

AP classes completed in high school are eligible for college credit on the condition a student passes the exam for any given AP subject.

"We have a lot of reasons to be proud of Northampton," Mayor Clare Higgins said Monday morning at a kickoff event for the Advanced Placement program at the high school.

Others in attendance Monday praised Northampton students for their confidence in themselves and Northampton teachers for their confidence in their students.

"There is a confidence and a competence in Northampton that you just don't find everywhere," said Charlotte Carlisle, math director for Mass Math and Science Initiative, a division of the Mass Insight Education & Research Institute. The boost in performance is widely credited to the initiative's AP Training and Awards Program, in which Northampton is taking part for the second year.

And this year, Easthampton High School will work with Northampton High School in the initiative, which provides teachers with training and expands AP offerings. Easthampton High offered AP calculus and U.S. history last year, and with the new grant in hand, the school has added AP chemistry, Grade 11 AP English and Grade 12 AP English this year.

Enrollment in the Advanced Placement program at Easthampton High is up from 12 seats last year to 63 seats this year. That number represents the number of seats combined in advanced placement offerings, not the number of students, because some students take multiple AP classes.

John Smolenski, director of advising for the initiative, said the program plans to add AP statistics and AP biology to Easthampton High School in the future.

"We think that Easthampton kids are fully capable of doing these courses and they just haven't had that opportunity because not all of the courses are running," Smolenski said. "The results in Easthampton should be similar to the results in Northampton."

In Northampton, participation in the high school's eight AP classes increased from 236 seats to 413 seats. Northampton High School is expected to have a two-year enrollment growth of 75 percent and adds two new sections of AP statistics this year. The trend of students taking up AP classes is increasing, with 53 percent of the entire junior and senior student body enrolled in AP English. Smolenski believes the Advanced Placement program can reach many more students.

Students seem to think more of their peers will jump on the AP bandwagon, too. Ben Weaver, 16, a junior at Northampton High, said he enrolled in AP modern European history last year because he wanted to challenge himself. An aspiring pre-med student, Weaver took on AP English and AP biology this year. While AP classes often entail difficult concepts, heavy homework and a lot of memorization, Weaver said, one common thread throughout them all is student support for success.

"We're a really close-knit community," Weaver said. "As a community, we drive each other."

Meanwhile, Northampton teachers will lead and support Easthampton teachers this school year, Smolenski said. Because the initiative crosses school district boundaries, it provides teachers with a variety of options in terms of opportunity for growth in subject instruction, he added.

"In most schools, there's only one AP calculus teacher," Smolenski said. "Where do they talk to other AP teachers? They can go on College Board's Web site and read blogs, but now you have teachers from the district next door that have been doing this, that have a proven track record of getting the kids to the finish line. The teacher is not an island - they have a support system."

In periodic meetings and frequent phone conversations, Northampton and Easthampton teachers will share supplies and discuss ideas related to education style, techniques and teaching methods to take back to the classroom, teachers say. Middle and high school teachers in the neighboring school districts will gather four times a year in teams to focus on consistency in middle and high school instruction.

"It's allowing us to mix and meet schools we normally wouldn't and compare notes," said Paul Marcinek, AP calculus teacher at Northampton High School.

The initiative provides teachers with training and classrooms with resources the school wouldn't otherwise be able to afford, Marcinek said. Each professional development session, Marcinek noted, is "completely different," whether the focus is hands-on student activities or strong content-based instruction.

Meanwhile, students have access to three Saturday sessions with a focus on their subjects at local universities. Student taking three AP classes may take up to nine Saturday sessions - three in each subject - to prepare them for the Advanced Placement exam at the end of the school year. Professors are available during the sessions, which give students exposure to the college campus, admissions department and dining areas. Last year, Northampton High School students went to UMass Amherst for Saturday sessions.

Easthampton is one of 12 high schools to join the program this year. The Mass Math & Science Initiative hopes to add more Hampshire County schools to its AP program next year, Smolenski said. The initiative was awarded a $13.2 million grant in 2007 from the National Math & Science Initiative, primarily funded by ExxonMobil, the Gates Foundation and the Dell Foundation. The initiative's long-term goal is to reach full-program implementation in 90 high schools - benefiting 1,200 teachers and 37,000 students - by 2013.

In the end, the program shows students "taking rigorous courses in high school can impact their ability to do well in college freshman year," Smolenski said.


Anonymous said...

I hope that the school committee and HS faculty who voted to get rid of AP Chemistry a few years ago can see this and recognize the importance for all students to have a strong AP program.
I for one would like to see AP chemistry reinstated.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 10:29 - when did this occur? I had no idea we used to have AP Chemistry ... nor that the school committee and high school faculty voted to eliminate it? Can you provide some more details on this, either by posting on my blog (e.g., year it occurred, faculty/SC members involved), and/or emailing me privately (

Anonymous said...

Sorry, my kids are still in elementary school and I must have been confused. I was under the impression that AP chemistry existed at Amherst High School until a few years ago when was eliminated to make room for environmental science. I don't have a high schooler so I admit my facts might be off.

Either way, I am impressed with Northampton's accomplishment especially given that they also have a diverse community of students.

Anonymous said...

Please look at the most-recent MCAS results, and then take a moment to review the 2008 results.(Links on I THINK the comparison shows that ARHS students are slipping markedly in achievement compared to other schools in the state. (Look for the ranking among the 450+ schools; it's called District Summary, I think.)

Joel said...

There's something that's rarely mentioned in Amherst about AP credits: They're free college tuition at most universities.

Whenever someone talks about improving the schools we hear about how that will hurt poor people or how having challenging schools is somehow racist. Those arguments are, to put it simply, ignorant. The AP debate is a perfect example of that.

AP classes are not only often the most challenging and rewarding courses for many students, they also allow students to take AP exams and receive free college credit at many institutions of higher learning - if they score well on those exams. What better gift is there for kids from families who have a tough time paying for college than free credits via HS classes?

I know a lot of people in Amherst like to prattle on about being unique, but being unique doesn't make you better. Sometimes there's a reason no one else is doing what you're doing. Sometimes you're alone because you're on the wrong path. Let's try to emulate the success of the Noho schools.

Anonymous said...

4:19 I completely agree! With the price of college escalating, AP classes often can substitute for college classes and reduce the time students need to spend in undergraduate classrooms. All families need this option as one way to reduce the unbelievable cost of a college degree. ARHS has a pitiful small amount of AP classes and by not trying to offer more does a disservice to Amherst families.

Anonymous said...

a.p. classes by themselves do not give college credits...the student must take an a.p.standardized exam and obtain a certain score ...then it is up to the college if credit is given

Joel said...

to Anon 6:58

I explicitly say that you have to score well on the exam to gain college credit. Most Universities, because they work on the credit system -- as opposed to liberal arts colleges that require a certain number of classes -- grant at the very least credits toward graduation. Most academic departments will grant credit toward some requirements as well. Some liberal arts colleges grant credit as well, it's just that it's almost universal at universities.

Simply put, having AP credit when you matriculate is to your advantage.

Students with access to strong AP programs, like the one in Noho, have a higher probability of doing well on the AP exams and thus of receiving free college credit.

In other words, having a broad and excellent AP program in HS serves all the high school's students. If you care about ALL our students, then you should support expanding the AP program -- as they have in Northampton.

Anonymous said...

then you should support expanding the AP program --

no one said they did not support it...just making a point...keep cool...joel

Anonymous said...

You don't get it. What Joel is saying is they don't support it. Do you get it? They had AP programs and pulled the rug out from under them. They speciically stopped offering AP programs because it wasn't politically correct. I specifically pulled my kids out of the schools here because of non-sense like this. One child took 4 AP courses his junior year in another school district. The other child is taking 2 AP classes this year. When will Amherst "get it"?????

Rick said...

Joel said: “Whenever someone talks about improving the schools we hear about how that will hurt poor people or how having challenging schools is somehow racist.”

I don’t hear that. I hear people saying they hear it, but I don’t actually hear it – certainly not from anybody inside ARPS – like teachers.

The “improving schools hurts poor people and is racist” idea probably comes from the whole tracking debate and the NAACP lawsuit way back when. There is a concern about tracking, but that’s not related to AP courses, which are in the later grades of course. Nobody is worrying about AP course being a form of tracking. If in fact AP courses have been cut, my guess is that it’s nothing to do with “improving schools hurts poor people” but rather is due to budget cuts.

Anon 8:01 said: “They specifically stopped offering AP programs because it wasn't politically correct.”

Which AP courses did they stop offering? Here are the current AP courses at ARHS:

Is that less than there used to be? I see AP Chemistry is not there (Honors is) – did it used to be?

How does this list of AP courses compare to other schools we should be comparing to?

Rick said...

Noho seems to have done a really good job here. This is the program they applied for: I wonder if ARPS knew about it and considered applying.

Nina Koch said...

there is a lot of misinformation on here.

Catherine, rather than asking "when did this occur?" it might be better to ask "Are you sure about that? Do you have direct knowledge of it?" The anonymous poster sounds pretty sure about it and yet the statement is just not true.

In my 25 years at the school, there has not been a vote by faculty to get rid of AP courses.

The one AP course that I know of that we used to offer and no longer do is Computer Science. Enrollment in AP Computer Science has dropped nationwide and the College Board recently dropped one of the tests for it. Kids at ARHS have the option to study for the exam if they want and I will help them study, but we don't have a formal course because enrollment doesn't support it. That is true at quite a few schools.

I am only speaking of the courses that I know of.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 12:52 - thanks for clarifying! To the best of my knowledge, ARHS has NEVER had AP Chemistry ... and I think the issue is that when the new required 9th grade science class on ecology and environmental science was added, it would force students to choose between AP Chemistry and taking classes in all three core scientific disciplines (biology, chemistry, and physics). In many districts, such as Northampton, students can take biology in 9th grade, chemistry in 10th grade, and then two AP sciences (e.g., AP chem, AP bio, and/or AP physics) in their 11th and 12th grade years. In Amherst, students have one fewer year to take a core science because of the new requirement to take ecology and environmental science in 9th grade (e.g., students then can't take a core science until 10th grade, so students who wanted to take AP chemistry -- which requires a year of chemistry FIRST -- would have to choose between taking ANY class in biology or ANY class in physics). That was one of the concerns I raised at the time the School Committee voted unanimously to eliminate the option of biology for all 9th graders. That is probably what you are remembering?
I agree that Northampton's results are very impressive!

Anonymous 1:54 - I haven't checked this out yet, but will do so. I think this type of comparison to other districts is essential -- and I'd like to see our district do MUCH more of it.

Joel - well said. AP classes can not only help reduce the cost of college, but can also lead kids to be better prepared in college. I asked a colleague in the chemistry dept. at Amherst College a few years ago what the difference was between first-year students who take intro. to chemistry who have had a class in AP Chemistry and those who have not. He said "night and day," which to me means that the choice not to offer this class certainly disadvantages ARHS graduates.

Anonymous 6:21 - I agree. I've talked to admissions officers at selective colleges/universities, and they've been shocked that ARHS doesn't have AP Chemistry (or AP Statistics, for that matter).

Anonymous 6:58 - true ... and thus I think it would be a good policy for the district to cover the costs of the AP tests, to make sure that ALL students who take an AP class are able to take the AP test.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 7:41 - I think there is certainly a belief that the high school has NOT been concerned about adding AP classes ... given that AP statistics and AP chemistry are offered at ALL of the other 22 schools who are part of MSAN, for example, suggests to many parents that adding these classes simply hasn't been a priority in this district. I think it is assumed that only rich kids, and/or only white kids, would benefit from such classes.

Anonymous 8:01 - I don't know of any AP classes that used to be offered and aren't now ... however, I do agree that the focus in the high school has NOT been on increasing AP course offerings (at least in math and science fields). And I do find that unfortunate, in light of the opportunities that kids have in many other districts (like Northampton).

Rick - to answer some of your questions -- I do NOT know of any AP classes that used to offered at ARHS and aren't now ... however, ARHS definitely is missing two AP classes that virtually all comparison districts have (including all MSAN districts): AP chemistry and AP statistics. Given that these are NOT new classes to be offered in the world, I think many parents assume that adding such classes simply isn't a priority for the high school (unlike, for example, adding a required 9th grade science course on ecology and environmental science). Now, it is hard to tell why these classes aren't offered, but I will certainly say that I've never seen a single high school teacher or administrator come to the SC meeting and say "we'd love to offer AP X but it is going to cost Y, so can we swing it?" This to me indicates that adding these courses has simply not been a priority, for whatever reason (and although one can imagine that AP chemistry could have some lab costs, surely AP statistics would be just as cheap as our current non-AP statistics class).

Rick - Northampton's participation in this program was announced a year or two ago (I was on SC at the time). Parents asked me about why we hadn't applied, and I contacted someone in Central Office, who told me that districts were "invited" to apply and that we had not been invited. So, my understanding is that we weren't able to apply for these funds, for some reasons.

Nina - I clearly asked for more information to confirm whether or nor this posting was accurate. The person responded immediately to clarify that their information was not accurate. That seems to have cleared it up quite well. The broader point of the article remains: ARHS does not have as many AP classes as many high schools in similar districts, including AP chemistry and AP statistics, which is really the point.

Joel said...

I think Catherine's responses were good, but if people of good will like Rick want to hear claims of racism, classism, elitism and allegations that improving the schools with more rigorous programs e.g., AP classes all he has to do is publicly announce he supports ACE. Sit back and wait for it. You won't be able to miss the mindless accusations about your elitism.

Anonymous said...

the bottom line is systematically reviewing our AP offerings, creating a plan to expand them, and then implementing that plan is not a priority for the high school.

Why are we only talking about our failure to offer a variety of AP science classes? The school offers only ONE AP social science class: AP European History, not even an AP American History test! To my knowledge, we offer no AP English classes.

Not only does this disadvantage ANY Amherst student who would like to take the intensive classes (without the exam), but it clearly disadvantages those students who want to pursue the exam and who could do well enough to substitute it for college credit, improving their college applications and reducing the cost of their college education for themselves and their families.

Sadly this seems to be another example of how "rigor" is seen as inherently biased, squandering another opportunity that could benefit the motivated student.As we dress ourselves up to be a district that's "all about the academics", it looks like the emperor has no clothes!

Anonymous said...


Can you find out what the criteria are for a school to be invited to be part of the Mass Math/Science Iniative? Also, is the SC willing to explore what we need to do to get invited?

Rick said...

Partly in answer to Joel, regarding ACE and the “excellence versus equity” thing:

I’ve been involved with the RaDAR Group ( who works on issues of race – particularly the fact that kids of color get disciplined at a rate 2-3 times that of white kids – but also on other issues regarding race and the schools.

You could say that RaDAR is in the “equity camp”. In general people in that group do not like ACE – not everyone, but most. But what they don’t like about ACE is not what ACE is trying to do in regards to excellence, but rather only that in their opinion, ACE does on take race into account in their work on excellence. One person described ACE as saying “other groups deal with race”. I am not saying it’s a correct perception – I think it’s due to a lack of good communication between the two groups.

I don’t believe any reasonable person is saying that by taking race into account you should hold back certain kids from excelling. There are probably some unreasonable people on both sides of the argument – but the vast majority are reasonable and are just asking for the above.

[As general point, we should try not to get distracted from the occasional “mindless accusation” that Joel speaks about. Unfortunately they happen, but it’s just static we have to live with on blogs and other places. Just ignore the static.]

So how do you do this – take race in account? That’s way too much to discuss in this comment, but I will say that in discussions with Superintendent Rodriguez about it, he has shown that he really knows this subject well and knows what to do about. I think we will be seeing good stuff come from him on this. Again – taking race into account without holding back anyone from excelling.

Joel said...


RIght. Agreed overall, and, like you, I think the superintendent sees through a lot of the rhetoric and is trying to focus on real problems.

The discipline issue is a tricky one. I look forward to hearing about your group's findings.

As to ACE, I think race and class have been at the heart of a lot of it. What many of us who signed the letter and who supported Catherine and Steve for SC believe is that our kids (i.e., the kids of college educated professionals) are being short-changed by the schools, but they'll be okay because we have the resources -- time, money, experience -- to fill in the gaps. So, if our kids are being cheated by the public schools, how bad is it for the kids from families in tough circumstances? We want to fix the schools for everyone and so in that way attack the achievement gap.

As an aside, it's interesting that while we hear a lot about race, we never hear about gender and the girl-boy achievement gap. A lot of ACE people are interested in that as well.

Think of it this way: Which government program has done more to alleviate poverty in the US, classic welfare programs geared to the poorest Americans and often identified (wrongly) as race-based or Social Security? Poverty dropped dramatically with a color blind, frankly class neutral social safety net -- Social Security. A Democrat (Clinton) eviscerated classic welfare; Republicans can't privatize Social Security no matter how hard they try.

Entitlements, e.g., public education, work to provide some social justice in our society. That's why I think the focus has to be on all the kids -- every child, every day shouldn't have to be said sarcastically.

Maybe the Social Security analogy is a bit strained, but I think offering something that everyone wants to everyone at equal levels is the key to improving conditions for those who need it the most. That's why I believe the schools have to be rigorous for all students.

Anonymous said...

What differences between the two groups? Does anyone think that ACE parents support different types of discipline based on race? Do parents concerned with race and class issues support a school system with low or mediocre achievement as a goal? Does anyone want teachers and curriculum for their child that are unfair or less than excellent?

Rick said...


We agree on the goal, for sure. The only problem to me is it seems as though ACE is more or less saying “just add AP courses (or whatever) and ALL kids will automatically benefit”. I don’t agree with that. The high achieving kids will automatically benefit from that, but the lower achieving kids won’t.

So, here are two separate ways to boost achievement:

A. You can boost the achievement of high achieving kids by adding (or not eliminating) high level courses.

B. You can help low and medium achieving kids by helping them do better in the courses they are already taking and supporting them to take higher level courses.

They are both important and not mutually exclusive. If you’re honest you’ll say that ACE emphasizes “A” much more than “B”. That’s actually fine as nobody says ACE has to be about “B” – it’s perfectly fine if they are about “A” only (or mainly). But I don’t like it when the argument is used that “A” helps everyone. Personally that is the only thing I don’t like about ACE. I love that they are for improving “A”, I just don’t like using “it helps everyone” as the excuse for pushing “A” – no excuse is needed to push that; it’s a good idea on its own.

Race enters into it mainly because for whatever reason, apparently kids of color don’t sign up for the higher level courses. The answer to that is absolutely NOT to drop the higher level courses – of course not – the answer is to figure out how to encourage kids of color to go for it. It’s this that I would love to see some emphasis on. I’m sure this encouragement goes on to some extent in the schools, but I’d like to know more about it and see if that area can be improved.

Also, I believe there is debate about when a higher level course needs to be separate, as opposed to extra work done in the same course for Honors. I believe it’s the English department at ARHS that does not have separate Honors or AP courses, but mixes everyone together. My daughter thought that was a bad thing at the time, but since graduating looks back and thinks maybe being exposed to and learning with all kids is a good thing. She says she was told at the time that the reason for putting everyone together is that kids of color did not sign up for Honors, so this was a way of keeping all kids together and probably hoping that more kids of color would opt into Honors by being in the same class. I don’t think it really “hurt” my daughter (she gradated Summa Cum Laude from Williams) and it may have caused more kids of color to sign up for Honors than otherwise. It’s not clear to me this is a bad thing. This is an example of taking race into account when talking about achievement. But this is a more complicated and long discussion and surely is different depending on what the course subject is.

Rick said...


A vision I have – which may be naive – is that primary and secondary education should not be just about how much knowledge and technical skill you gain, but also how you learn work with and help others gain that knowledge and skill. In practice the smart kids could help the less smart kids learn what they have learned, and in the process, they learn what they have learned even better, and also get practice working with others (later in life that might mean they make a great CEO). The na├»ve part is that maybe this sounds good, but in practice just ain’t going to happen – don’t know. In High School there could perhaps even be a course for credit that kids could sign up for to do this – be a TA for classes they already took – or maybe it’s an extra credit thing. Maybe something like this already goes on.

On the discipline issue, I believe at the October 13 SC meeting this is going to be discussed, so that would be a good one to go to. Someone is going to present and talk about the data on that. The short story is that Black and Hispanic kids get disciplined (suspended) at a rate 2-3 times white kids – for years it’s been the same. The data is clear; what’s not clear is why. As you can imagine there are opinions all over the map on the causes. This needs to be studied and figured out.

Anonymous said...

I want to just throw and unpopular issue out there and that is economics and real estate values.

If for whatever reasons Amherst decides not to expand or maybe even to cut its AP program families may opt out of Amherst in favor of Northampton or other towns. Furthermore, new families moving to the area may look at the offerings at ARHS compared to other schools and decide, especially given the high real estate taxes here to go elsewhere. This makes all of our homes harder to sell and ultimately worth less.

I know that there are many factors that go into these decisions but in my opinion this is an important one as well. If we want to keep Amherst as the strong vital community that it is we can not let the schools fall by the wayside because some people feel that AP classes are socially unjust or only benefit certain segments of the population.

I hope I don't sound like some crazy Fox News watching conservative because I am not. I do believe that the key to narrowing the achievement gap and bringing both self esteem and great opportunities later in life is through a rigorous challenging education.

Anonymous said...

I nominate Rick for School Committee!

Joel said...


All good stuff.

I just reread the ACE letter and I fear that you and others in town don't really know ACE's goals. You more often refer to how ACE's critics have characterized the group. ACE's goals are very much in agreement with much of what you wrote.

I signed the letter because there were so very bad policies at my kids' school. The principal's comments were often horrible. Some people at the school, and the feeling was that the principal was key here, argued that the curriculum should be dropped to the lowest common denominator. There was NO talk of helping the lowest achieving kids achieve more. It was in many cases the erasure of the concept of achievement so than no one felt bad about him/herself. That is not an exaggeration.

I think you'll find that Steve and Catherine and the vast majority of the parents who signed the ACE letter are for true differentiated instruction, for challenging AND supporting ALL students.

What binds a lot of ACE parents together is the belief that their kids will be okay, but it will take work, time, and money. More important, we know that a lot of Amherst kids won't be okay because their parents don't have the time and the money to do that extra work. This is the basic ACE view that gets lost and that I think you missed.

I want all the kids to be challenged. I was a tenured member of the Williams faculty. The school is populated by high achieving students who face and tackle problems and do tough independent work. When I taught there, there is a significant group of first generation college kids, who were Latino from El Paso and Salinas. These kids were amazing and a joy to teach. I have to say I don't believe those same kids would have been encouraged to achieve such academic heights had they been in the Amherst public schools. BTW, we had kids from El Paso and Salinas because each city had a HS principal or guidance counselor who had gone to Williams. They worked hard to get the children of migrant workers in the case of Salinas-- i.e., kids from extremely impoverished families -- into an elite and excellent educational institution, the very one from which your daughter graduated with honors. Do you honestly see the same energy in Amherst working to get working-class and poor kids into elite colleges? I don't.

Joel said...

A bit more from me in response to Rick:

Whenever I'm critical of the schools I hear about kids like your daughter who have clearly done a wonderful job. Whenever I ask why some administrators don't think we should challenge all kids I hear that focusing on self esteem is the key. There seems to be a sliding scale for what we use to evaluate the schools. The children of college graduates are measured by their academic achievement; other kids are measured by their self esteem.

Rich, I'm sure your daughter is not only smart, but also worked really hard. You, her mother, she, and the Amherst schools should be proud of her and what she achieved at Williams.

But, I noticed on your google profile that you're a graduate of Brown and MIT, which are both fantastic, extremely selective and highly elite places, like Williams. I have no idea where your daughter's mother went to college and maybe grad school.

So here's my question: How are the Amherst schools doing for the kids whose parents never went to college, let alone Brown and MIT? Brown, MIT, Williams, and all the extremely elite places with which they compete brag endlessly about all the first generation college kids they admit. They offer very attractive financial aid packages specifically geared to making kids from poor families a little less uncomfortable at such elite schools. Some places, eg Amherst College, don't even let you take out loans; it's all covered for the kids from families with little or no money.

So, how many of those kids from Amherst are going to top 25 schools? That's how I'll measure the quality of the Amherst schools, by the academic achievements of kids whose parents didn't go to college and whose families can't pay for tutors and special extra programs.

Maybe I'll be surprised by all the working-class kids heading off to the Ivies, but I worry that that isn't the case.

Oh, and to anyone who thinks going off to an Ivy isn't a key to breaking the cycle of poverty, give our governor a call. He grew up in the Chicago projects. Ended up at Harvard and Harvard Law because of the excellent HS education he got (at Milton Academy). Would Deval Patrick have achieved such heights had he gone through the Amherst schools? I fear not.

Rick said...


Thanks for that good stuff also. This is fantastic: “When I taught there, there is a significant group of first generation college kids, who were Latino from El Paso and Salinas. These kids were amazing and a joy to teach.” That’s what we want more of.

Well, seems like people want to same thing then, which is good. If ACE is what you say it is then that’s great. Anyhow, getting off on the ACE tangent has probably been done a few times too many ;-)

Regardless of who is doing it – ACE or somebody else – I just hope that some very specific ideas come forth on how to help disadvantaged and struggling kids to move up, not just how to match our AP programs to what other schools do and things like that. I’d like to learn what already exists for doing that – I’m sure there must be something – and what might be missing and/or improved.

On the second part of your comment: I absolutely agree with everything you say there. I don’t want to assume Amherst is doing a bad job at sending “working-class kids off to the Ivies”, but would certainly like to know.

Also, my daughter was born lucky just like I was born lucky. We had the best of circumstances and were “advantaged”, not disadvantaged. We both worked hard, but it was never in our minds that “this is not for me” or “I could never do that” or maybe worst of all “that’s a white thing to do” so basically we had it made. So you’re right that just because the advantaged kids do great in Amherst – and they do – doesn’t mean Amherst is doing a great job in total.

Nina Koch said...


I am really troubled by your depiction of the high school as not caring about the college aspirations of working class/first generation kids.

That is not my experience at all.

I have seen numerous individuals within the school really go to the mat for their students, especially the ones who have not had all of life's advantages. This includes making calls to schools, writing recommendations, initiating conversations with students, and staying after school with students for long hours to help them get through a difficult course.

Deval Patrick participated in an ABC (A Better Chance) program at Milton Academy. We have in town one of the few ABC programs that is associated with a public school. (I believe Governor Patrick visited the ABC house once when he was in town.) Many different faculty members from ARHS have served on the ABC Board and support it in a variety of ways. Graduates of Amherst ABC have gone on to do lots of great things. So if Deval Patrick had come to the Amherst ABC program instead of the Milton Academy ABC program, he might indeed have done very well.

I feel that you don't have enough information to be able to say whether or not there is "energy" around helping students to succeed. I see colleagues all around me who give just about everything they have to give.

Rick said...

Related to this post, this is good info on ARHS:

There is data on how many ARHS students go to college (92%), what the race breakdown is (but not income breakdown) and other factors.

And as a general point, the ARHS website has a ton of good info on it. Look on the home page for things like a video of Mark Jackson with Andy Churchill, which is worth watching if you have never seen Mark and/or want to know how ARHS is dealing with the tight budget situation and, starting at the 18 minute mark, talk about school improvement plans. Also there is a link to results of the parent survey.

On both Joel and Nina’s comments, I think one thing to keep in mind is that there seems to be a BIG difference between Amherst schools in quality level, so that is part of what fuels the wide opinions that you see on this blog and elsewhere. I think ARHS is generally viewed as very good to excellent. On the other hand, the elementary school and principal that Joel referred to in his post I think I know about and have heard many complaints about that situation.

Finally, this is cool news:

“WooHoo! We Did It! ARHS Clubs Saved!

That's right. The budgets were slashed, *all* of our ARHS Clubs were eliminated. But no, our community dug deep into their pockets in trying times and raised $20,000 to save them in the span of about 2 months.

All ARHS Clubs will officially start the 2nd week in October.”

Joel said...

Rick, thanks for all the detailed information.

Nina, I applaud all that the HS teachers do, I just would like to see some evidence that a good number of kids on free and reduced lunch who start in our elementary schools are applying to and being accepted at the same elite schools that many of the kids whose parents are highly educated professionals end up attending.

In other words, is the Amherst style of education, which has not always focused on high academic standards, showing success with kids from homes without college graduate parents.

I do alumni interviews for my undergraduate alma mater and the single most important piece of information in terms of affirmative action type decisions is whether or not a kid's parents went to college. First generation college kids, no matter their race, are the applicants many elite colleges are seeking.

How is Amherst doing -- not do the teachers care and work hard -- is the question. In other words, is all that incredible labor expended doing the things these kids need?

If so, show us the data.

And on Patrick, I don't see the Amherst schools embracing a Milton Academy type curriculum. We've decided to go our own way on Math and Science and that's what got a lot of the town's parents involved in these debates.

Anonymous said...

This topic on this blog is certainly symtomatic of this blog's illness. Information is presented , responded to, battled over and assumed without anyone checking the @$&*$ facts.

Thanks Nina for pointing this out and to Rick for providing the link to the courses offered at ARHS.

So many of the contributors to this blog open fire on the schools on any given subject and are often ignorant of the facts.

We are certainly opinionated in Amherst, but may not really know what we're talking about.

If people dislike the schools that much that they can't take th e time to verify if what they are reading is true, then why send your kids to these schools?

For a town that is supposedly an education town, we certainly have a lot of seemingly uneducated people. Or maybe they have so much education that they think the facts are irrelevant.

This, of course, includes Ms. Sanderson, who also goes off half cocked much of the time without checking facts.


Rick said...

"...without anyone checking the @$&*$ facts."

Not really. Nina's and other posts here checked the facts and let us know. That's what I think is cool about this blog.

Thanks Catherine for continuing to do it.

If people come here assuming wrong stuff and then they get the facts, then that’s a good thing not a bad thing.

But you’re right though that it would be better if people didn’t assume something before having the facts - but @$&*$ happens.


Joel said...

Ah to be flamed by someone named "Puzzled"

Also, dear "Puzzle," thank you so much for the Nixonian admonition that I should love Amherst or leave it. I could of course stay, pay my $6k a year in property taxes and never offer an opinion about anything in my town. That's a wonderfully progressive view of small town governance. Besides, the entire point of my posts is that I believe we're short changing kids from working-class and poor families. Should they leave too? Do they not deserve the highest quality education?

Now, the facts that Rick alludes to are a bit more complicated than you think. Nina offered no data.

92% of ARHS students do not attend college. That is incorrect.
Here's the link to the data:

A total of 91% attend something after HS,.

75% go to a 4-year college or university, with 16% going to junior college or other "post secondary programs."

There were 16 African-American graduates, 9 of whom will attend a 4 year college or university.

That's barely more than half; it's 56.25%

How does that number compare to other MSAN schools? That does not strike me as a great number.

50% of the "Hispanic" students are heading to a 4 year college.

Now, I know for a fact that neither all the African-American students, nor all the Hispanic students at the HS come from poor or working-class families. So, the percentage of working-class and poor African-American and Hispanic kids going to 4 year colleges of any type from Harvard to someplace none of us has ever heard of is under 50%, unless you truly believe every kid of color in Amherst is poor, which is a telling assumption.

So, I ask again, how are the kids on free and reduced lunch starting in our elementary schools doing after graduating from Amherst HS?

Remember, I posed this question is response to Rick pointing out how well his daughter had done. I asked, how about kids of all races who come from families without college graduate parents? How about kids from poor and working-class families?

Do you believe we're offering something equivalent to what Deval Patrick got at Milton Academy when clearly less than half the working-class kids of color go to a 4 year college? (56.25% African-American and 50% of Hispanic total went to 4 year colleges, subtract out the kids of color whose parents went to college and who are middle and upper middle class and you are easily below half of working-class kids of color at 4 year colleges)

But it's worse than that. The point I made was that a lot of college educated people in town are sending their kids to very elite private colleges and universities(Rick's daughter graduated with Latin honors from Williams; I've used the example of our governor who went to Harvard) . What percentage of kids of color from working-class and poor families are going to top 25 schools? I worry that it isn't a high percentage.

And, neither Nina nor Rick provides any data on that, so thanks for flaming me for not reading something that's not there.

Back to the data that are there:

21% of all kids going to 4 year colleges are heading to UMass. I teach there. I love it, but it isn't the same as going to a top 25 school, especially when we're talking about using education to break the cycle of poverty.

So, tell me how those statistics prove me wrong?

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to who you consider "working class" in Amherst to be? It seems in this town we have 2 groups (for school age kids), families who are well off and families barely making it by. I don't know any working class families who can afford to live in this town. They don;t make enough to buy a house and make too much for the apartments.

otherwise I am loving this conversation!! :)

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Joel, the numbers are probably worse than the "under 50%" you list. Outcomes are measured among those students who actually graduate.

Based on data from the Commonwealth, I found that the 2008 graduation rate at ARHS was 88.6% overall and only 76.8% among low income students, 76.2% among Hispanic students, and 75.0% among Black students (citing the individual groups you mentioned). Thus, in order for a [low income/Hispanic/Black/insert any student group here] student to have a chance to attend one of the top 25 colleges or top 25 universities in the country, they would first have to graduate from ARHS! Which, clearly, is not a given.

Joel said...

I do know some working class folks. They often inherit houses or live in apartments, etc.

Joel said...


Wow, yes, absolutely, you're right. I was trying to paint the best case scenario as still being not so great and I didn't even consider the survivor bias in the data.

Given what you point out, I think it's fair to say that things are much worse than many of us feared.

I hope some of the cheer leaders on the blog come to grips with the meaning of these data.

Anonymous said...

I do not consider my self wealthy or poor...I guess that makes me middle class. Is that who you are referring to, Joel, when you say working class?

I am a college educated single mother who lives in a house - nothing fancy - just your basic ranch. My young child is bright and I expect that she will go on to college. I am trying to figure out where I fit in in your categories?

Does working class = middle class? Is working class the vast center not in either poles of wealthy or poor?

Joel said...

I don't have hard and fast parameters for working-class. This entire thread has been about the moving goal posts of how we evaluate the performance of the Amherst schools. When someone says the schools aren't what they should be, we hear about a kid going to an elite school. When we ask about the absence of AP Chemistry and Statistics, we're told those are elitist and the schools are focusing on closing the achievement gap for racial and ethnic minorities. I think the data Rick sent me to shows that the district isn't doing a very good job.

My point is that so much of what we do that is claimed to be unique and special and geared toward helping kids on free and reduced lunch and kids whose parents didn't go to college doesn't seem to be working.

The numbers on who goes to college look grim.

Going to college is a class marker, but there are plenty of college educated people in tough circumstances, who are un or under-employed or bankrupted by medical bills.

I read it as a small child, but I recall that the protagonist in Steinbeck's The Winter of our Discontent was an out of luck Harvard grad. Class is about a lot of things. It can be social as well as economic. Figuring out class standing isn't really the point. As I wrote in an earlier post, I would love to believe the Amherst schools were truly serving every child, every day.

I'm not at all equipped to analyze class in Amherst. What I do know is that the statistics the district supplies on college attendance of students of color are not at all good and they tell me that the district is failing those and probably a lot of other kids.

Anonymous said...

So what is Amherst doing wrong that Northampton is doing right? Why is it that Amherst is lowering the quality of education it provides the children year after year while other towns are improving, even in tight budget times?

Seems to me that the track we are on right now, is the wrong one and we need to get off this one and start over. I think following examples of towns that are working is the right thing to do now, not making a new path. We are not the leaders in educations anymore. We are continuously loosing ground in this area every year. It is time to start over.

But of course that will take years to decide to do and by then, all of our kids will be out of the system. Amherst talks too much and does not DO!! Things need to change and they need to change now, before these kids graduate.

Nina Koch said...


Thanks for applauding our efforts. Somehow when I read it before it didn't sound like applause.

I am afraid I haven't seen a breakdown by income/first generation status. I can ask around, but there might be some privacy issues around that.

You should be careful, however, about trying to make a percentage out of a small n, like 9 out of 16. A handful of kids can make 1/2 turn into 3/4 very quickly when the total size is 16. A five year average might make more sense for that.

I guess I also wouldn't make assumptions about the choices that kids and families make in going to college. I know of one kid who is going to a two-year program in a particular field and is delighted to be doing so because it is exactly what he wants to do. For people who have very direct career goals, the two year schools, especially places like STCC, offer very targeted programs that actually serve their needs better than a liberal arts school would.

There are lots of criteria for choosing a college. If you wanted to be a filmmaker, you would probably prefer NYU to Harvard and it would be very tough to get in.

We did have 40 members of the class of 2009 go to "Top 25" colleges/universities, but maybe some of the other people made their choices based on what was the best fit for them. I think that is wise on their part.

I would like to see us gather statistics on how many kids got into their first choice college. I think that is actually more important.

Nina Koch said...

and, while I'm here, I would like to respond to the comment that asked "What is Amherst doing wrong that Northampton is doing right?" in reference to the article.

Northampton does have a higher participation rate in AP than Amherst does and I think it's great that they set a goal for themselves and worked hard to achieve it.

They do not, however, have higher scores. I want to make sure that is clear. NHS had about 80% of their scores at 3 or above while ARHS had 93% for spring 2009. (I am going to format and post the data this weekend. Spring 2009 was an especially strong year for us.)

The lower scores at NHS can be partly explained by the higher level of participation. If our participation level increased, our scores might also be lower.

The Gazette article is actually strongly lacking in data, even though it appears to have a lot of data in it. The problem is that they don't give any base numbers. They talk about how much things increased but not about the actual size of the number before the increase. The only way I found the actual outcomes for NHS was because they posted it on their site some time this week.

People might be interested to know that both Easthampton and Northampton operate on a block schedule. This makes it much easier for students to get to an AP math course, because they can take two math courses in one year without doubling up. (one course would go from Sept to Jan and finish; then the next course goes from Jan to June)

Joel said...

A couple of things in response to Nina.

The goal posts have been moved once again. No one doubts that 40 kids from Amherst HS can end up at fabulous schools. The question remains, are we providing every child, every day with an excellent education? Are kids of immigrants, of impoverished single mothers, of families with few resources being given the encouragement, education, and other tools to have a great first choice for college? Sure, the kids of graduates of elite colleges have a good chance of ending up at an elite college, but do we have the curricula for kids on free and reduced lunch to go to the most elite places? Are we encouraging them to make those elite places their first choices?

The data on the HS website are not at all encouraging. You may say there aren't enough numbers for analysis, but they're all we have. More to the point, you're moving the goal posts again. I was flamed by an anonymous poster for not having any facts. I was told to look at those data. I looked at them and then I'm told that I shouldn't judge anything on the basis of those numbers. Around and around we go. And, as Alison pointed out, the reality is even worse than those data. I just don't know what anecdotal evidence is out there that's going to make the HS seem better than the picture painted by the data.

Here's the big point to me: administrators, teachers, and parents in Northampton sought to improve the HS by expanding the AP offerings and getting as many kids as possible into those AP classes because they were the most challenging and because they use curricula from the best high schools in the nation. Think about that. Improving a high school by adopting the best practices from the best high schools in the nation.

In Amherst, when parents like me ask why we don't have AP Chemistry and AP Statistics we're called elitists and worse. Amherst created a totally unique, unproven 9th science curriculum and we're told that that makes us better than other high schools in the Commonwealth. Then, when someone like me looks at the graduation and college admission figures I'm told that the numbers don't tell the entire story.

It's very frustrating. I prefer the Northampton, Newton, Brookline, and on and on method. The Amherst method doesn't seem to be doing such a good job when you look at the data.

That's the difference and it bothers me and a lot of parents in Amherst.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Joel - well said re. ACE and calls of elitism. It has always seemed amazing to me that asking for public schools to engage and challenge all kids is a goal only "elite parents" would desire.

Anonymous 8:19 - I agree that a review of our AP course offerings is much needed. AP classes are a great way of providing challenge, and also helping kids succeed in college. I believe this is one of the criteria specified by the How Are We Doing Committee, and I'll make sure to bring this idea up at a meeting discussing district goals.

Anonymous 9:02 - I do not know what the criteria were to be invited. But I'm certainly willing to ask the superintendent if we would qualify for participation. Good idea!

Rick - I believe that there is ONE PERSON who is actively (and loudly) spreading the idea that ACE doesn't deal with race issues ... and that accusation is not based in reality. I believe that people who signed ACE believe that all kids (regardless of race, income, sex, language spoken at home, etc.) benefit from schools that are engaging and challenging (and yes, to me that doesn't involve race -- it involves good education for ALL kids). I believe all kids benefit from learning and education programs that are based in empirical evidence and research, not anecdote. The reality is that there are other districts that do a MUCH better job than Amherst at engaging and challenging all kids (including kids of color) - and I wish we could learn from the experience of those districts.

One more thing, I think it is too bad if people in any group (e.g., RADAR) don't like people in ACE ... without learning about what ACE is and what it is about. That strikes me as really unfortunate. I certainly wouldn't say I (or other members of ACE for that matter) dislike or oppose the RADAR group! It seems like there are multiple groups that care about education ... you could be a part of one or many ... but the idea that some people in one group would dislike those in another group because they have different goals (perhaps both good and valuable) seems really sad.

Joel (at 1:03) - I agree with all you said. The schools aren't right now doing right by all kids (certainly not "every child, every day"). That is the reality. Now, some kids will suffer more from that reality than others. To me, that is the ultimate irony -- families with money can opt for private school, families with highly educated parents can tutor kids at home, etc. So, who gets most hurt when the schools aren't challenging and engaging? Lower income people and/or those who don't have highly educated parents. That is ultimately what ACE is about -- making sure that the schools provide a rich, engaging, and challenging environment for ALL kids.

Rick said...

I’ve been misquoted:
“I think it is too bad if people in any group (e.g., RADAR) don't like people in ACE”

I said this:
“In general people in that group do not like ACE – not everyone, but most. But what they don’t like about ACE is not what ACE is trying to do in regards to excellence, but rather only that in their opinion, ACE does not take race into account in their work on excellence. One person described ACE as saying “other groups deal with race”. I am not saying it’s a correct perception – I think it’s due to a lack of good communication between the two groups.”

“people in that group do not like ACE” >>> not the same as “don't like people in ACE”.

Somebody having an opinion about what they think a group is doing that they don’t like, is nothing horrible. Note I also said this:
“I am not saying it’s a correct perception – I think it’s due to a lack of good communication between the two groups.”

Catherine, you also said:
“I believe all kids benefit from learning and education programs that are based in empirical evidence and research, not anecdote.”

I totally agree.


Getting off of ACE (which BTW I did not bring up first in this thread), and back to the original article:

a. What Northampton did seems great.
b. We should find out if we can get in on that. I emailed and called the Massachusetts Math & Science Initiative yesterday to see if it is in fact invitation only, but no answer back yet.
c. We should ask why we don’t have AP Chemistry and AP Statistics when other schools do.

Rick said...

It strikes me that in re-reading all of the above that a lot of wasted discussion would be eliminated if data that ARPS has could be presented a little bit better. For example, MCAS scores:

That data shows 2008 data and compares it with average MA results.

What would be great is if it could also:

a. Compare to 2-3 other key schools we might want to be comparing to, instead of just MA average.

b. Show multiple years (say 3-5 years trailing) – for ARHS, MA average and the other schools – so we can see the trends.

Yes that a lot of work, at least to begin with to set it up. But it would eliminate all the “amateur data collecting and analysis” that goes on by me and other commentators here and hopefully end the discussion on what the facts are so we can talk about something more useful.

Rick said...

I just noticed that there are 2x AP Biology courses. The one that is 3 trimesters says “Note: this course is for students who have not yet taken a year of high-school biology.”

The other one that is 2 trimesters says “This course will not be offered after the 2009-2010 school year.”

Does this solve one of the issues about the new ninth grade science course – that because biology is not taken in ninth grade that AP Biology could not be taken as easily?

[PS: I know that is not the only issue raised about the ninth grade science program.]

Nina Koch said...


Did someone on here say that AP Chemistry would be elitist? I don't believe I see that comment anywhere. I see only your predictions that it would be said.

I don't find your comments to be elitist. I find the tone unnecessarily derisive but not elitist. I still remember a thread about MM where you said "your precious little school" instead of just "your school". By inserting words like that you chase people away from the table. If you truly want to work to make the schools better, then you have to find a way to talk to people in such a manner that they can work with you.

I think a really important component of communication is to try to figure out the other person's perspective. Why do they think what they think?

Your comments contain a lot of assumptions. If you were to drop the assumptions, you could gain more information.

One assumption you should relax is that AP courses are necessarily the most challenging ones. It could be true, but don't assume it. Gather information to find out if it is true. Scarsdale High School decided it wasn't true for them.

You could ask teachers to describe to you how they incorporate challenge into their classes. If they can't adequately describe that, then I agree we have a problem.

We clearly need to do a better job of demonstrating what kids are doing in classes. We should be able to show that all classes present kids with a suitable challenge. The challenge shouldn't be just for students in AP courses. It should be for everybody.

People should know about the great conversations that go on in Constitutional Law class, for example. Is the course less worthy because it doesn't have an AP designation? You don't know until you find out more about the course. It's entirely possible that the course is very demanding and that kids have more opportunities for in-depth analysis because they are not spending time cramming for a three-hour test.

I hope over the course of the year that I can get more of this information up on the site, to show people what their kids are doing.

Joel said...


Sure, we should all be civil to each other and I do appreciate that I'm writing to Nina Koch and not "Anonymous."

My MM comments came after my kids' school was called a "big box" school and the teachers and students were essentially compared to something out of a Mad Max movie. It also came after I was accused of being selfish for saying that I didn't think it was fair to aggregate so many resources at MM when it had only 13% of the town's elementary school population.

In other words, context is everything. I feel little obligation to be nice to people who anonymously write hateful things about three of our elementary schools -- the descriptions of FR, WW and Crocker should have appalled you as a teacher in the district -- and I have no patience with people who use terms like racist and elitist any time someone talks about changing something in Amherst. Mention closing the south Amherst branch library and you'll get a diatribe about depriving poor people of color of the only library they can use. Is there any evidence that that library serves such a population and that closing it would hurt them? Nope. Hey, call for establishing "Ice Cream Tuesdays" in the schools and some knuckle head in town will accuse you of stigmatizing lactose intolerant kids.

As to your responses about APs, I prefer Rick's idea. Let's investigate why we don't have AP Chemistry and Stats.

As to Scarsdale, please. This is the king of all red herrings in Amherst. Saying we shouldn't investigate having more AP classes because Scarsdale got rid of them is just ridiculous. The idea that we wouldn't have more AP classes because we're in lock step with one of the highest achieving districts in the nation is laughable.

But to be fair and supportive and not sarcastic, I have to say, let's adopt the Scarsdale curricula -- all of them as they are right now. No claims that we're so special and unique and wonderful that we have to have our own only in Amherst program. All Scarsdale, all the time. I would abandon every AP offered and never ask for another if we had their K-12curricula.

And, again Nina, I'm sure there are plenty of wonderful experiences and teaching moments and teachers, but the DATA ON THE HS WEBSITE SHOW WE ARE NOT SERVING STUDENTS OF COLOR. No one or two anecdotes changes those data.

Rick said...

Again, more published information would be good, as Nina says. I know Nina and she tries really hard to put as much info as possible on the ARHS (and ARPS) website, and there is already a lot there. Let’s all support her, ARHS and all of ARPS in an effort to continually improve the data and information that is provided.

One point on what Joel said:

“Saying we shouldn't investigate having more AP classes because Scarsdale got rid of them is just ridiculous.”

I agree with that; who wouldn't? But Scarsdale would presumably be part of the data being looked at, along with plenty of other schools that do have AP courses. I think this is all Nina was saying: “It could be true, but don't assume it. Gather information to find out if it is true.” - she wasn’t saying don’t investigate.

Boy, there’s a lot of “investigating” to do. Wonder who’s going to do it?

Anonymous said...

As someone who recently moved to Amherst from Scarsdale I can tell you that there was a lot of disagreement in the Scarsdale community about getting rid of the AP program as some students and parents felt that it they would be at a disadvantage in the college application process. But the truth is that Scarsdale didn't really get rid of its AP program they just renamed it. They still offer all the same courses and prepare the students in these classes to take th AP test, they simply renamed it to have more flexibility in the curriculum. Some families are happy with it, most are not. In fact one family that I know well felt that their son had to do a lot of extra outside work so that he would be prepared for the AP exam.

If ARHS does not offer AP Chemistry or AP Statistics will students be prepared to take the AP exam? Will Amherst Students be looked at less seriously in the college admissions process because they don't have these classes? Will Amherst students be prepared to take college level science classes without these classes? These are some of my questions.


Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 4:21 - I loved your post -- thanks! That is precisely the key thing. I can't believe anyone think that "ACE parents support different types of discipline based on race?" Or that "Parents concerned with race and class issues support a school system with low or mediocre achievement as a goal?" That is why I just don't see why people in one group might not like another group -- anymore than parents of kids who play spots wouldn't like music groups?!? Both groups represent parents' views about the schools and how they could be better -- they just aren't in opposition.

Rick (at 5:25) - I've got to disagree with two things you write. First, you say "If you’re honest you’ll say that ACE emphasizes “A” much more than “B"." As a founding member of ACE, I totally disagree with that statement. If you look at the VERY first list of priorities that ACE presented (December 2007), you will see that 8th grade algebra for ALL kids is on that list. Now, who does that help? High acheiving kids (about 35 to 40% of 8th graders in our MS) have 8th grade algebra now. Those high achieving kids don't need ACE to advocate at all for 8th grade algebra, nor does it advantage them in anyway to have other kids also in 8th grade algebra. This priority is PRECISELY about medium and low achieving kids.

Here's another example from the FIRST set of ACE priorities: Conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the policies focused on raising the achievement of children who do not reach proficient levels on MCAS or in their course-work. Again any such study should compare performance in Amherst with that of other high achieving districts.

(These are on the website right now).

Again, that is 100% a goal or priority about low achieving kids!

Now, that may not be what gets play in the newspaper or on my blog, but if anyone spends 1 minute googling ACE and seeing the website, that person will have a clear sense that many of the ACE priorities precisely speak to low and medium achieving kids.

Second, I don't think adding a class in AP Chemistry is just for white kids! I happen to believe that we may well have kids of color who would like and do well in AP Chemistry!

And one more thing -- I think having a heterogeneous (in terms of who is DOING AP work) AP English class is precisely the type of uniquely Amherst program that scare me. Is this a good approach? Who knows! Has it been studied? It certainly isn't done anywhere else. I would be vastly more in favor of finding districts that are succeeding in terms of getting more kids of color and low income kids into honors/AP classes (these districts are easy to find because they are ranked in the US News and World Report of best high schools) and then copy what THOSE districts are doing instead of making up our own (possibly ineffective) approach.

Rick (at 5:26) - I think the tutoring idea is potentially very tricky ... and I would hope that kids with different interests/skills do interact in many ways, such as in music groups, sports teams, clubs, etc. I just don't know of any evidence in a high school setting that suggests this type of approach is beneficial (and I want to see Amherst doing much less experimentation). I look forward to hearing the discipline data at a future SC meeting. This is also very tricky stuff.

Anonymous 7:02 - housing prices are certainly impacted by the quality (or perceived quality!) of public schools ... meaning we all should benefit from having Amherst schools be strong.

Anonymous 7:04 - you may get your wish!

Joel (at 7:49) - thanks for the eloquent description of what ACE is (and is not) and why you signed. Very well said.

Anonymous said...

A student interested in studying science or math at college will be at a disadvantage in not having had AP Chemistry or AP Statistics. The AP classes cover material that students at most competitive colleges will have studied.(It would also be nice to have AP Physic M&E and AP Computer Science, but that's just dreaming ...)

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more responses from me:

Joel (at 8:13) - and thanks also for this. There is a lot of focus on anecdote in "proving" the benefits of the Amherst education ... and much less focus on data. That is seen whenever there is criticism of any sort (one can point to an ARHS grad who goes to Harvard, or a very hard-working MS teacher, or how much one child LOVED hearing about ecology in 9th grade). This can be compelling, but is not the same as having objective, empirical data that compares our schools to other schools (that may also have children going to Harvard, hard-working teachers, and children who love a particular 9th grade science class).

Rick - there are DEFINITELY schools that are doing a better job of reducing the achievement gap than Amherst. Many of the MSAN schools, for example, are doing that. Often these schools have a very rigorous (and required) curriculum ... which Amherst has almost uniformly avoided. The other two MSAN schools in Massachusetts (Brookline, Cambridge) have both adopted a physics first program, in which ALL 9th graders take physics and they both require all HS students to take 3 years of science. So, all kids in these schools are graduating having had physics, chemistry, AND biology. Interesting, that is exactly what the Springfield public schools now do! Yet in Amherst, we require kids to take ecology/environmental science and then any other class, meaning kids could graduate having only 2 years of science, and those two years could include ONLY biology, ecology, and environmental science (not a single class in physics OR chemistry). Again, I think the Amherst schools could learn A LOT from other schools in terms of what progams have demonstrated an effectiveness in reducing the achievement gap ... we just have preferred to make up our own programs to see how those work.

Nina (at 6:20) - no one is saying that teachers aren't working hard. What Joel is saying (I believe) is that the curriculum in our schools is not of the same rigor and quality as that in some other high achieving schools. Teachers can work really, really hard, and still kids in ARHS can't take AP Chemistry, can't take AP statistics, can't take biology in 9th grade, and so on. Kids in other districts have those options, and kids in this district don't. This isn't saying that teachers aren't good, or don't care about kids. It is about the curriculum we have (or don't have), and that is the fault of the superintendent (not the current one who has only been here two months!), the principals, and frankly, the School Committee. It is NOT the fault of the teachers.

However, I do think it is very, very hard to make the case that ARHS provides the same type of rigor and challenge as Milton Academy!

Rick (at 7:58) - I think there is actually a perception in this community that ARHS used to be excellent, and has been slipping for some time. I hear from parents and community members and retired ARHS teachers that ARHS used to be extremely strong, and has been riding on its prior reputation. But I also think that ARHS has a tough job, because kids come to that school from the MS (which has been less than consistently rigorous for some time -- and I hear from ARHS teachers that kids do NOT come to the high school with all the skills they need), and in turn, the MS has a tough job because it is managing kids who arrive from 7+ elementary schools and are only in that school for 2 years. I am very glad that one of the new superintendent's goals is working on vertical alignment, which I imagine will help ALL of the schools (but probably the HS would particularly benefit from this).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Joel (at 9:20) - fully agreed. I don't want to hear about hard-working HS teachers who care about kids ... I want some evidence that we are doing is actually better for kids (some kids? all kids?) than what other places are doing. We are NOT the only high school in the country, and there is at least some objective evidence (e.g., the national lists by Newsweek and US News) that other schools are having more success than we are!

Puzzled - I find it so odd that you would be so critical of others and not have the courage to sign your name. I don't see any evidence that anyone has presented wrong information (including me) using their actual name, nor do I think the attitude that "if you don't like it, leave" is helpful. Is that really your solution? If you believe things could be better in our schools, you should leave instead of try to fix them? Pretty sad.

Rick (at 1:56) - this blog is about encouraging dialogue. I'm glad it is serving that purpose, and I think when wrong information has been presented, it has been quickly corrected, and that is good for all.

Joel (at 2:57) - this is precisely why the "how are we doing?" subcommittee specified 11 districts to serve as comparisons. We should not just be saying "look how great ARHS is" but rather "how is our district COMPARED to other districts." I hope there can be much, much more use of data and comparison in our district to evaluate what we are doing (well and not so well), and much less reliance on anecdote.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 3:01 - I don't think Joel is focusing on any one group of people (poor, well-off, working class, etc.). I also think that kids from families at all income levels deserve a rich and challenging education. I just don't think our schools are consistently providing it.

Alison - wow! That is an excellent point -- thanks for noting it! Now, that is actual data!

Anonymous 4:37 - again, I think that all kids (poor, working class, wealthy, middle class, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.) deserve a rich and challenging education that helps ALL kids reach their full potential. And I don't believe this type of education is consistently provided for ANY kids in our district.

Joel (at 5:01) - I fully agree with your post. I think the goal posts move all the time, and the absence of data to indicate how well we are actually doing (for all kids) is telling.

Anonymous 5:54 - I agree completely with your post. It is very frustrating for me as a member of SC and a parent of three kids in elementary school to see schools in other towns doing things we won't. There is no question that other districts are providing many advantages we aren't ... and, yes, that includes AP chemistry and AP statistics, but also elementary school math curriculum that seem to better prepare kids for 8th grade algebra, tracked math in 6th/7th grade to prepare MORE kids for 8th grade algebra, 9th grade biology (or physics), etc. We are virtually alone in all of these respects ... and yet we aren't alone in front of the pack ... we are alone BEHIND the pack!

Nina (at 6:42) - I think looking into who gets into their first choice college is really problematic -- given that kids focus on colleges they have a chance at getting into! I also think that it is VERY unlikely that students who drop out of ARHS or choose two-year colleges/programs are largely choosing film school options. But I don't think that getting into college (or a selective college for that matter) is the key thing. I think the key thing is whether kids are engaged and challenged consistently K to 12 I have heard from MANY people that this is just not the norm in our district, and I find that very concerning.

Nina (at 6:59) - two things. First, I think TAKING an AP class is a great experience for kids, even if they don't take the AP test or don't get a high score. The exposure to that material will help them later on. Second, I think your explanation of the block schedule as helping kids take AP math is not really likely to be accurate. One MAJOR factor is that ARHS does not offer AP Statistics at all, whereas Northampton High does. So, no matter what schedule we use (block, regular, trimester, semester), our kids can't take it, and their's can! That is particularly true since AP Statistics is a math AP you can take without having had 8th grade algebra! That strikes me as a far, far more likely explanation than many kids in NHS taking two math classes in a single year (I'm sure it happens, but I doubt it is common, given that those kids would then be giving up someting else, and on a semester block schedule, you don't have many choices after fulfilling required classes).

Joel (at 7:58) - great points. Still no data. Why is there such resistance to the idea of "Improving a high school by adopting the best practices from the best high schools in the nation." This seems like a pretty good way to go.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My (final?) responses:

Rick (at 10:38) - I did not mean to misquote you, and I'm sorry. But to me, the difference between disliking a group and members of the group wasn't my key point. I just meant that it seems odd to me that members of a group who want one thing for the schools don't like the idea that another group wants something else! The ACE group is NOT, as others have pointed out, in favor of having kids of color being disciplined more (this is not one of our key priorities)! So, I think there are parents who feel passionate about arts in the schools, and those who feel passionate about Russian in the MS and Hs, and those who feel passionate about sports teams, etc. (and of course there are MANY who feel passionately about more than one of these things and are in DIFFERENT groups simultaneously!). That is how I see RADAR and how I see ACE. They aren't in opposition, and that is why the "not liking" (whether that is "not liking people in a group" or "not liking the group"). But I did not mean to misquote you, and I'm sorry for that.

In terms of why we don't have AP chemistry and AP statistics -- I think this just hasn't been a priority for our district. I was amazed when the HS science teachers proposed the new 9th grade science curriculum in that they felt the key change that needed to be made to HS science was eliminating 9th grade biology (which is probably the single most common 9th grade science class in the country) and adding courses in ecology and environmental science (which no other districts has), and that they prioritized THIS work over adding AP Chemistry (making ARHS the ONLY high school in MSAN without a second year of chemistry). Again, AP classes are just totally not seen as a priority in Amherst, and hence there has been no focus from district leaders (principals, superintendents, SC members) on adding these. When ACE requested the addition of AP chemistry in December of 2007, Jere Hochman said "yes, yes, yes" and did nothing. Not a word has been said since that time by anyone in a leadership role in the district about adding it.

Rick (at 7:27) - great idea! And this is EXACTLY what the "how are we doing subcommittee" proposed we do, using a set of 11 specific comparison districts. I am going to push for this to be a standard approach in our district for examining ALL things (e.g., MCAS, curriculum, requirements, etc.).

Rick (at 7:46) - no, the option of AP bio in 2 versus 3 trimesters isn't helpful. In the old system, a student could take 9th grade bio, then 10th grade chem, then 11th grade AP bio (2 trimester option), then AP physics (or another science elective). In the new system, a student who wanted to maximize APs would take the required 9th grade class, 10th grade chemistry, 11 grade AP bio (I actually don't know whether it would be an option to just take the 2 trimester choice anymore, since virtually NO kids will take AP bio after having had bio, since that would be nearly taking some form of bio throughout high school!), and still AP physics. The issue is that IF we added AP chemistry, kids are then forced to choose between taking AP chemistry OR taking AP bio and any physics class. So, the new required 9th grade course really hurts kids' chances to take AP chemistry (if that was ever an option) in a way that they wouldn't if we still offered 9th grade biology.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Nina (at 8:24) - no one on this blog posting has said that only AP classes are challenging, or even that those are the most challenging. What people are saying is that students in OTHER districts have the opportunity to take AP classes in some areas (such as chemistry and statistics) that student in ARHS do not, and that colleges look fondly upon such classes, and that such classes can help students get college level credit or pass out of entry-level requirements in college. That is just not true for other classes.

If you read about what Scarsdale did, they created a set of highly rigorous and engaging classes that are basically AP classes (they are second year classes in specialized areas). And frankly, if/when ARHS achieves the kind of objective success Scarsdale has, I'm all for that type of innovation (which occurred with extensive help from professors at highly elite universities and colleges!). But if you want to lead a drive to model the Scarsdale curriculum at ARHS, I'll join forces with you immediately -- and this is a totally serious offer on my part!

But I think spending more time with teachers showing the community how challenging their classes are is not the type of data that I'm personally going to find useful. I'd like to know about outcomes, and how those outcomes compare to those in other districts.

Joel (at 9:33) - I share your belief that more anecdotes would NOT be helpful, as well as your respect that Nina does use her real name in posting (as do you, as does Rick, as do I!). Am I right to assume that you would be willing to work with me and with Nina on modeling our curriculum on that used in Scarsdale?

Rick (at 10:08) - I've been doing a lot of investigating. I'll do a blog posting soon to share it! This is work, but a lot of it is frankly work that a few people could do largely on line.

Amy - thank for your pointing out that what Scarsdale did was not exactly eliminating all AP classes, and pointing out that even that decision was controversial. Thanks also for your excellent questions, which I think many parents have: "If ARHS does not offer AP Chemistry or AP Statistics will students be prepared to take the AP exam?" (this answer is clearly NO). "Will Amherst Students be looked at less seriously in the college admissions process because they don't have these classes?" (I think this answer has got to be "potentially"). Will Amherst students be prepared to take college level science classes without these classes? (I think this answer has got to be "less than those WITH these classes").

Anonymous 2:44 - exactly my feelings!

Rick said...


OK understood on this: “seems odd to me that members of a group who want one thing for the schools don't like the idea that another group wants something else” – I get that.

I’m still a little lost on the “maximize AP courses” thing. The following option may not be allowed but if it was, doesn’t this solve the problem?

9th grade: Environmental Science
10th grade: AP Chemistry (if offered)
11th grade: AP Biology
12th grade: AP Physics

I know you want the option for Biology in 9th grade. Is that only for the reason of being able to take AP classes later, or is there another reason?

I know that (most?) other schools do it this way:

9th grade; Earth Science or Biology
10th grade: Chemistry
11th grade: Biology
12th grade: Physics

But the two years of Biology don’t make sense to me – seems like a waste because if AP is wanted, just do that to begin with.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Rick - the issue with the schedule you map out is that AP classes often have prerequisites. So, AP Physics REQUIRES at least simultaneous calculus (meaning it is hard for kids to take that class before senior year, unless they are WAY ahead in math). AP Chem, as recommended by the college board, requires a year of chemistry (regular chemistry, like what we now offer at ARHS) BEFORE that class. Similarly, AP Biology requires a year of regular chemistry before that class.

So, let's say we were a district that had AP Chemistry. In the old system (before the SC voted in 2008 to eliminate 9th grade biology as an option for ANY student), students who WANTED to take AP chem could do this:

9th grade - biology
10th grade - chemistry
11th grade - physics OR AP bio or AP chemistry
12th grade - AP physics or AP bio or AP chemistry

That gives you the opportunity to take 2 AP sciences, and you just have to choose which two you want, OR to take a year each of bio, chem, and physics, and then one AP class of your choice (could be AP chem, or one of the others).

In the new system, even if we have AP chemistry, this is what it will look like:

9th grade - ecology, environmental science
10th grade - chemistry
11th grade - AP bio (can't take AP chem because you haven't had your year of bio yet)
12th grade - AP chem

As you can see in this system, kids who WANT to take AP chem can only do so their senior year, since they must first take a year of chem AND some bio, and then they are not able to EVER take a class in physics (which is a pretty core science to miss completely). Does that help clarify my concern about the long-term ramifications of the new science requirement?

Rick said...

It does make sense given the restraints that there seem to be. I am just wondering if those restraints need to be there:

a. Why would one need to take Bio before AP Chem? I don’t recall using Bio in Chem at all. I can see needing some Chem for AP Bio but not Bio for Chem.

b. I’m not clear why would one need a Chem class before AP Chem any more than you’d need Calculus before AP Calculus or Physics before AP Physics? Is Chem that much more difficult – maybe. The College Board recommends it you say, but still not sure it makes sense to me.

I know the sciences pretty well having taken many in my high school and college years, so I am just going from my common sense with what I know about it.

The Calculus before AP Physics I understand.

So if those restraints were not there, you could do what I suggested:

9th grade: Environmental Science
10th grade: AP Chemistry (if offered)
11th grade: AP Biology
12th grade: AP Physics

BTW I am not making this argument to justify removing ninth grade Biology. I’m not sure that is smart or not, and I understand that reinstating ninth grad Biology is one answer and maybe the best answer. I’m just trying to find a solution that might work for everyone.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - I admire your diligence and optimism in finding a win-win here! However, I just think this is not possible. I don't know enough about chemistry (and never took AP Chemistry myself) to say whether or not it would be possible to do well in AP chemistry as a first course. However, I am quite confident that the college board could provide some useful information. Here is what they say:

"The AP Chemistry course is designed to be taken after the completion of a first course in high school chemistry. It is strongly recommended that credit in a first-year high school chemistry course be a prerequisite for enrollment in an AP Chemistry class. In addition, the recommended mathematics prerequisite for an AP Chemistry class is the successful completion of a second-year algebra course."

So, that to me says that yes, you really, really do need a year of chemistry FIRST -- which again, all other high schools also require, so even if we decided NOT to require this, against the college board's recommendation, our kids are then taking the AP test with half the preparation of kids in other districts.

This description also points out something else CRUCIAL -- you need to have completed a second-year of algebra, which again means that it would be IMPOSSIBLE for virtually any kids in high school to have accomplished this by the sophomore year. High achieving kids take geometry as first-years, and algebra II as sophomores, again meaning that AP chemistry could not be taken before junior year.

Now, let's talk about a win-win for kids. Let's make 8th grade algebra the norm for ALL kids, which means 9th grade geometry is the norm for all kids, and so on. That would mean we could REQUIRE 9th grade biology (one of the main reasons this course was adopted was because ONLY kids who had had 8th grade algebra could take it -- so the decision was made to forbid ANY kids from taking it to make things "fair"), and we could then add AP chemistry and allow all kids to choose their math/science progression in high school! This is, for the record, what ACE proposed nearly 2 years ago ... and a month before the SC unanimously agreed to eliminate 9th grade biology for all students.

This is also, for the record, what many other MSAN schools currently do (in terms of looking to other districts). In contrast, there is not a single MSAN school, or in fact any school that I've been able to find anywhere in the country, in which ecology and environmental science are required as 9th grade classes.

Joel said...

Catherine & Rick,

Thanks for the great dialogue on the complexities of APs, their prerequisites and requirements. This is complex stuff.

What I find fascinating is how helpful and meaningful the discussion of this blog is. It's much more detailed than the presentation from the HS teachers at the SC when they altered the science curriculum. I recall distinctly representatives of the HS saying emphatically that there were no, zero, negative consequences to the creation of a very unique required 9th grade science curriculum. I think we're seeing some of the problems it's causing.

I think it's also important to get back to the original issue on this thread, which is that Northampton is doing some very innovative things by doing exactly the opposite of what Amherst does. Northampton is embracing tough national standards and course sequences associated with the AP structure. We created a new 9th grade science requirement that makes doing that almost impossible.

Will all of this be examined? I recall a promise from the then SC that they would of course review the impact of the program.

Anonymous said...

Rick has my vote for SC. I hope you will consider running next time around Rick. Amherst needs your clear thinking and passion.

Rick said...


Ah OK thanks for the info on AP Chemistry from the College Board. So AP Chemistry seems like a “product” that people are asking for – and a reasonable one, not a wacko one. I’m not sure I see what’s wrong with offering the product then, unless there is some reason we haven’t heard about – budget is all I can think of.

The “8th grade algebra the norm” idea as you laid it out makes sense to me – though I’d like to see detailed data on what a lot of other schools do.

But the part that we should be sure to address is the “make things “fair’” part. What I mean by that is if kids will have a hard time being able to accomplish algebra in 8th grade, then just making it required is not going to fix that. I sound like a broken record on this, but I keep saying that just raising standards is not automatically going to “fix” things. These amazing success story schools you hear about succeed not just because they have high standards – and they do – but because they figured out how to get the kids to achieve them. So my suggestion is that requiring 8th grade algebra must be accompanied by something that’s going to help all kids be able to achieve it. I have no idea what that would be and certainly math taught prior to grade 8 comes into play. Probably it means looking at the math curriculum for at least 6 through 8 – I don’t know – and it may require some kind of extra help math support. Perhaps a massive summer school effort – again I don’t know.

I know you know this Catherine – it’s obvious anyhow – but I just feel it should be emphasized.

As an aside I believe it’s acknowledged by ARPS that there is nowhere near enough coordination of curriculum over grades K – 12. To me there should be a (small) committee overseeing curriculum in each subject area from K-12 to insure that it’s all coordinated.

One other thing:
I know there are folks in Amherst who want ARPS to be different – not cookie cutter. I am one of them. To those like me who think that way I would try to separate out “standards” from how you teach those “standards”. In the 8th grade algebra example, having 8th grade algebra be a standard – perhaps partly because a lot of other schools do it – does not mean that Amherst cannot be different. The difference could be in innovative ways that ARPS chooses to teach algebra. I think it also depends a lot on what subject area you are talking about. In my opinion, math is probably an area that you should not deviate too far from the “norm” on. But as another example, I believe that ARHS is one of the first schools in the country to offer an African-American Literature course, and perhaps also a Gay and Lesbian Literature course. Those are great innovations, and is part of what makes ARPS different and the kids who graduate from ARHS unique. Actually the Ecology and Environmental Science course seems like a good innovation to me, it’s just that is seems to mess up the path to higher level courses due the requirements of those courses. Maybe it would be better as a science elective?

Rick said...

On Joel’s point:

Catherine had said that ARPS responded to her that the program was invite only. We should probably ask the Massachusetts Math & Science Initiative how and when they do the invitations, and if its possible ARPS could be invited, then see if ARPS will look into that. I called and emailed Massachusetts Math & Science Initiative on Thursday about that – nothing back yet – maybe ARPS or SC should do that.

NOTE: I think it’s really important how “we” do things like this (all of the above). We don’t want to be viewed as telling ARPS what to do. You wouldn’t want that if you worked in ARPS. But it is perfectly fine, as “customers” of ARPS to ask for “products” we’d like ARPS to be offering. We want ARPS to be always be asking “what can we do for our customers?” so whatever we can do to encourage that culture is a good thing. This is probably harder for a public school system to do than a company to do because they have so many constraints to deal with – from union rules, to Federal regulations, to having no control over the price they charge (taxes) – but they can at least have that as a goal and if something gets in the way of achieving the goal they can communicate that to us, and maybe sometimes we can help.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Joel (at 9:44) - I agree that Northampton is doing impressive things ... and things that are frankly more like the "norm" in other high achieving districts. ARHS, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction, which I do find concerning (e.g., eliminating 9th grade biology, which does make taking the full range of science courses in high school harder). I also vividly remember the science teachers saying "there is no downside" -- whereas it seems there is a really big down side for kids who might want to take AP chemistry -- and I vividly remember the SC saying that "surely this would be evaluated." I've asked repeatedly for such evaluations, and to this date, no data comparing the effectiveness of this program to the prior ones (e.g., biology in 9th grade) has been presented. This seems to be something that has not been of interest to the superintendent, to Mark Jackson, or to the science teachers ... which I find really troubling.

Anonymous 10:08 - I share your admiration for Rick's passion and thoughtful remarks.

Rick (at 9:26) - a few things here. First, if we set 8th grade algebra as the norm/expectation in our district, we would then have to figure out what that took -- probably starting at kindergarten and moving through 7th grade. But I think this type of change in how we do math K to 7 is more likely to occur if we as a community, and we as a school committee, state that our expectation is 8th grade algebra for all kids. Then, we could fully investigate the curricula used in other districts that have successfully accomplished 8th grade algebra for all. For example, our K to 5 math curriculum is called Investigations, and I don't know of any districts that have accomplished FULL 8th grade algebra for all kids using this elementary curriculum (I've researched this some, and can't find any). However, there are two MSAN districts that have accomplished 8th grade algebra for all kids: Brookline, MA (they use a program called Think Math!) and Princeton, NJ (they use a program called Everyday Math). So, as a start, I think we should be looking to schools that have successfully accomplished this goal and then seeing if we can simply use the curricula they are using. I agree that math should not be a time to "reinvent the wheel"!

I also believe the ecology and environmental science would be a GREAT elective course -- and had the science teachers proposed this as an elective option (perhaps after completing a basic course in biology and/or chemistry), I would have absolutely supported it. I hear that the AP Environmental Science course was fabulous -- and unfortunately, I doubt many students will now take this course, since it will required skipping physics completely and will mean that students really are taking two of their four years of science focusing on the environment.

I also think it is important to recognize that high school is NOT the same as college. The point of high school should be able to prepare students to succeed in any college they attend (for those students who attend college). I can't imagine there is any college in the country in which students are disadvantaged by NOT having a separate class in ecology or environmental science. Colleges don't expect students to come in with such background, and even students who want to major in these fields in college start by taking broad classes in biology and chemistry FIRST. On the other hand, it would be virtually impossible to major in physics at any college in the country if you had no prior exposure to physics, and it is certainly more difficult to major in chemistry if you have had not AP chemistry. Again, this is why I think it is very important that at least in science (and math), we are preparing kids to succeed in college-level classes, in which they will be sitting next to kids from other schools that have a more traditional preparation (e.g., a year each of biology, chemistry, and physics, and potentially a second-year of AP class in one of these areas).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Rick (at 9:28) - I think the appropriate person to ask about whether Amherst could participate in that initiative would actually be the superintendent (or the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, if we had hired such a person). I will ask the superintendent to look into this.

As a member of SC, I think it is entirely appropriate for the SC to ask the superintendent to evaluate curricular areas -- for example, the course offerings and requirements and sequence of science courses. The superintendent could then make his recommendation about any changes. Similarly, I think that it is entirely appropriate for the SC to ask for an analysis of our AP class offerings, and how those compare to high-achieving districts, and to ask the superintendent for his recommendations. The superintendent is ultimately the leader of the district, and certainly has a role in shaping the curriculum in all of the schools.

Anonymous said...

As I read the comments back and forth I have a recurring question in mind. Why do we need to make 8th grade algebra required for all and why do we need to make either biology or the current ecology course required for all? Can 8th grade algebra be a course that is offered to those who want to take it and the same with both biology and ecology - ARPS offers products and the students pick which products they want.

Rick has a point that right it might not be feasible to immediately make 8th algebra required for all because not everyone is ready for it. If that is a goal then perhaps we start with offering 8th grade algebra as a choice to those who feel ready for it and at the same time, work on the K-7 curriculum to get everyone ready for it.

I really hope there is some resolution VERY soon to the math/science sequence offerings in the high school. I hope we do not have to wait to align the K-12 curriculum in totality before boosting our current offerings.

Rick said...

Catherine just a quick one on your last comment. In my "NOTE" above the "we" I was referring to are parents and the rest of us, not SC members. SC members are not the "customers", they are part of the "management" of the "company" (they may be customers also).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 1:28 - 8th grade HONORS algebra is now offered to those who qualify (meaning those who do extensions in 7th grade). The MS does not offer a regular algebra class, which I do not understand at all (we are the only district I've been able to find in which kids have to extra homework in 7th grade to get to take HONORS algebra and the only district I've been able to find in which ONLY honors algebra, not regular algebra, is offered in 8th grade). I asked this question last fall during a presentation to the SC on the math curriculum by Mike Hayes, and was told that we don't offer regular 8th grade algebra because that would be tracking (although of course we are now tracking -- some kids take geometry in 8th grade, some take honors algebra, and most take regular math -- we just have three tracks and we omit the regular algebra track which is what many kids do in other districts).

I don't believe that ARHS should be teaching any 9th grade science class that isn't offered anywhere else in the country ... that just seems very, very problematic in terms of providing kids with a core exposure to the key disciplines of science (ecology is not considered a separate discipline of science, nor is environmental science). However, I would be LESS opposed to the ecology/environmental science class if it was OPTIONAL, because at least then kids who wanted a more traditional science exposure (like kids at all other schools in the country have) would have that option. I suggested this to the superintentent (Jere Hochman) and to several members of the SC BEFORE the vote, and obviously this idea was not adopted.

I certainly agree that waiting for the whole K to 12 alignment to occur BEFORE figuring out that maybe we don't want to have a 9th grade science program that teaches a course not taught anywhere else in the COUNTRY as a required 9th grade course.

Rick (at 2:15) - yes, I totally understood that to be the difference ... the HS (or any of the schools) should not be driven by popularity of parent/community opinion ... and the SC has a role (which I believe they have under-utilized) to make sure that the superintendent is in fact reviewing our programs, courses, and curricula, which I believe should include an examination of how these compare to those in other districts AND an evaluation of their effectiveness. I hope to see this happening soon.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:28 here.

It seems clear to me from your description of 8th grade math course offerings that 8th grade math is currently tracked and that the only track not offered is regular Algebra. It seems kind of silly to offer Honors Algebra but not regular Algebra. I don't understand that at all.

How did the math/science curriculum, course offerings and available course sequences get so messed up? We need a strong leader to review all of this and then bring ARPS into synch with the rest of the country to best prepare our students either for college or for the working world.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 1:28/3:29 - I share your puzzlement. When I've asked about this odd absence of 8th grade REGULAR algebra, I've been told (by numerous people), that "we don't track". Of course, that makes no sense, given that we have three very clear tracks. It strikes me that Amherst seems to see math ability as a pyramid ... most kids do the lowest level (regular math), about 1/3 do the second highest level (honors algebra), and about 1% do the highest level (geometry). In many other districts, math ability seems to be distributed like a bell curve -- with most kids in the moderate level (regular algebra), and some on each ends (e.g., the highest achieving kids in honors algebra or honors, and the lower achieving kids getting some extra help). I don't see why math ability in Amherst would be distributed differently than such ability in other districts -- UNLESS we have a weaker math curriculum in elementary school so kids enter the MS less prepared than kids in other districts AND/OR we have a philosophy that kids in Amherst are less capable of kids in other districts AND/OR the preparation we use to prepare kids for 8th grade HONORS algebra (that would be "extensions") is maybe not the best approach (this is an approach used exclusively in Amherst). I think all of these explanations are possible, and of course they aren't mutually exclusive.

I conducted a review of other MSAN districts (by calling curriculum leaders in math and/or superintendents) last summer as part of my work on the math curriculum council, and I was struck by how few kids in Amherst relative to kids in other districts. In many districts 80 to 100% of kids are doing algebra in 8th grade and then moving on to geometry in 9th grade (Chapel Hill - NC, Brookline - MA, Princeton, NJ). In others, about half of 8th graders take algebra (52% in Arlington - MA, 50% in Framingham - MA, 55% in Newton, MA). Although some of these districts are generally wealthier than Amherst (e.g., Chapel Hill, Princeton, Newton, and Brookline all have fewer kids on free/reduced lunch than Amherst), others aren't (Arlington and Framingham both have substantially MORE kids on free/reduced lunch than Amherst yet have far more kids doing 8th grade algebra than we do).

So, you ask the very wise question -- how did our math/science course offerings get so messed up? In my opinion, the superintendent and the SC simply let the teachers do whatever they wanted to do, without requiring any sort of evidence (e.g., research, demonstrated success in other districts) that such approaches would in fact be successful ... so, if the MS leadership decided that extensions was the best way to prepare kids for HONORS algebra, the SC and superintendent said "great." And if the HS science teachers decided that the best way to prepare 9th graders for future science classes was to eliminate 9th grade biology as an option for any students, and to instead require all students to take ecology and environmental science, the SC and the superintendent said "great"! Again, this is NOT the fault of the teachers ... who I believe are caring, smart, and dedicated people. I believe it is the fault entirely of the superintendent (NOT the current one!) and the SC, who set up a system in which there was absolutely no requirement or insistence on evidence-based practices, research, or evaluation. I'm therefore trying to change the norm ... and it is hard, and lonely. So, if these things matter to you (evidence, research, what other districts are doing), feel free to convey those thoughts to other members of the SC (you can email us all together at and/or make sure you vote for SC members who share these beliefs and are willing to act peristently and loudly on them!

Anonymous said...

I find it hard to understand why, in a high school with so many elective options, why their are so few options for core courses. Why not let kids take the alegebra, biology, advanced science courses they want when they want? If they want to zoom along in math and science, let them zoom. Why would classes these kids take in 7th, 8th and 9th grades so limit them in their high school careers? I am all for courses in gay literature and history -- that's terrific. Let's given our students great options in science and math too. Let's do everything we can to let our kids try and suceed at their interests.

Also Cranky said...

I agree! Why are our kids able to take so many electives per trimester but unable to double up on academic subjects? If I understand the high school program of study correctly, students are able to double up in English and Social Studies in junior and senior years, but other than that, it doesn't seem as if doubling up is an option. Unless it is an elective or music ensemble. That doesn't make sense to me.