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, November 25, 2009

Amherst superintendent eyes moving middle school students to high school

Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, November 26, 2009

AMHERST - The cuts needed in next year's school budget are so large that Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez is considering the option of moving students from the Regional Middle School to Amherst Regional High School.

"We're looking to see if that is a model that would save us a substantial amount of dollars," he told a joint meeting of the Amherst and Regional School Committees Tuesday. He said the probe is in its initial stage.

Rodriguez acknowledged that there would be substantial pushback from parents.

But the combination of increased staff costs and decreasing state aid requires cuts that he called "draconian," unless voters agree to raise property taxes beyond state limits next March.

Committee member Debbie Gould, of Pelham, said it's difficult to achieve cuts in the $2 million to $3 million range, while maintaining popular programs, by just trimming here and there. "In these times, we need to leave no stone unturned," she said.

Committee member Irv Rhodes, of Amherst, compared the creation of a school budget to building a house. He said he wants to tell administrators how much money is available but not to micromanage the construction.

Rodriguez continued the metaphor. "Where do you want the window?" Rodriguez said. "We need guidance as we're building the house so there's as little wasted motion as possible."

Member Farshid Hajir, of Leverett, also went with the house-budget comparison.

"I'm afraid we have a Taj Mahal we can no longer heat," he said. "I don't want a log cabin, but I hope to end up with a smaller Taj Mahal that is affordable and sustainable."

He said that if $3 million were cut from the regional budget, it would still be above the state minimum.

Rodriguez, who plans to finish budget preparation in early February, said it's important to define the "core" or "essence" of what the schools do.

"What is it that we stand for?" he said. "What programs are part of this community? Do I really need this program or is it something we can cut and maintain the overall level of services to children?"

Rodriguez said he's looking at the amount of time students spend in special education and the English language learners program, and possible changing the model for instruction.

"Some Ph.D programs are shorter," he said. "We may not be serving kids well, and these programs are costing a lot of money."

Amherst Committee member Steve Rivkin said the town should compare its programs to what other districts are doing. He said the schools should consider returning to a semester system and ending a program enabling students to attend Greenfield Community College.

But Rivkin said that class sizes should be maintained.

"Our main job is to make sure our students are learning core subjects," he said. Members Hajir and Andy Churchill were less optimistic about maintaining current class sizes. "I want the same quality and feeling but on a smaller scale," Hajir said.

Churchill reminded the committee that this year's school staffing is lower than last year's by the equivalent of 55 full-time positions.

Eighth-grade teachers are responsible for 120 students instead of 80, and the central office is having trouble keeping up, he said.

"I don't want to go to mediocrity just because we have to make budget cuts," he said.


Anonymous said...

Please, before we eliminate our middle school, can we please consider eliminating the south campus high school and the east street high school? Those serve such few kids. Please look to those cuts first.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My thoughts - I'm actually on vacation right now in Alabama with my family, and hence I wasn't at the meeting last night. However, I think this is a REALLY bad idea, and I hope not a lot of time will be spent exploring it. I don't think that the cost savings will be tremendous (e.g., the 7th/8th graders still need teachers, the MS building still houses the pool that the HS swim team uses and ALL of IT/HR/superintendent so we don't just put it in mothballs or sell it). I fear that this type of proposal might be designed in part to scare people into voting for an override ... because it surely seems to me like there are ways we could cut (as painful as that would/will be) that should be considered first. I think those include all of the following:

seriously considering how much we spend on special ed

seriously considering how much we spend on administrators (in central office and the HS)

seriously considering whether we need 6 world languages taught in 7 to 12

seriously considering whether we need such an extensive array of small enrollment electives (e.g., culinary, textiles, woodworking, etc.)

seriously considering whether we can AFFORD the trimester system

seriously considering the fees charged for athletics

seriously considering the types and timing of support we provide for struggling students (ALL evidence suggests that spending money earlier is better than spending money on intervention later)

In sum, I think closing the MS should be a LAST resort, and I would certainly hope that option isn't even under consideration until we have a good sense of the cost savings associated with other types of savings.

Anonymous said...

I agree with CS. It is the scare tactic to make people vote for override. How does it make sense to keep the class size in high school from 15 -22 (classes less than 15 students) are eliminated... while elementary and missle school has class sizes 25 - 30.

Middle school academics has no fat. Class sizes are big, language levels are combined, teams reduced, teachers dealing with bigger classes, cut in electives by 2.

The only area to look at middle school is number of languages and administrative, support counselors, SPED, bridge program, NOT the code academics that serve majority of the students.

On the other hand high school programs (Electives, languages, classes for 5 kids with best teachers as described by Principal Jackson) to encourage students of color to take honors classes all need to be looked at.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

It should be (considering the complexity of all the other things staff does) relatively straightforward to come up with budget numbers on keeping the two programs you mention (alternative programs at South Amherst and East St/formerly Fort River Annex) running, vs. the cost to send those kids OOD (out of district), which (aside from removing students completely from our community, never a plus) usually has quite a hefty price tag per student plus requires relatively expensive door to door transportation twice a day -- which is why we've been providing the services "in house."

The needs of the students in those two programs have been determined to be outside possible re-integration into the high school facility, even in a secluded sort of setting.

The current costs associated with the two programs you mention should clearly lay out expenses for the transportation to those separate facilities, the need to maintain those relatively old facilities with utilities and cleaning and basic maintenance (vs. some form of "mothballing" if the programs weren't there), and the salary *and* benefits *and* future retirement benefits of the faculty/staff providing services in those buildings.

I don't have any idea what an equivalent OOD placement plus transportation for each of the current kids costs, although it should be pretty simple to figure out given the small number of kids involved. But do keep in mind OOD placements for some kids -- not necessarily these kids -- have been known to cost $50,000 per student per year and up, and even $100,000 for one student for one year is not considered bizarre. And of course the state reimburses very little of that cost.

A lot of people are concerned about our "SPED" costs increasing faster than our "regular" education costs. It's great that the long-desired SPED review later this year will look at how this has all played out from preK-12 (I assume). Until some data indicates otherwise, however, we've continued to run our own substantially separate programs in those two facilities because the experts in those areas agreed 1) it was best for the kids, and 2) it was less expensive than sending them away.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Alisa, isn't it possible to close the two alternative high schools without actually dismantling the programs? If there is enough room at ARHS to move the ~250 middle schoolers there, wouldn't there be enough room to move the ~45 alternative high school students there? That would enable to programs themselves to continue (thus not having to deal with the possibility that they would leave the district--the reason everyone always gives for maintaining these programs) but would reduce the cost for them. Maintaining to separate, older facilities for these programs seems like a good place to look for cuts. This move would not only eliminate utility costs but might also reduce custodial, transportation, and administrative costs.

Another plus I see is that the alternative high school students could be better integrated with the rest of the high school community. I.e. better able to participate in extra-curriculars, attend assemblies, etc. That is how Building Blocks at Fort River is run--a separate program within the existing elementary school building and those students do integrate while kids in the traditional classrooms for things like specials.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Alison, I do understand what you're saying -- so I guess what I didn't say effectively is that when I was on School Committee back in the day when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we were told flat out that it was not appropriate to integrate these two programs into the high school even if space was available, and that it was *not* the same kinds of needs as the integration the elementary SPED programs provide. Again, we were told the needs of these kids needed to be met outside, period. I certainly don't have the specialized knowledge to argue with SPED professionals that I know better than they do what kids who aren't mine might need. And of course parents also have some options that play into this, in that even *if* it seemed that *some* of the kids in these two programs *could* have their needs met in the high school, their parents could say that was not sufficient.

So you've got two different discussions to be had here: one is whether we're defining these kids needs appropriately (a topic for SPED professionals and program review), and the other is whether we're providing the cheapest way of meeting those needs (some straightforward number crunching).

Anonymous said...

Sure A-Rod, Let's move 6th grade to middle school, middle school to high school. Great idea!! Not!!

LarryK4 said...

Well, I believe we have two almost new portable classrooms at Mark's Meadow that were never actually used as classrooms.

And since the Conservation Department owns a fair amount of Amherst (without paying property tax on any of it), surely we can find a home for these portables and move the few South Campus High School and East Street Annex to them thus freeing up those historic buildings for sale to a hard working creative type person (like Barry Roberts) who will pay fair market value AND put them back on the tax rolls.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Not to be a smart ass about it, Larry, but I have to assume that the two programs are each using more than one space in their current separate buildings, not having all the kids in the program in one room (2 modulars = 2 classrooms but does not equal 2 buildings).

And the modulars could theoretically be used for holding central admin so they could move out of MS *if* we move 6th grade to MS...or maybe the East St annex would be better for central admin.

Still, I hear ya -- and I'd love to see those old school building properties appropriately developed, too.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, just keep in mind those old buildings are worth Big Bucks up front, and then forever more as they go ON the tax rolls (kind of like buying a Subway or Planet Fitness franchise where you pay a BIG amount up front and then a decent amount every year based on gross sales.)

And those modular classrooms will be lucky to return 50 cents on the dollar if we try to sell them in this economy.

Much better for the town/schools to find a savvy way to use them.

Anonymous said...

First we have serious informed comments making substantial contributions to the discussion and then the peanut gallery arrives and chirps mindlessly about whatever crosses their mind.

LarryK4 said...

But hey, at least they (the last two anyway) do not do it Anonymously.

Anonymous said...

enough with the bullying around those who wish to comment under the name "anonymous". we live in a small town and the blog software offers individuals a chance to submit anonymous comments. Given the hostility some of these comments display, who can blame a person who is looking to express a point of view from a a safe position? name calling around anonymity, when people are only expressing a point of view, is just another way to say "shut up you're not welcome here". And if that's the case, it should be part of the blog's rules.

Anonymous said...

Let's not let this discussion stray away from the point. Aren't we in a brainstorming phase of the budget process right now? Why don't we just let all the ideas come out, discuss the pros and cons and then hash out what our best options are.

I don't doubt that it's possible that this proposal is meant to be a scare tactic -- but let's just treat it as one alternative and not freak out.

Anonymous said...

We ask for accountability and transparency - and then suggest the superintendent may be practicing 'scare tactics' by sharing his idea with the public. So, do we want the superintendent to be explaining his thinking, or do we not? Can we hold off on the accusations for a few minutes?

Anonymous said...

Alisa, you said, "we were told flat out that it was not appropriate to integrate these two programs into the high school even if space was available." Maybe this situation has changed? I know they are at the HS to eat breakfast before school, if that is allowed, why not an area set aside for classes too? Worth looking into, as are all of CS's ideas.

Anonymous said...

I think that we're beginning to see the problem with the anti-override position: that all the cuts will be THE most intelligent ones. The cutting is something that no one person, no one intelligence, even one as determined and intelligent(about some things)as Ms. Sanderson, is going to control. They will be the product of a political process, too.

And, we're starting to see the paranoia creep in from the anti-overriders. Now they're assuming that proposed "efficiencies", if they're not the ones they want, are simply scare tactics before the vote.

Despite the hyperanalysis of this blog, and the lingering belief that "we haven't hit bone yet", I'm still voting "yes" on every override line except the "Restore Mark's Meadow" line.

My sense is that the economy movement on this blog is destined to overshoot the mark, a little like running the car down to E on the gas gauge but "hey, the car still runs". Eventually we're going to be stopped by the side of the road, with no gas stations in sight.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

Anon: 2:52 PM

Wow, that's the first time I've heard an Anonymous poster complain that my use of the term Anon constitutes "bullying" and is "name calling".

At least I did not call you a Cowardly/Anon/Nitwit as I often refer to those of such ilk (if I dare use that loaded term) on my blog.

Anonymous said...

I think moving the MS to the HS is a great idea. We baby the 7th and 8th graders too much anyway. Let's throw them into the lion's den. A few nicks and scrapes on the psyche will do them good.

The sooner we cut mommy's apron strings the better.

Anonymous said...

Ouch. Rough stuff there. And I beg your pardon but mommy's in Amherst don't wear aprons. Their husbands do, however.

Anonymous said...

Hey Andy Churchill, We're going to go way past mediocrity if we cut 1.2 million from the hs budget. We'll go straight to devastation. Mediocrity? Do you have any idea what the effects of that big a cut in the budget will do?

That number = 20 teachers, which just so happens to coincide with all of the elective programs. Right, who needs electives anyway?

Of course, the upper echelons in town will never let the music program get cut. How would that look on Sally's transcript as she tries to get into Yale? Those kids from Newton, Belmont and Longmeadow will all have Orchestra on their records, in addition, of course, to the all-important AP courses. And we have to look just like them, right Mr. Jones?

Irv Rhodes doesn't want to micromanage? Really? Is that why two HS depts are being force fed AP course curriculum? A short time ago, this AP storm was just more verbal noise coming from Mrs. Sanderson until Arod started saying the same thing. Only now, he is saying that he wants the new AP programs ready to go for next year. One of the depts at the HS does not even want to bring the AP course in. Maybe they think their curriculum is pretty solid already.

Gee, I don't suppose the long running history of high achieving students at ARHS getting into the best colleges in the world means anything. They didn’t take AP Chem or AP statistics and yet somehow managed to continue to do phenomenal work in college, and then went on to do meaningful work in the world. They must have cheated. How could anyone achieve in school without AP?

Yep. Arod, it didn't take you long to lose your spine, if you even had one to begin with. You're here a few short months and already Mrs. Sanderson is brow beating you. Of course, what did you have to lose by taking this job? We're paying you top dollar, at least for this little town, and you get a $15,000.00 travel expense so you can go back and forth to your home in Miami, Florida. You'll be gone before the next Presidential election and never look back. This was a nice stepping stone for you. Glad our little town could help boost your career along the way.

Hey teachers and all of the other employees that the town of Amherst pays. Raise your hand if you are getting a $15,000.00 travel expense so you can go back and forth to your home. That's what I thought.

Anonymous said...

The AP movement in this country was a brilliant business move on the part of the College Board. They hooked the paranoia of the Mrs. Sandersons of the world, who are afraid their kid won't get into Princeton. And they created an array of courses that feed that mentality. If your kid isn't taking one of these course, which by the way all of the best and brightest kids in other upper middle class and upper class towns are taking, then they are out of luck and will have to settle for some second tier college.


And the fuse was lit. Mrs. Sanderson freaked out, something she is very good at, and started wailing on about the lack of AP courses in science and math at good old ARHS.

Then she sunk her teeth into you, Arod, the man who has no spine, and then you pronounced that the science and math depts at the hs will have these two new, additional courses ready to go for next year.

Yup, that’s good management. In a time when the school will suffer its most devastating cuts in history, let’s add two new courses for the transcript chasers.

The AP math course currently proposed is for about 18 kids who have taken the upper level math courses ARHS offers. Since the offerings from Amherst College no longer match the hs schedule, our hs kids can’t take the upper level math course there. And if they took them at Umass, they would have to pay for them.



Really, pay for them? Wow. That would be terrible. Trust me. I paid for my kids to go to college. In fact, I’ll be paying off the loans for some time to come. You don’t want to pay for college. It’s expensive.

No, instead we should bring in a new math course for these 18 kids and cut some other course that all 1300 kids could take. That makes sense to me.

You go Mrs. Sanderson. What’s on the horizon? By the time you’re finished no one will recognize Amherst. And of course, that is precisely your goal since the Amherst schools produce such lousy students, historically.

Thanks for riding over the hill to destroy, er uh, save us.

But you’ve got Larry Kelly on your side. He thinks you’re perky. That’s what people say about Sarah Palin, too. Perky. Personally, perky doesn’t do you justice. No, I’d go with something a lot less Katie Couric. You are more in the Barbara Bush Category.

Wave that flag, even if it is made in China.

Rick said...

I was at the meeting and in my view this article way overstates how seriously anyone is thinking about this; an example of pulling out the piece that will grab attention and making that your headline. It came up at the meeting as an idea, but that’s about it. And it wasn’t brought up by Rodriguez; it was brought up by Debbie Gould as something she had heard was being considered – she was not saying it was a good idea.

What Debbie also said is that we are going to need ideas that save big money, while hopefully not hurting the quality of education – like closing MM. I agree. What other big ideas there are out there, ARPS needs to brainstorm on.

We pay Rodriguez to look at every possible option – I want him to do that – and when he does that there will probably be one good idea for every five he thinks up. That’s part of why we have a school committee to begin with – to review these ideas and vet them.

I agree with the list of things that Catherine mentions as the focus, plus a look at the alternative high schools, plus things we haven’t thought of yet.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses (and Happy Thanksgiving!):

Anonymous 11:28 - I think the two campuses should be examined ... I believe the new special ed evaluation (this spring) will do so, and we certainly need to understand whether these programs are meeting our kids' needs in the best way (educationally and financially).

Anonymous 11:59 - I believe it is a bad idea to throw out "let's close the MS" -- that is a really major statement, and it would lead to a huge number of issues (and again, I'm not sure where the cost savings come from). Certainly low enrollment HS classes have to be considered (there are many HS classes now taught to fewer than 20 kids -- in core academics as well as electives), as does administration at all levels (HS, MS, central office), as does special ed/intervention/ELL. Closing the MS and grouping all kids 7 to 12 seems like an unnecessary proposal until ALL of these other things have been considered.

Alisa (at 12:00) - I agree that this type of cost-evaluation is necessary for the two alternative high schools. That is one reason why I really wish the override talk had been pushed off for a year ... because I'm not clear when we are going to get the results from the special ed evaluation, but I think it is likely to be post-March 23rd. I think there are many examples of our district not using money well (e.g., the clustering by language at the elementary level which seems to have prolonged the time kids have spent in ELL while it costs additional $$), so it isn't clear to me at all that what we are doing in these programs is either (a) educationally preferred, or (b) cost efficient. I'm hopeful the special ed evaluation will answer both of these questions -- but again, this won't happen, I fear, by March 23rd.

Alison - that seems like a creative idea (moving these programs to the HS) ... or perhaps considering moving them to the MS (since there is apparently room for the 6th grade) -- perhaps they could be integrated with the Bridges program in some way, so kids with particular needs would then have fewer transitions. Again, this is precisely the type of thing I would hope then new special education evaluation will reveal.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Alisa (at 12:18) - I too have no idea whether moving these programs (to the HS or MS) would be possible or desirable. But I am very confident the special ed review will shed some light on this, so I believe this is something we will know relatively soon ... but perhaps not in time to help a ton for next year's budget.

Anonymous 12:59 - I like the idea of moving 6th grade to the MS. I don't like the idea of moving 7th and 8th to the HS. But again, my issue with the proposal is two-fold: first, FEW other districts have a 7 to 12 school (whereas many have a 6 to 8 MS), and second, the 7/8 move was described as entirely a financial decision (NOT an educational one, whereas at least some people believe the 6th going to the MS would be educationally valid). I'd like us to be making decisions that are educationally-based ... but fiscally responsible. I'm not sure moving the 7/8 to the HS is either.

Larry - this is definitely something that could be considered. However, let's remember that the portables aren't very PORTABLE! The estimate was $140,000 to move them ... and they have a lifespan of like 10 years. So, we should think carefully whether this is the right way to go.

Alisa (at 1:31) - I agree with all of these points. Moving the modulars/freeing up one/both of these campuses, etc. all seem like things to be explored. Again, I think these issues are going to have to wait until after the special ed review, however?

Larry (at 1:40) - yes on all fronts. But remember, $140,000 to move them is TOUGH. Better to make sure that is a cost effective move before we do it.

Anonymous 1:49 - not sure why you are posting something criticizing the "peanut gallery" anonymously?!?

Larry (2:39) - indeed.

Anonymous said...

What if...we DID merge the MS and HS and then leased out the MS to the PVPA charter school and somehow combined parts of our performing arts department with PVPA? or leased the space to the Chinese Immersion and somehow cllaborated with them?

I think we need to get creative because I'm pessimistic that an override will pass given the uncertain state of the economy.

Many Western Mass towns have combined MS/HS models - and they seem to make them work just fine.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more from me:

Anonymous 2:52 - I've deliberately kept allowing anonymous posters (against some irritation by others who wish I wouldn't) because I know that this is a small town and some people don't feel comfortable posting under their names. HOWEVER, I think anonymous posters should act as if they are posting using their names ... they can make points, ask questions, raise issues ... but should not take advantage of the cloak of anonymity to slander people. I'm not keeping anonymous posting as an option to allow criticism (of district staff, other posters, SC members, etc.) -- I'm keeping it to allow reasonable and fair issues to be raised.

Anonymous 3:15 - I agree we should keep the discussion focused on the issues, which is how to make responsible choices about budget cuts. But I do NOT believe that closing the MS is an approach that should now be considered (for all of the reasons I've laid out before), and I think that fully investigating this option (logistically, educationally, financially) would take a HUGE amount of time and would distract us from focusing on other real budget-cutting options that are more likely to be implemented. That is my concern about this idea being tossed out at a meeting (without any warning to the SC beforehand, or, based on Mike Hayes' reaction at the meeting, the current MS leadership!), where it was certain to garner media attention.

Anonymous 3:25 - one of the cardinal rules of the SC/superintendent relationship is "no surprises" -- and members of the SC were surprised by this suggestion. In addition, he didn't lay out his reasoning -- how would this save costs, in what way, would it be good educationally, etc.? So, if he believes this is a really good idea that should be considered, he should certainly come forward to the SC and the community and lay out his reasoning (as he in fact did last summer with the 6th grade move proposal, which I supported). That is NOT the same as a pretty off-the-cuff suggestion as a meeting without warning to the SC or current senior MS principal ... which is what leads me to believe that this is not an idea that is being seriously considered. But if it is, then I will look forward to hearing a really fleshed out view of Dr. Rodriguez's proposal of how this will save money. Remember, a year ago this time, the SC sat through a meeting and learned from then superintendents Helen/Al (at a SC meeting, without any warning) that a major cost savings that would be necessary would be pairing the elementary schools (MM-WW, CF-FR) ... and that when I pushed on getting the numbers on this cost-savings plan, it turned out it was MORE expensive than maintaining four separate K to 6 elementary schools.

Anonymous 5:04 - again, there are things that have been done in Amherst that were described as "necessary" in many aspects of our schools ... and these things turned out not to be necessary (e.g., busing kids to maintain language clusters), and in fact, not even to be advisable! I am therefore looking forward to the independent review of special education so that we can get expert advice on whether having these two alternative HS makes sense (financially and educationally).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rich - I've already responded at length about why I don't think the close the MS idea is one that is seriously under consideration -- if I'm wrong, and that is something that we end up doing (or seriously considerig doing), then I'm wrong, and I'll gladly apologize to all blog readers (and the superintendent) for being wrong. I don't think it is a good idea, for all the reasons I've already noted.

In terms of the override: I think it is very clear there are three groups. One is totally pro-override and has already decided they will support one (you are in this group, unless it involves saving MM). One is totally anti-override and has already decided not to support one (Stan Gawle, Larry Kelly are likely in this one). But many people (and I am in this one!) haven't decided -- they might support one, and they might not. The override is going to be won or lost on these undecided voters, just as presidential campaigns are won/loss NOT on the die-hard party-line voters, but the independents. Thus, I believe we need to pay serious attention to what the independents are saying -- and when these independents are parents with young kids in the schools, we need to a pay a lot of attention, since these are the voters who in a sense have the most to gain from supporting one.

As you and others know, I worked REALLY hard on the 2007 override. I wrote a letter to the Bulletin. I donated money. I helped organized the Amherst Plan (see my name on that website even today). I held meetings in my house and attended meetings in many houses. And what I learned was that many of my FRIENDS with young kids did NOT support an override because they had gotten the clear message that an override wouldn't benefit their kids' education. I thought they were wrong, which I pointed out to them (and probably convinced some, though not all, of them).

Then the 2007 override failed, and guess what -- nothing changed in our schools! Still had instrumental music starting in 3rd grade. Still had just one study hall in the HS. Still had very small classes in MS (average of 17). Still had small classes in ES, rich array of art/music/PE in ES and electives in HS. Again, it then really seemed like voting no was the right decision, and I felt stupid and tricked (and I have apologized to friends who I asked to support one then).

So, it is now 2009, and it seems like we are gearing up for a 2010 override vote. What is different? New superintendent and new SC ... but both are so new that it isn't clear whether the accountability and responsibility in terms of decision-making (educationally and fiscally) have changed. I had very much hoped the override vote would be in 2011, so that our superintendent would have a chance to demonstrate what has changed -- and that he WILL make responsible decisions. But he will have been on the job less than 9 months when the override vote occurs, and I think many in the community are going to be looking to his leadership to regain trust/faith in the schools and the commitment to work for all kids. Is 9 months enough time for him to build trust? I just don't know - but that seems to me to be the key issue that the undecideds are going to be examining.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more from me:

Larry (at 6:14) - I continue to hope that anonymous posters will act in their posts as if they were identified. I think it is a shame when they don't.

Anonymous 9:17 - I am going to assume you are being sarcastic.

Anonymous 9:22 - I am going to assume you are also being sarcastic.

Anonymous 10:16 - just think for a minute whether you would post these remarks in such a way if you weren't anonymous. The remarks are mean and hurtful, and I don't think accomplish anything productive.

But I'm going to respond to them anyway, because I'm going to treat you with respect (unlike how you have treated virtually everyone you mention in your post).

First, I don't necessarily agree that cutting 1.2 million will lead to mediocrity. We could save $270,000 by going to semesters, which has no negative impact (it increases % of time kids spend in class). That gets us to a bit over $900,000. I think we could make some careful cuts in ELL/special ed that could be cost saving. I think we could consider cutting an administrator or two (in central office, MS, or HS). I think we could certainly raise some class sizes in the HS (again, there are MANY classes taught to fewer than 20 kids). Is our school system mediocre if we don't offer 6 world languages at 7th grade? I don't think so. Again, I think we need to examine various cost savings measures and then decide how they will impact education. Some might influence education in unacceptable ways. Others might not.

Second, I wasn't at the meeting, but I'm very surprised if someone said lets cut 1.2 million by cutting 20 teachers who teach electives. That strikes me as highly implausible.

Third, I do believe we need music and orchestra and AP classes because they are good and valuable for kids' education (NOT because it will get them into Yale). Do you think we don't? I really don't get your point here.

Fourth, was an announcement made that HS departments are being "force-fed" AP classes? If so, I haven't heard that. Which departments? Which classes? Do you believe that it is good for our HS to offer fewer AP classes than other schools? That having fewer classes benefits our students in some way? Again, clarify what you think in a thoughtful way and it will be much easier for me, and others, to understand your point.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Anonymous 10:16 - still responding to all of your points (in a thoughtful and respectful way).

Let's say there is a student who loves chemistry and lives in Amherst. Should that student have the opportunity to take AP chemistry or is that just a stupid and elitist idea I have? How about if that student lived in Northampton or Brookline and could take AP chemistry, but a student in Amherst couldn't? This isn't, for me, about getting into college -- it is about succeeding in college. I teach at a college, and I see how kids do in intro to chemistry (one of the hardest classes at most colleges) -- kids who have AP chemistry are at a clear advantage over kids who don't. That matters to me, because I believe kids in Amherst should have the same opportunity to succeed in all colleges, in all majors, in all fields, as those who attend other schools. Would you believe a kid going to the Springfield public schools can take AP chemistry? Again, why do you opposed having our kids have that same opportunity?

Finally, Dr. Rodriguez is our superintendent, and regardless of what you feel about his salary/travel expenses, he is currently the district leader. I want him to succeed. I hope you want him to succeed. I believe he is paid a lot because the job is hard and he should therefore show real leadership about the direction of the district. What do you mean about him "not having a spine?" Is he supposed to oppose having AP Chemistry to demonstrate that he has a spine (e.g., Catherine wants AP Chemistry, which most other districts have -- probably Miami! -- but he should oppose it to demonstrate hs had a spine, even if he thinks that is good for our kids?!?). I have no idea what you even mean by that comment -- again, maybe more focus on clarifying your points in a thoughtful and constructive way would be useful?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Anonymous 10:17 - again, I wasn't at the meeting, but I'm interested to learn that Dr. Rodriguez announced there will be new AP classes? Could you clarify the nature of the announcement?

But to respond to your points:

The AP movement may or may not have been a clever movement on behalf of the College Board. But the reality is, there are AP classes and many districts have them (and in math/science, many districts have more than Amherst). You can ridicule these classes, or me, as being motivated entirely by kids/parents trying to get their kids into Princeton, but here are two key things you are either forgetting or don't understand:

1. These classes help kids succeed in college since our kids are now competing in college classes with kids from other districts who have these courses. So, one approach to put our kids on a level playing field once they go to college would be adding the same courses kids can now take in other high schools all across the country. I guess another approach would be convincing other high schools to drop their AP classes -- that seems like a much harder approach.

2. AP classes save kids money in college. I went to Stanford (throw in the elitist attacks about this in your next post) and I started Stanford as a sophomore because of AP credits. This gave me tremendous flexibility in my course taking and would have allowed me to graduate in three years (and this happens at many state universities as well).

I think it is really interesting that you will accuse the superintendent of having no spine because he has the very, very radical idea that kids in Amherst should have the opportunity to take the same AP classes as kids in other districts. What a big, spineless loser the superintendent is for wanting our kids to have the same advantages in terms of college preparation and intellectual engagement as kids in other districts, like Springfield and Northampton. Dr. Rodriguez clearly has no spine at all since any reasonable superintendent would see our lack of AP chemistry and AP statistics as absolutely the right way to distinguish our school system from most others. You make an excellent point here, and I only wish you'd chosen to sign your name to your post slamming the superintendent and me.

I have said before that we should negotiate with U Mass to have free tuition for our HS kids who finish math ... but I think you are totally wrong about who an AP statistics course would appeal to. It is likely NOT kids who've finished all the math at the HS (these kids probably want an advanced calculus class) -- it is kids who didn't take algebra in the MS and thus can't take an AP math class (which would help them get into college and also prepare them for many majors, such as psychology and math and economics). Since the majority of kids don't take algebra in 8th grade, it seems like this class would in fact be highly relevant for the majority of our students ... might be one of the reasons why our spineless superintendent would favor adding it.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Rick - glad to hear that this was not a big focus of the meeting ... I agree that big ideas are needed, but I still can't imagine this is the right way to go. I also fear that when some ideas are tossed out, they end up distracting us from other things to seriously consider. I agree that considering the two alternative high schools should be on my list -- thanks.

Anonymous 11:07 - you are thinking creatively! I think the issue with the idea of leasing out the MS is that it would have to be pretty on-going for it to be desirable for either of those charters ... and it could be a real hit for our public schools to have such local options for opting out of our schools! I think it is therefore a risky idea (and one that is harder to move out of if things improve fiscally in a few years).

Anonymous said...

Happy Thanksgiving to all, including Ms. Sanderson.

I am thankful that I live in a community that cares about education and is willing to be self-critical about how effectively it is doing it.

I don't want to get stuck in cramped thinking searching for some mythical Moment of Maximum Efficiency In Which No One Gets Hurt.

I am very pleased to see Ms. Brewer commenting on this blog again. Believe it or not, we had tremendously dedicated School Committee members like Ms. Brewer in the ancient era pre-Sanderson and we will have more in the future. The perspectives of those folks are usually missing on this blog.

I want to continue to live in a community that expresses its hope and idealism through its schools. To those to whom much is given (which includes most of us), much is expected. We risk taking the educational legacy we have for granted, and losing it.

Rich Morse

Joel said...

To Anons 10:16 & 10:17

I was at the SC meeting and didn't hear anything about new AP classes. I don't think the Superintendent mentioned it. Are you HS teachers? It's hard to imagine how anyone but HS teachers would know this.

Whoever you are, I'm amazed at the tone. I think the Superintendent and most of the SC are interested in aligning our HS curriculum with the best in the Commonwealth and the nation. That's hardly spineless.

I don't have kids in the HS, but I've heard we have a fairly extensive series of woodworking classes. How can we justify more woodworking classes than Chemistry classes? We keep hearing about cutting to the bone, but I've heard we have culinary arts classes as well. These seem like particularly extravagant electives given the fact that kids in the region who want to pursue such study in lieu of a traditional academic path can go to Smith Vocational, which I understand is terrific. The district pays for those kids, so why do we pay those fees and at the same time maintain vocational education in the HS? How is that cutting to the bone?

Look, I'm not a scientist, in fact I work in a field that requires lots of language skills, but I do think it's a problem to maintain all the language instruction we have 7-12 while we have so few offerings in the sciences and math.

It's a lot easier for a motivated HS student to take Russian or German at AC or UMass than it is for him/her to get into a Chemistry or Biology class at the colleges.

APs do in fact save kids tuition dollars if they do well on the AP exams. But it's also important to point out that failing to offer a full range of science and math classes cost our ARHS kids more than the opportunity costs of not having APs. They'll also have to spend extra money on introductory courses at UMass, UConn, UNH, the SUNY campuses and other state schools an increasing number of our HS students attend because they couldn't take as many higher level High School classes as the kids from, well, practically everywhere else.

The reason the SC and Super aren't being spineless -- spinelessness is posting such vitriol anonymously -- is that they're trying to align our district with the vast majority of other districts. They're not doing that to be fashionable or elitist, but to provide our kids with the best education possible, not only to help get them into college but also to help them succeed once they're there.

Anonymous said...

Joel- What if my kid want to go to the school in the town in which s/he lives? with his friends? What if my kid has absolutely no interest in doing AP chemistry or Biology? What if my kid is not planning on going to an elite college? So much for meeting the needs of all kids, As so much in Amherst it's really all about me and my kids all the time and the rest be damned.! What hypocrites!

Joel said...

The schools should serve everyone. How do you know your kid won't excel in a particular subject? Some people who never go to college have a passion for literature or history. Shouldn't those kids have access to the most challenging classes? Why wouldn't we want every kid to have the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

Isn't that the role of a school? How did we forget that?

All I mentioned was a series of costly vocational offerings. We're broke. Is it your suggestion that we continue to do everything, but at a very poor level given the budget? If we have to make choices, we should try to avoid needless duplication.

Some kids will go to the Performing Arts HS. I don't think we should drain resources from ARHS to compete with that school. Some kids with go to Smith Vocational. I don't think we should waste increasingly scarce resources trying to compete with it.

ARHS's niche can be academics, taught on all levels. I don't think we can afford to keep every kid in town if some of those kids want to study the arts or vocational trades. That's just the reality of finances. Moreover, ARHS will never provide an equal education in the arts or vocational training as the Performing Arts HS or Smith Vocational. I don't think that that's controversial or complex.

How exactly is that hypocritical?

Joel said...

To Anon 9:46

I've been thinking about your post and I have a straight forward question for you:

Where do you think the kids who do excel academically should go?

If you want to focus on vocational training you can go to Smith Vocational and I believe Amherst pays a fee to Smith Voke.

If you want to focus on the arts you can go to the PVPA and I imagine the town pays for that.

If my child wants to focus on the sciences where can he or she go and will the town pay for that?

The obvious answer is that science oriented kid can only go to ARHS, so we shouldn't diminish what we do in academics there to try to compete with the outstanding choices kids have at Smith Vocational and PVPA.

Anonymous said...

Well said Joel. I think your idea of not competing with Smith Voc and PV Performing Arts School is a great idea. I hope the SC thinks about this. Ali Burrow

Anonymous said...

Amherst high school graduates have gone to highly selective colleges and have done well without AP Chemistry or AP Statistics. With the budget issues we are facing, we shouldn't focus on providing something for handful are students who will be ready or eligible to take these courses at the high school.

UMASS still has dual enrollment where kids can take college for free.

Joel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel said...

I deleted my post because it was loaded with typos.

Second try:

In terms of kids focusing on science, we can't rely on college admissions from last year or the years before then because those ARHS kids did not have to take the current 9th grade science requirement, which Catherine has explained quite convincingly limits the number of advanced science classes (AP and not) available to kids. That's one of the reasons Catherine and I and others asked for and were promised a careful study of the impact of the new science curriculum. That study has not been forthcoming.

Anecdotal evidence of kids getting into top 25 schools is sort of besides the point. Do you know what percentage of kids going to Stanford or Williams have family ties to those places that ease their admission? I don't and without knowing that I can't make claims about the success of our HS. Moreover, how has our HS done in getting first generation college kids to the best possible schools? That's a wonderful metric for how we're doing. Is there evidence that ARHS is doing a particularly good job in that area? I just don't know the answer.

What is clear and beyond debate is that our HS curriculum is out of line with the curricula of the schools our town has chosen to compare itself to. This isn't ACE parents, it's the town and administrators from long ago who tied us into MSAN.

So, what we need to know is if having a curriculum that's so different from those at other MSAN schools is 1) leading to better college admissions than those at other MSAN schools; 2) the same college admissions; or 3) or worse college admissions.

Those data would be very helpful in evaluating what we're doing well and what we're doing poorly and what we should protect and cut in the current budgetary environment.

Joel said...

To Anon 10:06

You wrote: "UMASS still has dual enrollment where kids can take college for free."

Are you suggesting that we diminish academic offerings at ARHS in order to protect woodworking and culinary arts and then just send the kids who want the most challenging classes to UMass for classes? I sure hope that you're not, but that's how I read your statement.

PVPA and Smith Vocation are filled with HS-age kids and are designed for HS-age kids. So, if a HS-age kid wants to study the arts or vocational stuff they can go to a HS that specializes in those things. Right? A fair and smart option.

So, why can't we also guarantee academically oriented kids that they can attend an academically oriented HS filled with other HS-age kids? Why in the world wouldn't we want that?

PVPA and Smith Voc. cater to HS-age kids, UMass is a university that does not.

I find it fascinating how many arguments people in a college town can make in support of denigrating academics in our public schools. Academic achievement -- at all levels, from the most struggling to the highest achievers -- has to be the focus of the public schools.

Anonymous said...

Enough is ENOUGH!

Yes I am posting this anonymously, I have to for legal reasons.

I was (am) one of these SPED people and as that, I am saying that enough is enough! This whole thing is totally out of control and needs to be reigned in.

SPED issues are real - very real - I know that personally. Painfully know it. But this absolute license granted to the students (and to their parents) to essentially demand appeasement is unmitigated bull***t!

The needs of the students in those two programs have been determined to be outside possible re-integration into the high school facility

By whom and under what criteria? And exactly what did the school system not do over the prior 8 years to get us to where we are now with these students?

And what ever happened to the "least restrictive setting" and "intergration" and all of that fun stuff? We don't believe in it anymore?

I don't have any idea what an equivalent OOD placement

How about someone doing a realistic evaluation of the scam known as OOD placement? My personal favorite (not in Amherst) was a girl who "had" to be OOD for years until she reached the 9th grade and wanted to be on the high school women's ice hockey team.

Guess what - she didn't need to be OOD anymore, the regular high school suddenly was good enough for her. Interesting, isn't it?

A lot of people are concerned about our "SPED" costs increasing I don't like how the SPED percentage exceeds 10% of the total student body. I am starting to wonder if we might have some overdiagnosis here. Just a tad amongst well-intended parents who are trying to get the best for their kids as well...

1) it was best for the kids, and 2) it was less expensive than sending them away.

By the same criteria, flying them to Europe could be justified. And there are three real questions here that no one is really willing to ask:

Anonymous said...


First, the inherent inequity of the "maximum educational outcome" criteria as currently interpreted. It meant something completely different back in the '70s in the era of Belchertown State, but today it is an unrestricted credit card that is being used by those who would make drunken sailors blush. If your *only* criteria is that this might benefit the child, it is amazing what you can spend money on. (I mentioned trips to Europe in jest, but I could write a perfectly valid IEP that mandated it. I can think of a dozen different ways to justify it...)

Second, as we increasingly get into SPED issues with behavioral aspects -- I suspect the very reasons why those two programs are not in the physical high school building -- we really need to start asking hard questions about personal (student) responsibility and parental responsibility.

How, for example, can we have a child with ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder, i.e. can't obey authority/rules - {I know this isn't the technical definition, but}...) -- how can we have this child (a) so out of control that SPED placement is required while (b) physically able to be issued a driver's license? Aren't these mutually exclusive?

Sure it is a pain for a teenager to have to get out of bed in the morning and to get to school on time, but does anyone honestly know a teenager for whom this isn't true? Or do we just define all the students as SPED, as they all would benefit from their own IEPs. (IEP - Individualized Educational Plan - and yes, every child would benefit from a personalized curriculum.)

Which goes to my third point: educational outcome. We are spending lots LOTS of money and I really don't think we are getting anything out of it. And I really don't think we are helping these children, either.

I would like to see a serious study of educational outcome - at 10-15 years out, possibly 20 years. On three criteria: criminal record, family income, and family status/stability. This doesn't have to be political, the real question is if the alumni of these programs are successful citizens within the criteria of statistical norms.

Or in other words, are they all in jail or on public assistance? And if a statistically unexpected percentage of them are, this is a poor educational outcome. (We spent all this money so that they wouldn't be...)

My point in all of this - other than the obscene level of money we are spending is not sustainable - is the total lack of a happy medium between individual responsibility and special needs assistance.

I am never going to say this publicly, but I increasingly believe that SPED students and their parents are simply better off (long term) with the school district not knowing and struggling through as best they can. Otherwise students are encouraged to be helpless, totally irresponsible for everything including their own lives, and all of that is something that you really need to learn to exist in society...

It wasn't fun being called "lazy, crazy & stupid" (and worse) but I am far better off now than I would have been with a SPED placement. And that - even more than the money being spent - is the biggest issue....

Anonymous said...

UMass isn't free. The high school kids have to pay. Plus, you need a parent or adult to get you there and then back to the high school. At least in Northampton the kids can walk to Smith. And Smith DOES provide their classes free to the high school kids.

Anonymous said...

annonymous November 27, 2009 11:48 AM: You raise some great points!! They're all well stated. I can relate to your frustration.

Joel said...

Like everything else, SPED programs have to be evaluated. Like everything else, I'm sure it has some real strengths and real weaknesses. I hope the school administrators and SC carefully evaluate all spending and every program in the district.

Anonymous said...

Catherine, you stated

" We could save $270,000 by going to semesters, which has no negative impact (it increases % of time kids spend in class)."

Would you please provide more detail for this statement? I have heard Principal Jackson state several times that there is no difference in budget dollars between the trimester and semester system?
What am I missing?

To say there are no negative impacts by going to a semester system is a strong statement. I think there are benefits of a trimester system that would be lost if the HS changed to the semester system. Personally, I think the benefits gained by moving to semester would be worth the costs.

Unfortunately, the decision to move to semesters is a HS faculty decision and to date the faculty has strongly opposed any change to the semester schedule.

Is there anything that you and the other SC members can do to work with the HS faculty to make this change before next fall, and as you suggest save $270,000?

Anonymous said...

Annonymous November 27, 2009 11:48 AM:
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Finally someone is telling the truth and daring to make sense out of the senseless.
I too have observed the same thing for far more years than I care to admit.
We did the same thing with our kid. Had a bona fide learning disability, had some treatment for it as child but we never told her or the school. Graduated ARHS with GPA 3.78. Graduated UMAS GPA 3.98. Now finishing up masters, loves what she is doing and makes more money than me.
I shudder to think what would have happened if she had received sped services.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone weigh in on what the perceived strengths of a trimester system are? Catherine, and others, have made good points about their preference for a semester system, and I'm just curious about both the original reasons for moving to trimesters and the current rationale of teachers for wanting to stay with them. Also, do teachers have decision making authority on this for contractual reasons, or for reasons of professional deference?

Wondering said...

What would a trimester system without block scheduling look like? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Anonymous said...

We did the same thing with our kid. Had a bona fide learning disability, had some treatment for it as child but we never told her or the school.

You should tell her now.

Catherine can probably say this better than I, but there is a great deal of research indicating that learning disabilities (like other genetic traits such as freckles or red hair) are passed down from parents to children.

I shudder to think what would have happened if she had received sped services.

Shudder twice at the thought of what would have happened had she gone anywhere near Disability Services at UMass....

And back to my origional point - how much did you spend (of your own money or your insurance company's money) getting her the assistance she needed? And how much would the district have spent on her within the SPED program?

Doing the right thing - which also helps the child the most - is also a whole lot cheaper!

Anonymous said...

Learning disabilities (like other genetic traits such as freckles or red hair) are passed down from parents to children.

AND, if she has children herself some time in the future, this is something that she would benefit from knowing.

(I really thought I had put that line in there. I am not saying that these things aren't real, only that the way we are addressing them, both in K-12 and increasingly in Higher Ed, isn't exactly productive.)

Rick said...

My two cents on trimesters versus semesters:

Trimester: 5 5 5 = 15 blocks
Semester: 7 7 = 14 blocks

Two study halls in trimester system = 2/15 = 13% (which is currently the case)
One study hall in a semester system = 1/14 = 7%

In both cases you have 13 blocks.

Apparently for the same money one can do 1 study hall in a semester system versus 2 in the trimester. Not sure how exactly that works, but that’s what they say.

Not sure where Catherine’s $270,000 comes from but I recall she explained it earlier in the blog somewhere. I think the better way to look at it is that for the same money, you get more class time.

My take is to go to semester system.

Rick said...

My two cents on trimesters versus semesters:

Trimester: 5 5 5 = 15 blocks
Semester: 7 7 = 14 blocks

Two study halls in trimester system = 2/15 = 13% (which is currently the case)
One study hall in a semester system = 1/14 = 7%

In both cases you have 13 blocks.

Apparently for the same money one can do 1 study hall in a semester system versus 2 in the trimester. Not sure how exactly that works, but that’s what they say.

Not sure where Catherine’s $270,000 comes from but I recall she explained it earlier in the blog somewhere. I think the better way to look at it is that for the same money, you get more class time.

My take is to go to semester system.

Anonymous said...

One other rant -- can we please reign in the teachers?

Policy in a democracy is supposed to be set by the people through their elected officials and those who serve at their pleasure.

In other words, the School Committee is supposed to be setting policy and not the teachers. The SC should be able to define a semester or trimester system -- and if a law requiring flag saluting is not enforcable, then the contract clause giving the teachers a right that they legally can't have is equally unenforcable.

Play hardball: don't fund the contract. If the teachers want to get paid, they have to go back to the semester system. Or you don't disburse the funds for their pay, which you can legally do.


Anonymous said...

To Anon 8:24:

Here is the location of the existing contracts:

The current agreement for the teachers, Agreement Unit A - Professional Staff, is good for the period September 1, 2008 - August 31, 2011.

By the terms of the contract, if the administration recommends a change in the instructional schedule, the teachers must approve it.

My understanding is that Mark Jackson as Principal of the HS recommended a change to the semester system last spring, but the HS teachers voted against making any change. I believe Principal Jackson raised this issue again this year and received a similar response from the teachers.

There are benefits to a trimester system including, but not limited to, the following:

1. It has the potential to increase the number of electives taken by a student each year. (Unfortunately, with the budget cuts the ability to take elective courses has been reduced and the amount of study hall (non-instructional) time increased.

2. The workload (during school and homework) is more concentrated across fewer courses. For some students, spending 60-90 minutes in a class and having one less homework assignment each day (although more homework per course per day) for 2/3 of a year is a better learning environment than the traditional semester schedule with 45-minute classes that meet for the entire year. Obviously, other students benefit from the less concentrated approach of a semester system.

3. Fewer classes in a trimester system, assuming similar class size, reduces the total number of students taught per teacher and theoretically provides the teacher with more time per student.

4. If a student doesn't receive a passing grade in the first trimester, the student may have an option to re-take and complete the course during the same academic year without falling behind or the need for summer school.

A list could also be created for the benefits of a semester system. There isn't one way that is best for all students.

Personally, I believe most students would benefit from more instructional time and less "directed study" time. So, in today's tight budget environment, I would choose the semester system or some hybrid of both systems. However, any change can be difficult and I recognize that changing to a semester system could take some teachers significant time to adjust their teaching plans. I just wish more teachers would recognize the benefits to most students of a semester system during the difficult environment that is expected over the next few years.

Ed said...

For some students, spending 60-90 minutes in a class ... is a better learning environment than the traditional semester schedule with 45-minute classes that meet for the entire year.

Other than courses that involve extended projects - lab sciences, home economics (or whatever we are supposed to call it), shop (ibid) and possibly physical education -- other than these, I have NEVER, EVER seen anything that would indicate this.

From the teaching perspective, you simply can not cover as much material in two 90 minute classes that you can cover in three 50 minute ones -- and that is on the college level with more mature (in theory) adults.

And we won't even get into issues of ADD/ADHD and such, or how the modern youth culture is creating a generation with exceedingly short attention spans in general.

From a developmental point of view, from an instructional point of view, why on earth do you want longer periods? Teachers love it because you have to teach fewer classes and correct less homework, but how does it benefit students?

RESEARCH anyone????

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Rich - thanks for the nice Thanksgiving wishes -- I hope you and your family enjoyed the holiday as well. There have been dedicated SC members in the past, and there will be dedicated SC members in the future, and I believe all SC members run in part to bring a particular focus to the board. Kathleen Anderson sees racism in our schools, and ran largely, I believe, to improve the experience of kids of color in our schools (a laudable goal). I ran largely because I was concerned about the decision-making processes used in our schools -- a reliance on intuition and anecdote instead of data and comparison to other districts. I hope voters support SC candidates all years who bring their issues to the campaign -- because the major way voters have an impact on our schools (which do control 2/3rds of our town dollars) is by electing SC members who share these views.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Joel (at 2:05) - I agree with all your wrote -- and share your disbelief that these anonymous posters (and I'm really, really hoping they are not HS teachers, though I can't see how they know what the superindent is requiring unless they have some real inside knowledge) are calling the superintendent spineless for wanting kids in our high school to have the same opportunities as kids elsewhere. It is really sad that the level of attack is so personal -- not on the merits of these classes or these opportunities, but just massive anonymous criticism on a personal level (me, superintendent, other SC members) against those who feel differently.

Anonymous 9:46 - I've read everything Joel has posted and I can't find the place where he said all kids should be required to take AP bio and AP chem. It is great if those classes don't interest your kid -- but are you opposed to the high school having those classes for kids who they DO interest?!? There are obviously plenty of classes in all areas of the high school for kids with varied interests -- so I'm at a loss to see why adding a class that would NOT interest your kid is something you oppose?

Joel (at 10:37) - the HS has a rich array of art electives and vocational electives, along with many academic core classes and electives. In times of tight budgets, we are going to have to make some tough choices. Thinking through these choices (e.g., how many kids are intersted in particular areas? how many kids are being served in particular classes? what other options do kids with a given interest have?) makes a lot of sense.

Joel (at 12:11) - for kids who are interested in high levels of science (e.g., AP Chem), the choice now is private school or choicing into another district (e.g., Northampton, Springfield, Hadley all offer a second year of Chemistry). So, I don't see how a high school with a commitment to social justice can just opt out of teaching rigorous academics and say "those kids can go elsewhere." Our kids deserve all the options of kids in high quality public schools elsewhere -- and yes, that should include AP Chemistry.

Ali - I think core academics do have to be the top priority -- but I'm hopeful we can also maintain some options for electives across all areas. Looking at enrollment in electives and interest in various electives seems like the right way to start thinking about choices.

Anonymous 10:06 - two things here. First, teaching AP statistics is NOT more expensive than teaching regular statistics (which we do now) -- and this class is specifically designed for kids who aren't so interested in high level math (e.g., calculus) -- which may well be the majority of our students. Second, the idea that "our kids have done fine" is very scary to me, and if often used as a way to maintain the status quo. I guarantee that our kids who have not had AP chemistry have done less well than they could have done in college chemistry classes. These aren't decisions that necessarily have budget implications -- they are decisions about providing our kids with the same opportunities as kids in other public schools. Isn't that a laudable and important goal?

Anonymous said...

If you don't want anonymous posts then change the set up of this blog. But to allow anonymous posts and then disparage folks for posting anonymously is getting really old.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Joel (at 11:20) - we certainly have no evidence that kids who attend ARHS are more or less likely to gain admission to top colleges than if those kids had gone elsewhere (let's remember that many kids have ties to top colleges and/or have tutors and/or take SAT prep classes). Let's also remember that we have no idea what the impact of the new required 9th grade science class will have on college admission -- but I think you could poll admissions officers at top colleges and most would say that ecology and environmental science is an very, very unusual choice as a 9th grade science class (remember, they read lots of applications fast ... this one is not going to stand out as a really rigorous one and may well look like a class taken by kids who are not so into science).

In addition, it is NOT just whether our kids can get into college ... it is also how WELL they do once they are in. My concern about the new required class is that it just won't give them the same base of knowledge in the sciences as kids from other high schools (and will force them to choose between AP chemistry and any physics). Our kids may be less able to major in chemistry or succeed in premed classes given the lack of opportunity to take AP chemistry (even if we were to offer it) because we have in effect delayed by one year their ability to take core sciences.

Joel (at 11:35) - I share your concern that suggestions about having an academically rigorous high school are met with the suggestion that students should just go to U Mass. If that is a serious suggestion, then I guess parents of high school students should oppose an override and instead donate to U Mass? Our high school has to work for all kids because it is a PUBLIC high school. We have wood working because it interests some kids. We have culinary arts because it interests some kids. We have Russian because it interests some kids. But we can't have AP chemistry because that would just interest some kids (or those kids should go to U Mass)?

Anonymous 11:48/11:50 - I think you raise a number of important points, including the possibility that our special ed programs are (a) expensive, and (b) not particularly effective. I have heard those concerns from others, and that is one of the reasons why I am very glad that the special ed evaluation is being done in early 2010. I hope that report will help us figure out what things are working well in special ed and what things could work better (educationally and fiscally). I would really appreciate it if you would contact me privately (which would be entirely confidential) so that I could learn more about your experiences and suggestions for this aspect of our programs:

Anonymous 12:04 - good point re. U Mass is not free. And again, although the U Mass and Amherst College (which IS free) options are good, they do not mean that our high school shouldn't offer the same core academic classes offered at other high schools.

Joel (at 2:07) - again, our district has many programs (our ELL clustering program, our 9th grade required science curriculum, our 7th grade extensions math program) that are evaluated entirely by teachers/staff in those programs describing how great they are, and criticizing those who question the objectivity of these results. I share your belief that all aspects of our special education program need to be seriously considered to see if we are in fact using our limited resources well.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more from me:

Anonymous 6:47 - the $270,000 number came from Miki Lee Gromacki, who is the assistant principal -- which she said at a SC meeting in June of 2009 (either she said it or Mark Jackson said it, I can't remember). I too have heard Mark say there are no budget implications, but here is the way to resolve these differences:

He is saying that there are no budget implications of going to the semester system because if we went in our current system of 13 classes and 2 study halls (with the trimester system) to 13 classes and 1 study hall with the semester system, there are NO cost savings. So, he is right!

However, how I look at it is that if you want ONE study hall, you can do that right now for the same money we are spending by going to the semester system. If you want one study hall on the trimester system, you have to spend $270,000 to hire additional teachers to get kids from the 2 study halls to the 1 study hall. Does that make sense?

So, there isn't a difference in cost savings if you just take our two study halls now and go to one study hall ... but that move would mean that kids spend more time in class (e.g., 13/15 = 87% of time in class NOW, whereas 13/14 = 93% of time in class under a semester). That seems like a really good deal to me!

I honestly don't see any negative impact of going to a semester system -- that's probably why the vast majority of high schools in MA and the US have a semester system. What do you see as the negatives? However, I agree with you that "the benefits gained by moving to semester would be worth the costs."

I also agree with you that it is unfortunate that the decision to move from a trimester to a semester requires a vote of the HS teachers. This was an outrageous agreement that the SC (and superintendent) made in contract negotiations, and other SCs and superintendents are shocked that Amherst gave up the right to choose the schedule (given its tremendous implications for the budget). This is an example of poor leadership in our district that now has major costs.

I do not believe that there is anything the SC can do, given (a) the decision of the last SC to give this choice to the teachers, and (b) the teachers' vote against the recommendation of Mark Jackson to move to semesters. If you believe a move to a semester is the right way to go, talk to high school teachers you know and ask them to support this change. That seems like the only hope to me.

Anonymous 8:21 - your post, and others on this topic, all point to the need for the special ed review. I look forward to hearing the findings of this report in 2010, and hope that it can move our special ed services in a way that really benefits all kids and that uses our limited resources well.

Anonymous 8:24 - I think the advantage of the trimester system were seen as two-fold (others can correct me if I'm wrong here). First, it was seen as an opportunity for kids to take more electives (e.g., 15 classes a year instead of 14). But this of course, only is true in really flesh budget times (since now, it is just an opportunity for 2 study halls instead of 1!). Second, it was seen as an opportunity for kids to have fewer classes at a time (e.g., only having to balance the work of 4 or 5 classes, not 6 or 7). However, this issue of balance is tricky, because the trimester system really penalizes kids who fall behind (you have less time to catch up on a trimester than a semester, if you are sick or get behind, etc.).

As I noted in my last post, the SC gave away the right to choose the high school schedule in the last round of negotiations. I think this was a really bad mistake.

Anonymous said...

Catherine- my response to Joel never said that we shouldn't offer AP science classes nor did I ever say that I thought that my children couldn't excel at science or math, which he seems to think that I did. I was simply pointing out that not all students have the interest, and, if we're going to be honest, the aptitude to take those classes. My response to Joel- the substance of which he never really addressed was why should these children, who are from Amherst and whose parents pay taxes in Amherst, be forced to go to other schools because a very very vocal contingent place a higher value on AP classes (which serve a very small minority of students at the HS) than they do art, woodworking,consumer sciences etc electives.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Wondering - I can't think of any schools that use a non-block trimester schedule since I think it would pose a lot of disadvantages (e.g., lots of classes to manage at a time and the classes would end quickly). I think if the high school were to change, it would be to a traditional 7-period schedule on a semester.

Anonymous 10:40 - sounds like you did the right thing for your child ... but it seems really unfortunate that kids can't get the services they need in a public school system. Again, we need a review, and I'm very, very glad it is being done.

Anonymous 10:50 - good points. Thanks.

Rick - your numbers are exactly right -- thanks. I agree that a semester system is the way to go - - wish it could be for NEXT year, but the high school teachers voted against that as well (the vote last spring included the option to start a semester system in the fall of 2010 -- and this vote failed, despite the recommendation of Mark Jackson). The $270,000 number came from Miki Gromacki (new assistant principal at the HS, who seems FABULOUS) and Mark Jackson -- it was said aloud and minuted at the June 2009 SC meeting.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 11:19 - as I said in an earlier post, the SC gave away the right to choose the HS schedule in the last round of negotiations -- so, the HS teachers do contractually have the right to choose the schedule. This was a bad decision (financially and educationally) and it is an example of poor SC leadership (with apologies to Mr. Morse for this criticism of past SC members -- I believe it is responsible to admit mistakes that have occurred).

Anonymous 11:26 - thank you for your list of advantages of the trimester systme -- very helpful. In terms of these advantages, I just don't find them compelling. As you note, electives are NOT increased in a trimester system unless we have no study halls (and I don't see us getting there anytime soon, given the budget issues we are having), and the workload issue is very individual (some students benefit from fewer classes but others benefit from having more time to master material in a given discipline). I also think we really need to be focused on NOT having students fail classes (e.g., provide intervention support, provide tutoring, recommend better course placements) than on creating a school schedule that helps those who are failing to avoid summer school! I guess I also don't understand (and I'm saying this as a college professor) why teachers on a semester system teach more students -- my understanding is that in our current system, students often switch teachers different trimesters (e.g., one science teacher first trimester, another one third trimester), whereas on a semester system, teachers might be more likely to keep the SAME students all year (which means they'd get to know those students better, have fewer parents to meet/letters of recommendation to write, etc.)? I also think that teachers' workload would be more spread out (e.g., giving final exams twice a year, not three times a year, having homework due less often/small homework assignments)?

But for me, the biggest issue with the trimester system (other than budget costs) is that it disrupts students' exposure to given material. I can't imagine it is easier to learn French, or geometry, or physics, if you have major breaks in the material -- and with the trimester system, you could have students take a class for three months and then have a three month break (if they have the class first and third trimester) OR you could have a kid take a class fall and winter, and then not take that class until the NEXT winter and spring, meaning they have a break from March through December! Given what we know about "summer drop" for low income kids (e.g., the decrease in achievement after a summer spend out of school), I can't imagine that low income kids and those from disadvantaged backgrounds aren't particularly hurt by our trimester system.

Ed - I agree that it is hard to imagine high school kids sitting in a classroom and learning best in 90 or 100 minute blocks ... college kids often have trouble focusing for that long a period. I think it is telling that most high schools (in MA and elsewhere) have a semester system ... but once again, our district seems to believe that kids in Amherst learn in a different way than other kids, and hence our high school should be on an entirely different schedule than all others.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more from me:

Anonymous 4:20 - I'm so sorry that you are getting tired of my criticism of anonymous posters ... and you should feel free not to read this blog anymore if it is that bothersome.

But let me be clear: I would far rather NOT have any anonymous posts because I think that would elevate the level of discussion on this blog -- I believe people write differently (more thoughtfully, more constructively) when they have to sign their name and own their comments (as in your comment might have been made in a more polite way if you were required to sign your name). However, I think there are times in which people do have thoughtful and constructive things to say but just don't feel comfortable signing their names -- sometimes these are teachers (who have identified themselves to me privately later on), and other times these are parents (who fear their children could be targeted if they had signed their name). And I want these people do be able to post their comments and thus participate in and contribute to the discussion.

What I do NOT want is for people to take advantage of the option to post anonymously and write hurtful and rude things that are really personal attacks and serve no purpose in terms of furthering the discussion on this blog -- whether these are atacks on me, or district teachers/staff/ principals/the superintendent, other blog posters (Joel), etc. I have yet to be able to find a way to allow thoughtful and constructive posts to occur anonymously but to block anonymous posters who are just rude and hurtful and don't contribute to the debate (and hence I call those people out on their posts). If you know a way I can encourage anonymous posters to not be mean and hateful, I'd love to hear it (an example of how you could post a constructive and thoughtful post anonymously).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Perhaps my last response?!?

Anonymous 4:37 - I certainly agree that not all students have the interest, and even the aptitude to take particular classes (e.g., AP chemistry is one that I wouldn't have had the interest or aptitude for myself). But I do not read Joel's comments as implying that kids who have an interest in wood working or culinary arts or whatever shouldn't be able to go to our high school -- I think he was saying that we have a LOT of these classes, and since there ARE options for kids with these interests to go to other specialized schools, do we have to provide so many (particularly when the class sizes in these electives is often half that in the core academic classes, particularly at the honors level)? I don't know the answer to this question -- but I think it is a good question and one that the SC and superintendent and HS principal should give some serious thought to.

I think it is very unclear to me that it is only a "very vocal contingent place a higher value on AP classes (which serve a very small minority of students at the HS) than they do art, woodworking,consumer sciences etc electives." I think it is highly likely that FAR more kids take AP classes in some discipline than take woodworking or consumer sciences. In my review of last year's course taking patterns, I note that 45 kids took AP European History and 47 took AP Physics and 41 took AP Environmental Science and 46 took AP Calculus. Now, some of these kids might be the same kids, but since most of these kids are probably seniors, even if it was ALL seniors and they were all of the same kids (doubtful, since I don't think kids can double on up science so the physics and environmental science kids had to be different kids), that is still 15% of the seniors. Is that still serving a "very small" minority of kids? In contrast, 42 kids took Wood Carving and Sculpture, and 18 kids took Hospitality Studies, and 32 kids took Painting. If you think about classes serving a very small but vocal minority, you are really describing Russian -- 17 kids in the entire high school took Russian last year.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't offer some electives (nor do I think Joel is saying that) -- I think we have to be fiscally responsible and consider what electives we are going to offer in light of our goal to meet the needs of ALL kids (even those who have the interest and aptitude for AP chemistry).

Anonymous said...

"My understanding is that Mark Jackson as Principal of the HS recommended a change to the semester system last spring, but the HS teachers voted against making any change."

I believe that Principal Jackson did not recommend any change but merely tip-toed on the issue and had a vote called that was sort of secret. He has not been forthcoming on this issue. Perhaps instead of insisting on unethical salary rollbacks, we ought to put our eggs in the semester basket.

Joel said...

Hi Anon 4:37

Let me clarify my thinking. Whenever a parent asks why our science curriculum is so out of line with that of the other MSAN schools -- again those we have traditionally used for comparisons, not those brought up by people like me -- one of the things we're told is that "we've cut to the bone." That expression means that we're out of money. There are no more things available to cut. We're told we can't have the same number of APs or other advanced classes as all the other districts because we just can't fund them.

But, the existence of so many electives, many of which have small enrollments, belies the notion of having cut to the bone.

I look at vocational education as extremely important and so I said that kids who want to focus on non-academic paths have the option of Smith Vocational. Moreover, as important as art is, if we are completely broke and cutting to the bone then I think we should limit our offerings that duplicate what's given at PVPA.

I think the existence of Smith Voc. and PVPA mean, in flush times and during budget crises, that the other high schools in the region should first and foremost focus on academic offerings at multiple levels for kids with differing aptitudes.

Many people in Amherst denigrate parents who want more advanced classes and AP classes, which is just absurd. It is as absurd as criticizing the existence of expository writing or intro. or remedial level Math or English. No one calling for more APs is also calling for the end of remedial or any other level of academic classes. We want all those classes -- all the classes that focus on the basics of academics -- for all the kids.

We need academic classes on all levels and diminishing the number of classes that duplicate what goes on at PVPA and Smith Voc. is one way to have the money to do so in an era of such limited budgets.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 6:06 - well, it was my understanding that Mark Jackson has in fact recommended to the faculty that a change to a semester system occur. I'm posting his letter (published on the ARPS website in May of 2009):

Letter from Principal Jackson Regarding ARHS Schedule
Submitted by Kate Troast on May 21, 2009 - 8:20pm.
May 21, 2009

Dear ARHS Parents/Guardians,

The purpose of this letter is to update the community on the high school’s reconsideration of its master schedule.

First, a brief recap. In March of this year, I recommended to the
faculty that we consider changing our master schedule from a trimester
to a semester. My rationale focused on the cuts to the high school
budget that necessitated our requiring two study halls of all students
for the upcoming school year. The semester provided a degree of
insulation against this increase in students’ schedules of
non-instructional time. In a semester schedule, for next year, students
would be required to take only one study hall. And, more importantly,
if budget cuts continue in subsequent years, the semester format would
enable us to have a smaller study hall requirement than a trimester.

The trimester has some considerable strengths as a master schedule.
So, my recommendation that we consider a change catalyzed a
wide-ranging discussion. The advantages and disadvantages of both
master schedules were carefully scrutinized by the faculty.

However, as the discussion continued, time became the overriding
variable. There are many issues for schools to address when
transitioning to a new master schedule. Not the least of which is the
reworking of course curricula. And, as April came and went, it became
apparent that, if we were to finally decide to change the master
schedule, we would not have left ourselves sufficient time to address
all of the transition issues.

Once this became clear, I recommended that we no longer consider a master schedule change for September 2009. However important the master schedule, our deeper interest is to ensure a well-organized school and only with a sufficient amount of planning time would we be able to make this happen.

Therefore, the trimester master schedule will remain in place for at least SY 2009 - 10.

I will communicate again with the school community once we have a
final recommendation on a master schedule for SY 2010 and beyond.

Please let me know if you have questions or concerns.

Thank you.

Mark Jackson

OK -- so that sounds to me like he was in fact recommending this change? Or maybe he was recommending a consideration of this change? Guess it is hard to tell.

Regardless, given the contract that is in effect, the SC can't do anything to move to a semester system. The HS will remain on a trimester system as long as the teachers want that system (at least in the current contract, which has 1 1/2 years to go). But it is pretty hard to ask people to vote for an override because we say we've cut to the bone when with a single change to the semester system, we could save over a quarter of a million dollars and at the same time increase the amount of time kids spend in class! I think it would be an amazing step if HS teachers would voluntarily come forward and vote to move to the semster system to ensure that our kids could spend more time in class WITHOUT costing the district more money.

Joel (at 6:43) - I agree with your points ... and I think the key thing here is that we have to make choices in budgets. Spending more in one area (e.g., culinary arts, childcare studies, woodworking, whatever) means we spend less in some other area (e.g., AP chemistry, Russian, remedial math, whatever). During times of tight budgets, we need to make sure we are making fiscally responsible choices that meet the needs of as many kids as possible. It's not clear to me that we are doing this -- and I think we need to.

Anonymous said...

well -- world language teachers want semesters, because they understand that when students could potentially have a year without subject - that's bad for learning. I knew a student who had fall and winter semester of a language, and then the following year started language in January. That meant that from February-January, this student had no language exposure.

What are the teachers' real objections to semesters? Some high schoolers are concerned that semesters will mean more work. It obviously means more learning, better learning, sustained learning, less hectic learning, and better preparation for all of these other exams we're talking about (APs, etc.).

Why do we think it's better for students to take a full year course in 2/3 of the year? Has the trimester system affected the students who need more support? Has it increased the support they need because we've given them less time to learn?

How many other districts have trimesters? What's their experience?

In the context of less electives, which is what was used to justify the change to trimesters, we need to reexamine our current system. As far as I'm concerned, teachers need to adjust.

And in the next teacher contract, please don't give away this decision -- which should be reserved to the SC, Superintendent and principal.

Anonymous said...

to Catherine re: your thoughts:
"that sounds to me like he was in fact recommending this change? Or maybe he was recommending a consideration of this change?"

Exactly! Hard to tell indeed.

Rick said...

Just wondering:

Why do we only look at MSAN districts? Is it correct that there are only 24 of them?

If so, is that limiting?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more from me:

Anonymous 7:59 - you raise many good points! A few thoughts:

1. The semester system means kids can sit with a subject longer and that time may be particularly important for kids who struggle with material (e.g., math, science). It gives more time to write papers, read books, etc., and should mean more time between exams. It also means kids have more subjects to study at the same time (e.g., they carry 5 or 6 classes, not 3 or 4), but they should have less homework in each subject because the teachers have more weeks to cover the same material (e.g., a semester would go August to January, then January to June, whereas now, a trimester goes August to November, November to March, March to June). It would certainly mean more sustained learning, and that is good!

2. The impact of the trimester system on learning/achievement/outcomes was NEVER studied! This is one of the big reasons why some of us are VERY scared about the move to ecology/environmental science ... the SC voted to adopt the trimester system, and then said it would surely be evaluated. But it has NEVER been evaluated. There was a survey done of teachers, kids, parents about the trimester system two years ago, and the report (which the district paid for) WAS NEVER RELEASED! I asked for the report from Mark Jackson at the 2008 August SC meeting, and was told that this report was not of interest to other SC members and so I couldn't have it. Again, the district has a long history of creating new and innovative things and never studying them.

3. I don't know of any other public schools in MA that have trimesters ... once again, we seem to be unique (and once again, I don't think that is a good thing).

4. The schedule should be left to the superintendent and SC -- not the teachers. I have no idea why the SC gave away that right. I certainly wouldn't be in favor of it happening again, though it isn't clear whether I'll be on the SC when the contract comes up (spring 2011, which is after my term expires).

Anonymous 8:00 - yes, good point. May I ask if you are a teacher at the HS, and if you would say that Mark Jackson didn't ever really support the change? I was under the impression that he really went to bat for it, but perhaps I'm wrong on this.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - in fairness, "we" as in the district don't look at any districts (MSAN or otherwise)! This is just me, Catherine, pointing out what other districts do, and I chose the MSAN schools as a reasonably good set of comparison schools since they are districts that care about the achievement gap, are typically in college/universities town, have some diversity of population (e.g., they aren't entirely white/upperclass districts), and are seen as pretty high achieving districts. You might remember that the SC this year voted to endorse a set of 12 comparison districts (as part of the "how are we doing" subcommittee) and these include some MSAN schools and some other schools as well.

There are indeed only 24 MSAN schools.

We could certainly look at other schools/districts ... we just have to have some sort of defined set since looking at all high schools in the country/MA isn't realistic.

Rick said...

OK - I was just wondering. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I am not necessarily supporting elective courses such as those offered at Smith Voke over AP classes however please be aware Joel that there is a wait list at both PVPA ( a lottery system that starts in the 7th grade and not everyone gets in) and both the Voke Schools in the area so a blanket statement that students interested in those areas can just go to Smith or PVPA is a bit short sighted.

Joel said...

To Anon 8:30

Fair enough on the wait lists, I didn't know about that.

I'm just saying that a HS, especially one in a college town, should always focus first on academics. We keep hearing about cutting to bone and yet we have a lot of electives with small enrollments. Saying you've cut to the bone and doing so are very different things.

We heard before the last override, which I supported, that financial armageddon awaited the district if it didn't pass. Not only didn't that happen, but the district went on to literally waste a couple of hundred thousand of unneeded trailers for MM.

Part of this conversation is about the override for me. If I'm going to pay more in property taxes -- and I didn't get a raise last year, but my house assessment did go up, so I'm already paying higher property taxes than in the past-- I want to know that the schools are doing everything in their power to focus first on academic subjects at all levels for all kids. That's where this discussion began.

I would love to keep all the vocational and arts stuff at ARHS, but I'm not sure we can afford them.

Anonymous said...

trimesters. why do we have them? does the trimester system have an academic or financial benefit? what is the outcome of the system?

if we don't have the money for electives, and therefore have no need to squeeze in an extra course here and there, and instead risk an extra study hall, diminished learning, and more resources... it would be very helpful to know exactly why the trimester system should continue. The discussion should happen separate from legal contractual restraints. Otherwise, I think it will be too easy for Amherst to dismiss concerns with "we can't do anything because of the contract." First we need to find out what we OUGHT to do.

Anonymous said...

There is a waiting list to choice into Hadley too. Hopkins Academy is focused almost entirely on academics (check out their limited non-academic electives) but parents are still trying to get their kids in there.

Nina Koch said...

Not true:

"We could save $270,000 by going to semester"

I thought we already went through this discussion. In fact, when I pointed out your previous misstatement, you then claimed you didn't say it and yet here you are saying it again. It's not true.


We save money by reducing the number of blocks kids can take.

We would need to go from 13 to 12. It makes a huge difference. Parents need to really consider if they want to go that. As one poster pointed out on an earlier thread, it would mean that many kids can't take music.

ARHS is currently a comprehensive high school. If there is going to be a fundamental change in mission, that requires extensive discussion. There is probably not widespread agreement either way.

The reason why the schedule is part of contract negotiations is that it is part of working conditions. When we went from 16 blocks to 15 blocks, teachers lost prep time. If we go from 15 blocks to 14 blocks, teachers will again lose prep time and furthermore have additional students to keep track of. That means more case conferences, more IEP meetings, more kids after school for help, more phone calls and emails, and so forth. This increased workload would mean that some other part of the teacher's job would not get done. We already work as hard as we can. It might mean, for example, that homework is collected less often in your child's class and thus he or she gets less feedback. Something would have to give.

People need to keep in mind that everything involves a trade-off. There is no one perfect schedule, and no obvious step to take to reduce costs. Any move we make at this point means that somebody loses something.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Again from me:

Rick (at 8:28) - I think MSAN is a good set of comparison districts because they are districts that are somewhat like ours in various ways (size, diversity of student body, higher education aspirations, proximity to colleges/universities). But 23 is actually a lot to compare to -- most districts that use regular benchmarking (Newton, Wayland, etc.) choose 8 to 10. I think the recent selection of 12 districts (most MSAN but not all) is a good set and I hope we see these districts used WIDELY as comparisons to what we are doing in Amherst. I'm not yet seeing this interest from others, but I'm hopeful.

Anonymous (at 8:30) - thanks for pointing out the issue of the wait lists. This speaks to me of another reason that the district should be doing exit surveys -- so that we know WHY some families are opting out. I have friends who've chosen PVPA not for the arts, but because the curriculum was more individually-based and there was a feeling of connection/personalization with each student that some felt was missing at our MS. Thus, I think it would also be interesting to see if people are choosing charter schools FOR what they provide in a given area (e.g., course offerings) or for other reasons.

Joel - I agree that we have to take care of the core academic offerings first ... and that we have to seriously consider what else we can afford. For me, that includes considering how many and which electives we can offer, but also how many and which non-traditional academic offerings we have (e.g., do we need a traditional math program AND an IMIP math program? do we need 6 world languages?).

Anonymous 10:04 - I think this is a great question ... I've asked for two years on the SC for a review of the trimester system, and have been told there wasn't interest from other SC members. Similarly, the survey results from parents/kids/teachers about the trimester system were never released. I agree that this is the essential reason -- and I believe that there are significant financial and educational disadvantages of the trimester system. However, even if we were to determine that we'd like to move to a semester system, we can't do so in the current teachers' contract without their approval -- which we aren't going to get.

Anonymous 7:04 - good to note. It certainly seems like people in Amherst are interested in other options for school -- which are limited in terms of space in other places and in the case of private school, money. Another reason we should be doing exit surveys to understand why people are opting out.

Nina Koch said...

Not true:

"teaching AP statistics is NOT more expensive than teaching regular statistics"

The AP course would not replace the existing Math Modeling course that we offer. It would be an additional course. The pre-requisites are not the same. AP Statistics requires a higher level of mathematical maturity. You can't just swap one course for the other.


Adding AP Statistics to the math curriculum would require an additional section. Something else would have to be cut. The same is true for AP Chemistry.

If, for example, the AP Chemistry course drew 4 kids from Anatomy, 5 kids from Honors Physics, and so forth, then we would not be reducing any sections in those other subjects.

Not True:

"I guarantee that our kids who have not had AP chemistry have done less well than they could have done in college chemistry classes."

You have no data to state this with any degree of confidence, much less guarantee it. The notion of a guarantee is counter to the most basic ideas of statistics.

I wish that we could afford to do a study of ARHS grads and where they end up. I think it would show them taking advantage of a wide range of opportunities and doing well on average. Unfortunately I only have the anecdotal evidence I get when I hear stories from alums. Those stories include plenty of students who have gone on to rewarding careers in science. One comment we hear frequently is that students felt very well prepared by the Honors Chemistry course at ARHS.

And please don't bring up the "night and day" comment that you got from one chemistry professor. There are also professors who say that they don't really like the AP curriculum. There are colleges that don't accept the credits. There are medical schools that won't accept AP courses to satisfy pre-med requirements.

As with everything, it is not universally agreed upon. Please don't suggest that it is.

Joel said...


The question I'm always left with is why our curriculum is so different from the other MSAN schools.

If we are the outlier, then it's incumbent upon us to explain why.

In other words, semesters and a broader range of APs are the norm in our comparison group. So, what data can we call upon to justify our uniqueness?

I think that that's a fair question.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I answered your prior assertion that my $270,000 number wasn't accurate -- then you chose never to respond to that! Let me clarify AGAIN why this number is correct.

Currently we have 13 academic classes and two study halls in our trimester system.

For the EXACT same amount of money, we could have 13 academic classes and 1 study hall.

Now, that is the SAME amount of money, but it means kids are spending 93% of their time in class compared to 87% of their time in class. This would seem better from the point of view of many parents.

You suggest that to save money we'd have to drop down to 12 classes. But if you think of what it would cost to have 1 study hall on the trimester VERSUS 1 study hall on the semester, that number is $270,000. Right now, without spending any additional money, we could move to the semester and that would mean kids would have 1 study hall instead of 2. IF we wanted to have kids have just 1 study hall on the trimester system, we would have to spend $270,000 (the cost of moving from 2 to 1 study hall on the trimester). Rick laid this out very well on my blog earlier -- did you read his post? Do you disagree with this analysis?

In addition, let's say that budget cuts are REALLY bad and we need to cut to 12 classes to save money(which you suggest in your post and I think that is a possibility). On the trimester system, that means kids spend 80% of their time in class and 20% of their time in study hall (4 classes and 1 study hall each trimester for a total of 15 blocks and 12 classes and 3 study halls). This would mean that kids basically would be having 4 days of school a week -- and spending 1 day in study hall.

Now, let's say we were in this massive budget cut and needed to go to 12 classes but we were willing to move to the semester system. If we were to move to the semester system, we could have 6 classes a semester and 1 study hall (meaning 14 blocks during the year, and 6 academic classes and 2 study halls). That would mean kids would be in class 86% of the year -- FOR THE SAME MONEY! Again, this would be the same 12 classes you suggest to save money, but kids would spend 86% of the time in class compared to 80% of the time in class.

Now, let me summarize how moving to the semester saves money: it costs less in the semester system compared to in the trimester system to have a given number of study halls, meaning for the SAME money, kids in the semester system spend MORE time in class. That is true if we have 13 classes and 1 versus 2 study halls (in the current system), and it is also true if we have 12 classes and 2 versus 3 study halls (if we have to move to 12 classes). The $270,000 came from Miki Lee Gromacki, the assistant principal at ARHS, and was not calculated by me, and thus I think it is really unfortunate that you continue to accuse me of lying on this front.

Nina Koch said...


I do understand the point about number of studies and percent of time in study hall. That was the administration's concern when they asked us to consider the semester schedule and it is certainly a valid concern.

But see how you have the words "same money" stated repeatedly? It doesn't say "less money." It doesn't get us any closer to cutting over a million dollars. In fact it sets us back a little because of increased textbook costs--probably one teacher's salary worth.

Your original statement was: "I don't necessarily agree that cutting 1.2 million will lead to mediocrity. We could save $270,000 by going to semesters" This is the statement that is not true.

We don't save that unless we drop to 12, which I think will be a real loss in our school. I am not proposing 12. I am fearing it.

Joel said...


I think it's fairly disingenuous to argue that the teachers' ability to choose the trimester over the semester system is a matter of "working conditions." You've defined work conditions so broadly as to include almost everything.

How many other districts with teachers in the MTA have given this power to their teachers? I would be surprised if it's a large number. I wouldn't be surprised to hear we're the only one.

Moreover, I'm in the MTA via the MSP. Do you really believe the UMass system would bargain away its right to basic scheduling? There is no way on earth the system would give -- or the MSP would ask for -- the right in the middle of a contract for the UMass faculty to take a simple vote to move from semesters to quarters (the university equivalent of the trimester).

This arrangement is extremely unique, so please don't try to convince people who are not in education that it's a standard component of teachers' contracts.

Anonymous said...

CS: "even if we were to determine that we'd like to move to a semester system, we can't do so in the current teachers' contract without their approval -- which we aren't going to get. " I'm not sure we should rule out some sort of teacher givebacks if the budget situation is a crisis and requires teacher cuts vs. alternative givebacks. $270,000 is about 5 teacher jobs! I think 10:04 makes a good point: first figure out what we should do and then try to fix things to get to that point.

If amherst is the only place that has trimesters, how do other teachers manage to get sufficient prep time in a semester system? I think this rationale is a smokescreen. Unless Amherst teachers are that much worse than others and need additional prep time? Or maybe making a semester course fit into a trimester system is what requires the prep time?

I admire Amherst teachers. But I'm not sure I'm admiring what seems like their extrordinary working conditions while students take on additional study halls.

Anonymous said...

note for future SC teacher contracts:
1. don't approve any salary increases that exceed the mandated 2.5% limit. To do anything else is either irresponsible or expects a successful override. either assumption is not based in reality.

Joel said...

I have to agree with the two previous anonymous posts. In a town in which most people didn't receive any raises, but faced increased costs -- and so have declining real incomes -- it is a bit odd to have a teacher argue that the main reason she's against the semester system is that it would require more work.

Our public school teachers got raises this year. Good for them, but to then ask for an override and also say that they don't want to be burdened with the work of semesters -- work that is standard throughout the Commonwealth -- is just out of line.

Those of us teaching at the colleges are all teaching more and doing more in the face of horrible budgets. We did't get raises and yet we're doing more. In that environment, hearing that the HS teachers don't want to align the curriculum or their workload with other teachers in Massachusetts and beyond is very unsettling.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Nina (at 10:08) - you suggest that my statment "teaching AP statistics is NOT more expensive than teaching regular statistics" is false because "The AP course would not replace the existing Math Modeling course that we offer." But I think we have no idea whether we would offer AP statistics every year, nor if we need to offer math modeling every year. We offer a huge number of math classes, in part because we teach simultaneously a traditional math sequence (algebra, geometry, algebra II, trigonometry/precalculus, calculus), PLUS an IMP math program. That is a lot of classes. Then we seem to teach some other classes that don't seem to fit into either of these sequences (mathematical modeling, quantitative reasoning). Now, instead of saying "we'd just have to offer AP statistics" as a new course and it would cost more money, I think we should be saying "what are the right math classes to offer for our students and is it MORE important to offer these courses than AP statistics?" So, only 13 kids took quantitative reasoning last year ... that is a REALLY small class, and perhaps there would be greater demand for AP statistics? There are 13 kids in some of the IMP math sections ... is this a good use of resources, when there are 27 and 28 kids in some of the algebra sections? Again, you feel you have the answer -- adding AP statistics is just too expensive. Others might feel that this is a class that is MORE important to offer than some of our current offerings. Sure, something would have to be cut -- but surely that is something we should consider, right?

In many districts (including Northampton), AP classes are taught on a rotating schedule -- one year AP physics is taught, one year AP chem is taught. That means kids have to plan to take a particular course, but doesn't require more money. You also propose that AP chem would just add more money because "If, for example, the AP Chemistry course drew 4 kids from Anatomy, 5 kids from Honors Physics, and so forth, then we would not be reducing any sections in those other subjects." But I think we have no idea whether that WOULD in fact reduce the need for particular courses in other areas. Last year we offered two sections of Physics: Waves. One had 16 kids, and one had 10 kids. Now, if 5 of these kids chose AP chem instead, we'd probably teach ONE section of Physics: Wave because that would be a total of 21 kids instead of 26 kids.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me to Nina:
You also state that my statement "I guarantee that our kids who have not had AP chemistry have done less well than they could have done in college chemistry classes." is "not true." This seems like a really, really simple point. Do you believe that kids who have had one year of chemistry arrive at college knowing the same amount of chemistry as kids who arrive with two years of chemistry? Really? Do you believe that the chemistry in Amherst is so advanced that in our high school kids learn in one year what kids in other schools learn in two years? Or do you believe that the second year of chemistry in virtually all other high schools is just a repeat of the first year and doesn't add anything? Do you believe that taking four years of French is really the same as taking two years of French? I guess I'm not even sure how to respond to your belief that two years of chemistry is the same as one year of chemistry -- but I'd ask you to talk to college professors and get their thoughts on this.

I too wish that we could afford to do a study of ARHS grads and where they end up. Such a study would of course have to also include alums of other schools in which the students had the opportunity to take AP chemistry and AP statistics. Do you believe that our students are advantaged in some way by not having the option to take these courses? Is there a benefit in a lack of opportunity to take these courses that you could describe?

You note that "There are colleges that don't accept the AP credits." Which colleges are those? Stanford accepts them. So does Amherst College. So does U Mass. I actually haven't heard of any colleges/universities that don't consider AP classes taken as they consider course placement for students.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Joel (at 10:18) - it does seem like we are very different from virtually all other districts, and I'm not sure why Nina (and others) is so confident that our choices are BETTER. Surely there are good and smart and dedicated teachers in all of these other districts -- and these teachers have decided that offering AP chemistry and AP statistics are GOOD for their students. Why should we assume that the only good and smart and dedicated teachers work in Amherst?

Nina (at 11:00) - I am glad you understand the point about number of studies and percent of time in study hall. So, the key for me is that right now, on the trimester system, kids have 13 classes and 2 study halls, and thus spend 87% of their time in class. We could spend "LESS MONEY" and move to 12 classes and 2 study halls and kids would have 86% of their time in class. So, that would be one elective less, and yes, I share your belief that this is a concern. But it would mean just 1% of time less in class for a savings of $270,000. I think that is a reality we all may be facing for next year. And as I've pointed out before, increased textbook costs are a ONE TIME expense -- not an on-going expense (like a teacher's salary).

However, I think it would have been a powerful statement to parents last year if the HS teachers had voted to move to a semester system so that kids could have spend 92% of the time in class (as opposed to 87%). That would have been the same money, but for more class time for kids, which has to be better for learning. There is still this opportunity to do so, and again, I think it would be a powerful statement to the community that teachers are willing to make this change for the good of kids.

Amherst College, like our public schools, faced really significant budget cuts last year, so the budget for visiting faculty (to replace professors on sabbatical or maternity leave or sick leave) was basically eliminated. That meant there were fewer course options. I am teaching a class now that has a limit of 15 kids -- and I took 28. That isn't ideal (for them or me), and it certainly means that I'm doing more grading of tests and papers, spending more time in office hours, writing more letters of recommendation, etc. But this seemed like the right choice to make sure that kids were having the opportunity to take classes that interested them, given the fewer options available.

Joel (at 11:03) - I think it is clear that giving away the power to choose the HS schedule is very, very unique. The head of MA School Committees was shocked when I told him that we had bargained that away. It is pretty impossible to imagine that this was done, and yes, it is having real costs already (e.g., our kids are spending 5% less time in class this year under the trimester than they would under the semester for the same amount of money).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more, once again, from me:

Anonymous 11:08 - I've asked for a study of semesters versus trimesters ... there has been no interest from other members of the SC (I asked this last year, so it was the prior SC). I believe it is quite clear that virtually all districts have a semester, so that seems like the obvious best choice (particularly since we live in a college town in which all the colleges/universities are on a semester and thus taking classes at these institutions might be easier if we followed roughly the same schedule). I do not understand why our teachers seem to need more prep time than those in other districts -- though it may well be more difficult to manage under the trimester system since they also have to get to know different students more often three times a year versus twice) and they may have to do more make-up work at the start of each trimester (since kids have less familiarity with the material following longer breaks). Perhaps teachers would find the semester system easier than the current system in some ways!

Anonymous 11:11 - I agree about the need to not have salaries increase above 2.5% ... I'm not on the negotiating team, but I certainly believe that the current raises were unsustainable without an override or massive cuts, and that the SC is focused on using resources in a more responsible way.

Joel (at 11:19) - well said on all fronts. Many of us are doing more work this year for less money. My husband (attorney for MA) has had a DECREASE in income (5 required furlough days) ... I've had no increase in salary, but an increase in students taught because there are fewer visiting faculty at Amherst College. This would be a great time for HS teachers to vote to increase the amount of time kids spent in class (with NO increase in budget costs) by going to the semester system to show their dedication to kids' learning. I imagine it would even increase people's willingness to vote for an override!

Anonymous said...

As an Amherst resident who opposes asking teachers to give back negotiated in good faith salary increases, I fully support Catherine's suggestion:

"This would be a great time for HS teachers to vote to increase the amount of time kids spent in class (with NO increase in budget costs) by going to the semester system to show their dedication to kids' learning. I imagine it would even increase people's willingness to vote for an override!"

Maybe the teachers union ought to consider this at this particular unique time.

Anonymous said...

November 28, 2009 11:19am -- "One other rant -- can we please reign in the teachers?

Policy in a democracy is supposed to be set by the people through their elected officials and those who serve at their pleasure.

In other words, the School Committee is supposed to be setting policy and not the teachers. The SC should be able to define a semester or trimester system -- and if a law requiring flag saluting is not enforcable, then the contract clause giving the teachers a right that they legally can't have is equally unenforcable.

Play hardball: don't fund the contract. If the teachers want to get paid, they have to go back to the semester system. Or you don't disburse the funds for their pay, which you can legally do.


I'm not a secondary educator, so this post doesn't directly concern me. For the record, I DO think semesters make more sense than trimesters. However, as an educator, period, I'm greatly offended by your blatant disrespect of how the teachers feel.

Anonymous said...

Another "pro" for semesters, as per CS' post:

"since we live in a college town in which all the colleges are on a semester and taking classes at these institutions might be easier if we followed roughly the same schedule."

Especially since we suggest over and over again that taking college classes are a valid option for Amherst high schoolers.

Anonymous said...

in this economic climate, what does it take to get a report on semester/trimester released and evaluated?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Anonymous 12:24 - I fully agree that this would be a wonderful step by the HS teachers, and would demonstrate a real willingness to "take one for the team" and step up to do what is right for kids in our high school. I hope some teachers can take the lead on convincing their colleagues that this is the right thing to do. Let's remember that one-third of the teachers DID vote last spring to change to a semester ... if each of those teachers could convince one other teacher to vote for a change, we could implement the semester program next fall (and either spend the same money but reduce study halls from 2 to 1 OR spend $270,000 less per year and keep two study halls with 12 classes, but only lose 1% of time in class).

Anonymous 12:25 - I agree that the "hardball" post was a bit over the top ... I took the gist of this posting to mean that the SC really shouldn't have given up this right to choose the schedule (given the educational and budget implications of this decision), and I agree with this sentiment. I would hope this is a case in which the district doesn't have to play "hardball" -- because the teachers would agree that moving to a semster is the right thing to do (which is why Mark Jackson encouraged such a discussion last year).

Anonymous 12:31 - it is clear that moving to semesters would be more in line with the college/university schedules ... and again strikes me as a reason why semesters make a lot more sense not only for other high schools, but also for Amherst!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Anonymous 1:25 - look at the minutes for the August 19, 2008 regional meeting. Here is what Mark Jackson said: "Mr. Jackson also reported on the work of the Trimester Evaluation Committee. He noted that the committee spent 18 months studying the schedule issue. By mid-year this year it became clear that the committee could not reach consensus regarding use of a trimester or a semester schedule, so the committee tried to develop a hybrid model. A number of issues came up regarding the hybrid model, so the default trimester schedule has been maintained. As a result, the question is now closed for the term of the new three-year teacher contract. If it is revisited at the end of the contract period, a new charge will need to be given."

Here is what is minuted regarding the discussion by the SC: "Ms. Sanderson asked if the data and research collected by the trimester evaluation committee will be shared with the School Committee and a summary report posted on the district website. Mr. Jackson stated that there is currently not a summary report, but the full data is posted on the high school’s internal website. It is not posted on the public website. Mr. Sprague asked for direction for the school committee regarding how they would like the information to be made available. After discussion, the committee suggested that an executive summary and data from the evaluation survey should be posted on the district website."

Now, sometime that fall a memo from Mark Jackson to the superintendents and the SC was put on the website. You can read the memo at the following link: However, what is clear in this memo is the following: it provided NO data whatsoever (about how many parents/students/teachers thought about the trimester or the semester), it provided no data from other districts (e.g., how many districts use a particular model), and it provided no data on learning or achievement (e.g., no data on whether students learn better/more on a particular system). In addition, and what I find most terrifying, is that it appears that the choice the teachers were discussing was NOT even the semester versus the trimester -- it was the trimester versus some very weird "hybrid model" that was created ENTIRELY by teachers in our HS and is used NO WHERE else in the United States! So, once again, we believe that the needs of the Amherst students are so unique that we can't even choose to follow the high school instructional schedule used by the vast majority of high schools in our country?!?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me (continued):

Now, let's note a few things. First, the trimester system has never been evaluated, although the HS principal (NOT Mark Jackson -- a former principal) assured the SC that it would be evaluated when it was adopted about 10 years ago. Second, we are one of few high schools using the trimester system. Third, the trimester system is more expensive than the semester system for the same amount of class time.

The adoption of the required 9th grade science class thus was particularly concerning -- since it was also supposed to be evaluated (like the trimester system) but it seems clear that "evaluation" in Amherst means that teachers describe how good something is -- they don't show empirically what it is better or worse than, and they don't examine how it compares to what occurs in other districts. This is one of the reasons that many of us were very nervous about the adoption of the new 9th grade required class -- I really don't believe it will ever be evaluated, and my repeated requests for such an evaluation, or even a proposal for how/when it will be evaluated have led to absolutely nothing.

So, you ask what it would take for a real evaluation of the trimester/semester to occur ... I think it would take a lot of parents and community members and even teachers requesting that it be done. Emails to the SC and superintendent or questions at public comment of an SC meeting would be required. It seems clear to me that if I simply ask for it, I won't have enough support from other members of the SC to get it done (and I'll be accused of adding work to the already burdened staff, detracting from other priorities, etc.).

Joel said...

Let me add something to what Catherine just posted:

We will only have evaluations and honest debates about what's going on in our schools if we elect SC members who promise to be accountable.

I know Rick Hood is running and Rick posts many thoughtful comments here. Rick, will you promise to do everything in your power, if elected to the SC, to demand real, data-driven evaluations of the trimester system, the ELL program, the SPED program, language offerings, and the science curriculum?

I believe that asking this question of every candidate for SC is necessary.

Let me add, that I think we should also begin to question why the other towns in the region are so over-represented on the SC. Could someone explain to me why Pelham has two members on the regional SC while Amherst has five. Is that anywhere near proportional representation by either the number of kids or taxes paid for the regional system?

Moreover, 4 of 9 SC members are from outside of Amherst. Do those towns really provide 44% of the students and/or taxes to support the district?

I know this is a little off from the topic, but I am convinced that meaningful change will only come about with the election of the best folks to the SC, especially people who represent the majority of people with kids in the system.

jm said...

If anyone wants the results of the parent and teacher surveys on the trimester system, make a Public Records Requrest under the state's public records law. to the high school or superintendent. This is easy to do and the government agency must respond in 10 days with the documents requested. As far as I can see, this information would not be protected from release by the few exemptions to the public records law.

A sample public records request letter is posted on the website of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts website. Just punch in "public records request" and it will take you right there.

Anonymous said...

Joel said: "Moreover, 4 of 9 SC members are from outside of Amherst. Do those towns really provide 44% of the students and/or taxes to support the district?"

If I am not mistaken, the members of the regional SC are 5 from Amherst, 2 from Pelham, one each from Leverett and Shutesbury. I am not sure why we have 2 from Pelham, but certainly, if it is a regional school committee, we must have at least one from each of the region's towns. This does not seem odd to me. I would be interested to know why Pelham has 2on the committee but other than that I do not think the make-up of the regional SC is odd in any way.

Anonymous said...

2:40pm - re: the report on semester/trimester-

We don't even know how this "evaluation" was done....quite frankly, I think this could be a good use of the Supt's use of consultants, someone outside of the district, and certainly someone outside of the high school to assess this system, including a myths/facts!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Joel - I certainly think that parents/community members who care about serious evaluation and data-driven decision-making (which should include a comparison to other districts) should ask this question of all SC candidates. I've been very frustrated by the absence of this type of data-driven decision-making in our district, and although there are a few members of the SC who now support this, I don't believe I could get a majority of those on the regional committee to support this approach to decision-making.

I also agree with your point re. the make-up of the regional SC. Amherst makes up 5/9 of the regional SC, but certainly much more of the budget and student population. In addition, Pelham has THREE members included when superintendents are chosen and evaluated, meaning that Amherst has only half of the weight of these very important topics. Amherst voters seem very under-represented in terms of their role on the regional SC, so I'm not sure why this formula was adopted initially.

JM - good idea! The issue is that I believe there are raw surveys that could be potentially be accessed through public records. But I don't believe a report that summarizes those evaluations was ever produced (meaning that that work would still have to be done). But I will see what I can find out. However, even these surveys would only provide data on parent/teacher/student OPINION - and not on academic outcomes, which also seem highly relevant (and this type of an evaluation was promised when the trimester system was adopted, and has never taken place).

Anonymous 2:54 - Pelham has two members because they are a part of the elementary system (Pelham Elementary is part of the Amherst elementary system whereas Leverett and Shutesbury are not). I don't think Joel's point was that the towns should have ZERO representation. I think his point was is their representation proportional (e.g., should Amherst have 6 members or 7 members while the small towns have 1 member so that the representation would be proportional to the budget contributed by each town and/or the student enrollment from each town). I certainly feel as if Amherst is under-represented on both the regional and elementary committees, and, importantly, on the hiring and evaluation of the superintendent.

Anonymous 3:01 - the "evaluation" really was never done - it was just a lot of opinion surveys, and even those were never released. But I'm not sure why we need to have an outside evaluator do this -- seems to me that there are two issues: one is budget (and the semester system is cheaper for the same amount of class time/number of study halls), and one is educational (and most districts have semesters AND lots of evidence suggests that gaps in learning material is bad). Thus, moving to a semester system hardly seems controversial or in need of an outside evaluator -- particularly since we live in a town in which the colleges/universities are on a semester system.

Joel said...

On the SC:

I agree with Catherine. The other towns, of course, must be represented.

Not only should we question why Pelham has two representatives, but we should also ask why Amherst only has the five.

Perhaps Amherst should get an additional two SC members. It's just a thought.

Anonymous said...


Can you explain why you think Amherst is underrepresented on the Elementary committee? I thought that each town had their own elementary committee - how could there be an underrepresentation?

As far as the regional is concerned - I do not feel Amherst is under-represented. It seems like we have a senate like committee as opposed to a house of representatives type committee. The current representation is not proportional based on numbers as the House of Representatives is but is rather more like the senate. And I do not see anything wrong with that.

Anonymous said...

Catherine 3:36 "Thus, moving to a semester system hardly seems controversial or in need of an outside evaluator."

I like the way this sounds but many high schoolers and their families believe myths about the trimester vs semester systems and believe that changing systems would mean more work, less electives, less teacher attention, and no financial savings. I believe there was even a facebook group for students started last year to "save trimesters".

Rick said...

In response to Joel:

Rick, will you promise to do everything in your power, if elected to the SC, to demand real, data-driven evaluations of the trimester system, the ELL program, the SPED program, language offerings, and the science curriculum?

Yes, absolutely.

But saying “yes” to this is easy – it’s a “no brainer”. The hard part is figuring out what exactly to measure – what data is meaningful. This is where the problems and disagreements occur. For example, I don’t know exactly what data should be collected to evaluate the trimester system. I imagine there could be all kinds of answers to that question with disagreements on which is the right thing to measure. Again this is the hard part – I would do my best to sort that out and help choose the right things to be measuring.

Anonymous said...

There was an interesting article in the Gazette this weekend about UMass needing classroom space just as the supt raises moving the middle school to the high school, answering the question: what would we do with ARMS? Rent it to UMass?

Anonymous said...

I think it is time to play hardball with the teachers over the trimester issue.

First, every bit of public sector labor/management that I have ever been taught - and it was the labor folk teaching the courses - is that there are certain things that neither party can cede at the table. Labor can not cede the human rights of the employees and management can not cede its duty to control the supervision of the work done. Anything in violation of this constitutes a violation of the labor laws and hence is null and void.

So I suggest that the School Committee decree a semester system (whatever happened to the full-year system, btw?) and let the union grieve it. I really don’t think they will win, and if they do, then the teachers will be in the situation of having to decide to either do all the extra work of shifting back to the trimester for a year, or just going with the flow. A union victory would thus be a very phyrric one.

Second, let it be known that the trimester will not even be considered in the next contract and force the teachers to start planning *now* for the conversion to the semester system. Discuss that at faculty meetings, require that all literature produced have a version for the semester system in it, etc. If the teachers - on their own time - wish to do twice the work to maintain the trimester system while making redundant plans for the semester one, so be it.

And third, let it be known that the teacher’s union’s failure to be flexible on the semester issue will be considered by the board in how it deals with layoffs. Let it be known that the board will take the same hard “what is best for us” position and not care about how the layoffs affect individual teachers.

My doctor, my lawyer and my banker are professionals - they are not represented by a union, and they don’t negotiate how they will provide reduced services to me. If the teachers wish to have respect, they have to earn it - not negotiate it on the bargaining table.

And fourth, exactly who is looking out for the children? Exactly who is looking out for the taxpayers? The fact that the teachers are relying on a union contract (and not popular democratic will) to preserve the trimester system shows just how disrespectable the teachers truly are.

The teachers aren’t saying “this is good for the kids”, they instead are saying “we have a contract so you can go to h*ll.” And that does not beget respect.....

Anonymous said...

Ummmm. . . I don't think the teachers need to be the enemy here. An anti-union rant is fine, but to demonize the teachers seems counterproductive. Discussions, data, feedback, studies, all those are tools for change. Threats and insults get us nowhere. And I would imagine that most of the people who work in our schools care about the children of Amherst more than you think.

Tired Parent said...

I am not sure why Amherst teachers are unique, but Nina's posting about all the "lost prep time" the teachers would have to endure if we went to a semester system just put me on edge. As a single parent, I struggled for years to deal with the "early release days" in the Amherst elementary schools. Not just a few times a year but every single Wednesday afternoon. This represented a hardship to me and less instructional time for my kids. Now we have additional "early release days" during parent conference times so that the teachers wouldn't have to stay after school and/or come in early to conduct parent conferences. So now my kids have even less instructional time and working parents have to take time off in the middle of their day if they want to meet their kids' teachers.

When my kids got to the middle school, I then had to learn about "late start days" where once a month the kids go in two hours late, not only reducing their instruction time by two hours but effectively throwing a wrench into their entire schedule for the day resulting in a lost DAY of instruction (for the most part).

I agree with the poster who said, "who is representing the kids? Who is representing the taxpayers?" I'll bet the high schoolers started a facebook asking to keep the trimesters! What teenager would want to spend 100% of their time in class (like most schools in the area) when they could instead spend 80% of their time in class and 20% of their time in study hall socializing?! Just because they want something, doesn't mean it is good for them.

Joel said...

Let me make a bit of a pro-union rant:

I'm in the MTA and I've published a book on labor history. I am biased toward unions and working folks.

The villains in the Amherst story are a weak SC and horrible superintendent from a few years ago. Criticizing the union for getting something management was willing to give is silly. It's like folks who blame the UAW for the many failures of the US auto companies. The workers weren't designing the cars and they didn't decree their work conditions and pay; management bargained those things away. (The poorly designed cars are analogous to our hyper-unique curriculum, which was approved the superintendents, principals, and SCs.)

So, let's be clear, it's the previous SC and superintendent who are to blame for some of the more destructive and problematic components of the current contract.

Having said that, the UAW has been dealing openly and honestly with management (and now the US govt.) to try to fix the mess the car companies are in.

I do think it would be highly appropriate if the Amherst teachers sat down with the superintendent, principals, and SC and tried to work through what they can all do to improve the financial and educational situation for our schools.

Asking for an override after getting nice raises -- and at the same time refusing to move to semesters because some teachers say it's too much work -- is just bad for our schools long-run health. Such an attitude alienates the very parents you're asking to pay more in property taxes.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, I recall that when the trimester was implemented it seemed many teachers were not in favor. Be interesting to be able to access the comments from that period.

How did what seems to me to be an administrative decision on how to manage the schools become part of the teachers' contract?

The gaps when a student has language and math 1st and 3rd trimesters was problematic when the trimester system was implemented. Tranferring to other school districts was also a fiasco. Maybe those problems have been solved.

I wish my job included planning time. I bet a lot of elementary teachers would also like planning time each day.

H. Trueman

Anonymous said...

I think the teacher's ARE responsible for how their union negotiated for them. YES they did have a say, and they made a sweet deal for themselves at our expense and our kids expense. Now we're angry at them for a good reason. And indeed, how on earth does the rest of the working public manage without the incredible amount of "prep" time these teachers have?

Anonymous said...

I think the amount of teacher bashing that goes on on this blog is really unfortunate. Do people really honestly think the teachers in Amherst are as bad as they are made out to be here? I have been on the web recently looking at trimester scheduling at the high school level - and there are thoughtful people who think there are pros as wells as cons to the trimester schedule. I vaguely remember the discussion that went on many years ago when ARHS switched to the trimester system. The switch was made because it was thought that it would be better for the students. ARHS did not go to the trimester system because the teachers thought it would only be good for them, at the detriment of the students.

Now, perhaps times have changed enough that we should be looking to switch back to semesters and I hope the teachers and principal will collaboratively look into making the switch back.

I also hope we can stop bashing our teachers - I know a number of teachers in Amherst and believe me, they really do care about their students.

jm, thinking practically, said...

Let's get pragmatic -- and less repetitive. If the trimester system can't be ended by the Superintendent unless the next contract cycle, maybe the Superintendent can go to a trimester system without blocks, letting students take math and languages or other academic classes for three trimesters in a row, as well as electives for a single trimester.

I don't particularly care that the high school has four woodshop glasses with 17 students. I'm not sure how well a woodshop class of 25 would actually function. Also, a lot of kids enjoy working with their heads and bodies -- in art, music, tech and drama courses as well as taking academic classes -- just as sports keeps many kids engaged in school. (Also, enough with the sports fees! Are we charging kids to act, play in an orchestra or sing?) There are lots of careers which use different skills. I worry that many of the bloggers here are academics and have a bias towards classes on only pen and paper -- the courses that they excelled in and now teach.

I also don't think that the high school should fear deviating from the courses offered at MSAN schools. Wouldn't it be weird if Amherst College only taught the classes taught at Williams? Of course, teachers should be encouraged to innovate -- but also understand the impact on students. Why not let kids choose between biology or environmental science, since the effect of not having biology in 9th grade is so great? (In fact, why not let 7th graders take an honors math class which focuses on the extensions problems instead of putting all the 7th graders in the same room, hoping some will be motivated to self-teach themselves the extension problems?)

It seems weird to me that we have a high school with so many elective options -- and then a very limited science route for their own good. Why not give kids a range of options in all subject areas?

I do care, deeply, that harder academic classes have such high numbers of students in them and there aren't enough classes to meet demand. If AP courses are oversubscribed -- or don't exist (AP chemistry) the Superintendent should direct the high school to add these courses. Classes with few students should be dropped or offereed only if they have enough students (maybe 15). It's ridiculous to me that in a town of so many academic professionals, our high school kids have to crowd into advanced courses.

Will any of these changes require an override? I don't know the exact numbers but I don't think they would cost more money than now.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to teacher bash when I mentioned prep time.

Merely trying to point out the disparity between the prep time that elementary teachers get with the prep time high school teachers get. (and also, the lack of prep time other professions get: my prep time is outside my normal 45 hour week...)

But to keep it to the schools: why such a distinction between ms/hs and elementary prep time? Keep in in mind that ms/hs teachers teach one or two subjects and elementary teachers teach all subjects all day with only 20 mins or less for lunch break.

And as a parent who has had children go through all grades through graduation, the elementary teachers were overall more satisfactory than the middle and high school teachers.

Not teacher bashing, just observation.

Anonymous said...

I had a conversation with an ARMS teacher on Saturday. This teacher indicated that there has been an increase in the total number of students she is teaching each trimester from 80 earlier in her career to the current 139.

Do we really think that doesn't make a difference?

This is a teacher that I know has spent plenty of extra time outside of the classroom working with her students.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Rich, Not disputing that there are teachers in the high school and middle school that work outside the classroom.

As do many elementary teachers of my acquaintance.

I'm just asking why planning is seen as part of the work day (the contracted short work day) for middle school and high school teachers but is apparently seen as non essential for elementary teachers.

Numbers of students notwithstanding, teaching several subjects well requires a lot of prep time and constantly keeping up with several fields.

H. T.

Anonymous said...

I am sure the elementary teachers have prep time also. I think all teachers have prep time AND spend alot of time that they are not paid for doing things for their classes. I just do not understand why the teachers in Amherst are all of a sudden seen as the bad guys. For the most part they are dedicated to educating our children in the best way they can.

Anonymous said...

I really agree with the above comment. It pains me to read these attacks at teachers with some very tired old comments like they "work a short day" or "why do they need prep time?".

I think some of the people making those comments need to walk in the teachers shoes for awhile. If they are at work from 7:00 to 3:30 thwy have already been there for 8 1/2 hours...where is the short day? And then any teacher worth their salt (and we have many of those!) works countless more hours at home in the evenings and on weekends. I don't imagine that many other jobs require anywhere near the amount of work at home preparing, evaluating, grading, etc. that a dedicated (yes we have those!) teacher does.

My Mom was a teacher, as well as my sister and brother. I have watched the amount of work a professional (we have those!) teacher puts in, and I know why most of them do it (Hint: It's because they CARE.)

The recent budget cuts have only made teachers jobs even harder and the next round will likely make it worse. Yet, they keep on going and working harder because they do care about our kids.

Burnout on the job is a reality for educators, and having a public bullseye on their backs can not help that one bit!

Anonymous said...

For many years, the Amherst Schools have been viewed, on the whole, as excellent in spite of, certainly not because of their 'leadership,' on many levels. Individual teachers work tirelessly in ways that the public will never know, given that, as a group, we are not prone to touting our hard work. We just do it. Poor communication around both curriculum and other basic matters from central and school based administration with teaching staff leads to teachers picking up the work. This leads to a discontinuous curriculum and a wide range of topics and instructional methods being utilized. Teachers are filling a void. Connecting curriculum at grade levels and between grade levels, on the elementary level, at least, is a job for administration to design and implement. Teacher input should be solicited, as they are in the best position to identify issues as they arise. Teachers do not have the time or opportunity to do this work on their own, especially across schools. There are several examples of grade level teams at individual schools functioning very effectively, but again, this is not due to administrative design; it's pure teacher effort.
One more example of disconnect was demonstrated at the recent curriculum day, when a central administrator (someone who has worked in the district for at least 8 years) made a presentation to a staff, and most of the teachers had never seen this person before, and did not know who was speaking to them (an introduction was never made). I found that troubling. This indicates to me that the problems that have been sharply pointed at past leadership, both paid administrators and volunteer (SC), continue forward.

Anonymous said...

I was not teacher bashing. Please read my posts again.

My point, admittedly tangentally a bit off topic, was that I wanted to know WHY it is seen as more important to ensure that MS/HS teachers have planning time and WHY you do not see that elementary teachers do not get that consideration. [trimesters seem to allow for a bit more planning time: this appears to be part of what is impacting the resistance to reverting to a semester system]

If planning time is important for teachers (and I KNOW it is) it is important for all teachers. Elementary school is a crucial time.

If I were a teacher I'd resist these non-realistic contracted hours and insist that the contract reflect the true number of hours that teachers work. Then perhaps the tax payers would realize what they're getting for their money.

I'm sincerely sorry to be way off topic of the initial post but I'm annoyed at the ignorance "I'm sure elementary teachers get planning time."

You're sure? why don't you look at the schedules?

And I do stand by my original observation: most of the teachers my kids had in elementary stand out for their commitment to their profession. And we transferred in from private school.

Granted my observation is only anecdotal, and it is only my observation. As I represented previously and never inferred anything besides that.


Rick said...

Boy I’d like to hear a lot more about this:

”Poor communication around both curriculum and other basic matters from central and school based administration with teaching staff leads to teachers picking up the work. This leads to a discontinuous curriculum and a wide range of topics and instructional methods being utilized. Teachers are filling a void.”

Do many teachers feel this way? Why do they think this is the case? Etc…

Anonymous said...

CS said:
seriously considering how much we spend on special ed

I understand that most people who don't or haven't had a child with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) will likely know very little about what "Special Ed" means. Here's some very basic info.

Special education is provided based on a legal contract -- the Individual Education Plan, a document mutually agreed upon and signed by the district, its representatives (teachers, school admin) and parents. State and federal laws are very clear: if an educationl service (eg, occupational therapy, or speech therapy, or individualized math instruction) is written into the contract (IEP), then the district is legally bound to provide it. This is NON NEGOTIABLE. Obviously the place where money can be saved is by keeping a lid on what services are written into the IEP.

Some districts are notorious for refusing services...lawsuits follow...expensive lawsuits.

How is staffing determined? Let's say 20 fourth graders district wide (5 per elementary school) each have 60 minutes per day of reading instruction, 5 days/week, required by their ed plan. That's 600 hours of instruction.

Now assume it's possible to have as many as 6 kids in a group (more than that doesn't work too well, less is better). Divide 600 by 6 and you still have ONE HUNDRED HOURS OF TEACHER-DIRECTED INSTRUCTION PER WEEK. That's the equivalent of three full-time teachers. In reality, low-wage paraprofessionals do a lot of the instruction...but you see the point.

Where there is bona fide need written into an IEP, there must be instruction.

Anonymous said...

Divide 600 by 6 and you still have ONE HUNDRED HOURS OF TEACHER-DIRECTED INSTRUCTION PER WEEK. That's the equivalent of three full-time teachers

Which raises the issue that no one is willing to talk about - we have a system that is not sustainable. We have an increasing number of students defined as SPED, in part to get the special attention that they otherwise would have already received without the shift of resources to SPED. And we have an increasingly smaller percentage of a limited pie going to the majority.

To paraphrase Lincoln, this house divided will not continue to stand.

And then we look, above, at the implicit threats. Gimme, gimme, or I will sue. That is how many (not all) SPED decisions are made. And that is wrong.

And folks, these resources are limited. We can argue either way on override but regardless, the money for education is finite. And how long before we are spending ALL of it on SPED and none on anything else????

Anonymous said...

Reality check: some colleges do NOT give credit for APs. Even top scores of 5.
You can look it up. U. of Rochester is one such school.

So the argument that APs save money by providing very cheap and advantageous college credit needs to be understood only as a possibility, not a definite thing.

The academic leg up AP coursework provides once in college, however, seems like a very important and valid point. Now, a HS could have AP equivalent courses w/o the AP imprimateur. Which is what some teachers at ARHS have said about their existing department offerings.

Also, CS said:
I think you raise a number of important points, including the possibility that our special ed programs are (a) expensive, and (b) not particularly effective.

So, what does an effective special ed program look like? I don't think anybody really knows that. If you're talking about MCAS scores -- that's a joke. Kids who are working 1-3 years below grade level will NEVER pass a grade-level MCAS (and yes, children in Special Ed must take the MCAS tests given to their age group, not their academic level). So a kid who's been diligently working all year to master third grade math, even though he's in fourth grade, will be given the fourth grade MCAS, and not pass it because he hasn't yet been taught the operations and concepts covered in the 4th grade MCAS.

Anonymous said...

Ed said

"From a developmental point of view, from an instructional point of view, why on earth do you want longer periods? Teachers love it because you have to teach fewer classes and correct less homework, but how does it benefit students?"

Sorry ed, but you are clueless when it comes to classroom instruction. What happens in the first 5 minutes of a class? roll call, late passes, homework checks. And the last 5 mins? Homework assignments, teachers take a few quick questions, kids pack their stuff and get out the door. That whittles a 50 minute class down to 40 and a 45 minute class down to 35 as far as instructional time goes. This is not good for instruction or students. Want to see a burnt out student? One who has barreled through a days worth of 45 minute classes.

90 minute classes allow for extended project work, in-depth discussion, student class team work with report back to the class, all the good stuff that should happen in a classroom.

And nice teacher bashing at the end there ed. That's so very considerate of you and marks you as a true friend of our schools.

Anonymous said...

Anon Dec 1 8:07 pm said:
Which raises the issue that no one is willing to talk about - we have a system that is not sustainable. We have an increasing number of students defined as SPED, in part to get the special attention that they otherwise would have already received without the shift of resources to SPED. And we have an increasingly smaller percentage of a limited pie going to the majority.

I ask:
1. "We have an increasing number of students defined as SPED, in part to get the special attention that they otherwise would have already received without the shift of resources to SPED"

Can you clarify this statement? I don't understand what you're saying. Are you saying that these children didn't really need SPED services, or that extra help was available outside SPED? It's true that the elementary schools have Reading Recovery in first grade(not SPED), and some math tutoring. But that's it for extra help for kids w/o IEPs, as far as I know. Regular ed support teachers were among the positions cut for this year. If you can't afford private tutoring, your kid is out of luck.

Clarification: tutoring is NOT special ed. If your child doesn't have an IEP than whatever help he or she gets is considered regular ed support. Not Special Ed. Different budget.

And then we look, above, at the implicit threats. Gimme, gimme, or I will sue. That is how many (not all) SPED decisions are made. And that is wrong.

2. "That is how many (not all) SPED decisions are made. And that is wrong."
Where are you getting your information? Having worked in SPED in Amherst for years, I can't recall a single student who was with us because parents played the lawsuit card.

And folks, these resources are limited. We can argue either way on override but regardless, the money for education is finite. And how long before we are spending ALL of it on SPED and none on anything else????

3. "And how long before we are spending ALL of it on SPED and none on anything else????"

That's just hyperbole. Where is your evidence for this exaggerated scenario?

Joel said...

Anon 8:45 wrote:

"Reality check: some colleges do NOT give credit for APs. Even top scores of 5.
You can look it up. U. of Rochester is one such school."

And, the reality, is completely the opposite:

The above link provides the department by department AP to class credit listing for students in the class of 2013.

Where did you hear Rochester doesn't take APs. That would be news to their registrar and all their departments!

APs do two thing: They provide a advanced training based on a nationally proven curriculum and they give students the opportunity to earn college credits, even at Rochester.

Joel said...

The link didn't paste. I googled "University of Rochester AP credit" and that was the first hit. I'll try the link again

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:45 wrote:

"Reality check: some colleges do NOT give credit for APs. Even top scores of 5."

I don't think that's true, but even if it were, the point is students should have the opportunity to take advanced classes and the option of using them towards paying for tuition. Some students would select their college options based on whether or not APs were accepted as one way of reducing their total tuition burden. I know some students a few years ago who ruled out all colleges that didn't give merit aid (ivy league) and only applied to colleges where he could be considered. Financial aid is a very scary reality for many students and families. Any possiblity to reduce it is often considered.

Anonymous said...

I think we should look again at the preschool located at the high school. I heard there are very few HS students involved during the day. Who is this program really serving education wise, and does it need to be taking up space and $$ at the HS?

Ed said...

90 minute classes allow for extended project work, in-depth discussion, student class team work with report back to the class, all the good stuff that should happen in a classroom.

Developmentally, even lower level undergraduates (Freshman/Sophmore or whatever we are supposed to call them now) are not mature enough to process information for this long. They most certainly are not as members of a generation that a friend described as being one that "crams thousands of songs into credit-card-sized MP3 players, stuffs happiness into easy-to-swallow pills and compresses deep thoughts into 140 tweetable-characters."

You have maybe 25 minutes of true instructional time. Regardles of how long the class actually lasts. Welcome to reality....

Anonymous said...

Ed said:

"Developmentally, even lower level undergraduates (Freshman/Sophmore or whatever we are supposed to call them now) are not mature enough to process information for this long. They most certainly are not as members of a generation that a friend described as being one that "crams thousands of songs into credit-card-sized MP3 players, stuffs happiness into easy-to-swallow pills and compresses deep thoughts into 140 tweetable-characters."

You have maybe 25 minutes of true instructional time. Regardles of how long the class actually lasts. Welcome to reality...."

Hopefully you are not a teacher or college professor, as your educational philosphy and attitude toward the ability of young people to learn is a truly cynical. If you ARE a professor and are only getting 25 minutes of intrusctional time out of your classes, then the problem rests with you and your instructional methods, and not with your students.

You say 25 minutes of "true" instructional time. Is this some kind of attempt by you to calculate a cognitive slice and dice of the class period? This is absurd on its face, and it is hardly "reality". You are either extremely uninformed about the dynamic and innovative teaching methods used by Amherst's highly skilled teaching corps, or you are being politically provocative for reasons I can not even begin to guess at.

Its saddening to me that absurd points of view like yours are taken seriously by Ms. Sanderson. And what makes it worse, by the Bulletin, since it has started going to this board to do its "research" for its stories...

Anonymous said...

Annonymous December 3, 2009 8:07 AM: YOU obviously haven't been on the inside of a classroom. Have you seen how hard it is to get kids all on the same page????? YOU do not know what you are talking about. Ed does.

Anonymous said...

It's not just about what kids are capable of within the classroom; kids these days have a short attention span in general. You don't have to be a teacher to see that--just a parent. I think it gets worse as the kids get older and start using things like email, IM, and cell phones. Not to say that teachers cannot still try to engage kids for 90 minutes (for example, I think lab instruction which is very hands-on could be very successful for 90 minutes), but I do think that 25 minutes might be a more reasonable assessment of their attention span. Sadly.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:25 AM
Oh my gosh! I can't believe that anyone would think that Ed knows what he's talking about! He makes up things all the time and states things he has "heard" as fact on this and other blogs. The man is a nut! When he is faced with the truth he ignores it and changes the subject.

Anonymous said...

Anon said:

"YOU obviously haven't been on the inside of a classroom. Have you seen how hard it is to get kids all on the same page?????"

Yes, I have. To both. And shorter class periods remedy this That is the question from which this all sprung.

"Not to say that teachers cannot still try to engage kids for 90 minutes (for example, I think lab instruction which is very hands-on could be very successful for 90 minutes), but I do think that 25 minutes might be a more reasonable assessment of their attention span. Sadly."

This is why longer class periods in the humanities, as well as science class labs, work. Instruction and activities are variated, (and yes, can be made "hands on" even in the humanities) students work in small groups, report back to the class, discussion ensues, etc.

What I'm describing above is a rich learning environment which fosters student engagement with each other and the subject matter. No teacher in MS or HS can simplly lecture and disccuss for 90 minutes straight and expect students to stay awake. Thats why instruction isn't done that way.

It would be nice if people on this blog would speak to the teachers of their children about how classes are taught. If they did they would find out something surprising... that teachers would LOVE to tell you about how its done! Why? Because they are passionate about their work, they are professionals, they like talking to people, and chances are, they like your kid.

So, my advice, if you have a gripe or are simply curious, go ahead and talk to the teacher! Go to open house! Go to the parent/teacher conferences. The teacher will be happy to teach you about teaching! ;-)

Don't just come onto a controversial public blog and spout off, without getting the information from the teachers that you should have.

And yes, although it now hardly bears repeating, Ed, you are simply a provocateur.

Anonymous said...

I did visit my kids classes, talked to teachers, and then moved my kids out of the public schools thank you. Best decision I ever made.