My Goal in Blogging

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

'Corrective action' for Crocker Farm: School board says low MCAS scores prove need for changes

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe
Published on November 06, 2009

Students at Crocker Farm School tested considerably lower than those at Amherst's other elementary schools in last spring's Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. The School Committee cited this achievement gap in voting last week to change the district lines to equalize the percentages of children from low-income households, and those identified as "struggling," in all the elementary schools.

Crocker Farm was a focus of opposition to the redistricting, as many parents defended the practice of clustering Latino students there.

Expressed as an average of nine MCAS tests in third through sixth grade taken last spring, Crocker Farm was in the 43rd percentile statewide (that is, 43 percent of schools scored lower and 57 percent higher). Fort River and Wildwood Schools were both in the 72nd percentile and Mark's Meadow the 63rd. An analysis of 2007 and 2008 data shows similar results, though in these years Mark's Meadow ranked highest.

Crocker Farm's performance has resulted in a state-mandated call for "corrective action." Especially disturbing to school officials is last year's fourth grade at Crocker Farm, where 58 percent of the 40 students tested in the "needs improvement" or "warning/failing" categories in English and 73 percent in math.

In addition to having a much higher percentage of low-income children than the other schools, Crocker Farm has a large percentage of students who have limited proficiency in English. And of those students, 94 percent are low income and 26 percent receive special education services, both much higher than other schools.

This amounts to "triple jeopardy," said School Committee member Catherine Sanderson. During the redistricting debate, committee members cited research showing that low-income students don't perform as well in schools that are more than 40 percent low income, as Crocker Farm is.

"To me, our scores indicate a failure not of our teachers or of our students, but of what we are teaching in the classroom," said Sanderson.

Despite all the criticism of the Regional Middle School over the past year, students there tested in the 81st percentile (an average of five tests) in the MCAS last spring, much higher than the average ranking of Amherst's elementary schools.

The elementary math curriculum, called Investigations, has been shown to be very weak and many schools have abandoned it, Sanderson said. This curriculum is under review this year.

Another factor in disappointing MCAS scores in the elementary schools is lack of alignment, she said.

"Teachers in a third grade at Wildwood may not be teaching the same thing as teachers in third grade at Fort River, and even within a building, teachers in a given grade may be teaching different things," she said. "This means that kids can have gaps in their knowledge in a particular area."


The achievement gap "concerns us greatly," said School Committee member Irv Rhodes.

Most Crocker Farm children have parents who work long hours, and many don't have the educational experience to provide as beneficial an environment for schoolwork as parents living in other parts of town, he said. In addition, because Fort River parents have much higher incomes than Crocker Farm parents, they can raise more money for extras such as computers, field trips and playground facilities, he said.

"It's incumbent on us to make sure we give those kids what they need, but we don't," he said. He endorsed a proposal made in a report to Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez that Amherst implement a universal preschool program.

School Committee Chairman Andy Churchill, who is stepping down next spring, said that "having one poor school and one rich school" represents an injustice. He also questioned the complaints the committee received from Crocker Farm parents about redistricting.

"We heard a lot of arguments that with clustering, we were doing something special at Crocker Farm," he said. "If that's the case, where are the outcomes? Our goal is to make sure every kid achieves."

Because of its poor performance, Crocker Farm has been designated a Commonwealth Priority School. This means that students are receiving extra math and English instruction this year, said Marta Guevara, the student services administrator.

It also means that Principal Mike Morris, now in his second year, has more say about staffing, she said.

"For too long in the elementary schools, each building created a culture of what the curriculum was in reading and writing," she said. "They were doing good work, but they weren't aligned in philosophy or methodology."

Another consequence of the state designation is that the school district has to pay to bus students living in the Crocker Farm district to another school if the parents request it.

This will continue to be an option next year, even as the policy of "open enrollment" ends because of redistricting, Sanderson said.

"We're behind the 8-ball at Crocker Farm," said Rhodes. "Everything Amherst is doing should have been started three to five years ago."


Anonymous said...

It is amazing to me that the Amherst public school system does not have a unified curriculum from school to school at this point in time. What is of greater concern is that there may not be a unified curriculum within a single school. It is gratifying to see the SC beginning to deal with this issue.

The effectiveness of the principals and teachers is another factor, in addition to the those stated in the article, that impacts the performance at each school. We are blessed with some amazing teachers and administrators in Amherst, but they are not all uniformly effective educators or managers. Quality varies widely. Some schools have also had to deal with a revolving door in regards to the principal's chair. Wildwood for example, has had to adapt to at least seven changes in leadership over the past 16 years. This has got to have a tangible impact on the performance of a school.

A unified curriculum is a great start.

Caren Rotello said...

I agree with anonymous 9:22 that a unified curriculum is important. I hope that such a curriculum will be based on current data about the most effective curricula, in contrast to (at least) the math curriculum currently in use at Wildwood (i.e., Investigations).

Investigations has been tested against 3 other curricula in a fairly large-scale randomized-design experiment; it resulted in significantly lower achievement levels than two other curricula and was equivalent to the third. The decrement in achievement from Investigations rather than a better curriculum was about as large as the decrement that comes from having larger (22-25) rather than smaller (13-17) class sizes, and amounted to about 10 percentile points on standardized tests. Moreover, the disadvantage of using Investigations rather than a better curriculum was the same magnitude for essentially every category of students (ethnicity, family income, etc) and teachers (education and experience level, math competency, etc). In other words, all kids suffer an achievement penalty when Investigations is used.

I am disappointed that a demonstrably inferior curriculum is in use in our schools. If a major curricular alignment project is going to happen, it would be a fine time to improve the curricula that are used.

(You can read the study yourself here: It was published by the Institute for Education Sciences.)

Tom G said...

Any chance we can review a summary of curricula of four Amherst grade schools and Charter school by grade level?

Abbie said...

I thought "school district has to pay to bus students living in the Crocker Farm district to another school if the parents request it." This will continue next year! I thought that since we were essentially/dramatically changing CF that this would not be required.

I can imagine that lots of folks will opt to stay at WW, especially if busing is provided...

How will this be handled as WW looks to be getting pretty big?

I see this as a BIG problem. Did I misunderstand something?

Anonymous said...

To Caren Rotello 9:22:

I believe that a Math Curriculum review Committee (comprised of Math professors, teachers educators, and parents in the field) did not recommend the Investigations program, but another, more rigorous one instead. This less chanllenging math program was selected by the SC at that time, along with the Math Curriculum Coordinator, I believe.

Caren Rotello said...

Anon 2:18:

Thanks, I have learned a bit about how Investigations came to Amherst. Since it's already in use here, what matters most is that we get rid of it as quickly as possible, and replace it with a better curriculum (that is selected based on data, not intuition or hope). I believe that our current SC is moving the district in the right direction, and I hope that the Super is on board.

To change the topic, I'd like to reiterate Abbie's question: Is it really true that people in the new CF district can opt-out next year and be bused to WW (most likely) or FR? If yes, I agree that there will be huge over-enrollment problems at WW.

Anonymous said...

Has there been any studies or data collected on how long a child stays in the ELL/SEI program at Crocker Farm comparatively to other schools?

Anonymous said...

regarding staying at WW or FR and opting out of CF because of the state- mandated corrective action, i would imagine this option will cease once the school improves (within a year, two years?). for families who opt out now, it would just mean putting off the inevitable. unless next year will be your child's last year at WW or FR. in that case, it seems like a good thing to do. i wonder if there would be a guarantee that your child could stay in the school they are currently in? if i were on the SC i would not guarantee this, as it should depend on the enrollment rates and numbers. there's always pelham and school choice there as an option as well. there was an article in the paper recently about how reliant the pelham school district is on the school choice money. good luck everyone. this is too bad about CF at a time when we are implementing new districts.

Worried Parent said...

Why was this not brought up during redistricting? I thought since the nature of the school (CF) itself was changing substantively through redistricting, it would no longer be a "corrective action" school and parents could no longer opt their kids out. I think Abbie and others are right; this could cause a huge enrollment problem. Especially if you have parents with rising fifth and sixth graders from WW or FR. You are probably not that thrilled with having your child switch to CF for just one or two years of elementary (just because what child likes to switch that close to the end?) and so likely to opt to have your child stay at their original school. My bet is that we are going to see serious overenrollment in the fifth and sixth grades next year at WW and FR. Catherine, what is the SC thinking on this? When do parents have to notify the district that they are opting out under the corrective action allowance?

Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly, the notice we have recieved in the past couple of years said we could only send our CF kids to another school if there was room there. I think our choice this year due to space was MM.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 9:22 - Amherst has given a huge amount of leeway to teachers to teach whatever they wanted ... in some cases, with great and experienced teachers, that worked out well. In other cases, it did not. I agere that we very much need a unified curriculum (horizontally and vertically) and I believe that our current superintendent recognizes this as an issue and is working on it.

Caren (at 9:22) - I agree that it is disappointing that the Amherst schools for years have used a curriculum in math that has not been shown to be effective. Although that study was done on the first version of Investigations (and we are now using the second version), I have yet to see any research that reveals the second version is effective ... and the choice to adopt the second version was made without any review of alternative curricula (this choice was made in 2007).

Tom G - I believe there is a broad summary of the curriculum frameworks for the Amherst schools on the website. The issue is that not all teachers are teaching those frameworks (and it is very hard to find out how much people are doing similar versus different things in each building/classroom). Again, I think the superintendent is working hard on this, as are the elementary school principals (remember, three of the four principals are in only their 2nd year).

Abbie - good question! Two things here. First, WW actually didn't make AYP last year ... nor did Fort River. So, kids can't transfer to either of those schools (only MM) since those schools weren't sufficiently better. Second, even when families can opt out, it is a limited number of spaces, so this shouldn't be a giant issue (e.g., there are building capacities). Obviously the hope is that all schools will perform better (and for all kids) and hence this issue won't continue as it has this year.

Anonymous 2:18 - I was on the Math Curriculum Council for several years, and I can tell you that members of this committee were not consulted at all before the decision was made to adopt the 2nd version of Investigations. My strong understanding is that NO committee conducted any review of any math curricula prior to adopting the new verison of Investigations. On the positive side, a committee (of teachers) did review different middle school math curricula, and chose a rigorous and empirically-tested curricula (Impact), which is now adopted in 6th to 8th grade (that occurred in 2008). I hope such a review can now occur at the elementary school level (this is in fact one of the district's goals for the superintendent).