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 19, 2009

Patriotism, race taken up by board

Amherst Bulletin
November 19, 2009

The Regional School Committee dealt this week with the hot-button issues of patriotism and race.

Responding to a question from member Catherine Sanderson, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez said he will send an email message to faculty and staff advising them to adhere to state law regarding the "Pledge of Allegiance."

After Rodriguez said that compliance is "inconsistent," Sanderson asked if committee members should be concerned. He responded, "It should be important to educators" because of their influence on children.

Teachers must lead a "group recitation" of the "Pledge of Allegiance" at the beginning of each school day, according to the Massachusetts General Laws. "Failure for a period of two consecutive weeks by a teacher to salute the flag and recite the pledge, or to cause the pupils under his charge so to do, shall be punished for every such period by a fine of not more than $5," the law reads.

Sanderson said it sends a "weird message" for schools to ignore the law. If Amherst were "making principled objections and proudly violating the law," she might feel differently, she said.

Rodriguez said he is from the South, "where we salute the flag and say, 'Thank you, ma'am,' and, 'No, sir.' It caught my attention that (reciting the 'Pledge') is not as widespread as I felt it should be."

He said that he is not blaming anyone, adding that he is "not particularly used to some of the stuff that seems to be cultural" in Amherst.

"I'm all for law and order and making sure we salute the flag," he said.

At Tuesday's meeting, the School Committee also addressed the sensitive issue of race, with respect to suspensions and a program mostly for students of color that encourages academic progress.

According to figures presented by Principal Mark Jackson, students from African-American and Latino backgrounds have been suspended more frequently than their percentages of the high school population would seem to indicate. From August 2008 through June 2009, African-American students, who make up 8.75 percent of the school, accounted for 18 percent of the external and 14 percent of the internal suspensions.

Latino students, who comprise 10 percent of the school, received 23 percent of the external and 22 percent of the internal suspensions.

White students, who are 68 percent of the school, received 52 percent of the external and 55 percent of the internal suspensions, according to Jackson's figures.

"This is a white, middle-class environment that is fairly easily alienating for kids of color," Jackson said. But he also said, "This is a very safe and orderly place and the level of compliance with rules is very high."

School Committee member Kathleen Anderson said, "White people aren't intentionally being hostile; they don't know any better."

Welcoming climate

Rodriguez said the school must create a climate where "all students feel welcomed and this is part of their home. This is nobody's fault, and it's all our fault."

Project Challenge, which has existed for more than 10 years, provides support for students to take honors courses and achieve at a higher level. These students are selected on the basis of race, income and family background, and of the 28 current students who have participated, six are white, Jackson said.

The results have been mixed, he said. Some years there is evidence that Project Challenge has helped and others there isn't, but the cost is only about $6,000 to $7,000 a year, he said.

Committee member Steve Rivkin said that with the budget under pressure, "We need to have a lens on everything."

Member Irv Rhodes agreed, saying, "We need to know the reason for existing so our decision on cuts is informed."

Rivkin also suggested that the school district make sure that the racial criteria for the program are in accordance with the law.

Sanderson brought up the issue at a parent's request. Anderson termed the inquiry "a hostile reaction for the privileged class."

"People in the dominant culture expect to have the best for their kids, but when it's extended to those without privileges, they get upset," she said.


mariac said...

I am disgusted by the comment Anderson made about white people not knowing any better. This is not an acceptable comment by anyone regarding any type of race/people's ethnicity/background etc. I expect better regarding the School Committee. There is obviously a lot to deal with in this community, but stating anything inflammatory regarding people as a whole is just not acceptable.

LarryK4 said...

Oh, I'm sure when it comes to patriotism and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (now that this is under the spotlight) we will soon see some kids "making principled objections and proudly violating the law."

Of course, they will be under the influence of their Niwtwit parents (or parent as the case may be.)

But bravo for A-Rod! Maybe next he will admit to being a Republican.

Anonymous said...

It is not a violation of the law for students or anyone to choose not to recite the pledge. It is only a violation of the law for teachers to not lead their students in reciting the pledge at least once every 2 weeks.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, and let's not even mention that every homeroom is required to have an American flag (you know, so they can face it while saying the Pledge.)

Abbie said...


please leave your "nitwitting" insults to your own blog, where maybe someone is interested in what you think...

Anonymous said...

With all the major issues we are facing with critical budget problems, I am shocked that the superintendent is addressing this. Please Dr.Rodriguez, we are paying you so much during this hard time to solve some important issues.

Spend your time wisely.

LarryK4 said...

Actually Abbie I used the term "nitwit" (never heard the ing version, but maybe I'll work that in someday...on my own blog)

Rick said...

"With all the major issues we are facing with critical budget problems, I am shocked that the superintendent is addressing this."

He was asked to address it - he didn't bring it up.

Curious onlooker said...

This is reminding me of a newspaper article I read a few years ago where the town of Shutesbury or Leverett was debating whether to fly an American flag over a town building. People objected to it, with one resident stating that he would accept the U.N. flag but not the American flag. I clipped the article and sent it to out-of-valley friends because I thought it was so funny.

Surely we can all agree that our towns are political subdivisions of the United States and that we have a Pledge of Allegiance that, while no one is required to say it, is in fact one legally required to be said in our Massachusetts schools.

The Pledge isn't such a bad thing to know the words to either, just as sort of a loose fact like the reasons behind and consequences of the American Revolution, the words to the Declaration of Independence, the 14th Amendment, the hard fought right for women to vote and so on.

It all makes me wonder if people against the Pledge in the schools have U.S. passports, pay state sales taxes, stand when the Star Spangled Banner is sung during Red Sox games.

Anonymous said...

I think katherine anderson knows she's on the fringes and she's not running again anyway, so she can say whatever stupid shit she wants to; and she does. At least we let her reveal what she really is. A racist.

LarryK4 said...

At least she does it under her--dare I say I say it--GOD given name.

Anonymous said...

Sanderson said it sends a "weird message" for schools to ignore the law. If Amherst were "making principled objections and proudly violating the law," she might feel differently, she said.

Rodriguez said he is from the South, "where we salute the flag and say, 'Thank you, ma'am,' and, 'No, sir.' It caught my attention that (reciting the 'Pledge') is not as widespread as I felt it should be."

* * *

"I'm all for law and order and making sure we salute the flag," he said.

This is appalling on so many levels. Requiring teachers to enforce what essentially amounts to a loyalty oath? Bringing mindless southern values of blind obedience to a town with an honorable tradition of critical thinking? This is who we've got running our school district?

Go back to the South, then, and lead some school district there into anti-intellectual nationalism. Not here, thank you.

And it doesn't send a "weird message" at all -- it sends a very clear message that teachers and students have far better things to do than waste time reciting empty pledges or even arguing about whether they should. It's a pointless debate about what's at best a pointless ritual, and at worst an exercise in nationalist indoctrination.

Anonymous said...

This message is to the blog-creator:
Please consider setting a more civil tone, both in your own writing, and by turning away posts that use coarse or foul language. I refer specifically, and most recently, to the 6:37 PM post by anonymous. The use of bathroom language skews the discourse to an unarguably inflammatory level. I could cite numerous earlier examples, including, but not limited to, the use of a four letter commonly known swear word by another SC member that was quoted in the newspaper. Know that I am deeply offended by the broad brush statements about 'white people' that a certain school committee member is being chided for in 6:37PM post, yet I maintain that public officials, and certainly public officials who maintain a blog, are duty-bound to maintain a level of discourse that is inclusive while having language expectations that are at least consistent with the standards that we expect of our students.
In brief: please, blog creator, set a constructive tone and clean up your blog to set a good example for the next generation. We are working very hard in the schools to promote civility. Please join us in our efforts.

LarryK4 said...

"if you can't stand the heat..."

Anonymous said...

RE: Anonymous 8:32 p.m.

"Bringing mindless southern values of blind obedience to a town with an honorable tradition of critical thinking?"

"Mindless southern values" is a cultural slur and does not demonstrate critical thinking but does imply a bias on the writer's part.

"blind obedience" What part of the Constitution or Bill of Rights requires us to be blindly obedient?

"Go back to the South, then, and lead some school district there into anti-intellectual nationalism."

Or, in simpler terms: You are stating that everyone in town should think like you do or go away. And you feel very comfortable insulting an entire region of our country AND assuming that all southerners are alike.

Further your statements indicate that you believe being patriotic demonstrates that people are not intellectual. Is President Obama patriotic?

Or perhaps getting back to the actual intent of the superintendent's directions: obeying the state law for teachers is a law you would choose to disobey so OF COURSE anyone with any intellect would agree with you.

Your last paragraph is even more revealing.

"it sends a very clear message that teachers and students have far better things to do than waste time reciting empty pledges or even arguing about whether they should."

Your post is very familiar: agree with the me or I will insult you, I will ignore the validity of your opinion/belief, and I will shun you. This idea that everyone must embrace the same think-speak or be ridiculed and labeled non-intellectual is the antithesis of what "critical thinking" should encompass. Your very post presents a counter-argument to your premise and, should folks embrace your message, belies Amherst's representation of itself as an alternative DIVERSE environment. Diversity means accepting that others have opinions that may differ from yours and giving those opinions/ways of life respect.

I feel that our town's vocal respect for diversity should ensure that cultural, religious, ethnic or racial slurs are NEVER ok.

I do support having the pledge said in the schools. It's the law but beyond that, it's also a way to demonstrate our support for a country that has given all of us a lot of opportunities and security. I, however, like you, do not like having children recite something they do not understand and I am not for indoctrination....

That said, as children we are citizens of this country by virtue of birth or choices of our parents-- there isn't a clear way or a coming of age time when we could say: I choose to accept that I am an American and will pledge my allegiance. But perhaps there should be. Or perhaps not.
So there appears to be a lot of room for discussion, I think.

Rick said...

One of the things I have learned by reading this blog is how some people seem to like to be angry and stay angry, as opposed to trying to fix the problem that is making them angry. People are angry about issues ranging from the pledge to the portables and yet so many of those people seem to only want to stay angry (and tell everybody they are) rather than working on fixing the problem.

Taking the pledge as just an example: if you don’t like it, here are steps you could take that might actually move you toward your goal:

1. Find out how many other schools are following the law.
2. Find out if courts have interpreted the law to get a better idea of exactly what is required. Or simply ask the state for clarification.
3. Find out if the law has been enforced – has any town been fined for not doing it?

These are all better things to do with your time than saying “Go back to the South” - or at least it is if your care about results, and not just staying angry.

So I really wonder – do people care about results or do they just like to stay angry?

We see this in so many places in our country today – let’s not be like that here in Amherst.

Joel said...


All good points. But, I think you're also forgetting that there are people in Amherst who want their kids to say the Pledge even if the law is being broken elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

I'm not a huge Pledge fan, but I'm very uncomfortable with how our schools have chosen at times to ignore the law, state guidelines, and best practices.

As another poster noted, there isn't a lot of real diversity in Amherst. We've made it uncomfortable for people of any race or class to be patriotic. The schools and the majority of folks in town don't really have the right to do that and they would never dream of limiting public expression by a religious, ethnic, or racial minority group, so why do they feel entitled to limit expressions of patriotism?

Tom G said...

This pledge issue is a sideshow but since its on the table it's on the table. Maybe as a result, Mr. Alberto Rodriguez will learn more about the town in which he leads the school system.

Complying with the law of the Commonwealth is an important value. Teachers should lead the students in the recitation and teach them about sacrifices made by others for their country.

There are some things that should not be legislated and this is one of them. It's like morning prayer for country. Love of country doesn't come from reciting the pledge.

This covers it: Sanderson said it sends a "weird message" for schools to ignore the law. If Amherst were "making principled objections and proudly violating the law," she might feel differently, she said.

I fail to see the connection between suspensions and alienation. It's true that in a literal sense suspending someone from school is an alienation. But what the principal seems to be saying is that the behaviors that cause the suspensions are due to how welcoming (antonym for alienation) the environment is for these students. It may be a factor but it certainly isn't the only factor and it probably isn't the controlling factor.

Jackson is arguing that the disproportionality in suspensions relative to race is a result of the "white, middle-class environment that is fairly easily alienating for kids of color."

Is that true, that the behavior that gets kids suspended (white, black, hispanic, etc) is a function of their feeling of alienation?

But Jackson also said, "This is a very safe and orderly place and the level of compliance with rules is very high." Sure, except for the kids getting suspended.

If we presume the suspensions are always for good reason, then we have to look beyond the issue of the schools culture, why some students feel alienated in it, to other factors causing them to act act in ways that are not acceptable at school. We have to do this becuase we have white students getting suspended who clearly are not acting out because of alienation due to race.

Rodriguez echos Jackson's claim that students who act out (and get suspended) do so becuase they do not feel welcome. Is that true? If it is, we should own it. Let's figure out what's true before we try to fix it.

That said, I suspect Jackson and Rodriguez have a little mor insight into alienation due to racial differences than I do but I still need to hear the compelling argument that explains the cause(s) of the suspension-causing behaviors.

Tom G said...


Is that true, that the behavior that gets kids suspended - white, black, hispanic, etc - is a function of their feeling alienated? What about kids that act up becuase of family problems - divorce, substance abuse, etc?

Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous 6:37, you spelled her name wrong. Maybe that's why no one cares what you think.

Anonymous said...

We work very hard in our schools to promote a tone of courtesy and respect. That does not mean we agree about everything, all the time.
Last evening I invited the blog-manager to set a civil tone for the good of all. After reading the last post, and noting that it is just the latest example of this sort of speech, I ask all who post on this blog to adopt pro-social speech (some call it anti-bullying). I see the pervasive tone of the blog as full of bullying and a 'my way or the highway' thinking. Some of us have experienced this manner in the workplace, and are evermore committed to elevate the tone of interaction, modelling it for our students, and in our engagement with our colleagues and the community at large. Will you join your school employees in this effort?

Joel said...

To Anon 2:39

It's a lovely sentiment. Many times my post are labeled as "mean" or "bullying" because people disagree with me. And, I honestly reserve the right to be strong willed in a debate with other adults. Some ideas are quite bad, some assertions of fact are fiction. There are times on this blog and in this town when people who complain about truly heinous behavior by school officials are criticized for calling attention to that behavior. It's like telling someone to quiet down when they see an arsonist setting a fire. Screaming, "fire, fire, stop the arsonist" is a bullying tone. The arsonist walks away unscathed because his tone was fine. His actions, on the other hand. . . .

Calling out someone's tone and ignoring insulting, but nicely phrased exaggerations and even lies does nothing to elevate the discourse.

Moreover, I publish all my comments under my full name with reference to my real employment.

I agree with your sentiment and will watch my tone. It is, however, vexing to say the least to argue online with people who never reveal themselves and how some of these issues speak to their work, etc.

Being honest about who exactly you are is, to me, more important than tone. And teachers know that their union, which is my union, would go to court and destroy anyone who ever faced any sort of retribution for stating their opinions about education policy on this blog.

Reliance on anonymous posts on the blog is the most powerful form of bullying I've witnessed.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Mariac - I also found Kathleen's comments disturbing. I don't think it helped the dialgue move forward, and I think the remarks were inappropriate (and probably decreased people's willingness to discuss issues of racism).

Larry - I believe A-Rod has already sort-of indicated he might be a Republican (remember that Ronald Reagan is a hero remark in the Gazette this summer)? Perhaps this will be a good opportunity for people in Amherst to demonstrate how well they tolerate diversity of political views!

Anonymous 1:50 - Yes, that kind of seems like the law (at least the letter of it, if not the spirit).

Larry - seriously, is the flag the law? I really didn't know about the pledge thing!

Abbie - Larry is using his own name ... and "nitwit" is not the worst thing that anyone has been called on this blog (including me).

Anonymous 3:18 - watch the meeting on ACTV. I asked the question, because it has been asked of me on numerous occasions over the last few weeks. He said he would send an email to teachers. That would take like a minute. He didn't announce this would be a new project or goal of his administration.

Larry - I think nitwit could be used as an adjective or a noun, which is what Abbie is pointing out?

Rick (at 5:24) - yes -- he was responding to my question. And again, he did not convey any intention to now spend any huge amount of time on it!

Curious onlooker - interesting points re. the oddness of Amherst (and the likelihood that many of the anti-pledgers do stand for the National Anthem).

Anonymous 6:37 - I imagine Kathleen is planning on running again, although she hasn't announced that. I also have observed her say similar comments for a while, so I'm not sure these expressions are new.

Larry - indeed. Kathleen makes strong statements, but she does so in public, on TV, using her own name.

Anonymous 8:32 - I think we disagree. To me, it isn't about the pledge. It is about obeying the law. I think if there is a law that kids stand and hear the pledge, then we should have kids stand and hear the pledge. If there isn't a law, we shouldn't. But I do think it sends a weird message to say that we in Amherst are just above the laws of our state. If it was just a Southern law, then it wouldn't be a law in Massachusetts. I also think the negative remarks about our superintendent under the cloak of anonymity are offensive -- have the courage to use your own name or show some respect to someone who is taking an outrageous stand that our district should be in compliance with state laws.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Anonymous 9:48 - first, I'm careful about what I write on my blog -- in my postings and in my responses. What have I written that you find offensive? Second, I post articles from the newspaper -- if those articles contain words that offend you, I'm sorry but I'm not going to edit other people's writing. Third, I don't see the posts that go up before they go up -- I don't approve them or edit them or censor them. I agree that it is too bad when people use offensive language (especially under anonymous labels), but there is not much I can do about that. Finally, the best way to improve the tone on this blog is for everyone, including you, to use their actual names (which I think does make people think more thoughtfully about whether they want to own their words). How about you post with your name next time to help the tone?

Larry - indeed.

Anonymous 8:47 - thank you for your thought-provoking post in response to an earlier poster. I agree that diversity of opinion should be something we value, not something we ridicule. I also believe that obeying the law is a good idea. I believe that the US spends too much money on defense .. but I still pay my taxes. I don't think we get to pick and choose which laws we obey, as appealing as that would be. If I drive 40 in a 25 zone, I could get a ticket -- even if the road in which I'm driving really "should" have a 40 MPH.

Rick - I think you make a good point about the difference between just being angry and doing something to fix a situation. However, I also think that in some cases, the anger remains because the route cause seems to be continuing, and isn't solved. So, for the example of the portables, that was a mistake and one could look at it as just as isolated bad choice (e.g., we surely won't buy portables we don't need anymore!). Or one could look at it as a mere symptom (a $200,000 symptom) of continuing bad decision-making and an irresponsible use of resources on the part of the school district. I believe that the best way of helping people resolve their anger and move beyond it is to admit mistakes, so that we can then trust that the problems that led to those mistakes have been acknowledged so that trust is restored. Yet, when I apologized for the portable purchased in the paper, my apology was seen in a negative light by some posters on this blog (and as unfair criticism). I fear that if people can't apologize for mistakes they've made, or others have made when serving the schools in some way, we simply can't help people move beyond the anger they have about past actions -- because if we can't admit our mistakes in the past, how can we trust that such mistakes won't occur again in the future?

Joel - I share your belief that this isn't really about the pledge ... it is about the willingness of our district to deliberately ignore the law. I have already heard from parents who appreciate my asking this question of the superintendent -- because they too have wondered why their kids weren't saying the pledge and believed they should be (but I believe these views aren't well tolerated in our very liberal town).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And yet still more from me:

Tom G - I fully share your belief that "Complying with the law of the Commonwealth is an important value." I also share your belief that we have to understand a lot more about suspensions at the high school before we can try to solve it. I don't know if kids of color DO get disciplined more than white kids IF you consider income. I don't know if kids of color DO get disciplined more than white kids IF you consider special education status. So, first, I'd need to understand if the differences are a function of race, or class, or special education status. Then I could try to figure out what is causing it -- do teachers treat kids of color differently (worse) than white kids, or do kids of color act differently (worse) than white kids? If kids of color act differently (worse) than white kids, what is causing it? Is it alientation or something else? Again, these are important issues ... but the report presented really shed no light on any of them.

Tom G - indeed. There could be many explanations OTHER than alientation that lead to issues with behavior.

Anonymous 2:20 - well, her name is indeed Kathleen, not Katherine. But you probably could have pointed that out more nicely?!?

Anonymous 2:39 - I agree that the tone in some cases (e.g., Anonymous 2:20) could be nicer. A lot of research in social psychology (my field) reveals that negative words and acts are more common when people aren't going to be identified (it is called deindividuation). So, how about you set a good tone and use your name when you post? That would also work towards your goal, I believe.

Joel - well said. As I've said repeatedly, we all should be willing to own what we are saying, and that will indeed the elevate the level of tone.

Rick said...


My comment was not directed at you. You may at times get angry, but then you take steps to do something about it, which is great. Just wallowing in anger without doing anything about it is what I was talking about. Others on the blog just get angry, stay angry and don’t take steps to make things better.

But I don’t really agree with this: “the best way of helping people resolve their anger and move beyond it is to admit mistakes”

Is that really the “best” way of removing anger? Is it really an apology that we want – or results? I’d much rather hear about new efforts and policies on financial controls and spending than to hear an apology – particularly when almost everyone who made the decision is gone.

Sure, if the people in charge today make a mistake, I will want them to admit it as evidence that they know what a mistake is. But I would not expect people who were not there at the time of the mistake to necessarily comment on it, because they can only view it in hindsight – they were not there at the time.

Continuing to be angry about past mistakes that we can’t do anything about seems like a complete waste of time to me. Being angry about a mistake that may currently be in process (spending too much on ELL?) and then taking action to do something about it is what we should be doing.

You are doing that – which is good. I would just drop the stuff that’s in the past – it’s just a waste of time.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - for me, I think admitting mistakes is important ... not because people want an apology, but because it lets people know that things are in fact different now. Otherwise, we can just keep moving forward with exciting plans and steps, but that is exactly how the plans/steps looked in the past -- great when initially presented, but ultimately not the right decision.

So, the portables is one example -- I can't for the life of me see how buying two portables in 2007 after the override had failed (again, meaning that we presumably had less money to pay two more teachers to teach VERY small classes) made any sense. The SC and the superintendent had the enrollment figures and made the decision to buy the portables -- we can see EXACTLY what those enrollment figures were now, meaning we have now the same information they had then. It was a mistake. We can pretend it wasn't, but when we say "well, if we had just known then what we know now" that can't possible be reassuring to anyone! Maybe the people who are now pushing for an override will say the same thing in a few years, then right? "Gosh it looked like we needed an override, but as it turns out, we really didn't! Ooops!" That is precisely the fear that many people are having (and if people have that fear on March 23rd, the override is certainly doomed to fail).

But there are other examples in our schools all the time -- we have an elementary school math curriculum that hasn't been shown to be effective in any independent research (and a bunch of elementary kids having trouble on math MCAS in all of our schools), we have an approach to preparing kids for 8th grade algebra that isn't seen in any other district (requiring kids to do "extensions"), and we have a trimester system (virtually the only public school in the state of Massachusetts) in which our kids spend FOR THE SAME MONEY 6% less time in class than those in a semester AND have huge breaks (6 to 8 months) in learning in a particular discipline (which, given evidence on the "summer drop" and its impact on low income children in particular seems counter to our district's commitment to social justice). Yet all of these programs are on-going, and I have no idea when, if ever, any of these will change. Now, these programs weren't created by anyone now in charge, but they are continuing under the current administration and the current SC ... meaning I think we, as a district, should take responsibility for these programs and either determine that these are in fact programs we want OR we should take steps (quickly) to change these programs -- and let the community why the mistakes that led to these programs (if they are indeed found to be ineffective and in need of change) won't happen again. That sort of honesty, even about mistakes, builds trust and I believe would go a long way towards creating greater respect for the decision-making process used in our district.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me continued:

Relatedly, I think a lot of parents in this community are still angry about how their kids have been treated in our schools. You hear bits of it on this blog -- white parents who felt unwelcome at the parent center at ARHS, families who were blatantly told by teachers/principals that their kids would "be OK" and hence weren't really prioritized like other kids, and so on. These families feel hurt -- they feel alienated from the schools, and that their kids just didn't matter. In some cases these families have left the public schools for charter/private/choice options. In other cases, these families have stayed, but just aren't involved in the schools as they would have been (e.g., don't attend parent center meetings at the high school). Some acknowledgment by the district leaders that this treatment (by principals, by teachers) shouldn't have happened, and won't happen again, would help bring some of these families back into our schools.

So, you say that you'd rather hear about new efforts than have an apology about the past ... but what I'd rather have is an apology for past mistakes, which includes an explanation for HOW and WHY past mistakes happened so that we can demonstrate we've learned from those mistakes and won't make them again, followed by a clear and specific plan for the future. That would then give me, and I believe others, much greater confidence that the plan for the future is likely to be effective, and won't simply lead to a repeat of prior mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Catherine, at 7:25 you said "I think if there is a law that kids stand and hear the pledge, then we should have kids stand and hear the pledge."

The law actually says "...failure for a period of two consecutive weeks by a teacher to salute the flag and RECITE said pledge as aforesaid, OR TO CAUSE THE PUPILS UNDER HIS CHARGE TO DO SO, shall be punished....".

This is substantially different from standing and hearing the pledge.

It may not take any time for the superintendent to send an email mandating this, but it will certainly take a lot of administrative time to enforce the law (how many classrooms must be monitored? Who's going to do it? Will we have the kids spy on the teachers and report back? How far are we going to take this?).

Is this really how we want our school administrators spending their time, or might they have other, more pressing, issues to attend to?

Rick said...

”parents in this community are still angry about how their kids have been treated in our schools."

And exactly what good is that doing?

And on this one “white parents who felt unwelcome at the parent center at ARHS” I said before that since I have been involved with the Parent Center (spring 2005) it has not been like that at all – if anything it’s been the reverse problem – it’s more or less an all-white Parent Center. So how long does one need to stay angry – more than 4 years?


On the pledge: According to the Gazette today: “Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion in 1977 that this law is unconstitutional”.

This is an example how a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. It was easy to find out that there was a law about this, but until now, nobody had said it had been declared unconstitutional. I can’t see enforcing a law that has been declared unconstitutional – if in fact that is the case, and if in fact there is something else we don’t know about yet.

Rick said...

...there is NOT something else we don’t know about yet."

LarryK4 said...

Well I don't know if it is considered a "law" or not, but I do know it is a state Department of Education regulation for every "homeroom" classroom to have an American flag.

Anonymous said...

I hope now that the school administration has discovered that the law requiring teachers to lead their class in the recitation of the pledge is unconstitutional we can now move on to more pressing issues in the schools. So much time and energy wasted in the last week.

I don't fault you, Catherine, for bringing it up. I think its good that you did because now we are all clear about the status of the law. But lets move on now and leave the pledge discussion behind.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I do fault you for bringing it up. It is shameful that those in charge of our schools would not know or even suspect that compelled speech of any kind is antithetical to our basic constitutional principles.

You express concern about ensuring that our children are taught to respect individual laws. I am far more concerned that they -- as well as their teachers, school administrators and school committee members -- respect the Constitution and the republic for which it stands.

Abbie said...

I also think we should move on to more important issues- like actual education. If parents feel really strongly about the pledge they can do it at breakfast every morning at home, no one is stopping them! While I understand it appears to be the law, we probably violate many everyday and that probably doesn't keep anyone up at night. The issue ought be low on everyone's priority list for improving our schools (obviously not Larry's, but he can spend his time wall-papering the Chinese immersion school with US flags).

I have 2 questions for Catherine:

1) how common among Mass schools is our early dismissal? It seems the easiest way to increase performance is to increase class time. If it is uncommon, then this should be considered at the next contract negotiations.

2) In the recent WW newsletter, it stated that Chinese was continued while a new grant was being prepared (has this been done?). But there is NO Chinese this year. Am I missing something? Its surreal. Has anyone (ie the principal) considered that the lack of improvement on MCAS could be related to the 1.5-2 hours less instruction/week due to teaching Chinese in previous years? I have no problem with teaching a world language if arrangements are made so that the regular curriculum isn't affected. If WW were to continue with Chinese then the number of hours in school should increase by that amount, meaning no early dismissal on Wedn or longer days on the other days.

Anonymous said...

"I'm from the South, where we salute the flag and say, 'Thank you, ma'am' and 'No, sir,'" he said. Rodriguez said he is not accustomed to "some of the stuff that seems to be cultural" in Amherst, citing the tolerance of the annual marijuana festival on the town common.

You just got to love it.

Anonymous said...

Point of clarification: There most definitely is Chinese language instruction at Wildwood this year. I believe it occurs in kindergarten, grades 4 and 6. That may not be quite right, but it is definitely at 3 non-contiguous grade levels.

Joel said...

Again, I don't even like the Pledge, but I'm not sure the 1977 Mass Court ruling is all there is. As the article briefly mentions, the US Supreme Court, which obviously is the ultimate authority on the constitutionality of state and federal laws, let stand a Florida statute mandating the Pledge. That happened just a few weeks ago. Clearly, it's murky.

One of the things that gets lost in all this is that Amherst really does need to admit that it isn't really diverse and open. It's intolerant and narrow minded, but with a left orientation. This town is the leftwing cousin of the Bible belt South towns that are sure that their far-right, religiously-oriented politics are correct -- no matter what the laws say.

What if there are people in town who want their kids to say the Pledge? Why do we place more importance on celebrating the Cambodian New Year than we do on the Pledge?

Wouldn't a truly diverse community celebrate and embrace both?

Anonymous said...

Tell it like it is, Joel!

Abbie said...


no one is stopping "people in town who want their kids to say the Pledge?". They are free to say it almost whenever they want. The issue kinda is whether those "people in town who want their kids to say the Pledge" should try to force those that don't? If we aren't actually going to be prosecuted, I don't see why there is great urgency to change what we are currently doing, esp. given the other issues that more urgently need our attention...

Nina Koch said...

Speaking of obeying the law, I think it would be good if Catherine followed the established policies of the school committee found here:

Policy Manual

The policy clearly states what procedures should be followed if a school committee member becomes aware of a complaint:

* Refer all complaints to the administrative staff for solution and only discuss them at Committee meetings if such solutions fail.

If Joel has a problem about the pledge not being recited in his child's classroom, his first recourse is to speak with someone at the school, either the teacher or the principal.

It is completely inappropriate for a school committee member to use the committee meetings (which already have a packed agenda) as a place to sound off every time Joel gets a bee in his bonnet (which appears to be pretty often). Even if a few other people besides Joel raised the issue, the policy still holds.

Catherine's first response to people with complaints should be: did you speak with the teacher or principal about that?

LarryK4 said...

Actually Abbie, that's not the issue.

Those normal Americans in town who would like their kids to comply with state regulations by saying the Pledge would probably oppose on First Amendment grounds (and Federal principals trump state) trying "to force those that don't".

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, Nina. Make your job a lot easier, eh?

Abbie said...

Larry is to the flag as a fly is to flypaper, entirely predictable...

Joel said...


I never asked anyone to lead the Pledge. I think you're so angry about anyone who questions the status quo in the Amherst schools that you're blind to reason. I have repeatedly stated that I myself am not a fan of the Pledge. I went so far as to provide a link to an article I like in that makes a very fine argument about the problems with the content of the Pledge that go far beyond what people on this blog object to about it.

I am trying to keep a civil tone here, but it's very hard to argue with someone who willfully misreads what's written and makes personal accusations about people with whom she disagrees.

So right, if I had a problem with the Pledge not being recited I would have spoken to someone at FR about that. I have simply raised two issues on this blog about the Pledge: 1) compliance with state laws, guidelines, and best practices; and 2) Amherst being truly diverse and open minded, not just a bastion of lefty group think.

And, Abbie, how exactly would a couple of kids or one kid in a kindergarten class recite the Pledge of Allegiance by him or herself while the teacher sat quietly and observed? In Amherst we can only see the families that don't want something like the Pledge, not those who do.

I had a very conservative Christian student at Rice who graduated from ARHS. She and her siblings felt incredibly unwelcome in Amherst. This was a culturally, politically, and religiously hostile environment for her and her family. She's a lovely young woman who I enjoyed knowing during her four years at Rice. No one seems to care about students like Gloria.

My point, which I think was pretty clear, is that Amherst is a shockingly bigoted and narrow minded place, but with a sense of itself as wonderful and open. In terms of individual issues, I agree with most people's politics in town, but the culture of smug and ignorant superiority is exactly what I saw from conservatives in Texas.

If this town were diverse and open minded then social, religious, and political conservatives would feel at home stating their views. I'm comfortable arguing about this, in part, because I'm not such a big supporter of the Pledge and I don't come from this issue from a conservative point of view.

I'll ask again, if we truly embrace diversity, can't our kids celebrate something like the Cambodian New Year and the Pledge of Allegiance? When will we become truly diverse and open minded?

Abbie said...


because people disagree with you does not mean they "are blind to reason". You are not "the" source of reason, although it's apparent that you think so.

This is my last post on the latest "tempest in a teapot".

Joel said...


I said she was "blind to reason" because I have repeatedly written that I do like the Pledge and yet she publicly accused me of going to Catherine to have the matter brought up when I did not.

I think making thing up to trash someone rather than engaging in honest debate, largely because you don't like any challenge to the status quo, makes you "blind to reason."

I think someone is blind to reason when they refuse to engage in the argument at hand and instead make unfounded accusations.

So, how do you, Abbie, respond to my simply queries above? Do you really think it's appropriate for a kindergartner from a family that embraces the Pledge to stand alone and say it while no one else including the teacher does so?

My other question you've ignored is why do we feel compelled to never do anything that might inconvenience or hurt the feelings of one group -- in this case people who oppose the Pledge -- without any regard for the people who may want it said? Wouldn't a truly progressive community seek to hear and act on the interests of both?

Failing to address those sorts of questions while attacking the person asking them makes someone blind to reason in my book.

Anonymous said...

I did ask about the pledge not being recited at Ft. River, in the fall of 1999. I was rebuffed by the principal and the teacher. My kids at the time were in kindergarten, and second grade. I had an epiphany at the time...find a private school for my kids. Which I did. It wasn't specifically about the pledge, but a host of problems I had with the school. They all added up and I decided no one was going to listen to my concerns, which apparently is still going on, and we moved our kids out. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Rick said...

Much of the anger people have with the school system seems to come from their dealings with specific leadership at specific schools. For example, Anon 9:17 complains about past leadership of Fort River - which I assume means Russ Vernon Jones. And yet clearly there are people who thought he was a good principal, as evidenced by this article:

“Vernon Jones has reached out to families from all backgrounds, said Amherst School Committee member Catherine Sanderson, president of the Fort River Parent Council. ‘Russ cares passionately about making sure that children feel welcome and included in the school setting, and he places a particular emphasis on children and families from disenfranchised backgrounds.’”

Yet Anon 9:17 had ”a host of problems”.with Fort River, and to such an extent that they left the Amherst public school system.

So what’s going on here? Is this anger about just certain people not getting what they want? Or is it evidence of ineffective leadership?

If it is about ineffective leadership, aren’t those people gone now (with the exception of not having a permanent principal at ARMS yet)? And if they are gone, does that mean things are getting better?

We’ve had a bunch of principal changes in recent years. We have a new Superintendent. We have a mostly new School Committee. Are these good changes, bad changes or not much of a change?

Without knocking whoever was in leadership in the past, it seems like pretty good leadership today. Yes, I know we have not seen results yet in many areas, but it as least looks promising.

The specific complaint raised by Anon 9:17 about the pledge is a different story today. The issue was brought up, the discussion was certainly not “rebuffed” by anyone in ARPS leadership and I imagine it’s going to be discussed within the school system to see what to do about it. That will probably take a while, but the point is, its being considered. Going from “rebuffed” to “being considered” seems like a change for the better.

This doesn’t means that everyone is going to get what they want on this pledge issue – that’s impossible – but it should mean that whatever decision comes down it likely won't be “go away, we are not changing” but rather will be “we have carefully considered this and our decision is X because of reasons A,B and C”.

That is a good thing.

The pledge is just an example, but the main point is about how problems get discussed, resolved and how well the rational for a decision gets communicated.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 8:09 - perhaps you have talked specifically to the superintendent at more length than I have -- but I haven't heard him propose any increased steps towards enforcing the law, devoting administrative time, etc. I asked a question about whether it was an issue that this wasn't occurring consistently, he stated it did concern him and he would send an email. One minute. He didn't say "and I'll then hire a new staff person to monitor each classroom," or "and I'll personally visit each school to see if it was being enforced every morning" and so on. You see this as not a big deal -- you and I agree. But as I said in the Saturday article, this is emblematic of the issues I see in this district - total arrogance about the fact that laws/rules/policies don't apply to us. That's it.

Rick (at 8:24) - I don't think it is doing them any good to feel angry ... but ummm, I don't think that feelings of anger just disappear! People still feel bad and we should acknowledge that. You would hope that these feelings, since they aren't doing any good, would go away -- that seems admirable, but naive.

I had no idea what the state of the law was -- that is WHY I asked the question! If the law is unconstitutional, then of course we should not enforce it - but then we should make a statement that although this is the law, because it is not enforceable, we aren't going to enforce it! That would be an open and honest approach -- my statement was not "we should say the pledge" -- it was "we should obey the law." However, I also believe this is a murkier legal issue than one might expect.

Larry - I definitely won't ask at the next SC meeting about whether we have a flag in every classroom -- for fear of creating any more distraction on actual education!

Anonymous 9:41 - I agree completely. I brought it up because I kept keeping questions about it. We have the answer now, and I have every expectation that everyone will now move on!

Anonymous 9:47 - you fault me for bringing up a question that I was asked by multiple parents? Or you fault me for expecting our schools to follow what the superintendent believed was the law (and which apparently it is in Florida, at least). Just want to be clear.

Abbie - I agree completely that it is time to move on.

In terms of your very good questions:

1. I have no idea how common early dismissal on Wednesdays is, but I agree that this is not common. I think it could certainly be addressed in contract negotiations -- though I would bet it then either leads to (a) increases in salary (which we can't afford), or (b) decreases in the length of other days to compensate for total hours taught. Good idea!

2. I have no idea what the status of the Chinese program is. I do not believe a new grant has been appeared -- and I am certain that no evaluation of this program was ever done, which I do find concerning. Again, like many things in Amherst, we "feel" it is good and therefore it must be good. I will try to clarify this.

Anonymous 11:03 - I appreciate Rodriguez's remarks. I think Amherst is a pretty unique place -- and having an outsider's perspective on it is useful for many reasons.

Anonymous 3:06 - OK, so I have no idea why the Chinese language program is sort-of continuing? Some grades only? Not consecutive?

Joel - well said on all fronts. Thanks.

Anonymous 6:34 - indeed! I appreciate Joel's candor (and tone).

Abbie (at 7:06) - I don't think Joel's point is that the pledge is the most pressing thing. I think it is that people who believe following the law about saying the pledge are ridiculed (seen as conservatives, etc.) and yet we claim our schools are accepting of all views. I agree with his insight that some views are more accepted than others, and I think that does indicate a lack of tolerance.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Nina - first, I was concerned about your tone, which seemed really rude. Did you intend to express that sort of tone, or was it accidental?

Second, I did in fact bring up the issue of the pledge with the superintendent PRIOR to the meeting -- it was not a surprise to him that it was asked.

Third, Joel never expressed to me any concern about the pledge, so I think it is pretty rude of you to have accused him by name in this blog.

Fourth if parents have concerns that reflect the entire school district and its enforcement of the law, the appropriate place to bring up this concern is at a meeting so that the answer can be clear for all parents/community members. The "policy" statement you refer to is if there is a specific concern about a teacher or principal -- NOT a concern about whether the entire district is in compliance with the law!

Fifth, if parents and community members believe that I'm inappropriately using School Committee time, they will have the opportunity to vote me out of office (and if you live in Amherst, you can certainly vote eagerly for my opponent). But I think it is pretty arrogant (sorry for my tone hear) to state that because YOU do not find whether the schools are obeying the law about the pledge important, it is a waste of SC time. This may in fact be an issue of importance to some parents/community members -- again, this seems like a classic example of intolerance in the district towards some views.

*I'm going to skip commenting on the Larry/Abbie/Nina remarks here.*

Joel (at 10:49) - very well said on all fronts.

*I'm going to skip commenting on the Joel/Abbie remarks to each other here. However, I know you both and like you both and think you would like each other if you were to meet and talk in person!*

Anonymous 9:17 - well said, and I believe your experience is sadly rather typical (and then we wonder why more kids have left for private/charter/choice school and why the district has less money, and why the override in 2007 didn't pass). And THIS is why I think bringing up things at the SC level is entirely appropriate -- and at times, even necessary.

Rick said...

Your response to my 8:24 comment seems to infer that I was criticizing you (”I had no idea what the state of the law was -- that is WHY I asked the question!”)

When I said “this is an example how a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous” maybe you thought I was criticizing you. I wasn’t. I was referring to all of us because people – myself included – had been pointing to the law that is plainly on the Mass gov website, yet didn’t realize that’s not the whole story. Just want to make that clear.

Like others have said, it was a good thing that you brought it up since people had been asking about it and that resulted in some clarification. Nice job.

Note that in this case, the clarification came from a reporter at the Bulletin, which is nice – shows some actual research going on in reporting these things.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more from me:

Rick (10:32 AM) - I agree that a lot of the anger is about the past -- and the leadership at Fort River is an example of this. But I think there are two issues that these concerns remain, even if leadership has changed.

First, there were concerns for years and years and years about aspects of leadership, and when these concerns were brought to people (e.g., superintendent, SC members), nothing changed. So, people still aren't sure if their concerns IN THE FUTURE will be taken seriously; they may believe that the school leadership hasn't cared about all kids equally, and that when concerns were raised, those concerns were ignored. In other words, did the concerns that were raised previously reflect simply isolated acts of principals/administrators (and if they are now gone, the problems will be gone), or did the concerns that were raised previously reflect a broader view about how we do education in the district (which is why principals with particular views continued for a long time to engage in some policies that made some families feel unwelcome)?

Second, many of the concerns that people had were about the district not caring about challenging children who were already at proficient or advanced in a given area. This lack of concern has been illustrated in multiple ways -- eliminating tracked math in 7th grade (and offering extensions), eliminating 9th grade biology (and requiring environmental science/ecology), failing to offer real differentiated instruction in elementary school (so that students who have mastered material often feel bored), and offering English classes throughout high school which are entirely heterogeneous in terms of skills/preparation (instead of grouping students, as occurs at virtually all other districts). These policies all reflect broad decisions that impact all children K to 12 in our district, and they seem almost deliberately designed to make sure that children who have mastered material aren't able to experience the challenge that they would in other districts (or if they are to experience the challenge, it is entirely self-driven - such as in high school English and 7th grade math). These continuing programs/policies are precisely what make people feel as if the needs of their kids don't matter at all (and in some cases, principals and teachers have specifically told parents that their kids do not matter as much as other kids -- because this district specifically and deliberately values kids from disadvantaged backgrounds MORE than kids from advantaged backgrounds). That feeling, whether right or wrong, is held by many parents, and erodes confidence and trust in our school system -- and I believe is highly correlated with the numbers of kids leaving the district, lack of support for an override even among families with children in our schools, etc.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - still more from me:

You say that there is a new SC and a new superintendent, and that things are promising. I agree! But I also think it is too early to tell -- actions speak louder than words, and I think the superintendent needs to demonstrate his commitment to truly engaging and challenging all kids, every day -- again, in ACTIONS, not just in words. When that happens, and when people believe that this will be the experience their kids can have in the district (even if those kids are white, or from college-educated parents, or live in Amherst Woods, etc.), support for the public schools will increase dramatically.

I fully agree with your belief that going from “rebuffed” to “being considered” is a change for the better! I also think, in contrast to Nina Koch's post on the prior article, that raising this issue at a SC meeting was the right thing to do -- so that such discussions could occur in public (and frankly, be covered in the press), and not just in private. That is part of increasing transparency and accountability in our schools -- also an important part of rebuilding trust in our schools. As you eloquently note, "The pledge is just an example, but the main point is about how problems get discussed, resolved and how well the rational for a decision gets communicated." Let's hope the pledge issue is an example of how the new district will do things in a new, and better, way.

Rick said...


Good comments. I agree with most of what you say (I don't agree that eliminating 9th grade biology and requiring environmental science/ecology is a problem).

I certainly agree with his: "actions speak louder than words, and I think the superintendent needs to demonstrate his commitment to truly engaging and challenging all kids, every day"


Anonymous said...

I disagree with you strongly on the 9th grade biology/environmental science issue. I think that it is a big problem and I am grateful that Catherine is taking it on as an issue.

If you are planning to run for school committee you should know that there are many parents who are concerned about this issue and believe it needs to be reexamined.

Anonymous said...

Maybe its time for a math/science charter school in Amherst. K-12.

Rick said...

”If you are planning to run for school committee you should know that there are many parents who are concerned about this issue and believe it needs to be reexamined.”

Yes I am running for school committee, and so I am very interested to hear what people have to say about this. What I have heard about this so far is:

1. No other school (or close to it) has this course as the ninth grade science course; therefore it is experimental and untested.
2. Because of Biology not being offered anymore in ninth grade, it messes up your AP course situation down the road.

I investigated these things and concluded this so far:

On #1:
I don’t view the title of the course to be important. What matters to me is the curriculum of the course is and what it teaches. In my view, this course has a very good curriculum (see that includes some of all the core sciences, as well as a very decent component of math: The curriculum map shows that in more detail:

I like the idea of integrative science course as being the introductory science course for ninth grade to help students determine what direction they want to head in when choosing future science courses, and to give them a broader science background. I also think this curriculum is much more interesting and relevant today that the Earth Science curriculum was, thus has the possibility of “turning on” more students to science.

Some people may have the idea that “Ecology” and “Environmental Science” means the course is about policy and not hard science – it’s about hard science. Go in and talk to the teachers teaching this and ask to see what they are working on – I think you’ll be impressed.

But if your kids are taking the class, or have taken the class, and you don’t like it, let me know what don’t like about it (click my name to email me if you like).

Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Catherine’s position on this is not that this is a bad course:

”it is entirely possible that teaching ecology/environmental science in 9th grade is a good idea (clearly the HS science teachers and principal and SC members who voted unanimously for it believed it was a good idea, and that is was science). My ONLY issue is that because this is an entirely different approach used to teaching science than any other district in Massachusetts, we should evaluate it to make sure that the course is indeed serving as a better introduction to science than the alternatives (e.g., biology, earth science in the old system).” (March 15, 2009, on the blog)

Rather, her position is:

a. That we should measure if it is working; that kids entering 10th grade are better prepared in science. Of course we should do that – I totally agree. The 10th grade MCAS is the most obvious way to measure that, but there may be other ways.

b. She doesn’t like that Biology is not offered, which leads us to #2.

Rick said...

On #2:
The only effect of not taking Biology in ninth grade is this: 10th grade students take a full year AP Biology course instead of a two trimester AP Biology course. I don’t see what the problem with that is; and if we go to the semester system, that will have to be the case anyhow. By the way the full year course and the two semester course have always existed and Earth Science Honors kids could take the full year course in the past. Another issue is that 9th grade kids took Biology with 10th grade kids, which possibly slowed done the 10th grade kids to some extent.


As an aside, since you may want to know: I agree with most of the things Catherine says about standards and curriculum (e.g. number of years of science required) – in fact this may be the only one I don’t agree on – and it seems to be only #2 we don’t agree on.

I also agree with the ACE goals – I’m not sure why anyone would be against them. My only concern on that is that we don’t just create high standards, but that we make sure to implement methods to make sure all kids achieve those standards. Sometimes it feels to me like the focus is only on the standards and not how to get kids there.

Now, if you were to ask me “should we not create high standards just because some kids cannot achieve them?”, I would say of course not. But I just don’t want us to create high standards then say “OK, we’re done”. And by the way I know that Catherine and ACE believes this too – I just want to keep emphasizing that point.

Rick said...

Typo above: "two semester" should read "two trimester".

If people can tell me what issues they have with science at ARMS as well, I would appreciate it. Again you can email me or wait until my website is up (within 2 weeks), where you can do it anonymously. (Or do it here on the blog, but that may clog up the blog with comments not relevant to the original post.)

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rick - I think it is great if you are honest that you like the ecology/environmental science course so that voters can make informed decisions. Parents who believe that teachers in the Amherst schools should be able to create their own required courses in science and other disciplines should vote for Rick, and feel confident that he will support innovative required curricular changes.

Personally, I believe that we need to do much less RE-INVENTING the wheel ... there are three standard approaches to teaching science in 9th grade: biology, physics, earth science. I would be more comfortable with any of those than with a course that is created entirely by teachers at our high school.

I have two other problems with this course:

1. If we offered biology or physics in 9th grade (as most MSAN districts do, and most of the districts in our comparison list do), students could take biology, chemistry, physics (in some order) AND an AP class in any of those areas. Our students now don't have that option because even if we offered AP Chemistry (which we don't -- also the only MSAN or comparison school that doesn't), you have to have a year of chemistry AND a year of biology to take this course. So, students in our high school would take required ecology/environmental science in 9th, then chemistry in 10th, then AP biology in 11th, and then have a choice between AP chemistry and ANY physics. They run out of time to take both physics and AP chemistry, so AP chemistry (even if it was an option) wouldn't really be possible -- unless a student was willing to have NO physics in high school. In other schools, kids take bio/chem/physics in 9/10/11, and then can take ANY AP science course they want. But not in Amherst.

2. I would still be concerned about the ecology/environmental science class even if wasn't required ... but when the teachers adopted this class (which the SC voted unanimously for), it also ELIMINATED the option for ANY student to take biology (even those who were ready to take biology). No one brought up any concerns about the biology class -- this class was just eliminated as an option for all 9th graders because SOME kids couldn't take it. I don't get this as a philosophy in our district -- any more than we don't refuse to allow SOME 9th graders to take geometry even when others can't take it.

So, I think this is a major area in which Rick and I disagree -- I don't believe that our school should adopt entirely innovative required high school courses in core disciplines. I would also be opposed, for example, to our high school language teachers deciding that the single best preparation for all language was to require all 7th and 8th graders to take Italian since NO OTHER DISTRICTS in the country are doing this. So, parents should think carefully about what they want our district to look like (e.g., like other districts, unlike other districts) and should vote for SC candidates that agree with their vision. I appreciate Rick's candor about his support for the required ecology/environmental science course so that parents and community members can make an informed decision about who to support for SC this March.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Now, I do agree with Rick that this course should be EVALUATED since it exists and is entirely innovative. But the course has yet to go through any real evaluation (I've asked for this repeatedly and it is clear that there is NO interest in doing this). In addition, I think you evaluate something as a "pilot" before you require it -- so that you know it is working BEFORE you require it. So, I don't think you say "hey, here's a new approach -- let's require it and then see if it works!" I would be more comfortable saying, "here's an idea, it might work, let's see if it does work for those kids who it interests, and then if it does work as we hoped, we could consider requiring it." I asked several members of the SC and then superintendent Jere Hochman to consider implementing the ecology/environmental science course as an OPTION for a few years while we gathered data on it ... and they refused to support this option and felt it was better to simply require an unproven course for all kids.

I believe Rick is saying he is fully comfortable requiring an entirely innovative and unproven course and THEN figuring out if it works -- but I see this as using our kids as guinea pigs! What if after the evaluation we find out that it did NOT work ... we can't re-do those kids' high school experience and give them 9th grade biology! How about using tests from other districts that show something works (e.g., the physics first approach), instead of testing the innovative approaches on our kids?!? Again, this seems like a major philosophical difference that Rick and I have in terms of how we should do education in the Amherst schools.

Anonymous said...

A question for Rick,
Have you considered starting your own blog? Im interested in following your comments on the issues. Its nice that it is all in one place here but in the future??

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more from me:

Rick - sorry, I just re-read your entire post and wanted to comment on two more things.

First, the ONLY effect of the new 9th grade course is NOT whether they take a 2 or 3 trimester AP bio course! In the old system, a 9th grader could take bio, then take chem in 10th, then take physics in 11th, and then take AP environmental science or AP physics or AP biology or anatomy and physiology or whatever interested them -- and still have taken the three CORE sciences (bio, chem, physics). In our new system, we are requiring something in 9th grade that is a science elective in all other districts. So, kids are no longer able to take a year each of bio, chem, and physics and THEN take an elective of their choice senior year (because they have to take 10th grade chem, 11th grade bio, 12th grade physics to get in all three core years). Thus, for advanced science students, this is LESS good, since we choose their elective in 9th grade instead of allowing them to get real exposure to all core sciences in 9/10/11 and THEN letting them choose their 12th grade course! This seems like a bad idea.

Second, you state that perhaps it is a concern that some kids took bio in 9th grade and thus slowed down the 10th graders in this class -- if that is a serious concern of yours, since you do mention it, will you also oppose 8th graders taking honors algebra with advanced 7th graders, or advanced 9th graders taking geometry with 10th graders? This seems like a very important point for voters to have clarity on.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

I would be interested in the answer to those questions as well, by all candidates for School Committee.

As a parent, I am less concerned with seventh graders taking honors algebra with the 8th graders or ninth graders taking biology with tenth graders--after all, they were apparently allowed to be in those classes because they were ready for the subject material--than the fact that for some of our high school courses (ninth grade English, for example), "honors" students sit in the exact same class as "regular" students. That, to me, poses a greater problem than having student from different grades sitting side-by-side learning the exact same subject matter. A problem for the teacher (who must now teach at two different levels--a la the extensions) as well as for the students.

Rick said...

Catherine is completely distorting what I am saying, with more exclamation points than is necessary and more inaccuracy than is necessary (”it is clear that there is NO interest in doing this [evaluation]”). And to say I like the idea of “using our kids as guinea pigs!” is over the top. Keep in mind that I have no say on whether this course happens or not – it already happened – and we are close to being able to see if it’s working. At this point the disruption of backing up and starting over, doing it the way Catherine suggested is something to take into account.

Up to you folks to decide; I guess she’s not going to vote for me. ;-)


Here is a perfectly fine path for AP:

Ecology and Environmental Science 9 Honors
AP Biology (3 trimesters)
Chemistry *
AP Physics.

* AP Chemistry if it existed – that is a completely separate question – yes it would be good to have it. Note it would have to be a 3 trimester + course (like maybe 4).

Here is the old way:

AP Biology (2 trimesters)
AP Physics

Yes, Catherine is correct that you used to be able to do this:

AP Physics
AP Biology or AP Environmental Science

In all scenarios, I count 2 x AP science courses, not more, and they are getting all the cores: Biology, Chemistry and Physics – but not all core courses as AP, if they did not take AP Biology (and as mentioned there is no AP Chemistry).

If you want to take more APs, the issue is nothing to do with ninth grade science, it’s that you can’t double up on science classes unless you apply for it and there is room in the class – which can be tough to do and fit your schedule, though if you are that into science you may decide to give up something else in order to do that. I think being able to double up on science would be great – it’s a budget issue though.

I am open to more input on this and would change my mind if new information I am not aware of came to my attention – but so far, that’s what I think.


”if that is a serious concern of yours” No, it’s not a big concern for me. I had said possibly slowed done the 10th grade kids to some extent. Does that sound like I think it’s a big deal?


Anon 12:29: Yes I have thought about it. I think this blog is great and there is no need to duplicate what it is doing and I do think it’s nice to have everyone in one place. If I do something, it will be different. I am more interested in soliciting feedback on very specific issues than feedback on newspaper articles. So I would probably do something where I would throw out some specific issue to be discussed, like “how is your 8th grade student’s experience with math?”. Or, “what do you think of reform math versus traditional math?”. Or perhaps a question like “what are the top 5 things bugging you about your kids educational experience in Amherst and why?”

Anonymous said...

Rick, fyi, h.s. science students, once they cleared bio-chem-physics, used to have the option of taking astronomy in their senior year, as well as other advance science classes, I believe. The new progression eliminates that option.
The fact that Amherst doesn't offer AP Chem hinders students interested in pursuing science in college, by the way. As well as the lack of AP Physics M&E. (magnetism and electricity.)

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Alison - I share your concern about the HS English approach to teaching, in which kids who want to do honors work do so largely or entirely on their own. I hope that Rick and other SC candidates will be asked for their opinions of this approach.

Rick - I am not distorting what you are saying ... I am describing that you and I have VERY different views on the new 9th grade course! This is something that I see as emblematic of the problems with our school system, and you do not (you see it as potentially very good, given its interdisciplinary nature, etc.). Voters should be aware of that difference.

So, let me clarify my points.

1. I've asked for 1 1/2 years for a real evaluation, in which we compare the experience of those who took biology to those who now take ecology/environmental science. That data does exist (ONLY because I pushed for it as a member of SC), and yet has NEVER been examined or reported. It is NOT too early to have that data produced since there is an entire group of kids who have now had the new class. Yet the evaluation has never occurred. Given that this is entirely experimental and not done anywhere else, wouldn't one want to do this evaluation as early as possible? I have asked, as a member of SC, for the evaluation repeatedly and there is no interest on the board in doing so, nor has there been any reporting of such evaluation by the science faculty. So, maybe people are deeply interested in the evaluation but are keeping that interest hidden? I find that hard to believe.

2. The course has happened for 1 1/2 years ... if people think it is a mistake, it should be over-turned. I am troubled by your statement about "At this point the disruption of backing up and starting over". We could make that same point about ALL problematic aspects of the Amherst curriculum -- why change the elementary school math curriculum, since it would be disruptive? Why should we eliminate extensions since that is how we are teaching 7th grade math? Why should we create true honors/college-prep English classes in high school when we have been teaching it in heterogeneous groupings (as Alison notes)? Again, I want SC members who will not just accept that we have what we have -- I want them to be willing to change what we are doing in all aspects if what we are doing is NOT what we should be doing.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, continued:

To Rick -

3. In terms of the pathways you note, you should know that AP biology requires a year of chemistry ... so none of the pathways you describe in which AP biology is taken in 10th grade is possible. You should also note that AP chemistry requires a year of biology and a year of chemistry. Thus, if we did have AP chemistry (which I believe we SHOULD have), it would be, as I note before, IMPOSSIBLE for any student to have both AP Chemistry and any physics class. That is not true at any other high school in Massachusetts that offers physics or biology in 9th grade. Maybe this isn't a big deal to you -- but let's not pretend that it isn't true. Similarly, students used to be able to take other advanced classes (e.g., astronomy, anatomy/physiology) AFTER taking bio/chem/physics. They now are going to have to CHOOSE whether to take the three core sciences OR to skip one of them to make room for another science. As I note in my earlier post, virtually all other high schools require the three core sciences in 9th/10th/11th and then let STUDENTS choose what interests them in 12th (anatomy? AP environmental? astronomy? an AP in a core area?) ... Amherst FORCES all kids to take what is basically an elective (in ALL other districts in the country) in 9th (ecology/environmental science), and then they only have room for the three core sciences for the rest of HS. I prefer the model used in virtually all other schools in which all kids get a strong foundation in the core sciences FIRST, and then can choose to explore a science in their particular area of interest in 12th grade. You seem to not feel this is a big deal -- that it is OK to force all kids to start with ecology and environmental science, even if that eliminates their ability to choose a course that interests them as a senior (if they want to take the three core sciences, as strong science students all will want to do).

4. I agree that doubling up on science classes would be great. But I also think that we should allow ALL students to take the three core sciences and THEN take an AP of their choice (biology, chemistry, or physics). As I note before, adding AP chemistry is irrelevant in our current system because of the requirement to delay taking core sciences for a year -- a student could not then take AP chemistry and ANY physics.

5. I'm glad it is a not a big concern of yours that 10th graders are possibly slowed down by 9th graders. I had not heard that point mentioned by anyone, and you noted in your post about possibly a reason to eliminate 9th graders having the option to take biology, so I assumed this might be your view. I'm glad it is not.

In sum, you and I disagree on the fundamental point that it is OK for our district to have an innovative and unproven required 9th grade science course. You think it is OK because in your view, kids can basically do the same thing they used to be able to do (although I can't imagine any kid will now choose to do AP environmental science, which I heard was a great course) -- although this is NOT true if we add AP chemistry. I think it is NOT OK - I believe that our required 9th grade science curriculum should be based on empirical research and the experience of other districts and that it should NOT be experimental (meaning that it may work as you expect it will based on your read of the course, but I do NOT believe will work as intended). That is a very fundamental difference in approaches to how we make decisions about education in Amherst, and it is a difference that voters should understand.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 5:55 - well said, and thanks for adding that. This is ANOTHER problem with our new required science course in 9th grade (e.g., lack of ability to take astronomy). People can spin it in various ways ... but ultimately, it leads to a mandatory delay in starting the core sciences for students who are ready to take biology in 9th grade -- and that means they no longer have the 12th grade options they used to have. That is another reason why I hope voters will ask SC candidates what they think of the new 9th grade required science and vote for candidates who share their views of this course.

Anonymous said...

Rick gets my vote despite (or more accurately, precisely because of) the fact that he doesn't need all the capital letters and exclamation points to communicate his opinion. He strikes me not only as a good thinker, but as a really respectful listener which is a trait that I greatly admire and think we could benefit from.

Joel said...

The discussion between Rick and Catherine about the new, experimental 9th grade science curriculum also gets at something Rick wrote a few days back about parental anger toward our schools. Rick expressed a lovely sentiment about getting past that anger. But, the entire process through which we adopted this experimental and unique curriculum angered and mobilized a lot of parents.

I'm not sure if Rick was involved then. I don't think this change affected his daughter who had had the old curriculum.

It's worth remembering, in part because several of the actors are still in place, how this significant change came about. The first attempt to force through the change was met with incredible opposition from parents, many of whom are research scientists. Mark Jackson, to his credit, apologized to parents for trying to put through such a significant change without any real justification.

Of course, when the formal proposal came, we were told by members of the science faculty that there was, and I quote: "No downside to this proposal." Nothing would be adversely affected; there were no costs to students at any level. I think Catherine's list of negative outcomes in class sequencing is pretty revealing. The impact of those problems on science education seem worth further examination. This new curriculum is far from being without any downside. Our teachers are plenty smart. They had to know the impact, but they tried to hide it from the public.

The chair of the SC then also openly lied to the public, claiming that AP classes had no real impact on elite college admissions. Another member of the SC shook with anger and wagged her finger at me when she said, and I'm paraphrasing: "Of course we're going to study the impact of this!" We're still waiting for that study. Maybe people who have a problem with the way I write about these issues on this blog should look at how I and many other parents were treated by the then SC.

I raise this to point out that the problems in the district go far beyond what happened with some problematic, now gone elementary school principals. The new trope is that everything is fine now that a couple of the elementary schools have new leadership, but that was only one symptom of the broader problems.

The 9th grade science curriculum and the process that brought it about energized a lot of parents who are still waiting to be treated openly and honestly by the schools' leaders.

That's why so many of us who have little kids in the schools aren't so willing to let the school administrators off the hook until we see real progress and open and honest debate about what's working and what isn't in our schools.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Joel, very well said.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Joel you speak with clarity and you speak for many of us. Thanks.

Rick said...

Anon 5:55:

But the other solution is allowing doubling up of science. Astronomy for example has just algebra as a prerequisite so you could take it along with any other science course.


#1. “That data does exist (ONLY because I pushed for it as a member of SC), and yet has NEVER been examined or reported.” What is this data? Is it a survey, test data or what?

#2. Not all changes are disruptive so your analogies are not necessarily good ones. But sure if we had evidence that this course was not working in time to change back before the 2010/2011 school year, then fine.

#3 Yes sorry you’re right, so these two are what would be the case:

Ecology and Environmental Science 9 Honors
AP Biology (3 trimesters)
AP Physics.

The above makes no practical difference from what I had stated.

Ecology and Environmental Science 9 Honors
Biology Honors
AP Chemistry (if we had it)
AP Physics.

The above is not an issue as we don’t have AP Chemistry yet. If we did, I would still argue that the main problem is not being able to double up on science, not the ninth grade science program.

So its not ”IMPOSSIBLE for any student to have both AP Chemistry and any physics class”, you could do this:

Ecology and Environmental Science 9 Honors
Biology Honors
AP Chemistry (if we had it)
AP Physics + AP Biology


Yes the change did not affect my kids. It could well be that the way the change was put through was horrible – I don’t know. I get the anger if that was not done well. We just disagree on this ”I think Catherine's list of negative outcomes in class sequencing is pretty revealing.”

I just do not see:

a. Why Ecology and Environmental Science 9 is a bad course – it seems like a great course to me.

b. Where the big problem is regarding AP course sequencing.

”AP classes had no real impact on elite college admissions.” - of course they do. I disagree with that statement, if in fact that was said.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 6:27 - Great! Everyone should vote for the person who best represents their view of what the schools should be and how to get there. That is all I've encouraged anyone to do -- if Rick's views are in line with your own (and in particular his absence of capitalization/exclamation points!), vote for him and encourage your friends to do the same.

Joel - very well said. Thank you.

Anonymous 9:24 and Anonymous 9:49 - I agree. Joel's comments reflect what many parents I've talked to feel.

Rick - my responses:

1. You suggest to anonymous 5:55 that the "solution is allowing doubling up of science." But why are we then requiring students to double up on science IN ORDER to do exactly what they could do in other districts (e.g., take three core sciences and then an elective of their choice)? Remember, doubling up on science means NOT taking something else. So, because we have decided ALL kids in Amherst have to take ecology and environmental science (something no other high school in America requires), our kids who want to take astronomy AND three core sciences have to drop something?!? What do they drop? Music? World language? Math? Again, this isn't an easy solution and it strikes me as a really unfair solution (even assuming that the budget WOULD allow such a thing). Why do YOU prefer the solution of allowing kids to double up on sciences instead of allowing kids to take biology in 9th?!?

2. Let me make another point for the THIRD time today in response to you post: According to the College Board, you can NOT take AP Chemistry as your first chemistry course. Thus, the various solutions you map out that have kids taking AP chemistry as their first chemistry course is NOT POSSIBLE. You propose the following:

Ecology and Environmental Science 9 Honors
Biology Honors
AP Chemistry (if we had it)
AP Physics.

But that again is NOT possible because AP Chemistry requires a basic year of chemistry first, according to the College Board and that is a requirement for AP Chemistry at all other schools. So, as I have repeatedly noted, a student interested in AP Chemistry in the old plan could have done the following:

9 - biology
10 - chemistry
11 - AP chemistry
12 - physics (AP or regular) OR AP bio

A student in our new plan can only do the following:

9 - ecology/environmental science
10 - chemistry
11 - AP biology
12 - AP chemistry OR physics/AP physics.

As I've noted several times, students in other districts can take AP chemistry AND take all of the other core sciences. Because we delay the introduction to core science in Amherst until 10th grade, we force students interested in science to choose between AP chemistry and taking ANY physics at all. You will say, I'm sure, that this can be solved by doubling up on science (assuming budgets permit, AND assuming kids are willing to drop something else they also like to take). But my point is WHY? Why do we force kids to delay starting on a core science?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me to Rick:

3. Survey data was collected, at my insistence, both before and after the new course went into effect. That would allow us easily to measure things like interest in science, intent to study science in the future, etc. No one has expressed any willingness to examine this data, and when I've offered, I've been told I can't because I'm biased. So, I don't think this data will ever be examined.

3. You say that "if we had evidence that this course was not working in time to change back before the 2010/2011 school year, then fine." OK, so does that mean that IF you were elected to SC, you would support a motion to have the survey data examined, and you would support a motion to return to biology as an option for 9th grade IF the survey data didn't seem to reveal the class was working to increase interest in science? What type of data would convince you the class wasn't working and thus would lead you to support a change?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Finally, the most depressing thing I've heard you say is your response to Joel's posting which is as follows:

"I just do not see:

a. Why Ecology and Environmental Science 9 is a bad course – it seems like a great course to me."

This to me is something I don't ever want to hear a volunteer SC member say ... because we are NOT experts in education! I don't believe I'm qualified to judge whether a class is a good class or not. I don't believe you are either. Thus, I don't think the litmus test of whether a class is allowed or not should be a function of whether members of the SC like it or not. This speaks to me about a basic difference in our views about how decisions should be made: I believe we should have a curriculum that looks like other districts, because we are preparing our kids to get into colleges and succeed in colleges with kids from across the country. So, I think our decisions about what we teach and when we teach it need to be based NOT on what some random member of SC believes (including me) but on what research and the experience of other districts tells us.

If the HS science teachers had said we want to go with physics first, I would have agreed -- not because I have any idea whether this would or would not be a good idea or whether I would think the course description was great, but because there is a fair amount of research suggesting this is a way to hook kids into loving science AND because this approach has now been tried in a bunch of districts that are high achieving and it seems to be working.

In the case of ecology/environmental science, we have adopted it in Amherst without ANY evidence that it has worked anywhere ... and despite the fact that NO other districts are using it. Personally, I'm never, ever going to be comfortable with adopting required high school courses that are unproven and not being used in any other districts. My own feelings about the course and whether it is great or not just aren't relevant because I don't think we should be making decisions based on anecdote or intuition, anymore than I'd feel comfortable going to see a doctor if I had cancer and using a new treatment that had never been used before but one that my doctor had thought up and thought might be great -- I'm looking for the statistical evidence that the treatment I'm getting is actually being used elsewhere and is thus likely to save my life.

You also note that you don't understand "Where the big problem is regarding AP course sequencing." I had thought I had been clear earlier regarding needing chemistry BEFORE having AP chemistry. That is the big problem with delaying core science until 10th grade -- it deprives kids of a chance to take AP chemistry IF they want to also take the other core sciences. I don't see requiring kids to drop other electives (e.g., music, art, social studies, math) in order to double up on science so that they can do what kids in most other districts can do without doubling up as a good solution.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - one more thing ... this whole conversation was feeling VERY familiar to me, so I went back through old blog postings. If you go to the article I posted in September re. AP classes at Northampton High, you will see a virtual repeat of this discussion, in which you try to show how the new ecology class really doesn't change science options and I suggest that it does. Here is one of my posts on that topic, which came in response to your suggestion that kids can take ecology/environmental science in 9th, AP chemistry in 10th, AP biology in 11th, and AP physics in 12th (and you expressed disbelief that one would need a basic chemistry class BEFORE AP chemistry). Here is what I said then:

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

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

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

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

So, the key thing is that our required 9th grade ecology/environmental science class does impose real costs on kids who are interested in AP chemistry -- which they can't take without a year of chemistry (meaning these kids then have a total of one year in which to take biology, physics, and any other electives, since they will take the new 9th grade science, then chemistry, then AP chemistry). In the old system, kids could take biology, and then chemistry, and then have a total of two years in which to take any combination of AP bio, physics, AP chemistry, and any other electives. That strikes me as a real downside to requiring this new course for the kids most interested in science.

Rick said...

”OK, so does that mean that IF you were elected to SC, you would support a motion to have the survey data examined, and you would support a motion to return to biology as an option for 9th grade IF the survey data didn't seem to reveal the class was working to increase interest in science?

No, because "increase interest in science" would not be my primary measure – knowledge of science would be.

What type of data would convince you the class wasn't working and thus would lead you to support a change?

Test results measuring science knowledge. MCAS is one – other tests would be fine by me.

“because we are NOT experts in education! I don't believe I'm qualified to judge whether a class is a good class or not. I don't believe you are either.” So then why have you been involved in a committee that looks at math curriculum? Why not just let the teachers choose it. In saying what I said, I am just stating an opinion that I think that the teaching staff at ARHS made a good choice – same as you do when you say a certain curriculum chosen was good or bad.

”In the case of ecology/environmental science, we have adopted it in Amherst without ANY evidence that it has worked anywhere”

What is “it”? Is “it” the name of the course or is “it” what the course teaches? Is it the name of the course that is important or is it the curriculum? Earth Science would be OK just because it’s called Earth Science? Are all Earth Science curriculums the same?

And why did you previously say this: ”it is entirely possible that teaching ecology/environmental science in 9th grade is a good idea?

And are you honestly saying this course is worse than Earth Science?

Enough for today, I’ll reply to your last comment tomorrow…

Anonymous said...

Can someone tell me what the required 9th grade science class was before Ecology/Environmental Science was made the required class? Was there a required class that EVERYONE was mandated to take? Were some kids allowed to take Biology in the 9th grade before Ecology/Env Science was made the required class?

Nina Koch said...


If "open and honest debate" is truly your goal, you need to adopt some new tactics. You and Catherine have succeeded in poisoning your relationship with people in the schools so that no one would want to have an honest conversation with you.

There are many things I would like to change about the schools. I would be happy to have an open and honest conversation with people who truly wanted to listen to what I had to say, to try to figure out why I believe what I believe. I would give them the same courtesy and try to understand their point of view.

I don't expect that everyone will agree about education. There is no one right answer. Often we start with different axioms that lead us to different conclusions. It would be healthy to identify those.

Obviously, everybody wants the best for our kids. That shouldn't be questioned. But we may have different definitions of what "the best" is.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

I am not sure a true evaluation of the type you need is possible with the current science curriculum, and I speak from experience. It is my job to analyze data of this type and to make a true comparison, you would need to have made two potential tracks for ninth grade math--one being ecology/environmental science and one being whatever former ninth grader offering there used to be (biology? earth science?). Since that is not the case, the best you can hope for is to compare the outcomes (how many additional courses in the sciences taken, grades on those other courses, AP tests taken, scores on the AP tests, MCAS scores, SAT/ACT scores, etc) of the kids currently in the e/e curriculum versus the outcomes of the kids who came in under the different curriculum. But, since those students were in the school at a different time, the outcomes might not be attributable to the course change.

At Mount Holyoke, we are currently evaluating an integrated introduction to chemistry and biology course in a similar way. This course is an 8 credit course designed to highlight the intersections between the two fields and to serve as another option of a gateway introductory course for both fields. Students can take this course or take the more traditional 4 credit intro to chemistry course and the 4 credit intro to biology course. The key here is that the traditional courses were still available as an option.

I also want to point out that ARHS is currently doing something like this in the math curriculum. When my daughter started this fall, she was offered the choice of geometery as ninth grade math or IMP (integrated math program, I believe it stands for). This is a different direction for math; one that apparently focuses on group work and real-world problem solving. It is offered as an alternative to the current curriculum rather than instead of it.

I also wanted to add that I don't think any of this is really about whether or not ecology/environmental science is a good course or that kids like it. My daughter is taking e/e honors and finds it challenging and, for the most part, interesting. I still would have preferred her to be able to take a more traditional science curriculum or at least been given the option to take a traditional biology course or to double up. Like it or not, the traditional curriculum is what leads to the most options for AP courses (fully prepared) and that is what colleges look for.

Joel said...


If your most recent post is what you consider an apology for falsely and publicly accusing me of something, then I'm not sure how exactly you and I can ever have a meaningful debate of the issues.

Moreover, we're adults. Clearly some people in the schools automatically dislike anyone who questions the status quo. It has nothing to do with tone or even the actual content of the critique. It's the presence of the critique itself.

BTW-- adults apologize for making false accusations with some form of "I'm sorry." Look it up.

Joel said...

More to Nina,

I can't for the life of me remember you offering any positive ideas for change on this blog. I could be wrong, so please let me know what you would like to change. How would you make things better?

If you don't want to deal with Catherine or me or any of the other literally hundreds of angry parents in town because you don't like it when we criticize something, then there's nothing any of us can do for you.

But, the superintendent and members of the SC and plenty of teachers who are eager for the sorts of changes many of us propose are open to criticism and want to work with parents and the broader community to improve curricula.

You can either engage parents and deal with university and college faculty who have a great deal of expertise on a lot of these issues or not. That's your choice.

If you are as dedicated to our schools as you say, you would engage all concerned parents, not just those with whom you agree or whose tone you like. I guess I'm asking not only if you'll be an adult about this, but also a professional. That's entirely up to you.

Rick said...


Your thoughtful articulation of the issue is by far the best I have heard and brings it back to what really is the only issue - at this time, not looking in the past - as stated in your last paragraph:

”Like it or not, the traditional curriculum is what leads to the most options for AP courses (fully prepared) and that is what colleges look for.”

I would say that colleges look a lot more at grade point average, whether one took honors courses, and special talents than at whether you took 3 versus 2 AP courses – at least when my kids were applying to college (4-6 years ago) that was the case. But I am considering this…

I am told that a goal of establishing the new course was to provide a unified foundation for all students. This is not a radical idea. And it’s done in other departments such as Social Studies and English. Whether or not the advantages of that outweighs the fact that, if AP Chemistry existed, that it’s impossible to take 3 x AP science courses (or just more difficult if doubling up were allowed) I am not 100% sure – but in my mind it’s certainly not the slam dunk answer that some people think it is.

Anonymous said...

to Alison 6:35:

"I still would have preferred her to be able to take a more traditional science curriculum or at least been given the option to take a traditional biology course or to double up. Like it or not, the traditional curriculum is what leads to the most options for AP courses (fully prepared) and that is what colleges look for."

I completely agree. My child took e/e honors last year and enjoyed it completely. Yet with each homework assignment and discussion it was clear that having a foundation in traditional sciences (biology, chemistry) would have benefited him and his learning of e/e. e/e is an excellent integrated class, but needs prior scientific orientation. ARHS should reconsider and make an e/e, AP e/e in junior or senior year AFTER bio and chem. Introducing it earlier does a disservice to the students.

I think that the evaluation my son/family received did not ask if bio or chem before e/e would have been beneficial.

When high school AP credits reduce college tuition bills in the future, ARHS should try to offer more AP classes.

Abbie said...


you really do take it too far in my opinion, so I guess that puts me automatically in your "childish" camp. Can't you practice a little introspection? How can one interpret your statement "I guess I'm asking not only if you'll be an adult about this" other than as an insult because the person doesn't agree with you or (OMG) even want to engage in conversation, if that is the starting point. Do you really WANT to alienate folks? Cuz that is exactly what you are doing, I agree with some (maybe even a lot)of your opinions but your attitude and arrogance of "my way or its wrong" is not productive in my opinion.

For you to talk about apologies really takes the cake...Does someone have to offer "any positive ideas for change" in order to post on this blog? And you are the judge of what is "positive". I welcome Nina's opinions and she offers them under her name. I suggest you listen to the IMPORTANT things she has to say, instead of being a blowhard.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what planet these other people live on but AP classes are HUGE, HUGE, when applying to college. If you are a motivated student, in the current configuration of this high school, APs are sadly not there. Move your kids to private school. They have no agenda. They just want to educate your kid.

Rick said...

AP classes are HUGE, HUGE, when applying to college"

Data on this would be helpful instead of anonymous statements. Is there data on the average number of AP courses taken by students accepted to Ivy League schools, for example?

Anonymous said...

We should be able to get some info on the importance of AP classes to getting into the elite colleges from the college guidance counselor at the high school. Is that Myra Ross? I bet she could give us some very useful information on this topic.

Joel said...

I served on the admissions committee at Rice University, a top 15 university. APs are important in admissions and they can be very important. A wonderful student with a compelling life story without APs can be admitted and a very narrow student with tons of APs and great SATs, but not much else going on probably won't get in. BUT, all things being equal, taking AP classes and doing well on AP exams is in fact a significant factor in elite college admissions.

Moreover, I served also as a College Master at Rice. APs are also free tuition because they equal college credits. That is, having AP credits is a huge bonus for kids who have to take out a lot of debt to attend public or private colleges and universities.

Limiting the available APs literally cheats those kids out of hard to find college money.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to get a handle on why we don't let the 9th graders choose what science class to take..either e/e or biology. I don't know if the e/e course is a good course or we should have an evaluation. But even if it is an excellent course, what is wrong with giving 9th graders a chocie? Seems like that would satisfy everyone - those who want to take e/e in 9th and those who want to take biology.

Anonymous said...

I believe the grade you get on the AP exams, plus SAT scores are important. And asking an advisor at the high school will give you an Amherst slant on this information. Colleges are wary of GPA's due to "grade inflation". And as said before taking an AP and testing well on them gets you out of some of the freshman year classes at college. Ali Burrow

Joel said...

Ali wrote:

"And as said before taking an AP and testing well on them gets you out of some of the freshman year classes at college"

Absolutely. I also saw kids graduate college in three years because of all of their APs and some overloads they took. It's better to spend four years in college, but lots of schools foist a ton of debt on kids. I have a lot of students at UMass with very heavy debt burdens. AP credits certainly help.

Anonymous said...

AP classes actually include content needed for science studies in college. It's content you won't get in other classes. AP classes are not only a means to impress a college.

Anonymous said...

The distrust of everyone in the school administration by some people on this blog is absolutely stunning!!! Is there no one who works in our schools who is forthright and able to answer any question without an "Amherst slant?"

I would think that the college advisor deals with admissions offices all the time and would know what they are looking for in their applicants. Whats the point of having an admissions advisor if we cannot rely on them to give us accurate information without slanting it. What a depressing state of affairs in this town that so many are so distrustful.

Yes, our schools have a myriad of problems. And there are alot of angry people. But distrust everyone?

Anonymous said...

The college adviser is nice but you will not get the best feedback from her. If you really want information, talk to kids IN college - in college right now - about how well prepared they were by ARHS to take college science classes.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me (though not at all on the pledge):

Rick - I am really trying to understand why you have this view, since I had assumed that you and I felt similarly about the extent to which decisions in our schools should be data-driven and based on the experience of other districts. I'm asking questions to clarify, and I think you are being pretty hostile (some examples of this will come up soon). So, to respond to your responses to my responses:

1. You say that the data that would convince you the new class was working would be MCAS data. However, which scores would you look at: biology or chemistry MCAS? In the new system, biology MCAS scores should be a LOT higher -- because most kids will have 1 1/2 years of biology (a year of biology in 10th, plus a separate course in ecology, which is a subset of biology). In fact, increases on the biology MCAS was one of the reasons noted by the science teachers for this adoption. But does this mean the new course is working? MCAS scores don't have any bearing on anything -- they don't influence college admissions or success in college, so all that matters is PASSING the MCAS. I'm not sure why this would be a key marker of the course. And the teachers suggested the course would increase interest in science - -that was a major reason described, which is why I suggested measuring this. But you seem to belief interest in science isn't something to measure as a way of determining succcess?

2. You throw out this very hostile comment in response to my point about SC members not being education experts: "So then why have you been involved in a committee that looks at math curriculum? Why not just let the teachers choose it."

This just illustrates to me that you have no idea what that committee did, nor what my role on it was -- you just assume that the goal of the committee was to choose a curriculum, which it was not (because yes, TEACHERS do choose the curriculum). That committee examined survey data from parents and students (which I wrote up in a report which is still probably posted on the web somewhere), and I compiled a list of math classes/curriculum and % taking algebra and calculus in other districts.

I have NEVER said a curriculum was a good choice or not a good choice simply because I had an opinion about whether it was good or not. I have said a curriculum was a good choice because of the PROCESS used to make the choice. That is the key thing for me - the PROCESS. We adopted Impact math after a committee of teachers/administrators (I was NOT on this committee nor were any parents) reviewed multiple curriculum, asked parents/teachers for feedback on books, and then made a recommendation to Jere Hochman, who selected it. I think that is a GOOD process, so I can trust the decision. In the case of the elementary school math curriculum, there was some extra money left over one June that needed to be spent, so Jere quickly purchased version 2 of Investigations, without any review by teachers of that curriculum or any consideration of the concerns raised in this district and elsewhere about the curriculum. That strikes me as a BAD process, and hence I can't trust the decision.

So, let's take the ecology/environmental science decision. No other options were considered (e.g., physics first, biology first, giving options of different sciences), and no data from other districts was gathered. The teachers just made a decision and the SC voted for it. That strikes me as a bad PROCESS.

My big point here is that I believe the process matters -- and the process should include a review of multiple options and a review of what is done in other districts. I had thought you agreed with this idea, since you had spoken on this blog about the benefits of the "how are we doing subcommittee" that particularly looked at comparisons to other districts in various measures (INCLUDING science sequence in high school).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more:

Rick (continued) -

3. You respond to my statement ”In the case of ecology/environmental science, we have adopted it in Amherst without ANY evidence that it has worked anywhere” the following: "What is “it”? Is “it” the name of the course or is “it” what the course teaches? Is it the name of the course that is important or is it the curriculum? Earth Science would be OK just because it’s called Earth Science? Are all Earth Science curriculums the same?"

I guess I don't really understand this point. I don't believe it would be OK to teach ecology/environmental science and just call it biology, if that is what you are implying. I believe that we should be teaching a basic core science in 9th grade, as all other districts do (I'd be comfortable with biology, or with physics, since that is what other districts do). I don't believe that SC members are qualified to judge the merits of the course -- surely we don't elect people to the SC expecting that they will be able to evaluate each aspect of each curricula in the HS and determine whether the stuff that is taught is good. I believe we should elect people to SC who will push for a particular process of decision-making to be used, and that we should trust that good decisions are more likely to result from good processes of decision-making.

I have no idea whether the new course is better than, worse than, or the same as earth science or biology. I do believe that many students who are less focused on science will, in our new system, take the new class (1/2 of which is ecology, a subset of biology) in 9th and biology in 10th and then take no more science (since we only require two years of science in HS). In the old system, these students would have had earth science followed by biology, and thus would have gained experience in both physical and life sciences (which is often a distribution requirement in other districts). So in this sense, I do believe that students who only take 2 years of science now will graduate with a much less comprehensive view of science (literally no physics or chemistry), and yes, that is concerning to me.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more from me:

Anonymous 5:21 - before the new class, some 9th graders took earth science and some took biology. The new class took away the option for any choice.

Nina - it is interesting to me that you describe my actions (and Joel's) as "succeeded in poisoning your relationship with people in the schools so that no one would want to have an honest conversation with you." Would you believe that I get private calls and emails on a regular basis from teachers and staff in the district who so appreciate the work I'm doing? Would it surprise you to know that some of those people work in your building? Perhaps your anger towards me and towards Joel for simply raising issues about how we do education in Amherst inhibits those people from sharing their thoughts with you about ways in which our schools could work better for all kids.

Allison - great points. I asked the SC and superintendent to delay requiring the class until we'd collected data on its effectiveness for a year or two (by giving students the option for this class), and that would have let us do the type of measurement you propose and that Mount Holyoke is doing. Unfortunately they would not agree to this. I also am very worried by how long the evaluation might take -- are we really going to spend four years on this course to see how many students take four years of science or take an AP class? I have asked repeatedly for even the criteria by which success or failure could be determined, and no one will give me an answer to that -- meaning that it isn't clear to me at all that there is ANY data that could lead this course to be abandoned. I share your belief that offering the traditional sequence would be highly desirable and appropriate -- I wish the SC had insisted on this as an option.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more:

Joel - it seems rather clear that Nina is uncomfortable with any critique, and I find that unfortunate. I teach at Amherst College, and I can tell anyone 5 things that aren't great about this college -- even though I work here! It isn't saying people aren't caring or smart or thoughtful ... it is just saying that the status quo simply isn't necessarily the best.

I share your interest in hearing Nina's thoughts about how the schools could be improved and hope she'll take the opportunity to list those on this blog.

Rick - two points here.

1. If we wanted a unified science curriculum in 9th grade, we had at least two super options that would have led to virtually no discontent among parents like me and Alison and Joel: biology or physics. Those are unifying curriculum that could have been required of all 9th graders, as is the case in many districts. The opposition is NOT to a unified curriculum. It is an opposition to a unified curriculum that isn't done in anyu district in the country and has no data suggesting it will be effective.

2. Do we need a unified curriculum? We allow students in math to take algebra or geometry or algebra II or IMP 1. Why do we need to make sure all students have a unified science curriculum?

Anonymous 8:48 - I agree that many families/students are looking for a more traditional curriculum -- one that has a real base on the core sciences FIRST. I think offering ecology/ environmental science as an ELECTIVE would be the right way to go.

Abbie - I don't get the hostility towards Joel (also, like Nina, and like you, posting under his own name). Joel has volunteered a ton of his time for the schools. He is openly and honestly expressing his frustration, even in the face of pretty hostile critiques (e.g., Nina's).

Anonymous 9:23 - Elaine Brighty, then chair of the SC when the new course was adopted (and some people pointed out that it would DECREASE kids' chances of taking AP Chem if we did offer it), said that AP classes weren't relevant for college admissions. That was one of the statements that made members of the public have concerns about the rationale for the class.

Rick - I think it is pretty clear that colleges are interested in APs. I also know that students who have had an AP get to college better prepared than those who don't. As a member of the Amherst College chemistry department said to me about the difference between kids who do and do not have AP Chemistry when they take intro to chem, "it's like night and day."

Anonymous 9:44 - I think it is pretty clear that AP classes are important to colleges for admissions, and, as I note above to Rick, pretty important in helping students succeed in particular classes in college.

Joel - exactly - AP classes also save kids money!

Anonymous 10:06 - exactly! Just giving kids the choice would let students select the science class that interests them more, and thus end this controversy. I suggested this repeatedly and my suggestion was ignored.

Ali - yes ... having AP classes can get kids placed out of classes in college, and help with admissions.

Joel (at 11:10) - yes! AP classes are especially good for kids who don't want to/can't afford to spend four years in college.

Anonymous 11:25 - exactly. So, in our new system, it seems like a problem that kids who want to take AP Chemistry (if we would offer it!) must then choose to not take any physics. Ideally kids with a strong interest in chemistry/science could enter college having a course in physics and a course in AP Chemistry ... and this is possible in many districts but not in Amherst.

Rick said...

Catherine (11:43):

1. I had said this ”Test results measuring science knowledge. MCAS is one – other tests would be fine by me.” I didn’t just say MCAS. What is your suggestion for evaluation at this point? I know you described it in posts long ago, but we may need a refresher. It may be too late to do it that way you wanted to do it?

2. Well if that’s hostile, compare that to your saying that I like the idea of “using our kids as guinea pigs!”

But this is dumb to argue about who is being hostile – nobody wants to hear that.

Let’s reboot.

I have simply been giving my opinion based on my investigation into this course.

Perhaps you think that this is all I would require as an SC member to determine if a course is a good idea when making a decision to proceed with it – that “it looks good to me”. I assure you that definitely would not be the case.

You make a very good point about process and I totally agree with what you say on that. The example you give on the purchase of Investigations is clearly not a good thing. The way you describe the process for the ecology/environmental science decision is also not good. But I hear from others that in fact other options were considered, including physics first. I’m sorry but it’s hard to know who to believe.

Look this is going on forever and maybe I can sum up for me by saying this:

A. I get that you don’t think the process for arriving at ecology/environmental science was a good one. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know the truth. But I do understand your belief and I agree that if it was a bad process, then that is not a good thing for sure.

B. Since there are a number of people who think it would have been better to have done something else, I am perfectly fine with looking at that. There is never anything wrong with revisiting a decision. Everything I was saying up to now is simply that I don’t see evidence that something else would have been better. But on the other hand, there isn’t that much evidence to look at one way or the other, and if there is in the future, I will certainly look at it. And I would certainly push for getting any missing data or study needed to do that.

I am in total agreement that decisions should be data driven and not opinion driven. Sometimes this can be difficult when if not enough data exists, where one may have to fall back on opinion – but wherever possible, data should rule.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - I am very glad to hear you say the following: "Perhaps you think that this is all I would require as an SC member to determine if a course is a good idea when making a decision to proceed with it – that “it looks good to me”. I assure you that definitely would not be the case."

That is really the thing that I think people should be voting on -- NOT whether they think a given class or program is good, but whether we have made decisions about what classes and programs we have based on (a) empirical evidence, and (b) comparison with other districts. We are not doing (a) or (b) right now in Amherst AT ALL (and in fact, are sort of proudly not doing this).

You also note the following "The way you describe the process for the ecology/environmental science decision is also not good. But I hear from others that in fact other options were considered, including physics first. I’m sorry but it’s hard to know who to believe."

OK, so go back to the SC minutes, which are all posted on the ARPS website. I wasn't on the SC then, but I attended all the meetings. The new course was mentioned for the first time in the fall of 2007 (I believe October). At that time, it was proposed that advanced students could take AP environmental science in 9th grade (without having biology OR chemistry first, as is recommended by the College Board). That was the proposal as initially described by the HS teachers. The course was voted on by the SC in January of 2008. So, a total of 3 months passed between the first mention of the course in public and a vote to adopt it - you don't have to take my word for it, or the word of high school teachers. Just read the minutes. I attended the meetings in which it was discussed (I believe a total of four times, but only twice with any opportunities for parent comment and NEVER with any notice to parents about the upcoming decision). In all of those meetings, NONE of the following occurred:

1. Any presentation of a review of other curricula used in other districts in science (in 9th grade or elsewhere).

2. Any presentation of how the effectiveness of this curricula would be assessed (using what criteria, what timeline, what measures, etc.).

3. Any presentation of the pros/cons of other curricula approaches (e.g., biology first for all, physics first for all, letting kids choose biology OR ecology first, etc.).

So, IF what I'm describing is accurate (and if you doubt it, check the minutes of the SC and/or ask the superintendent and/or Mark Jackson for the reports that were prepared, since those were never presented publicly), do you think the process was good?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, continued:

You say that you are "in total agreement that decisions should be data driven and not opinion driven. Sometimes this can be difficult when if not enough data exists, where one may have to fall back on opinion – but wherever possible, data should rule." So, if you believe that, which I really hope you do, do you believe that we should make decisions about curricula in our schools NOT based on opinions (teachers or SC members or principals) about what is good, but on what empirical evidence (e.g., demonstrated results) and/or the experience of other districts? If so, then I think you can understand my frustration with the process used to adopt the ecology/environmental science course as a required course in 9th grade -- which was ENTIRELY based on opinions of the high school teachers and not on any review of data/curricula used in other districts, and was adopted without any clear plan of how/when to evaluate it to determine whether it was effective. I am very, very nervous about this decision for precisely those reasons -- and again, I fear this decision is simply emblematic about how all decisions have been made in this district for a LONG time (e.g., lets cluster ELL students by language, even though no other districts do this and there is no evidence that this approach is effective -- lets trust our teachers' opinions that this is just the right way to go).

Again, it is NOT that I hate the ecology/environmental science course ... it is that the process used to make the decision to adopt this course was an example to me (and many other parents) of how our schools make decisions based entirely on anecdote and intuition -- and without any reliance on what is done in other districts (surely other districts ALSO care about giving kids a strong basis in science) and without any evidence that this approach will work as intended (except for the teachers' assurances that it will work) and without any strategy of evaluating the course at a particular time to determine whether it was or was not effective.

Anonymous said...

A wee correction - during the s.c. discussions about the new science curriculum, a physics teacher did get up at one point and address parents to say that Physics First wouldn't work at ARHS b/c the district doesn't have the depth of staff to do that sequence of science courses. So the faculty was devising courses partly based on the school's available talent, I guess.

Rick said...


It will take me a while to review past meetings and ideally I would like to watch the video, not just look at the minutes. But the short answer is that if it is as you describe, then yes, that was a bad process.

” you believe that we should make decisions about curricula in our schools NOT based on opinions (teachers or SC members or principals) about what is good, but on what empirical evidence (e.g., demonstrated results) and/or the experience of other districts?”

Yes, absolutely.

But with the caveat that even with lots of data, decisions are not always black and white, and opinions enter into things. For example, “is a school system somehow different from ours” when we compare to other districts – stuff like that.

Data is also hard work – much harder than spewing opinion - which is why opinion outnumbers facts by a wide margin pretty much everywhere. So often the work doesn’t get done.

In theory data can determine everything. In practice you rarely have all the data (or accurate enough data) to be able to do that. So I would not count on opinion ever being entirely eliminated.

Anon 3:21:

”Physics First wouldn't work at ARHS b/c the district doesn't have the depth of staff to do that sequence of science courses.” I was told that as well while checking into this.

Joel said...

Here's my worry about the Environmental Science requirement, beyond how it may limit later science electives:

I'm a humanities person. I don't know much about science and it's been a long time since I was in HS. But, if this class is indeed unique, then I'm worried. Catherine has stated repeatedly that we're the only HS in the Commonwealth (and maybe the nation) to require this class and to have it as the first science HS students take. Those facts really worry me.

Look, there are two possible reasons Amherst is alone in this.

Either we are so far ahead of the curve that we're literally trend setters. What evidence is there of that? Other schools aren't following our lead and ARHS isn't listed as a top HS in the Commonwealth. It certainly isn't listed as a national leader in science education.

Or, the reason we're alone in having this requirement is that other HS principals, science teachers, district superintendent, and school committees in Massachusetts and the nation believe that offering lab science e.g., biology, physics, chemistry, etc. in the 9th grade is the way to go.

My point is a very simple one and I'm perfectly willing to have it refuted. We have an extremely unique required first science class in HS.

Is it unique because we know something no one else does? Or, is it unique because no one else wants to take this path?

Joel said...

Saying something positive about Environmental Science,

I do think it serves some worthy goals because it's a creative way to get kids more interested in science.

I think we have to do that in the 9th grade because Amherst kids do practically no science in elementary school.

I know for a fact that there is significantly less science education in K-6 in Amherst than there was in Houston. I would be curious to know how our K-6 science curriculum compares to other MSAN schools and to other districts in Mass.

LarryK4 said...

ARHS was the ONLY high school in the nation in 2004 to allow girls (oops, I mean young women) to perform 'The Vagina Monologues'.

Unique indeed.

Anonymous said...

so when will a report be submitted to the SC assessing the value and results of the new e/e class?

sometimes we do things differently because we believe we know better. no facts, no evidence. just a very strong sense of what? community self esteem? that's what we prefer guide our decisions?

but catherine is right. the process matters. and the process to correct a mistake matters too.

Rick said...

Adding to what Joel said:

If we want to say that the Ecology / Environmental Science is a problem because the process used to decide that was the right thing to do was flawed. I get that.

But I would not say it’s a problem just because a course of that name is not in the in the ninth grade curriculum of other schools. I feel that you have to look deeper than this. When comparing what other districts do, which we should as Catherine says, I would not just go by the name of the course, I would compare the curriculum of the courses. Here are various names of ninth grades science courses at other schools I found by just randomly searching on Google:

Earth Science
Physical Science
Ninth Grade Science
Environmental Science

Who knows how curriculum of all these courses compare to our Ecology / Environmental Science?

It would be nice if there were well know standard curriculum (textbooks?) that other districts use that one could point to and compare to, as there seems to be for math. Probably there are?

Joel said...


I think part of the issue is that our Environmental Science is required and being required, it slows progression to other science classes. I think that that's what's unique.

And, it's more than just a name. I believe we had Earth Science and that that's more like Geology, but I could be wrong. It isn't my field and my kids are still in elementary school.

why not have it all? said...

Why not do the environmental science class in 8th grade? It sounds exciting and could help kids understand the utility and importance of math -- and get them interested in the other science classes. The middle school science curriculum certainly could use some bucking up.

Anonymous said...

As ecology is part of biology - was the biology course modified so the kids who took ecology and environmental last year don't repeat material if/when they take biology? Are current juniors and sophomores taking biology together? How is the possible overlap of material being addressed if this is the case?

Rick said...

Yes, the 10th grade Biology class was modified to remove material that is covered in Ecology and Environmental Science and some more in-depth topics were added.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

The FINAL responses from me on this topic:

Anonymous 3:21 - there was indeed a statement by a teacher that the district didn't feel it could staff a physics first model -- but that was it! I believe that if the science teachers felt like Physics First was the way to go, they could have (and should have) come to the superintendent and the SC and said we need this and this is what we will need. I noticed that the Springfield Public Schools now have physics first, and their teachers went to a training last summer to learn to teach this. Similarly, if that was the choice of the HS teachers, they should have said that and at least seen if it were possible (I believe it could have been).

Rick - obviously opinion has a role ... always will. But in the case of 9th grade science, and MANY other decisions, we don't start with data and then find ourselves confused with data -- we just go right to opinion! I asked Jere Hochman and several members of the SC whether information on whether what other districts do would be considered -- and they all said NO. Then I asked this question of Mark Jackson in a SC meeting (this meeting was reported in the Bulletin so you should be able to find his quote easily). He said (and I'm basically quoting here) that the experience of other districts doesn't matter -- he doesn't care what they are doing in Brookline and Evanston and Shaker Heights. So, again, I see no evidence that anyone in the HS (or then on the SC) cared that we were the only district trying this new approach to teaching science in 9th grade -- even if we have really smart and caring and dedicated teachers in our high school (and I believe we do) -- so do OTHER districts ... and the teachers in ALL other districts have come to a decision that the best preparation for higher level science is NOT ecology and environmental science. So, yes, I do believe that opinion has a place, and that the place for that opinion is AFTER a review of data. I would have been delighted to hear the HS science teachers review the pros/cons of starting with biology or physics in 9th, given that these approaches are both seen in other districts, and I would then have very much valued our teachers' opinions about which of these is better for Amherst (given our students and teachers). Similarly, I would have been delighted to have the teachers suggest a two-year pilot program in which kids choose which to take (environmental science/ecology OR biology), and then collect data on how each of these is going (test scores, student interest, whatever), and to THEN have the teachers share that data and give their opinion about what it means in terms of what we should do going forward. But I don't like to start with opinion (which is clearly what happened in this case) -- I like to end with opinion.

Joel (at 4:27) - exactly ... and this is why the new course is really a gamble. It may work. It may not. But I'd rather not find out on our kids!

Joel (at 4:47) - I believe the HS science teachers were basically stuck -- I think they were getting 9th graders who didn't understand science well (because it is REALLY under-valued K to 6; I hear it is great in the MS). So, the 9th grade class is a catch-up to get kids up to speed in science. However, the solution to weak science skills in 9th is NOT to weaken our HS science ... it should be to beef up earlier science!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Larry - as I've noted before, Amherst likes to be unique ... prides itself on doing ELL like no one else in the country, doing 9th grade science like no one else, and yes, like doing the Vagina Monologues like no one else! There are probably great things about being unique in many ways (e.g., I am writing this post in Alabama where I am with family for Thanksgiving, and I'm feeling thankful that my kids live in a state in which gay marriage is legal!). There are probably other ways in which being unique (in a public school system) is not so great.

Anonymous 5:13 - I've asked probably 10 times for such a report -- at SC meetings, of superintendents (now several), etc. It isn't going to happen unless we elect people to SC who want it to happen. I will ask for it again, but I'm pretty sure I don't have a majority support on the board for such a review. If you care about a report, I'd email the whole SC and the superintendent and ask for it. I certainly share your belief that it is important to learn if the new course IS actually better. But I seem to be alone in this belief (or largely alone) in terms of other SC members.

Rick - two quick things:

1. The process does matter, and the process used in this case sucked. I went through old SC minutes, and the course was first announced (not through an announcement to parents but just at an SC meeting) in November of 2007, and was then voted on in January of 2008. So, it was literally less than TWO months between the announcement of this course and the adoption of this major change. There was not a single forum in which parents could ask questions, and the district never sent out any announcement (email, voicemail, letter) to parents announcing the proposed change. This process had led to a very, very bad feeling about decision-making in our district that still influences many parents' feelings.

2. I don't think the name matters at all. I think what matters is what the course PREPARES you to do. So, the old honors biology class prepared students to take the SAT-II in biology. The new ecology class doesn't. The old biology class gave you a year of biology that would then enable you to take AP chemistry (if we had it). The new ecology class doesn't. The new ecology/environmental science class isn't a core science class, and thus doesn't prepare you to take an MCAS or SAT II test in any field, nor does it allow you to move into some next class (as biology would). This is a problem, and it is pretty easy to tell that it is a uniquely Amherst problem (see my next blog posting on science across districts). I do notice in your list of 9th grade classes that environmental science appears (which district is this in, and is it offered or required), and that ecology does not. Again, we are unique. I don't think that is good.

Joel (at 6:18) - exactly -- the new course is a required DELAY to taking other science classes for students who used to be able to take biology. That is a big thing.

Why Not Have It All - this point (making the new class the 8th grade class) was suggested at the meeting in January 2008 at which the new curriculum was adopted. I have no idea why, as this seems like a great idea.

Anonymous 7:39 - yes, the course was modified ... thereby meaning that students who move to Amherst as sophomores and haven't had ecology (or those who were in charter/private school and come back) are having a very weird biology class. Yet another problem with this curriculum, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I would like to comment on the college admission debate. As I have stated before on this blog I worked in college admissions and college counseling for 30+ years and am currently working as an independent college advisor. In terms of AP classes and admission to elite institutions AP courses do indeed matter (unless you are places like Phillips Exeter or Deerfield a who can get away with offering no courses labeled AP
based on recognized level of rigor. Many Ivy level and Ivy type institutions ask on their application or supplement or guidance counselor recommendation form the number of AP classes offered at the school and the number the student has taken. When I worked at a competitive independent high school and would have conversations with college admissions officers they would often point to the difference between students who were competitive and those who were less competitive based on rigor of curriculum. One note of iclrification however is that very few colleges use the AP exam as an entrance exam (only schools like Middlebury and Hamilton which allow you to replace your SAT II score requirement with the Ap exam) so ironically although very important the scores are NOT part of the college entrance process. So AP classes are indeed important HOWEVER students with top grades and scores and many AP classes will not be admitted if that is all they bring to the table. They also need to show they will be contributing members of the community. Every year I had conversations with officers at Harvard and Yale about the fact they could fill their class with students who rank #1 in the class with perfect scores but they do not....many of those studentss are denied and others with slightly lower academic credentials are offered admission because they had the lead in the school play, captain of a sports team, volunteered in a soup kitchen, wrote an original piece of music (and I mean done all this!) so as I said before I am equally worried about the future for our students if all these extras are lost. So adding AP Chemistry and taking away all the extra will do nothing to make student more admissible....would make them better informed Chemistry students for sure. My professional opinion and I have no affiliation with the Amherst Public Schools.

Jan Kelly

Joel said...

I agree with Jan completely. Kids were near perfect SATs, perfect GPAs, and lots of APs who don't do anything else will have a tough time getting into the best schools.

We have to make sure the kids at our HS have opportunities in the building and beyond to take the most rigorous classes *and* participate in meaningful extra-curricular activities.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Jan and Joel. We somehow must figure out how to offer as much as possible in rigorous academic course offerings AND music, art, sports, etc in a time of severe budget constraints.

Fed Up Parent said...

Yes, our kids need to be well-rounded but the bottom line is that they can pick up the "extras" outside of school, even if their parents don't have extra money. Volunteering in the community is free and is one of the top things good colleges look for (this is my field). We are also lucky to have LSSE which offers many sports and class offerings for kids with reduced fees for lower income families. I think it is important for us to continue to offer athletics and extracurriculars at ARHS but they should come only after the core academics. Nowhere else can students take AP Biology, for example.

Also, the thought that we cannot continue to cut teachers yet add to our science curriculum just is not true. We could cut by 50% our consumer science offerings, as an example, and use that money instead to hire science teachers. I doubt that "textiles" or "cooking" will make or break anyone's chances of getting into college.

Anonymous said...

As a reader and non-poster on this blog...One question, I agree we have to offer course that help students get into colleges and for some the "elite" colleges" but how about the student who is not going to college and cannot afford or get into the "elite" colleges...we still have to meet their needs...

Anonymous said...

A good solid academic background benefits all students, whether or not they go on to college right after high school. Many kids who don't go right to college do go for a degree later on in life.

Anonymous said...

Almost every kid that graduates from ARPS goes to college.

Anonymous said...

That may be true, but some kids may need that cooking class as the bright spot in the day to stick with the program. It may even develope an interest in the field. It certainly helped my child.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher and an atheist, and I will never pledge anything "under God". The pledge is a stupid form of indoctrination antiquated and outdated, have parent volunteers come in and say it if they're so keen to make sure their kids are being brain-washed. I am sure that no parent would show up, because they have better things to do, and guess what, so do teachers.

Anonymous said...

Dear annonymous teacher November 26, 2009 3:47 AM: Thank you for reminding me why I moved my kids out of the public schools here.
Ali Burrow

Anonymous said...

Ali, if you wouldn't mind sharing, where do your kids go now? Have they had a good experience? We are looking to leave too. We keep hoping things will change in Amherst but I don't think that will happen.

Anonymous said...

Annonymous November 27, 2009 7:01 AM: One goes to Deerfield Academy and the other to The Kent School. Both are on scholarships. Don't underestimate your ability to apply for and receive scholarships at these schools. They are very generous. Ali

lise said...

My daughters go to Deerfield with Ali's son. I believe there are four Amherst seniors graduating from DA this year. However, there are more than twice that number in the sophomore class. Don't know if it is a trend....but may be a reflection of a growing dissatisfaction.

Anonymous said...

Ali and Lise...thank you so much! I never thought we could afford Deerfield but maybe it is worth looking into. I imagine with that many kids from Amehrst there, there must be some sort of carpool as well? Or do your kids board? It is difficult being a day student at a boarding school? I really appreciate your willingness to share your experience.

lise said...

Anon 8:43

Happy to share our experience, but probably best off-line. My email: