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 12, 2009

The rest of the Crocker Farm story

Amherst Bulletin
Published on November 13, 2009

In an article published in the Bulletin on Nov. 6, data was presented about Crocker Farm's relative performance on the statewide MCAS exam last year. Is this data the whole story? No, it is not.

A more comprehensive look at the data tells a significantly different story. Instead of looking at the aggregate performance of our elementary schools, which have been well-publicized for having disparate populations of students, it is more useful to look at the subgroups and compare their achievement. When this analysis is done, Crocker Farm's scores are above the district average in some areas (for instance, special education students in math and white students in English/Language Arts, among others) and below the district average in some other areas. This increasingly complex picture may be more challenging to report but that makes it no less relevant when a comparison of how our schools are doing is published. Are we at Crocker Farm content with our results? No, we are not.

That is why we are working hard to improve the achievement of every single student in our school. For instance, we worked with the national literacy organization LitLife last spring to develop a coherent, rigorous and consistent reading curriculum in each grade level in our school, which is being implemented this year. We are addressing the performance of last year's fourth-grade students (referenced in the article last week) by increasing the number of "sections" in math at this grade level, so that every student is taught in a small group (the largest section is 11, with an average group size of less than eight).

Like the other schools in the district, we have started an Achievement Academy, with more than 30 upper-grade students receiving additional support after school three days a week. All students who did not receive a proficient or advanced score on the MCAS exam in mathematics last spring are receiving 90 minutes of daily math instruction, which is significantly more than we have offered in the past. We have a group of teachers meeting monthly to participate in the cutting-edge "Instructional Rounds" process, observing each other to identify and consistently implement the best instructional practices. A Crocker Farm teacher won an "Emerging Teacher-Leaders in Elementary School Mathematics" grant from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and is organizing professional development for our staff to improve expertise in specific mathematics content aligned with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Six of our teachers will be trained this year in the Renzulli Differentiation System, a tool used to ensure that all students are challenged in the classroom. Yet, are MCAS scores the only thing driving our work with children? No, they are not.

We care about the whole child, as it is our belief that we want our students to have a wide range of experiences consistent with their intellectual and social development. That is why we are expanding last year's pilot program, Wednesday Enrichment Clubs, to include more weeks this year. That is why when budget cuts forced a delay in our students' opportunity to start instrumental music instruction in school, we started a program in the classroom music setting in which our third-grade students learn to play recorders, so they wouldn't have to wait until fourth grade to learn to play an instrument in school.

That is why our staff puts in incredible amounts of time to work with students to create talent shows and other school-wide performances and assemblies where our students shine. Is there another side to the Crocker Farm story? Absolutely.

I am proud of our school and how hard we work every day to improve and enrich the educational experiences of our students.

Michael Morris is the principal of Crocker Farm Elementary School.


lise said...

I find this letter incredibly reassuring. This is the first time in my three years in Amherst that I recall a school teacher or administrator admitting that there may be a need to do things better or differently. Usually the response has been only defense of the current practice, and of a teacher’s right to teach what they personally believe should be taught. That opening admission, followed by a plan that examines and improves curriculum, provides specific assistance to struggling students, and focuses on differentiated learning and alignment of the curriculum. Wow! I am optimistic that these programs will make a tremendous difference at Crocker Farm.

Rick said...

I agree. We have really fantastic and dedicated people in our schools, like Mike Morris. If they can just be open minded to the idea that maybe they can do some things differently/better, as Mike is, all will be well. No matter how good you think you are, you should always be examining how you can be better.

I also liked how the discussion is moved to specific areas (”…it is more useful to look at the subgroups and compare their achievement”). Where a school has problems, it’s never across the board; it’s always some specific areas that need improving. That is the way we should be thinking.

The Achievement Academy sounds really great – I saw a presentation about it at an SC meeting a while back. I can’t find anything about it on the ARPS website (unless I missed it); I just requested that they post something on it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article Mike. Crocker Farm is doing some great things, but at the end of the day, many parents will look at test scores to determine whether or not they will send their child to Crocker Farm. There are many families in South Amherst who have opted out of Crocker because of the test scores and the "poor school" reputation that CF has in the community. These families have sought out private schools or Charter Schools as an alternative. Perhaps redistricting will help this situation, but if talk on the playground is any indication, many parents are not convinced that redistricting will help to change CF enough for them to want to send their children their. This is unfortunate as these are the children who would likely help to increase test scores at CF.......Please continue to keep us informed about all of the great things happening at CF.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity - while you all discuss this stuff in your heady ways, without actually being in the schools, in the trenches....has anyone on the school committee checked with any of the pricipals to see how they are feeling about all of the changes happening to their schools, and with the new leadership? Were they consulted about the redistricting, the Achievement Academy, the ELL situation? Do we value their education, experience and knowledge? Anyone care whether we keep good people in these positions? If you don't care - you should make that clear. These are the people who are with our kids all day every day. Someone might want to ask them what they think, because other than Mike's letter to the newspaper, I have not seen or heard of a single principal's comment on any of this. I find the silence both interesting and worrisome.

Anonymous said...

My child attends Crocker Farm, and if things don't improve drastically over the next 18 months, she'll be going elsewhere. I think it is a very positive thing that we haven't heard about how the Principal's are feeling as their feelings are irrelevant to the big picture. Bottom line is that things need to improve drastically at CF. If test scores do not improve, enrollment will continue to decline as parent's seek out alternatives. I'm pleased that the School Committee and Superintendent were able to forge ahead and make many important changes, based on the facts, not on feelings. Bravo!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Lise - I share your admiration for this piece -- and I think it speaks to what a great leader Mike Morris is.

Rick - Mike is a great principal -- I agree. However, I share Lise's view that this type of openness to how we might be better is somewhat unusual in our schools. I hope this type of openness can indeed be commonplace in our district.

Anonymous 1:52 - I think CF will be a very different school next year, and a school with higher test scores and a larger (and less poor) population. I believe within 2 or 3 years, we will have 3 excellent elementary schools and I'm hopeful that more families will then opt for the public schools.

Anonymous 12:02 - let me respond in my typical "heady way" -- the SC supervises the superintendent. We do NOT supervise the principals, nor do we consult with them (this is a violation of the chain of command). The principals share their views with the superintendent, who then forms his own opinion (as occurs each year with the budget process).

However, I'm surprised that you are surprised by the silence from the principals -- given the accusations of racism/classism, intense anger, etc., I would have found it surprising for principals to speak out in support of redistricting publicly and risk ire of parents in their school. And although you may see their public silence as worrisome, remember that two of the four principals (Mike Morris, Ray Sharick) were on a committee two years ago that examined issues of equity, and that committee formed the opinion that having such inequity in our schools in terms of income was BAD.

Anonymous 12:27 - well said - -thanks! And as a member of SC, I very much believe that things WILL improve at CF over the next 18 months -- you can hold me to that.

Anonymous said...


You may want to put aside your heady ways for a moment, and try to read between the lines. Maybe there are some problems.