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, December 10, 2009

Opinion: Outcome-driven decisions

Amherst Bulletin
Published on December 11, 2009

At entry to kindergarten children differ widely in academic preparation, in part because of differential access to enriching early education programs. Such gaps evolve with age, as families use resources to support children in ways that tend to widen differences and schools devote resources to academic support to lessen these differences. By the time students arrive in middle and high school there is substantial variation in proficiency and interest in various subjects. Such differences present a considerable challenge for schools and teachers in their efforts to differentiate education in ways that intellectually engage and challenge all children.

One option is to group students in classrooms on the basis of skills, thereby narrowing the range that teachers must address in a single class. Such grouping tailors the level and pace of the curriculum on the basis of academic preparation, but it also evokes concerns about potential adverse effects on self esteem and academic progress for children assigned to lower levels and/or the fairness of the mechanism used to group students.

An alternative approach is to maintain heterogeneous classrooms but attempt to differentiate instruction based on academic preparation. Although this avoids the need to determine which class is appropriate for each child, it also places substantial demands on teachers who must teach at multiple levels or risk losing some portion of students by either progressing too quickly or too slowly.

Although the Amherst schools use both approaches to differentiate instruction, compared to other Minority Student Achievement Network districts our middle and high schools are much more likely to maintain heterogeneous classrooms. For example, there are no separate honors or AP English classes in the high school, and there is no longer a separate honors seventh-grade mathematics course. Moreover, differentiated instruction in our schools often appears to mean simply providing students with more challenging work to complete outside of the classroom in the form of homework, which may disadvantage those with fewer home resources and less encouragement to voluntarily complete the extra work.

Several factors have likely contributed to the growing commitment to heterogeneous classrooms in our schools, including the belief that grouping harms students assigned to the non-honors classrooms and concerns about fairness based in part on the disproportionate share of low-income children and children of color who have historically been assigned to such classes. These are strong arguments against grouping by academic proficiency, but a fundamental issue remains as to how this approach affects the academic achievement and intellectual engagement of all children.

Despite our rather unique approach to differentiated instruction, we have not systematically evaluated the effects of our methods for serving students with varying levels of preparation, meaning that we have little basis on which to judge the advantages and drawbacks. This includes the reliance on students taking the initiative to complete additional work outside of the classroom rather than being selected (by some combination of testing and teacher recommendation) to receive a more challenging level of instruction during the school day, which in some cases is necessary to qualify for honors-level classes in a subsequent grade. Although it avoids explicit grouping, our approach may disadvantage students under less pressure from parents or peers to push themselves academically or students and parents who are less well informed about curricular options.

As budget shortfalls lead to larger classes that likely make it more difficult to reach children at different levels of proficiency, we believe that it is more important than ever to evaluate rigorously the effectiveness of heterogeneous classes. All our children deserve an intellectually engaging and supported education in all subjects. Moreover, the absence of grouping, although ideologically appealing to some, does not necessarily lead to improved academic outcomes for struggling students or reduced racial or income achievement gaps. It is student outcomes rather than the appeal of specific types of structures upon which we should judge our schools.

Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are Amherst College professors.


Anonymous said...

At least Catherine and Steve finally came out and said they are in favor of tracking. They equivocated somewhat, but its pretty clear.

So now in Catherine and Steve's squishy model of tracking the question becomes: which class is right for my child? The "smart" class, the "normal" class, or the "dumb" class? Who will make the judgement as to which class it is? How much influence will priviledged families have in putting their thumbs on the scales with their phone calls and meetings with the principal when everyone else is at work? It sure sounds like thats where Catherine and Steve want the schools to go.

Consider: what if my "dumb" kid wants to work her way up to the "smart" class? How is that going to happen? Expensive tutors? Lots of extra homework outside of school? Isn't this the argument made against heterogeneous grouping? Catherine and Steve's twisted logic is truly head-spinning.

Fed Up Parent said...

I disagree; I think we already have tracking! According to the budget materials provided by Mike Hayes, we offer a math class at ARMS called Math Plus. This is apparently for kids who are struggling in math. For those are concerned with the self-esteem of kids who might be behind in math and so we shouldn't put them in a "low track" class, how do you then justify putting them in Math Plus?? Also, we have things like the alternative high schools. If that isn't a "low track," I don't know what is!! And in that case, it dooms the kids to ALL low track classes since they are separated from the rest of the high school kids and classes all day every day.

In my high school, we had three tracks and kids entered and left those tracks fairly easily, with the exception of math (where it was hard to enter the honors track because the courses came in sequence, but if you really wanted to, you could double up to try to catch up). You could also pick and choose which honors classes you wanted to be in. Some of the kids in AP physics were actually in the lowest level English classes!

Our current system basically just reduces the tracking at the higher end of the achievement scale, apparently so no one who is not in an honors class doesn't feel bad. So if your child wants/needs more challenge, they are going to have to do extra work (extensions or challenge projects) but get no support for them. The heterogenous English classes in the high school require the "honors" kids to do an "extra project" for the trimester but they read the same books as the rest of the class and participate in discussions at the same level. They don't even have differentiated "reading groups" like they do in elementary school.

So let's stop fooling ourselves. We do have tracking and specialized programs and instruction for some of our kids but only kids at the lower end of the achievement scale. How is that equitable?

Anonymous said...

Fed Up Parent said: "Also, we have things like the alternative high schools. If that isn't a "low track," I don't know what is!!"

I think the think that bothers me the most about this blog is the amount of posters who talk about things they no nothing about. The South Amherst Campus (one of the alternative high schools) is not a "low track" program. It is exactly as the name implies - an alternative high school. A school for kids who for whatever reason have a hard time learning in the large high school building. It is by no means a low track and the students there are by no means necessarily less capable than their counterparts at the regular high school.

As I have posted on this blog in the past, my son attended the SAC program for 2.5 years. He was floundering at the regular school and one of his teachers stepped up and said, we need to help this kid. And so, instead of dropping out, he ended up at the SAC. And flourished there and graduated. After taking several years off from structured education he decided to go back to school. He is now a straight A student and the University of North Carolina double majoring in history and political science.

I find this blog valuable in many ways. But I do wish people would stop making statements about things they know nothing about.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 6:30AM

Couldn't agree with you more! The inherent, uninformed bias underlying many of the comments in this blog is astounding.

Anonymous said...

Hey Fed Up Parent

Please allow me to explain one thing. Math Plus is an extra support class for students who are struggling in math. These students are ALL in regular heterogeneous math classes where they are exposed to the entire differentiated curriculum. Math Plus provides these students with pre-teaching, extra help, remediation, and support so they may do better, and feel more successful, in their regular math class.

It is known as "double-dipping" when a student is in a regular class and also is given a smaller, more specialized support class.
Math Plus is offered two days a week, to add to the regular five days of heterogeneous math.

Hope that helpsexplian why Math Plus is not an example of tracking.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:52
If there are kids who do homework and show motivation and drive to move to a higher group those options should be available. One thing we do have in the Amherst schools is a huge number of talented engaged teachers who want to help each child succeed regardless of their families income or status.

The reality is that children who come from homes where education is not valued are unlikely to feel a drive to get into a higher level math class. But shouldn't that option be available to them? I think so! I think it should be available to all kids.

Finally, the flip side of not having tracking or differentiated learning is that the whole class has to sit through a lesson repeatedly until every child gets it. This is such a disservice to children who are capable of more and stressful and frustrating for the children who need to move at a slower pace.

I always struggled in math and was so grateful as a child that I got to be in the lower math group so that I didn't have to feel like the dumb kid and got to move at a pace that was comfortable to me. I still learned math and went on to a successful career so I don't think it had any detriment to my adult life.

jm said...

All through ARHS high school there are two and three levels of courses -- except English. Isn't this tracking? Having a regular, honors and AP level course is common at our high school -- and in most high schools. Why can our high school and other high schools get away with this without fear of a lawsuit?

Why is it that when the ARHS science, history and math departments divide courses by difficulty levels it is not called tracking but when parents want middle school math to be taught by level of difficulty it is called tracking?

Can anyone think logically about this?

And where is the proof that any of these configurations do or do not work? Are our kids doing so much better in English than kids at these other schools?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 7:48

Thank you for the information on the Math Plus program.

When is Math Plus offered? If a student is attending a Math Plus class are they missing another subject?

Is this "double dipping" approach taken only in Math or is it available in other core subject areas?

To what extent is Math Plus replacing the need for students to visit with teachers for extra help after the school day?

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:39

I think these answers are correct:

Math Plus is every other day, so a two or three times a week. It must be on a student's schedule instead of something. Since it can't replace a required core subject, or something else required like Health or PE, it muct be instead of a "choice" class like music or language, I believe.

Double dipping is also an option in the english program (where classes are also heterogeneous). I think this extra support class is called Reading Writing Workshop. Probably not a coincidence that the two classes with extra support available are the two areas that MCAS tests.

The answer to your third question must vary for each student. Some probably attend Math Plus and then also go to see teachers after school. Some may do one or the other. The Math Plus teacher prepares their own work to help their students succeed, and it can't necessarily replace the work (like correcting assignments)that a student might do after school with their regular classroom teacher.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:52 - I think you and I see education in very different ways. It is clear from your comment that you are opposed to tracking because it doesn't fit with your ideology -- that tracking just feels wrong, and so you are opposed to it (and this is a relatively common belief in our town and in our schools). For me, the thing that matters isn't ideology, it is education -- I believe we must be educating all kids to achieve to the best of their ability. Then, the question for me is how do we best do that? It is very clear that for teachers, teaching in a heterogeneous room is harder -- and that gets even harder with more students (a point made by Principal Mike Hayes at the SC meeting last week). So, in a heterogeneous room, teachers probably need to point to the middle -- that means they are losing some kids (who don't get the help they need) and boring some kids. Does that feel right to you?

It is clear now that we have tracking -- in the middle school and high school. It is just tracking by choice -- and do you think parental income and parental education influences this? Of course! It sounds like from your post that you don't like tracking because you feel that "priviledged families" will have their kids in higher tracks -- you should be aware that those are precisely the kids/families who right now are choosing the higher tracks of extensions and honors English. And they are indeed doing lots of extra homework outside of school, with help from parental and paid tutors. You just don't want the teachers/test scores to suggest kids for particular tracks, because you believe parent choice is a better way of tracking?

One more thing: we believe tracking is bad and thus have hetereogenous 7th grade math, and 8th grade tracked math which is algebra (higher class) and pre-algebra (lower class) -- meaning about 65% of our kids take pre-algebra and only about 35% of our kids take algebra. In Princeton, NJ (another MSAN school, and the middle school I attended), there is tracked math as of 6th grade (so, this would be bad, since it is tracked). But in Princeton, the "dumb class" (I'm using your words here) takes pre-algebra in 6th, 1/2 year of algebra in 7th, and the other half year of algebra in 8th (the "smart class" finished algebra in 7th and algebra II in 8th). So, Princeton tracks, and so we definitely wouldn't want that system .... even though ALL their kids all take algebra in 8th and thus can take geometry in 9th. This to me suggests that their tracking is leading more kids to learn more math -- which strikes me as very good educationally (though not, of course, ideologically).

It is easy to throw out anonymous attacks on a blog -- with accusations of "twisted logic" -- but that isn't helpful for improving education. The key thing is whether our unique system of heterogenous grouping is good for kids' education? What evidence do you have that this is a better approach?

Fed Up Parent - we certainly have tracking -- even in 7th grade, about 1 or 2% of kids skip 7th grade math altogether and take 8th grade honors algebra. We also have many ways of helping lower achieving students (e.g., math plus) -- but far fewer ways of providing instruction to kids who are at the high end (except for assigning extra homework).

I also think you raise an excellent point about all kids doing better in some areas than others -- it is not the case of having kids in a "smart track" and a "dumb track." There are kids who are really good at science, so we let them be in a separate class in high school. We do the same in social studies and math. But for some reason, we believe all kids learn English equally well in a heterogenous group? I don't understand that -- and it isn't seen in other districts.

Again, if we are truly committed to every child, every day, we need to make sure that our unique programs work for all kids educationally, not just ideologically.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 6:30 - thank you for clarifying the alternative high school programs. I don't know a lot about these programs, and I'm sure others on this blog don't either, so thanks for helping to clarify.

Anonymous 6:48 - so, it is good when people like Anonymous 6:30 clarify misinformation.

Anonymous 7:48 - thank you for clarifying the Math Plus program. To be clear, however, this is an opportunity for some kids to get extra instruction who are struggling -- we do not have a Math Challenge program for kids who are in regular math and want some help from a teacher in advancing more, right? I think the point of Fed Up Parent was that we are quite comfortable giving low achieving kids extra support, but that help doesn't extend to all kids (e.g., those who might be bored in their regular class).

Anonymous 8:19 - I think you make a number of very good points. All kids should be challenged to succeed at the highest levels -- and there should certainly be movement within different levels. It may be that math comes easier to some kids than others, and there isn't anything wrong with that -- nor does that have to be a permanent state. The question is just how well can teachers accomplish teaching 25 kids at very different math levels (e.g., those who need math plus and those who are doing extensions largely on their own)? Is that the best way to teach math, when we don't see this approach used in other districts?

JM - I think we mostly have two levels of classes (regular and honors) in the high school -- there are a few AP classes, but in those areas, there isn't really the honors option (so it is just regular or AP).

But yes, why do we think that English should be taught in a different way than other subjects in the high school, and what evidence do we have that our approach is better than that used in other districts? And why do we believe that our approach to allowing parents to choose whether kids do 7th grade extensions is better than tracking by 6th grade math scores and teacher recommendations?

Again, I see such a focus on ideology -- and no focus on data or evidence or comparisons.

Smarter than Catherine said...

Catherine wrote:

"For me, the thing that matters isn't ideology"

It should be obvious by now to most that Catherine is very ideologically driven.

She has, cleverly, managed time and again to couch her own ideological agenda, (which is to alter the structure of the Amherst schools so that they better cater to the wants and percieved needs of the most privledged members of the community) in terms of serving "everyone".

Then she repeatedly calls for surveys, data, and so forth so as to actualize her agenda- which is to further empower the elites, while offering the underpriviledged nothing more than some very slick lip service.

Some small examples of data dis-regarded by Catherine that do not serve to further her agenda are: the outcome of the Middle School Survey. That dissapeared into the ether, what did that show? And the fact that Northampton passed an override last year to maintain their schools? No mention made of that here. Why? What does THAT say about Northampton's schools vs Amherst's?

What there is, is a persistent attempt to push Amherst schools into the realm of what is claimed to be the "average". And Catherine's claims of what is average is cherry picked data- how can it not be when its a school here, a school there counter-example to the Amherst educational exerience?

What does all this add up to? A sophistic smoke screen where Catherine's ideologcal arguments become very difficult to refute.

I urge individuals and especially the media (I'm talking to YOU Amherst Bulletin) to stop viewing the schools through the lens of this blog, for the vision it offers is a calculatedly distorted one.

Joel said...

Dear "Smarter than Catherine,"

I must confess that you are also smarter than I because I couldn't follow your argument at all.

To me, the problem with heterogeneous classrooms is that there's no way to speak to the needs of all the kids. I think Catherine made this point.

I assume from your comments that you're concerned with the kids who are having the hardest time with certain academic subjects and you think Catherine and people like me are only interested in high achieving kids. I think you're missing the point -- which is weird because you're so smart.

How can a single teacher teach Math or English to a single room of kids who are all over the learning spectrum. I think the comment about ideology is that if we step back from buzz words like tracking and simply start putting kids in classes that best serve them then we'll be providing the best possible education for all the kids. I agree that hard and fast tracks that don't allow kids to move among the levels according to their performance is wrong, but that's not what's being proposed.

The single best analogy I can give you is language study. The ultimate non-tracked, heterogeneous method is to teach "Spanish." Just call it Spanish. Sure, some kids have no idea how to even say "good day," and others need a tune-up on using the future subjunctive, but we wouldn't want to track them into levels, such as beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

Another way to look at tracked math is to have different levels for different kids with different skill sets.

What exactly is wrong with that?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 8:39 - Math Plus students are indeed pulled from their other classes (typically music, I believe) -- and I know of math plus kids who are very sad to miss music in order to have extra math! This to me speaks to whether having an intensive (smaller) math section to build core math skills would be a better choice than having some kids have extra math (and less music). I'd like to know how other districts have made this choice.

Anonymous 9:09 - good answer re. Math Plus. Thanks.

Smarter than Catherine - although your post is rude, hostile, and anonymous, I'm still going to respond with respect! Here's my ideology -- all kids are smart and have the capability of doing great things academically IF they are taught. That's it.

Your ideology seems to be that anything I want has to by definition be good for "priviledged kids" and bad for other kids. Does this mean that you think only priviledged kids would be able to take AP chemistry (would that be the criteria used)? Or do you think that only priviledged kids should take 8th grade algebra (unlike all kids in Princeton)? Or do you think a tracking by parental choice system is BETTER for all kids than tracking by test scores and teacher recommendations? I guess I'm confused -- because I think our system right now is great for priviledged kids -- even if my priviledged kids can't place into an honors 8th grade class based on scores, I can hire a tutor (which is easy for me, since I'm a college professor and know a lot of students who are great at math) to work with my kids in 7th grade so they can take this class. Seems like our current system works very well for priviledged kids -- do you disagree?

I have called for data -- that seems important. Do you disagree? A lot of schools with similar populations as ours do better in terms of course offerings and % who take algebra in 8th grade. Do you believe kids in Amherst are dumber? Yes, you have figured out my agenda -- to make the Amherst system more rigorous for all kids. I guess you and I disagree about who benefits from rigor -- I believe ALL kids (even the "non-priviledged ones") benefit from rigor and challenge ... you seem to believe that non-priviledged kids don't need/want/aren't able to handle more rigor, which I frankly find offensive.

The middle school survey data showed that many more parents believe the school lacks challenge than believed the school is too challenging -- I'll do a blog posting on this topic sometime this weekend to satisfy your curiosity (sorry that I haven't gotten around to this sooner, as part of my volunteer job to make the schools work for only the priviledged kids).

I think that Northampton passed an override last year because they have schools that are committed to rigor and challenge for all kids -- including tracked 7th grade math, required biology for 9th grade students and the presence of AP chemistry and AP statistics in those schools (I guess the Northampton schools are designed only for the priviledged, right?).

Finally, you say I "cherry picked data". So, post (anonymously) a list of schools on this blog that either (a) teach heterogeneous AP English classes, (b) require 9th grade ecology, and/or (c) require extra homework in 7th grade to get into 8th grade algebra. You can cherry pick the districts all you want - I look forward to seeing the list you come up with to show that my data is just not representative of the norm. Thanks!

Joel - thank you. Well said. Of course, I'm sure you will be accused of just siding with the priviledged. It is much easier to just attack on ideology than on ideas.

Anonymous said...

There's a mindset in this town that is about as evolved as an idealistic teenager. Somehow the idea has got to get thru to those of you who don't want differentiated classes for different abilities. Why is that so hard to get? In athletics you have club sports, JV, and Varsity. Why would academics be any different?

Joel said...

Yes, I made the sport analogy a few days ago. It was dismissed out of hand. But, it is apt.

Rick said...

Let’s start with the goal: to get kids to as high a level of competency as their natural abilities will allow.

For kids will lots of ability that means providing the maximum challenge they can handle. For kids of lesser ability it also means offering challenge – sometimes the same challenge - but also providing the extra boost they may need to kick them up to the level of higher achievers where possible.

Whether that can be done with kids all in the same room or not depends. We do that in Kindergarten, but we don’t do it in AP Calculus. Somewhere in between those two extremes lies 7th and 8th grade math and perhaps ARHS humanities classes (where all might learn more by having all types of kids represented in the room).

I am fine with separate classes in situations where that makes sense – advanced math classes certainly being one of them. What I am not fine with is looking into an honors math class and seeing all white faces then looking into the regular math class next door and seeing many faces of color.

Why is that?

Nobody would ever complain about tracking if we could deal with that problem – but we don't.

Anonymous said...

"What I am not fine with is looking into an honors math class and seeing all white faces then looking into the regular math class next door and seeing many faces of color."

Bravo, Rick!
THAT is the reality of what happens with tracking. And having one or two students of color in that honors math class does NOT fix the problem. I still would like someone to address what a low-tracked class looks like. Students end up there for many different reasons, many of which do not have to do with ability or intelligence. A high-tracked class begets, of necessity, a low-tracked class, and my guess is that most of the parents on this blog would NEVER want their children in such an environment. You simply cannot have one without the other.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Smarter than Catherine!

"She has, cleverly, managed time and again to couch her own ideological agenda, (which is to alter the structure of the Amherst schools so that they better cater to the wants and percieved needs of the most privledged members of the community) in terms of serving "everyone"."

My thoughts exactly...

Anonymous said...


The real discussion here is about tracking, and how you and Steve are speaking in favor of it. Personally, while I realize that heterogeneous grouping presents some challenges I prefer the equity of it, and the diversity of its occupants.

Especially because the students enter the middle school from many different schools and have varied opportunities and experiences, I think to assign them to tracks at that point in their education is problematic, and potentially unfair. If there is to be tracking at that level I definitely feel there should be choice involved, not assignment.

I am finding, though, some real contradictions and tired old arguments in some of what I am reading here, if I may comment.....

Catherine, you said:

"To be clear, however, this is an opportunity for some kids to get extra instruction who are struggling -- we do not have a Math Challenge program for kids who are in regular math and want some help from a teacher in advancing more,

Ironically, there IS just such a challenge program for advanced 7th graders. it is called EXTENSIONS and you have spent a great deal of time complaining about it. In fact it is the advanced curriculum being offered in the heterogeneous setting that is now how math is programmed in 7th grade classrooms. I understand that the biggest sin of extensions is that they exist because the school does not track math classes in 7th grade, which is what you would prefer. But, given the way the classrooms are currently structured, as in heterogeneously, extensions seems to be exactly what you, and others seeking challenges for their kids, are asking for.

There is also an after school program for students looking for more challenge in Math and it is called Math Counts. Totally optional and open to all.

Another thing that is available for students is to come after school for help. Teachers give lots of extra time to ANY student who is challenged by their math work. This could be lower level students doing the regular work, or it could be upper achieving students who are finding the extensions challenging. I think that many of the extension students feel there is something wrong with coming after school for help. In fact if the extensions are doing their intended job of providing challenge, then coming after school could be a regular part of an extension students stigma needed!

By the way, please ask the parents that tell you they need to hire tutors for their extension kids, how many of them tried having their kids come after for help from the teacher. Are they so worried about their kids being seen after school getting help from a teacher generously offering their time, that they would rather hire a tutor??

Anonymous said...

Here is the rest of my post:

You complain that extensions are doing "extra" homework. First of all a student doing extensions can generally perform the regular work quickly and then they will do the extension level problems. (Actually, on some assignments, teachers do let the extension kids only do some of the regular problems as a trade for having extensions to do). It is very likely that the extension students spend the same amount of time on their work that the regular students do. In other words if each spends a half hour on their work, for some it might mean doing just regular problems and for others it is doing some regular problems and then extension problems, but they are spending the SAME AMOUNT of time on their work.

If there was a tracked advanced class in 7th grade those students would be doing the work you are now calling "extra". Being in an upper level class routinely means having harder and more work. I don't think you would complain if a student in a tracked advanced class had more work than a student in a lower level tracked class. So, the work experience is really the same for extension students as it would be in an advanced tracked class.

You complain that kids shouldn't be "required" to do extensions to qualify for honors algebra in 8th grade. I see that very differently. Extensions are an opportunity for exposure to the work that is required for that advanced course. If a students wants to ignore extensions all 7th grade and then is somehow able to demonstrate the mastery of the required material come June, more power to them. But it seems they should be appreciative of this opportunity to gain this knowledge and experience that will help them to meet their goal, rather than resenting it.

Recently you made an analogy that compared extensions to using leeches to cure cancer. In light of that, here is my analogy: Imagine in September that a soccer playing kid expresses interest in being on the advanced travel team the next fall. The coach says...well, you don't appear to have the skills to qualify for that, but over the next year i would be glad to show you what you need to know and help you to develop those skills. if you work with me throughout the year I think you will be ready to succeed at the tryout for that team come June. So, is it a bad thing to be offered that opportunity, or a good thing?

You have called extensions "self-directed". I suspect there are many teachers who are planning, implementing, teaching, and correcting the extension materials who would scratch their heads at that characterization.

You have complained about kids of color telling their peers that doing extensions is "being white". First of all, that type of pressure to under-perform is something that has been around for a long time and is not unique to extensions. As a matter of fact, don't you think that could be worse with tracked classes? Wouldn't one expect it to be said to be "white" to be in the advanced class if there were only white kids in the classroom? At least in a heterogeneous classroom there are kids of different colors, and anyone can do the extensions that wish to.

I guess a lot of what I am reading seems mis- informed, biased and even contradictory. I guess at least now you should focus on your agenda of returning tracking to the middle school, rather than complaining about extensions as they exist now, since their biggest negative point is clearly that they are designed for use in heterogeneous settings.

Smarter than Catherine said...

Catherine wrote

"Anything I want has to by definition be good for "priviledged kids" and bad for other kids."

That is exactly the point. And all the selective data chosen to support arguments to the contrary will continue to bump up against this hard truth.

Remember, the dissatisfaction of high powered priviledged parents was the genesis of ACE. ACE, through Catherine and now Steve, has since crafted a pussilanious public relations message that argues that it now works for "all" kids, but it, through Catherine and now Steve, still operates in the service of its core constituency in practice.

This is politics in perhaps its smallest scale. Catherine may not be the Governor, but she is still a politician. Criticism of Catherine's (and Steve's) philosophy is political speech, and as such it can be seen as rude, or, to the sensitive, even hostile! But it is honest. Unfortunately in our current highly charged debate on these matters it must be posted anonymously.

Ironically this is basically a simple disagreement about instructional methods driven by two different camps, those who practice education at the K-12 level and know how to serve every student best, and those who stand above and use their influence and power to get in the way.

In this writer's opinion, this commment board has mutated into a public discussion forum and no longer serves as a simple question and answer board for Catherine. As such it is a suitable place for postings of this nature.

In closing, blog postings by Smarter than Catherine are directed to the general readership of this blog. Smarter than Catherine has no expectation that anything H/She writes will change Catherine's motives or practices, and does not necessarily expect Catherine to respond to them, though if she does, she should not be surprised if Smarter than Catherine does not let the matter rest.

Politically yours,

Anonymous said...

Wow, you sound like a very, very bitter closed minded person. I am not one of the "privileged" people that you think she is aiming to help but I am hopeful that my child will have a better education because of the work the school committee is doing. I sure as heck dont have the education to understand most of the data but Im glad we have people who do, and are willing to share their time to do it. If you feel so strongly about your views by all means go run for the vacant seats and do something besides complain. Seriously.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 4:26 - I have no idea why the idea of different interests/abilities/skills is so offensive to people. And the hostility towards those who even suggest that our current system isn't perfect is surprising.

Joel (at 6:21) - I think the sports analogy is a good one. Agreed.

Rick - I agree with some of what you said, but two things. First, why is it good for students in English to be in a room with kids with different skills/proficiencies? I don't understand why that would be different from math/science. In fact, even the Amherst elementary schools group kids into reading group by ability ... I don't see what is magical about high school English that makes heterogeneous classes work better -- whereas social studies classes in high school are grouped? Also, the fact that we are uncomfortable with rooms of mostly white faces shouldn't mean we eliminate classes that more white kids tend to take -- it means we should figure out how to get more non-white kids in those classes! This is NOT a uniquely Amherst situation in any sense -- another way in which we could be learning from the experience of other districts, such as the MSAN districts (none of which have heterogenous AP English and extensions in 7th grade math).

Anonymous 8:25 - I am very confused by your post -- we have high and low tracked classes in most disciplines in the high school. Do you hear that the low track classes are bad? Poorly taught? That isn't what I hear. But all of the classes are college prep -- it is not a "low track" -- it is a "regular track" and a "faster or higher track" -- and I imagine kids from all backgrounds take some classes in each type of track. I was horrible at French in high school -- I took lower tracks of French. I was good at math -- I took higher tracks of math. Again, I'm not sure why we assume that the "regular class" provides such a horrible learning experience.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 9:58 - just answer one quick question for me (you can do so anonymously, don't worry) -- how does increasing the % of kids taking 8th grade algebra help the priviledged group, like me? The priviledged kids are already in 8th grade algebra. What could I possibly have to gain by helping more kids take this class (thereby making it less exclusive and selective for my kids alone)? I'd just like to understand why you think kids from all backgrounds wouldn't benefit from higher math achievement -- surely you don't believe that priviledged kids are smarter than other kids?

Anonymous 10:07 - I appreciate your attempt to use a more respectful tone ... and I actually think we agree on some key things. I think tracking without choice into 7th grade math would be a bad idea -- but I think creating a tracking "recommendaton" based on teacher recommendation and test scores would potentially help 7th grade teachers and students (as even Mike Hayes acknowledged -- teaching 25 kids in a mixed ability math class in 7th grade will be hard). I wonder if the grouping could be flexible -- e.g., kids who struggle with some concepts could be grouped together for a few weeks, and then the groups could shuffle when a new concept was taught (4th grade teachers did this a few years ago and I don't think kids or parents had any idea who was in the "smart group" at any point -- but I imagine it was done so teachers could really work on the math skills each kid needed).

In terms of extensions -- I think there is a big difference between offering a kid extra homework (and requiring that kid to stay afterschool to get necessary help) and TEACHING a kid during the classroom. Imagine if I said "let's just give those Math Plus kids a book and let them get caught up with math at home." That would seem silly -- but in a sense, that is what we are doing when we give kids extensions.

I don't care whether we use extensions or group or not -- what I care about is how we help the most kids achieve in math (and other disciplines, but we are now talking about math). So, one option (which I think you prefer) is teachers in a heterogeneous class teaching to the middle (which they just have to do) -- knowing that kids who struggle will get pulled out of music class for extra help and knowing that high achieving students can work on the extra homework by themselves for challenge. Maybe that works great.

Here's an alternative used in other districts: group kids into math classes by ability/proficiency (with some flexibility in terms of movement between groups within and across years) and have a teacher teach the kids what they need to know. So, higher achieving kids are taught the material (not afterschool or on their own, but in class), and lower achieving students are taught the material they need to know (not in a separate pull out program that interferes with other parts of the day).

Those are two alternatives -- and I think, as Steve and I point out in this article, that we should actually study the pros/cons of these in our district and others to make sure our system, which is certainly unique, is in fact better at teaching kids math than the approaches used in other districts.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me (continued):

For me, it isn't about the extra homework -- and yes, kids in a tracked math class in a higher level would also presumably have extra homework. It is about what is being taught in the school day, and thus, how kids experience their daily life in school -- I can't imagine it is easy for teachers to simultaneously teach to the wide range of proficiencies -- maybe you are a teacher and you believe this system works. But I hear that it doesn't always work particularly well (at least for some kids) -- again, I'm asking to study it, because is does seem unique. And yes, I believe that all kids (even advanced or high achieving kids) have the right to have a teacher teach them the material that they need to know. In our district (not just in MS math but in many areas), too often we say "well, smart kids can learn it on their own." And I don't think that is always true. I believe there are some kids NOW who aren't doing extensions who perhaps COULD do extensions if this material was fully taught in the classroom (not just at the end of the class for a few mintues). Again, I'd like to know whether our approach is BETTER than the approach used in other districts -- since it is so very, very different. Is that such a bad or offensive thing?

Smarter than Catherine (at 10:14) - two quick things (I'm hoping you can answer one of these, but perhaps you are still busy finding your list of districts that show we are the norm). First, you state that this is "basically a simple disagreement about instructional methods driven by two different camps, those who practice education at the K-12 level and know how to serve every student best, and those who stand above and use their influence and power to get in the way." I think what you meant to write was "those who practice education at the K-12 level in AMHERST and those who practice education in other districts in MA" right? Since my outrageous ideas are shared by virtually all districts in MA (tracking in 7th grade math, grouping kids in AP English). Or maybe your blog name should be "Smarter than Catherine AND all other teachers in MA outside of Amherst"? Second, are you a resident of Amherst? I hope so, since there are two seats open on SC this spring -- you would have to identify yourself, but since your views may well represent the norm (lets make all education decisions based on ideology instead of what helps kids achieve), you should win in a landslide.

Anonymous 11:16 - thanks for your kind remarks -- and I am trying as hard as I can to make the schools good for all kids, including your kid(s) and mine. I have the silly idea that ALL kids (priviledged and not) benefit from having an engaging and challenging curriculum that fosters academic achievement across all disciplines. And I share your belief that people who complain should run for SC and do something -- I used to simply complain myself (which was really a lot easier than being on SC and trying to make real change).

Anonymous said...

Who's smarter? Mrs. Smarter or Mrs. Smarter's baby? Mrs. Smarter's baby ... because it's a little Smarter. ;-P

Some of the smartest people I know, including students who graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from schools like Amherst College never feel the need to assert how smart they are because among other reasons, they know/they've met/ they're friends with people who are in certain ways smarter than they.

What does it say - to assert as part of a response to an article about improving Amherst Schools - that you are smarter then the author? To me it says the anger and distrust comes from insecurity about one's own ability to evaluate the data, reasoning and conclusions.

There's a fundamental fallacy in asserting or implying that because one is smarter that one is right on facts, reasoning or conclusions. "Smarter than catherine" reveals more about himself than he intends. The rude agressiveness and hostility in attacking Cathermine's motives and reasoning belies his own insecurities in avaluating the educational philosphy she has developed ... even as she shows her work for public scrutiny.

She is doing the work that we expect and demand of SC members and she is doing it as transparently as it can be done. She opens her data, reasoning and conclusions to public scrutiny in order to deliver the best result and to communicate the rationale behind the changes that will yield improvement in our kids educations.

.01 .01

Joel said...

Rick wrote:
"I am fine with separate classes in situations where that makes sense – advanced math classes certainly being one of them. What I am not fine with is looking into an honors math class and seeing all white faces then looking into the regular math class next door and seeing many faces of color."

I have to say, that comment really bothers me on several levels.

First, it seems Rick is saying that having some sort of tracking is pedagogically a good thing, but that he's uncomfortable with it only serving one population. So, he doesn't think we should have this sort of tracking.

That attitude from someone running for the SC is, if you'll excuse me, a bit crazy.

If something is pedagogically good, we should embrace it. We should pay extra money for it. All of us, especially someone who wants to be on the SC should argue and fight for better methods of educating our kids.

Rick's worry is that this good thing isn't equitably distributed, so his answer is to get rid of it or not have it. Hey, there are problems with the distribution of the H1N1 vaccine, should we just take it away from everyone? That strikes me as a very bad way to deal with inequitable distribution of a social good.

If there is a problem with the racial or class or gender make-up of certain classes I see that we have two choices: 1) make ourselves feel good politically and end those classes -- i.e., end perceived and real discrimination in one form of education by ending that form of education.

Or, 2) go to the root of the problem to fix it. I would be much more comfortable with an SC candidate saying I don't see enough of a certain student population in higher level classes. I want to know why that is. I want to get to the elementary schools to make sure we get those underrepresented groups into those classes.

I just find it fascinating and frankly disturbing that in order to feel better about one's politics someone would punish an entire group of students. Not having higher level classes because some groups are not in them, in fact, punishes the kids of all backgrounds who would thrive in the higher level classes. It takes something away from one group and doesn't even manage to give anything to the other. It's a lose-lose.

How does that make any sense?

Joel said...

To clarify my reaction to Rick, he doesn't explicitly say we shouldn't have tracking, but in this town any real or perceived evidence of racism is enough to kill something, so an SC candidate making the claim is pretty powerful stuff.

Isn't it odd that no one in Amherst ever seems to mention gender and gender-based achievement gaps. It's truly bizarre.

Class is invoked all the time, but usually without any knowledge of people's class standing or the complications of class in America.

But I stand by my point: Let's not throw around claims of racial bias to kill programs. And let's focus on fixing the root of problems instead of killing off programs so that we don't have to see the results of those root problems. That's too convenient and doesn't do anyone any good.

While it doesn't in any way improve education for anyone, it can assuage a guilty conscience. I just don't see how doing that is educationally sound.

Informed Voter said...

I couldn't agree with Joel more in his assessment of Rick's statement of "not wanting to see all white faces" in a hypothetical advanced high school class. That is racism pure and simple. How would the community react if the opposite was said? That he was not comfortable with seeing all brown faces in an advanced class?

I am tired of the continual focus on perceived race that divides us. Can we instead focus on the kids as kids? And if some kids (no matter what their color or gender or income) are not represented in some classes, can we not instead focus on figuring out why? Are they not interested? Not prepared? Not knowlegable that those classes even exist?

If Rick is interested in seeing non-white faces in advanced classes, how is the elimination of said classes going to make that happen? It won't. It will just eliminate the opportunity for all kids.

Just as Rick's publicly racist statement has eliminated any possibility that I will vote for him in the upcoming election.

Anonymous said...

Math Plus is NOT at all equivalent to extensions or Math Counts. Math Plus, according to Mike Hayes, is a separate class offered to students who are struggling in math. They get it on top of their regular math class. It is run by a teacher and there are 2-6 students in each class.

Math Counts is an after-school club that meets once a week (if they are lucky) with a teacher to work on challenging math problems.

Extensions are extra challenge questions offered on homework sets in seventh grade math. Depending on the teacher and the particular day, there may or may not be instruction on how to complete the extensions.

How would the community react if ARMS started offering a double-dipping class staffed by a teacher that was available only to kids who excelled in math? We could dedicate a teacher to teach 2-6 kids at a time in this extra class three times a week. Thus, kids who needed extra challenge would now be treated equally to the kids who needed extra help!

Wouldn't it just be simpler to start tracking math at least by seventh grade so all kids get exactly what they need within one math class per day?

Anonymous said...

I want to comment on tracking in math. I have spent my professional career working with students in the college admission process . Prior to moving to Amherst I worked as a college counselor/guidance counselor at a rigorous independent school. In my 30+ years of experience let me tell you that although movement between levelsl even AP classes in areas such as English Chemistry, Biology History was possible based on student progress, interest and achievement Movement from one track to a higher track in math NEVER happened and is basically impossible. If a student was not in the accelerated track therefore did not take ALG 1 in 8th grade (when it happened at this very rigorous private school) there was no way you could "skip it " to take Geometry in 9th which would put you on the track for two AP level CAlculus classes in jr sr year. Mathematics builds upon the year before. There was only one case when the administration allowed a student to try (parents were very insistent) and that student took eight weeks of summer school to try to cover the year long class they had missed, Needless to say it was disaster for that student as it is impossible to cover in eight weeks what is taught in a year. So lets not fool ourselves, in mathematics in particular once you are tracked you are tracked. I for one like the idea of allowing students one year to try to level the playing field in 7th grade given the weakness of our math curriculum (not our teachers but what they have to teach) in the elementary grades. My daughter would probably not have been in the accelerated class as she had been turned off to math since we moved to AMherst and she began to have difficulty with the way math was taught here (did not strugle before) She is however doing extensions (her decision not pressure from parents) . She started off thinking she could not handle this level math based on her past expereiences however she was encouraged my her math teacher to try as he felt she could. Who knows what will happen as the year progresses but for the first time she is not saying she can't do math or that she is not smart in math - for once no tears and math homework gets done first and eagerly. So hats off to Mr. Z-A for encouraging and challenging her. Maybe we have not lost yet another girl to the myth of not being able to do math. So whether you believe in tracking or not just keep your eyes math once you are accelerated you are accelerated and once you are not given that opportunity that door is most likely closed. Are we comfortable enough with the preparation all our students are getting from all our elementary schools to begin that tracking in 7th grade. Just one professionals opinion.

Jan Kelly

Anonymous said...

Let's get away from using non-white. It makes as much sense as calling women non-men or gays non-heterosexuals.

Caren Rotello said...


I completely agree with Joel and Informed Voter, and have now made up my mind that I will not support your run for SC. (Given similar disturbing remarks you've made in the past, I was leaning that way anyway.)

Despite our disparate views, I would like to say that I very much appreciate your openness on this blog. It has allowed me to know who I am voting for (or voting against). If only *all* SC candidates and members would publically state and defend their views, then we could all be more fully-informed voters.

And to Smarter than Catherine:
I can't understand why you feel the need to post anonymously. Perhaps you are a school teacher or administrator? If you are, shame on you for not being willing to publically defend what you inflict on our children.
If you are not, forgive me for leaping to conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Rick said: "I am fine with separate classes in situations where that makes sense – advanced math classes certainly being one of them. What I am not fine with is looking into an honors math class and seeing all white faces then looking into the regular math class next door and seeing many faces of color.

Why is that?

Nobody would ever complain about tracking if we could deal with that problem – but we don't."

Joel and anon 7:10: I don't see Rick saying anywhere here that he is not in favor of tracking because of the possibility of the higher tracks being totally populated with white kids. It seems to me he is saying that he does not want that to be the case. He is saying that right now Amherst does not deal with that problem. But he does not say that Amherst should not deal with it, as you both are implying.

Many times people read things into what some have said on this blog that are not there. They cherry pick comments and then attack.

I'll let Rick clarify his thinking and will not presume to speak for him. But what I got from his comment is that right now the way we are teaching math will lead to all white faces...and perhaps we should look at a different way of teaching math. What I took from his comment is that tracked math could be a good thing, as long as we give ALL kids the tools they need to succed at the highest level, starting in kindergarten. I am sure no one could disagree with that.
Anyway, that is what I thought Rick was saying. But I'll let Rick speak for himself.

Anonymous said...

I think Catherine and Steve need to get into the schools and observe some classes: the high and "regular" tracked ones, the heterogeneous ones, and anything else they have written about and not experienced. This may not give them the data they need, but it will give them some information and be able to ask hard questions of the teachers. After Tuesday night's meeting, and the postings on this blog, I think the best thing to do is get everyone together.

Anonymous said...

Annonymous December 11, 2009 10:07 PM: Those math add-ons they did in middle school were a joke. My son did them, and I had to end up getting the 9th grade curriculum from the high school math department and doing the advanced math at home with my son. Anything the middle school did in the way of trying to entertain the more motivated kids was a joke. I eventually moved my kids.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Joel about Rick's comment on tracking. Rick won't get my vote. On the other hand Joel...would you think about running? Ali

Anonymous said...

A basic understanding of math is needed by the entire community in Amherst. Maybe this is why it's so poorly taught and no excellence in it is demanded. It builds on previous knowledge. You have to do well in each math topic, and build on that. If you lose the kids in elementary school, which is what is happening, there's no way, unless the parents pursue it at home, that kids will be able to do the more accelerated math. The other subjects are different and you can "catch up" in them. Math isn't that way without intensive tutoring.

Joel said...

In Amherst, when a town leader says he only sees white faces in a classroom, the effect is to challenge the legitimacy of that class.

As I clarified, Rick did not explicitly called for the elimination of the de facto tracking we have, but that's the practical impact of his comment.

I wouldn't have reacted the way I did had he said that we need to keep different levels but we also have to work to change elementary and MS math and science to make sure that everyone has access to his/her appropriate level of instruction in HS. I think it's naive to read Rick's remarks as supporting the maintenance of some tracking with improved elementary school education.

I take very seriously Jan Kelly's remarks and I think she's highlighting the need to redouble our efforts on the elementary school level. My kids are at FR and there are more SPED/ELL and other specials teachers than regular classroom teachers by a very large margin. We're spending a fortune on these interventions and yet still ending up with problems in MS and HS. Clearly what we're doing isn't working.

Let's not pull another fast one as the HS did with 9th science. Let's fix the root problems and then align our curriculum with everyone else in the Commonwealth.

Anonymous said...

I, on the other hand, would not vote for Joel if you paid me to vote for him. Ah, the joys of politics!!!

Joel said...

I'm not running, so save your invective!

Anonymous said...

"Let's not pull another fast one as the HS did with 9th science. Let's fix the root problems and then align our curriculum with everyone else in the Commonwealth."

Anon 8:19 here. I can agree with this, absolutely. The elementary math curriculum is an embarrassment. And as so many have said, because math builds on itself from year to year, if its broken at the elementary level, the ramifications of that are far-reaching. I think Dr. Rodriquez should put fixing the elementary math curriculum at the top of his list of things to do this year. We must fix this, starting next September. There must be a new math curriculum in place in 09/10.

And, I still support Rick Hood for SC. I think the SC needs his thoughtful contribution and engagement.

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to point out that what my elementary school kids tell me repeatedly is that the majority of their class regularly does NOT do the homework. This means that their teachers are stuck reteaching the same things day after day because so many students are not doing their work that would reinforce the lessons taught at school.

How about if es principles stepped up efforts with parents encouraging them to get involved in their kids education and making sure that homework is done. This type of thing is done routinely in other districts, even in districts with a wide range of income level and english proficiency. If this is done well this well go a long way to help all students reach potential and have more diverse upper level courses.

Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Tracking has a lot of benefits, to say we shouldn't do it because not every kid gets in makes no sense. Lets help every kid work to their potential.

Anonymous said...

"Tracking has a lot of benefits, to say we shouldn't do it because not every kid gets in makes no sense."
I don't think that is the reason why people are anti-tracking.
I would like to see someone reference the anti-tracking data. I think we all have our own experience with it, both good and bad, but there must be some information out there that explains the pros and cons. Catherine, have you looked at any anti-tracking data?

Anonymous said...

The more I read this blog , the more grateful I am that I never had to suffer through a class taught by Joel or Catherine since they both seem incapable of anything more than a superficial analysis of very complex issues and they read things into posts that are simply not there or even implied.

Oh and for the record- before you can ignore the substance of the comment and claim I think one of the following- I do support ability grouping of kids, vertical alignment and horizontal alignment of the curriculum, the closing of Marks Meadow, challenging all kids academically,having more AP classes at the HS, having ARHS remain a comprehensive HS, not asking the teachers for givebacks from a contract they negotiated in good faith. I also think that the new superintendent who seems noticeably absent from these discussions must begin to show some leadership so folks like Mark Jackson, Mike Hayes and the other principals don't get hung out to dry.

Joel said...

Yes, Anon 9:55, Catherine and I teach classes through brief blog entries. We also have stopped publishing in peer review journals and internationally recognized leading academic and trade presses. I have instructed Oxford to issue my new book in blog comment snippets.

Oh how I wish I were as wonderful as you! Anonymous insults truly are the best!

Joel said...

One more thing dear Anon 9:55, before Catherine's election to the SC and her "superficial analysis of very complex issues," how much analysis of any sort was there in Amherst of education policy and practice?

Anonymous said...

Excellent point Joel. No review was done. It was alot of smiling and nodding and agreeing with each other, and as you can see how well that didn't. So now we have two people (Steve and Catherine) on the school committee who are the voice for the rest of us, and they get beaten up for it. Thank you Steve and Catherine. I don't know how you do it. I gave up and pulled my kids from the schools here. Ali

Anonymous said...

Well I think that superficial analysis can be as bad or worse than no analysis- it too can lead to drawing the wrong conclusions and poor decision-making.

And once again you illustrate my point about not really reading what people write- who said anything about you teaching a class on this blog? Oh and congrats on getting published in peer reviewed journals- quite a feather in your cap I'm sure.

Joel said...

Hmm. The accusation was that Catherine and I are horrible teachers and you get that through our blog postings. I thought your insult was pretty clear, and petty and just silly.

Here's how peer review journals work -- indeed, here's what I demand from my students at UMas;

You say the analysis is superficial. Bad analysis is worse than none. Fair enough.

Show me how that is so. Give evidence of faulty reasoning, be sure to cite verifiable facts in your answer. Be sure to provide an alternative explanation based on verifiable facts.

Abbie said...

I encourage everyone who has concerns about the elementary school math curriculum to attend Tuesday nights SC meeting to demand that (1) Acknowledge it is not working and is problematic for both students AND teachers (2) a plan to solve the problem with a timeline.

I hope to see a lot of concerned parents!!!

Its easy to sit back and complain from the comfort of your computer, its harder to stand up and voice your frustrations and demand change.

Caren Rotello said...

Where is Tuesday's meeting, and at what time?

Caren Rotello said...

Now I see, the meeting is Tuesday at 7pm in the high school. Should have looked before I asked.

Rick said...

Wow haven’t been here in a while…


Where did I say that I don't “think we should have this sort of tracking” or that my “answer is to get rid of it or not have it”.

That is absolutely NOT what I think. Why did you assume I am in your #1 category instead of your #2 category? I am in #2.

What I am saying is that we need to figure out how to get students of color to move up to the honors classes.

“How does that make any sense?”

It doesn’t. Next time, read my words and don’t make assumptions like you did.

Abbie said...

The next elementary SC meeting is Dec 15 at 7pm in the HS library.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 9:55

This is out and out ad hominem, attacking their competence and reasoning without one iota of specific substance. It is absurd, adolescent and anti-intellectual.

You'd think people who call themselves educated could make a better argument than this.

Instead of attacking the people making the argument, make a counter argument about the issue being debated and win on the merit of our argument.

The more I read this blog , the more grateful I am that I never had to suffer through a class taught by Joel or Catherine since they both seem incapable of anything more than a superficial analysis of very complex issues and they read things into posts that are simply not there or even implied.

Anonymous said...

Don't hold your breath. Anon@9:55 will never do more than criticize people. You won't see him debate the ideas and propose a better plan.

Anonymous said...

I think when someone is deciding who to vote for for SC, or any office for that matter, the better strategy is to listen to the actual words of a candidate - and not a 3rd party's inaccurate interpretation of the candidate's words. I hope when people decide whether to vote for Rick Hood for SC they will actually listen to Rick and ask Rick questions about his positions on things - and not listen to Joel and Joel's interpration of where Rick stands on things.

I happen to think Rick will make an awesome SC member.

Joel said...

I like and respect Rick from his posts, but it's a very powerful statement to say that tracking has led to uniformly white faces in certain classes. That's what Rick wrote. That was the argument the NAACP locally made against tracking.

Those sorts of comments have led to the sort of leveling of the curriculum we see in the 9th grade science curriculum.

I didn't see where Rick called for a review and reform of elementary level Math and Science. If I missed that, I apologize. Where exactly was that?

Rick said...

I said this: "Nobody would ever complain about tracking if we could deal with that problem – but we don't."

You assumed that my solution to ”deal with that problem“ that is to dismantle separate honors classes – which was “a bit crazy” - when in fact I had said this: ”I am fine with separate classes in situations where that makes sense – advanced math classes certainly being one of them.”

I didn’t say this either: “tracking has led to uniformly white faces in certain classes.”

In the math class case I referenced, it’s not tracking that is the problem, it’s what I said about figuring out what to do to get more kids of color to the honors level.

Anyhow, big misunderstanding, let's move on...

Anonymous said...

Data and analysis aside, in the past, grouping students by achievement was eliminated because it was deemed unfair to children of color who were underrepresented in those classes. Now we are seeing that this arrangement isn't working. I am a first generation college grad - I don't consider myself a member of an elite or privileged group. I want my children to be challenged and I think that Catherine and Steve seem to be addressing this issue appropriately by examining the ES level math curriculum so that it can better prepare a larger number of students to reach higher achievement levels in MS and HS. I don't see that as elitist. Their children already have advantages with or without their participation in the SC. Why would they waste their time with all this foolishness if they didn't care about anyone else's kids?

Rick said...

BTW I don’t know any parent – of color or otherwise – who thinks all tracking is bad. What I hear instead are complaints about how the path to get to honors may not be clear and may favor some kids over others.

For example, at the SC meeting a bit ago, at the prodding of Steve Rivkin, the MSAN kids who were there for a presentation revealed that they were not well informed enough about the 7th and 8th grade math deal – what extensions meant and how important they were to “the path”. That is an example of what I think needs fixing (if in fact the MSAN kids were correct). I recall the Superintendent said at that meeting that it was the most concerning thing he had heard at the meeting – so he agrees.

Now, the 6th grade to 7th grade transition is tricky. It does not seem good to me to go back to the way it was and have kids take a test in the 6th grade which locks them into a track going into 7th grade that they may not be able to get out of all the way through 12th grade. That’s why extensions were suggested in the first place – or so I am told. Are extensions a good idea in principle but not done as well as they could be? Are there other solutions?

Rick said...

As an aside, but related: I have always though that we allow kids to be way too clueless about where their future lies – what it can be if they go down such and such a path. It’s scary how at such a young age you can be screwed if you go down the wrong path.

How many people – probably ourselves included – look back and say “if I only knew”.

I don’t know how to do that – it’s more than just career fairs or that kind of thing. Need to brainstorm.

My main interest in public schools is that they are the place that no matter where you come from you should be shown and encouraged to go down some kind of path to success. Of course not every kid will go down a good path no matter how hard you try, but I just think maybe we can do a better job at that.

Joel said...

Thanks for the clarification Rick.

I really believe we have to start from scratch with a lot of this stuff. Ask anyone in town about tracking and they'll tell you we lost a court case and can't do it. That isn't really true.

Go to any of our schools and there seem to be programs and people in place whose functions aren't at all clear. No doubt many of them are extremely valuable, but I'm sure some programs aren't working and some staff either aren't needed or should be reassigned.

What is so off putting to so many people in town is a clear unwillingness to reassess everything and make sure we're spending our dwindling resources well. When the HS principal's first reaction to budget cuts is to propose 3 forced study halls, it's impossible to take him seriously.

I think Rick's comment was easy to read as being anti-tracking. He cleared it up. That's how things are supposed to work.

How many people in town feel as though the paid educational leadership in Amherst is as open and honest and willing to debate ideas and programs as that?

Catherine, Steve, and Irv have been an incredible breath of fresh air. What, for example, would it take to get Andy Churchill to admit he was wrong about the MM trailers? He seems incapable of admitting error.

Rick is open minded and I think he and others planning to run for the SC would do us all a huge favor by coming to all these problems with a healthy dose of skepticism. Why are the data so easy to find in Northampton and difficult to locate in Amherst? Why did the HS stonewall an SC member when she asked for enrollment data?

I hope going forward we can have open and honest debates, which don't include questioning only those data that shine a negative light on our practices, but embracing every little thing that seems to indicate how wonderful we are.

Nina Koch said...


The notion that there is no research on heterogeneous grouping is ridiculous. Did you even try to look for any before you wrote this column? Here is one study from a journal that may well be sitting on a shelf in your office.

Mulkey, L. M., Catsambis, S., Steelman, L. C., & Crain, R. L. (2005).

The long-term effects of ability grouping in mathematics: A national
investigation. Social Psychology of Education, 8, 137–177.

"This longitudinal study is perhaps one of the most well-executed and telling pieces of research on the efficacy of whether heterogeneous
or ability grouping produces better results for middle level students. The study followed 5,895 students from grade 8 through grade 12
using data from the National Education Longitudinal Survey (NELS:88). Eighth grade students placed in either tracked or untracked
mathematics instruction were followed up on several variables: attitudes toward mathematics, school engagement, mathematics self-
concept, and mathematics grades. The study yielded a rich data set which almost without exception indicated that eighth graders in
untracked mathematics classes fared better than those in tracked settings. Students placed in high-ability tracks in middle school
suffered considerable losses in mathematics self-concept that negatively affected their mathematics achievement and their math course
taking decisions. Initial drops in self-concept for tracked students continued throughout high school and were correlated strongly with
lower mathematics grades in high school."

Anonymous said...

And I hope our open and honest debate will be conducted without alot of jumping to conclusions and announcing how awful a SC candidates opinions are - before having all the facts of what a SC candidate thinks.

Lets indeed ask questions first. Lets indeed really discuss and debate a topic. Not jump to erroneous conclusions.

A prize fight is often begun with the phrase "Come out swinging!" This is not a prize lets try not to come out swinging at the drop of a hat. The Amherst schools are in big trouble on so many different levels. There are alot of thoughtful and engaged people here. Seems like we should all be getting together to come up with solutions rather than swinging away first!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting study, Nina. Thanks for adding constructively to the debate!

Nina Koch said...

"I think Rick's comment was easy to read as being anti-tracking. He cleared it up. That's how things are supposed to work."

No, Joel, that is not how things are supposed to work. If you continue to pounce on people, you are not going to see any of the honest and open debate you say want.

I think there are probably quite a few lurkers on this blog who have once or twice considered posting and then decided not to because they worried about being misinterpreted. It doesn't matter if they are anonymous or not. If it's something they believe, then they want it to be understood.

Part of having a conversation with someone is to listen to them and then to ask them questions to allow them to clarify their intent. Don't assume you know. You don't.

You try and defend your actions by saying "oh it could be read that way" when you should be saying to Rick, "yeah I jumped to conclusions. sorry, man."

You are not going to get anywhere in making the schools better if you can't work with people.

anon 4:19, right on.

Joel said...

So Nina, when exactly will you apologize for publicly accusing me of asking Catherine to raise the pledge issue. Until you do, stop lecturing me in how I deal with others.

Traditionally, the apology begins by admitting you were wrong. Try it.

Joel said...

As to Rick's comments, Nina, he can defend himself. Moreover, others on this blog read it exactly the same way.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My comments: It is late and I'm not going to now go through 71 comments and reply individually (though will try to do so tomorrow). But 2 quick things:

1. Rick's comments about concerns about only seeing white faces in classrooms of particular classes are not his alone -- I agree that this is a concern, as I believe do many in our district.

My concern is that when our schools see a problem in terms of who is taking a particular class, the tendency has NOT been to say "hmmm, how can we get more kids of color or low income kids into this class". The tendency has been to say "hey, we should not let anyone take that class at all and that way such classes will include students from all backgrounds." That is precisely why our district eliminated 7th grade honors math and 9th grade honors biology ... and I think that is why this editorial has provoked a lot of emotion. I don't see anyone on this blog (or in our district) saying "yes, we should have some primarily white (or high income) classes and that is cool" -- but I see a lot of people really uncomfortable with the solution used when classes draw on different populations of students. It is an easy solution to implement -- but it isn't clear to me that this solution benefits any students.

I was at the meeting in which 9th grade honors biology was eliminated by the School Committee when the point was made that the availability of this class led to a tracked system in which some kids took honors biology (these were the kids who took 8th honors algebra) and some kids took earth science (these were the kids who took regular 8th grade math). So, we "solved this problem" by just eliminating the option for ANYONE to take biology, since that class required 8th grade algebra (although, interestingly, in Northampton all kids -- regardless of whether they have had algebra --take BIOLOGY -- not honors, just regular, plain old biology). I believe we could have just as easily solved that problem by either designing a biology class that didn't require algebra (as Northampton has done) or requiring all students to complete algebra in 8th grade (a good goal in general). But these solutions wasn't chosen (or even addressed) by the superintendent or the SC, which I think is why people get very, very nervous about how this district solves problems in which courses draw primarily from white and/or middle/upper-income students.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

2. Nina: I've read a lot about tracking and ability grouping, as has Steve. What we haven't been able to find ANY research on, including in the article you posted, the effect of giving kids extra homework that is taught for only limited amounts of time in class (in the case of 7th grade extensions) or not at all (in the case of AP English). Our system is NOT tracking, nor is it differentiated teaching, which typically are the comparisons made in articles on tracking. In differentiated instruction, as we see now in reading groups in elementary schools (and sometimes spelling groups or even math groups in elementary school), teachers teach during a single class period material to different groups of kids during the class, and kids sometimes do different homework. This is NOT the system that we are using in the Amherst schools -- our system is to basically tell kids that they can choose to complete extra homework/challenge projects on their own if they want to (and in some cases, completing this work in fact does require assistance from parents or tutors or teachers outside of class). This approach seems to basically say that we aren't really concerned about teaching the higher achieving kids, either because we are confident they can just get it on their own, or we don't really care if they get it, or we care but we really have to prioritize other students. That is the message that our current approach sends to many parents (and students).

Our statement in our editorial is that we have been unable to find research on the type of system used in Amherst in which kids are able to choose whether or not they take on additional work that isn't regularly taught during the school day as a way of achieving honors or access to honors class. If you know of such research, please post those links.

Anonymous said...


Please don't assume you know what goes on inside the classroom at ARHS.

You state that in the High School AP English program material is not taught at all during class, but this is not true.

In the High School AP English program, AP students are expected to be at a level where they can a do a large scale project rather independently. Teachers do take time in class to work with students on these projects, and are always available after school. Student/Teacher 'conferences' are held frequently so the teacher can check the students' progress, and assist him/her in any way. One of the main points of the program is to help teach students how to do extra work independently, while handling the rest of the course material.

I clearly understand some of the points you make with the numbers you have compiled, and thank you for doing this, but I would suggest doing a "practical" study of the school system before you make accusations.

Anonymous said...

Ditto on the extensions in 7th grade. I am quite sure that they are giving more explanation, in class, before and/or after the assignments than Catherine believes to be true. Part of the point of these is to show them in class for ALL students to see and try, and not to break the class into separate groups and do "private" instruction.

I also echo the idea of spending some real time in a MS classroom to perhaps address some of the cliches that keep getting repeated about extensions that might not be accurate. The 10 minute walkthrough that the SC members did last spring was appreciated but way too short to be meaningful. Try spending a day, or at least a whole teaching period, to gather some data and impressions.

ARHS parent said...

Anon 10:30PM, I don't know whether or not Catherine has ever been inside an ARHS English class, but my kids have. Frankly, I don't think "doing a large-scale project independently" is the same thing as having a traditional English honors/AP class.

English language and literature, as I'm sure you know since you are most likely a teacher, is available at many different levels. Students may or may not be able to read and comprehend Moby Dick, to take a classic example. Students who are ready and able for more challenge should be in classes where they are reading books like Moby Dick and participating in class discussions about the book at a high level. They should also be able to write, edit, and present multiple different writing styles (literary critique, poems, fiction, etc) at a level not expected from someone who is struggling with the basics of the language (spelling, punctuation, reading comprehension). But both groups are in the SAME classes in high school! They read the SAME books! Yes, the "honors" kids do an extra independent project, but that is it. Kind of like extensions all over again!

At least this has been the experience of my kids (both honors and non-honors English students) so far.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Given that there are now 76 comments, I'm just going to respond to some general themes/issues here.

Jan Kelly - thanks for using your name! I totally agree with your point re. the math system and it being hard to move in/out of different tracks. But I think the key thing is NOT whether we should have kids move between different tracks (and I agree that this is more difficult than in other disciplines), but rather what is the BEST way of making sure that all kids learn as much math as possible. The extensions model is one way -- in which all kids are grouped together and some kids (sounds like your daughter, which is great) do extra homework to gain access to algebra in 8th grade. But the majority of 7th graders are NOT doing extensions -- fewer than half do this (and I think we'd have to assume that the half who do them are more motivated/have more educated parents ... including parents who know the importance of 8th grade algebra). So, my preference is NOT that we create fixed tracks in 7th grade so that we have the "algebra track" and the "non-algebra track" (which is actually what we do now -- just by student choice to do the extensions) -- my preference is that we get all kids into 8th grade algebra by TEACHING them in the scope of the school day.

So, how about if we divide math classes in 7th (which is what we had in fact been doing for a long time in this district and is what many other district do) and focus on TEACHING all kids the material they need to know in order to be able to do 8th grade algebra? Some kids might get that information faster (those kids would be ready for honors 8th grade algebra, as occurs now with kids who do the extensions) and other kids might get that information slower, but would very likely be MORE able to learn those concepts if they were fully taught in the school day by teachers (and thus could be ready for REGULAR 8th grade algebra). No one ever looks at your 8th grade transcript after middle school, so we'd just have two groups of kids -- those who have honors algebra and those who have REGULAR algebra (note that this would mean NO difference for those kids who now take honors algebra in 8th, but would be more advanced math for those who now take pre-algebra in 8th). All of these kids would then take geometry in 9th grade -- and those in either group could opt for honors or regular geometry, based on their preference/teacher recommendation. That seems like tracking, sure, but with a higher education outcome for those in the low track than we now have with heterogenous classes and extensions (and no difference for those in the high track).

Anonymous 10:30 - I certainly understand that AP English involves independent projects and that some teacher advice during or after school is given. But this is NOT the model used in other districts to teach kids at different levels of English proficiency ... it is very, very unique to Amherst (like extensions). My point is that we do NOT know whether this is in fact a better way (for all or any kids) of teaching English (or math). And although I haven't had a kid in the high school yet, nor have I sat in these English classes, I've talked to many parents and high school students who feel very frustrated by the current approaches to honors in the English department. I believe the post by "ARHS parent" is a very good example of the experience that many kids are having in these classes. Again, I am not posting anything on this blog or bringing up any issues at SC meetings simply because I have some feeling or intuition about something ... I bring these up after hearing from many, many parents and kids about their experiences in our schools (which I think is the job of an elected official, yes?).

Nina Koch said...

Using a test and teacher recommendation to assign students to a math class is not a simple and uncontroversial approach. In fact, in the past, it led to many problems and did not work as a successful screening device. It definitely involved unfairness. Were we to re-institute that approach, people would be complaining about it, although perhaps different people and for different reasons.

Tests do not serve as adequate screening devices for several reasons. First, you have to decide what you are going to test. I would question the notion that there is a single well-ordered quantity known as "math ability." I think there are multiple dimensions that come into play as students develop their mathematical maturity.

Some students are very quick at computation. Some students like to think about abstractions. Some students notice patterns easily. Some students are good at thinking outside of the box in order to solve a problem. Some students are very good at explaining why something works. Which things should we test? How much weight should we give to each?

If a math class consists solely of memorizing routine procedures and spitting them back during a timed test, then we can probably design a measuring device that will predict success in that class with a high degree of reliability, although we would still have issues to deal with when some kids are intensively coached for the test.

But what if math class consists of more than memorization of procedures, as national standards have been urging for the last 25 years? Then it is not so easy to make the screening device. And people are potentially going to get upset about what the screening device contains, because they may not share our values about what is important in math class.

I think this is a good example of a situation where you haven't talked to us, Catherine, so you don't really know what the issues are. The same applies to English classes. You are trying to make assumptions about people's intent and you are frequently getting it wrong. You need to ask.

It is also a situation where there are many competing factors and no obvious solution. There are going to be some dissatisfied people no matter what we do.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Nina - the system that we use isn't used in any other systems in the United States that I have been able to find. If you know of any high schools in the United States that have heterogenous AP English classes in which for honors kids simply do extra homework outside of class largely on their own, let me know. If you know of any middle schools in the United States in which the pathway to algebra in 8th grade is through doing extra homework largely on one's own (or through staying after school for help), let me know.

You say that I have't talked to you -- and that I need to ask. But if I am raising questions that many, many parents and kids have asked of me, is your solution for every parent and every child to ask why our system is different from that anywhere else in the country? And is the expectation that you, or the high school English teachers, or the middle school math teachers, can simply explain it to us, and that makes it OK? Is your assumption that our system is in fact better than the system used in all other schools in the United States, and if so, do you have any evidence of that to share?

Any time a concern is raised about our schools -- how we spend money or how we do education -- the problem is with the questionner. The person with the concern hasn't taken time to listen, or uses a bad tone, or is elitist, or doesn't understand the way different high school schedules work, or doesn't understand the way Amherst (and apparently Amherst alone) reports how it spends money to the state.

I am wondering, Nina, is there any point, and any issue, at which you might say that parents have a right to be concerned that our school system does things so differently than all other schools systems? And is there any type of objective evidence you would say is valid, other than reports of teachers in our system? I'm just curious, since your consistent position has been that any concerns would easily be resolved simply by listening to teachers in Amherst, who could then explain why our approach is better.

Joel said...

If I may add to what Catherine said so well to Nina, why won't anyone in our school system open what's going on to real scrutiny?

I'm not talking about a tour of the school given by our current teachers, I mean a real analysis of our curriculum and how it relates to the vast majority of curricula in the Commonwealth and the nation that are so different. I mean our budget and staffing priorities and our trimester system need to be examined in a rational way.

If everything is swell, then no one could possibly oppose such examinations.

Put another way, if our uniqueness is about being so great shouldn't our principals and other administrators jump at the chance to prove that to all of us? Where's the study of the trimesters? Where's the evaluation of 9th grade science? These were promised and never delivered. If everything is so good, why not show up the promised reports?

The process by which we adopted the 9th grade science curriculum was a tipping point for many in the community. The school administrators lost a lot of the town's trust and their stonewalling on budget issues and refusal to share data that the entire public are entitled to see with even members of the SC has brought us to the point at which parents of children in the elementary schools cannot be counted on to support an override.

That's not Catherine's fault or the fault of ACE parents. The education leadership is this town screwed up and their screw ups are coming home to roost.

There's plenty of desire to fix all this, especially from those of us with elementary school age kids. But I'm sick and tired of being lied to and hearing about delays because of understaffing when we ask for basic information, especially given the availability of such information in towns with smaller administrative staffs, e.g., Northampton.

It isn't elitism or an epidemic of bad tones that is the problem, it's an unwillingness on the part of our administrators and some teachers to answer basic questions honestly and face the reality that some of what's done in Amherst is so unique that it causes literal gasps of disbelief in outsiders, e.g., the illegal racial and ethnic clustering of students.

There's a long list of problems. Catherine, Steve, Irv, and others are willing to put in the hard work to fix them. What they need is an open and honest response from educators, not more defensiveness and claims of specialness and a belief in excellence that is hard to reconcile with reality.

Nina Koch said...

well I guess we are at an impasse. Every time I try to engage you intellectually, you just plug in the 8 track tape of Catherine and Joel's greatest hits: trimester, 9th grade science, extensions and so forth. The two of you are saying the same things over and over.

I don't see how your comments are in response to what I said. I can't tell if you even heard what I said. I didn't say anything about extensions. I was just talking about math and why it's hard to measure a student's readiness to learn it. I was trying to present some of the complexity of the situation and suggest why it is so difficult to find a good solution.

I didn't say that we had a good solution. Maybe we don't. I haven't decided how I feel about it yet, actually. I realize that I would need more information in order to decide. But I wasn't talking about extensions in my post. I was talking about math and my knowledge of past problems with the screening device.

For example, I posited that there may not be such a thing as "mathematical ability." That is a debatable statement. If you were truly responding to me, you might address that. That would be a dialogue.

If anybody else is interested in a genuine discussion, I would be curious to know what people think. I bet there are quite a few adults out there who consider themselves "bad at math." I would like to know more about why they think that and the degree to which it is associated with school experiences. I am wondering if they construed mathematics a little more broadly if they might discover that in fact they can do math.

Abbie said...

Hi Nina,

I am glad to hear that you want to hear about the math experience of folks. My daughter is only in 3rd grade so I only have our limited experience but I have heard lots from friends with kids in the higher elementary grades. So all I have to discuss is wrt to ES but I think you will agree that ES math is really critical in setting kids up for MS/HS math.

I think that the Investigations workbooks are really poor. I can only hope that other math curriculum series are an improvement. Not only does this curriculum do a poor job of teaching math but in our experience unless the teacher is REALLY REALLY good then it actually turns kids OFF math. I think it is a difficult curriculum for teachers to teach and that anxiety is directly transmitted to the kids.

The ESs should be alarmed when parents feel they need to provide tutors or pricey math instruction (i.e. Kumon). Some might cry "that's just hyper parents pushing", but I think its more than that. A lot of parents can't afford these "extras" and that really doesn't seem fair to those kids stuck (forever) with just that crappy math experience.

I am pushing, and I hope other parents will as well, for a significant review of the ES math because it is unacceptable in its current form. We are losing the interest in math of too many kids.

Nina Koch said...

Thanks, Abbie!

One thing I want to figure out is if it is the principles behind the curriculum that trouble you, or if it is the particular execution that seems problematic. I am going to paste in a quote-- let me know if it sounds like something you generally agree with or not:

"Learning the 'basics' is important; however, students who memorize facts or procedures without understanding often are not sure when or how to use what they know. In contrast, conceptual understanding enables students to deal with novel problems and settings. They can solve problems that they have not encountered before.

Learning with understanding also helps students become autonomous learners. Students learn more and better when they take control of their own learning. When challenged with appropriately chosen tasks, students can become confident in their ability to tackle difficult problems, eager to figure things out on their own, flexible in exploring mathematical ideas, and willing to persevere when tasks are challenging."

By the way, I looked up your school in Omaha and I really like their approach to graduation requirements. I am still trying to figure out how the modular schedule works, however.

Joel said...

If I may, Nina, the issue is the education of our children. So, when Catherine and I, who have 3 and 2 kids in elementary school, question how things are done in Amherst and ask for some proof that truly unique ways of doing things are in fact effective, we're told either that we should come to the school and see what's going on or ask an Amherst teacher to explain our uniqueness, which you explicitly said in your 1:21 PM post today. It's right there, scroll up and read what you wrote in the 6th paragraph.

The other thing we get is a series of sidetracking comments about politics, such as Rick's note about only seeing white faces in certain classes, or your most recent post (3:38 PM, 4th paragraph) about how interesting it would be to know if there is something we can call "mathematical ability." Yes, you and Rick raise interesting and important points. But, no, they don't help educate the kids in school now.

Answering those questions can improve the schools in the long run, but only dealing with them and refusing to justify what's going on in the buildings right now given how out of line our programs are with the rest of the country is not at all helpful to those of us with small children.

I am interested in a genuine discussion. Nina, do you know where I can get my hands on a line by line, school by school budget for Amherst like the one Northampton posts on the web? That would be a very good starting point for a genuine discussion.

I know those budgets exist, they're being kept from the public. I won't bother asking for the trimester study or evaluation of the new science curriculum we were promised because they don't exist.

It's hard to have that genuine conversation without those data. Asking a teacher what he or she does or thinks about something without reference to anything else isn't a genuine conversation. It's one side of a very complex, multi-sided set of issues.
Some of us bring up the trimesters and 9th grade science because they are where the rubber meets the road. They have an actual, real, right now impact on our kids. Your problem with my tone, for example, is a reflection of how panicked I am about the schools my kids attend. I can't wait for someone to determine if there really is something we can call "mathematical ability." I need teachers challenging all the kids all the time.

AND, knowing if the trimester system is the best way to go (by having that promised, but undelivered report) and knowing if our highly unique science curriculum is doing what it's advocates claimed it would do (which we could discuss if we had an evaluation of the program) will help parents in Amherst gauge whether or not our teachers are doing the best by our kids.

Also, and let me be as direct as I can about this: The education leadership in this town has lied about these issues. They promised reports and then refused to produce them. We are simply trying to hold them accountable.

Anonymous said...

I just want to respond to your post about how complex and difficult it is to assess a child's mathematical ability. My question is why are we reinventing the wheel? I want to know what criteria Longmeadow, Newton, Brookline etc... use to assess a student's mathematical ability. I think the Amherst school system is in such a bad place right now that they can't afford the luxury of being creative and innovative with curriculum. I think Amherst needs to look at what works in other school systems and implement ASAP. Once we have a good system in place then perhaps we tweak.
Thank you Catherine for all your hard work on these issues.

Anonymous said...

Juat a few thoughts...the NACCP filed charges and won a court order against tracking in the Amherst Schools--because of the very thing Rick is concerned about that appears to be still happening....lack of faces of children of color in the advanced courses. I know this to be true. I know this to be true as my own observations over the past 26 years in the Amherst schools....okay--I'll attempt to convey what I have found as both a parent and teacher (aide) with the system. In 1983--the SPED class they whittled my child into was made up only of children from low-income, single parent families--I know this because they were all my friends and nieghbors and yes we lived in the apartment complexes....Okay--up to the year 2000 and beyond--I am now a teaching assistant in the SPED program--get this--every single child--I repeat--every single child--was from a low-income family, a single, parent, headed household or a child of color...most times the child fit all 3 of the above descriptions....This needs to be the focus of any study group out there, or committee, or sub-committee or whatever else the gathering of concerned educated adults who want to make a real difference for kids call themselves because now that we know the real situation it's way past the time to fix it... Rick--you have my vote!!

Joel said...

To Anon 8:04

You raise a very important issue about how the elementary schools and maybe middle school aren't doing a good job making sure all kids are being challenged and reaching their full potential. Race, class, and gender should all be examined.

Despite all sorts of changes in policy and the immense spending on special programs, no one seems to be able to point to any evidence of the efficacy of the Amherst way, which is one of the issues Catherine keeps raises here.

You also invoke our lost court case. Lawyers in town have told me there is zero evidence that a court found against us. What they say is that a lawsuit was threatened or filed and Amherst folded.

That distinction is important because had we lost in court, the NAACP or whoever else was involved in the legal action would have moved from town to town suing or winning agreements to force those other towns to act just like Amherst. Amherst wouldn't be such an outlier if the courts were ruling against tracking as is often said, but never demonstrated.

As far as anyone can tell me -- I wasn't here then -- tracking didn't not lose in court. If I'm wrong, please point me to the newspaper articles or court filings showing an actual court ruling or even actual court proceedings.

So, to be clear, you're right that there are issues involved. Sadly, Rick pointed to a reality in place now, which is long *after* the agreement with the NAACP, so that new non-tracking policy clearly didn't work to anyone's benefit, right?

But to be clear, it was a political decision made by Amherst to alter its program due to political pressure and the threat of a lawsuit, not a court decision.

And the new Amherst way, while maybe more politically palpable to some, doesn't seem to be showing itself to be effective. Hence Rick's observation.

Nina Koch said...

to anon 7:56 am. If you look at places like Newton and Brookline, you will see that they are actually trying quite a few things that would be considered a progressive approach to education. In fact, Brookline High School's web site refers to the school's "cutting edge innovation." They aren't satisfied with the wheel and neither are we. Sometimes the wheel is pretty bumpy and doesn't do what it needs to do.

And they haven't necessarily found magical solutions that make everybody there happy. The discussion around Newton's reform math curriculum (Everyday Math) sounds very close to the discussion around ours. Some parents are upset about it; some like it. It is not without controversy.

Also, I don't know what method they are using for placement of students into math tracks at grade 6, but I can guess that some people are unhappy with it. That was my point-- these issues are complicated. It's not like there is one correct solution and you just look it up and do it.

Rick said...

Let's not dwell on the details of the NAACP thing - it's irrelevant. Let's just agree that the problem that (apparently) the NAACP was trying to address still needs to be fixed.

If as much effort went into that as goes into debating what happened in the past, we might have it fixed by now.

But we are not going to fix that problem here (the low participation of kids of color in honors classes). How can we fix it? An ARPS committee to look into it and suggest solutions?

Joel said...


You're right. My point isn't about dwelling on the past. It's that we have to know what is possible going forward. The belief that we are hemmed in by court decisions limits the universe of possible solutions. So, let's all agree that everything should be on the table.

Going forward, I believe we should abandon the Amherst tendency to reinvent the wheel. Let's do that thing that Catherine always suggests and find other districts with similar racial/ethnic/class profiles and see what does and doesn't work in those places.

And, let's pay attention to what we're actually doing. There is widespread dissatisfaction with E.S. level math and there was a curriculum review committee. What did it find? There were extensive promises that the new science curriculum would transform interest in science. Do we have data proving that?

Before we begin yet another study, we have to determine what it is we actually know as of right now.

Nina Koch said...

Actually we do have some data about the effects of the 9th grade science course and some of it will be posted this week. The MCAS scores won't be available until next fall, but there is some data that is ready now.

Your repeated assertions that the science department refuses to evaluate the course are simply untrue. These teachers are scientists. They like to ask questions and find out how things work.

There will also be an extensive set of FAQ responses to correct some of the other untrue things you have been saying. I'm not sure when that will be ready but it should be soon.

In addition, there will be thorough documentation from various national scientific organizations supporting the approach of the course. A lot of people are putting a lot of work into this. I'm sure you'll find a way to find fault with their work, but other people might find it informative.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 8:04 here....I may have mis- understood the findings of the NACCP case--but I am relaying what I was told when I called the local Amherst Chapter to report a case I felt needed their attention. Perhaps I was not told the court case was won, but that some agreement or settlement was reached and that the Amherst Schools had ten years to fix the tracking situation--We can all agree this has never happened.
It is simply mind a blatant form of discrimination is alive and doing well in Amherst!
Form another committee with what goal or purpose--I have heard of sooo many committees and sooo many groups I begin to wonder if this isn't just a quick fix to keep it all under the rug. Go look at the SAC before you totally disagree that this exists...and the ESAH...I am afraid this is a bigger problem than any study could ever handle....This calls for action...A coming together of the minds... I saw a clip on the tv about a teahcer in Harlem by the name of Mr. perhaps it was Dr. Canada. I really respect his approach to education--he gives each and every student and family the guarantee that every child who enters his school will receive a college education...They attend longer days and Saturdays--they have all kinds of extra-curricular activites and they even wear a uniform. This kind of dedication and committment is a rarity, but one we need....someone to take the reins and lead us in the right direction!! and now...

Joel said...


The promise was that the new science class would increase interest in science. It was better than the previous curriculum. I was at two meetings at which such promises were explicitly made.

What the parents asked for and what does not seem to have been done was a baseline of previous interest in science versus the new and improved interest in science. Nina, you mention that these folks are scientists. I am not, but I assume that one needs control groups, baselines, etc. to be able to make sense of data, especially in a comparative way. That's why, for example, so many of us are upset about Amherst's high spending per pupil relative to other districts and the state average. We have something to compare Amherst to. What exactly is the baseline or control group for the study of increased interest in science?

We were told that more Amherst HS kids would end up as science majors in college. Has anyone tracked the previous numbers so that we can see if that number increases, stays the same, or decreases? Again, I'm no scientist, but that strikes me as pretty basic stuff.

As to an outside group telling us we're teaching the new curriculum well, that is good news and not at all surprising. No one questions our teachers' ability to teach.

What is clear is that no one can find another HS in America of the more than 18,000 other high schools in America that have this as their required first year science class.

So, we do something very well that maybe we shouldn't be doing as the required 9th grade science.

We could offer Urdu and get awards for offering the single best Urdu curriculum in America. That would validate it as well done and challenging, but that wouldn't make it the best use of limited resources.

Nina Koch said...

wow, Joel, you are indeed precocious. You can criticize something before you even see it.

I think in all of these situations, the question about data can be asked in either direction. Catherine and Steve wrote a whole column about the importance of outcome-driven decisions with respect to grouping and they didn't offer one piece of research to suggest that homogeneous grouping improves educational outcomes. Catherine says both she and Steve have reviewed this literature. So why no mention of even one study to support their case? Let's put the onus on you. Produce some evidence that tracking helps kids.

The reason why major organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Math and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are calling for reform of math and science education is because they recognize that there is a problem with the scientific and quantitative literacy of the general population. They have been calling for this for years. They came to the conclusion that there is a problem with the traditional approach and they established standards to describe what a curriculum should do. That's why the National Science Foundation funded the development of various standards-based curriculum projects like IMP, Investigations, Everyday Math, and so forth. The NSF, along with the NCTM, saw a need for change.

These organizations also state that curriculum needs to change because of changes in society. They see that a 21st century education does need to be different from a 20th century education. I asked Catherine for a sense of her vision on this and she was unwilling or unable to answer the question. I see that as problematic. I think that school committee members should have a vision for our schools that goes beyond "We want to be like all the other schools."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, Nina. But last time I checked, kids in the 21st century still needed to be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide without having to use their fingers. A good elementary school math preparation does, in my opinion, require a good deal of rote memorization so that the facts like 8x6 come immediately to mind and are not a struggle. I have watched my kids spend more time than necessary on algebra problems, not because they do not understand the algebra, but because they cannot for the life of them recall what 8x6 is, so they have to work up, counting by 8s from 2x8, etc. THAT is what they learned with the "new curriculum" in math (investigations) in our elementary schools.

I am all for innovative curricula, but think they should be offered either alongside or as an alternative to a more traditional curriculum (as is the case with IMP in the high school).

Joel said...


I always return to the same question when I read your justifications of Amherst's highly unique ways of doing things:

If this is so great, why aren't more places, especially wealthy, middle class, and other college towns, doing it? In other words places that can choose any innovations they want, but seem to do the standard stuff very well instead of constantly reinventing the wheel.

Again, the Environmental Science requirement seems to be completely unique to Amherst out of more than 18,000 high schools in America. That is worrisome. Surely other educators are thinking about change and the 21st century, etc., etc. Why do we have such a unique solution? Are other districts following our lead?

I've written this before and I think I speak for a lot of parents: Many of the questions you raise are interesting, but we're focused on the education of our children now, not pedagogical innovations that might or might not work. We're interested in copying, yes literally copying, the best practices from the best districts in the Commonwealth and the nation.

And, no, by no measure is Amherst one of the best districts even in the Commonwealth. It simply isn't, so inventing our own curriculum feels dangerous and like a waste of time and money.

Nina, I appreciate the fact that you post under your own name and that you're willing to debate, but you always insult Catherine and me and then avoid direct questions. All I want to know is why we can't pick and choose among the best practices from around the country. I'm sick and tired of hearing two oddly competing things: 1) our schools are broke and have cut to the bone; and 2) we have some sort of unique new way of doing things that wasted time and money in professional development inventing.

We need our administrators to open the books and show us how we're spending money and we need our teachers to align the curriculum with best practices from around the Commonwealth and nation.

If our schools did that I would happily support them and turn my internet attention to baseball news.

Anonymous said...

Joel, as a firm Catherine/Steve supporter, I wish you WOULD turn your attention to Internet baseball news. Your role on this blog seems only to be to self-righteously parrot Catherine and endlessly repeat pet examples of how Amherst schools are ass-backward.
You may now flame me for being anonymous - which I am because you are alarmingly angry.

Joel said...

To Anon 8:17

I am angry and worried.

Don't you want to see a line by line, school by school budget before you agree to pay higher property taxes? I'll pay, I just want to know what we're paying for.

Don't you want Amherst to align its curriculum with best practices? I have two little kids and it does scare me that our schools seem allergic to embracing best practices.

And, I am still angry that my kids' old, now retired school principal said in the newspaper that as white children of college educated parents they didn't really deserve a full education. Maybe I should get past that, but I live in a town where a school principal gets away with saying stuff like that with no penalty.

I guess the question is why you aren't angrier about what's going on.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think the question is why you think everyone ought to employ the same chronic indignation as a debate tool.
And what makes you think I'm not just as disturbed as you are by your list?

Joel said...

Anon 9:09 wrote:
"Actually, I think the question is why you think everyone ought to employ the same chronic indignation as a debate tool."

I'm not the one insulting you. I just want some answers from our paid school administrators. I don't accuse everyone who disagrees with me of being an elitist or of having a bad tone.

You can insult me all you wish. It doesn't accomplish anything and casts you in a negative light, esp. given the fact that you insult me anonymously.

All I want is an open and honest debate about educational policy and spending. As I've noted, I'll chill out when that happens.

The "debate tool" I'm most interested in is a set of facts.

This is lefty Amherst. Could you imagine anyone saying that the Pentagon doesn't owe us any explanations. The Bush administration had every right to do whatever it wanted. No need to show us a budget or explain policy. We would all, rightfully, go bananas.

But, if parents ask for a line by line, school by school budget, or an explanation of yet another unique curricular innovation, we're told to shut up.

How wonderfully progressive.

Anonymous said...

Where can we get a copy of the line-by-line school by school budget anyway? And Joel who was the retarded I mean retired principal who said that??

Anonymous said...

Catherine: "I think that Northampton passed an override last year because they have schools that are committed to rigor and challenge for all kids -- including tracked 7th grade math, required biology for 9th grade students and the presence of AP chemistry and AP statistics in those schools."

Where did you hear that? Are you now a political scientist in addition to being a psychologist? I think this has very little to do with why the override passed in Northampton. Maybe it passed because it was a school only ballot question, and because of its citizen outreach campaign.

When you attribute their success to your own positions, you lose credibility.

Joel said...

To Anon 5:32

It was Russ Vernon-Jones who was, until the end of last year, the principal at Fort River. He did and said a lot of things that alienated many parents and even teachers at the school.

We are all eagerly awaiting our new superintendent on the budget. I think it would go a very long way toward establishing his credibility as someone who cares about an open and honest discussion if he would release the same sort of budget Northampton did.

Anonymous said...

You're right about Ft. River's previous principal Joel. He was a jerk and in the end it will probably come out that he has some kind of mental condition. I have no idea how he came up with some of the bizarre things he came up with. Ali Burrow

Anonymous said...

So I guess it's now ok to call people retarded and jerks. WOW - and posters who disagree with Joel are called anti-intellectual and accused of making insulting comments.

Joel- you make that claim about RVJ repeatedly. Can you substantiate that with a link to an article?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Anon 3:08. Right on.

I am appalled that this comment stream turned into a forum for bashing former schools officials.

Also, I would strongly encourage everyone to look at Kristen Iverson's column in today's Bulletin titled "Teaching heterogeneous classes"

Ken said...

Hey, Nina, I have a suggestion. Why don't you just make up stuff, too? It's less work, less stress, and you'd have free rein "proving" whatever you want. (Though even so, I don't advise getting into character assassination, even anonymously.)

Nina Koch said...

Hi Ken,

Actually I am sitting here working on the website for 9th grade science. I thought it would be done earlier this week but I had no idea how much material they wanted to post. The science teachers have been putting an enormous amount of energy into it. I really admire their persistence in the face of adversity. It would be a lot easier to give up.

I like some of your posts that I am seeing. Keep it up! At least with people like you and Abbie, I feel like I can have an actual conversation. I'd like to talk with you more about the elementary math issues.

I notice that Joel has managed to weave the topic of Russ into this thread, so I think that the thread now includes all of Joel and Catherine's greatest hits. I just wish somebody could get that 8-track tape out of the dashboard.