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.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Education Updates from Amherst: Superintendent Search, Math, Study Halls, and More

This week's Amherst Bulletin was full of education news, so I wanted to get those stories posted quickly.

First, there is a longer version of the story I posted earlier this week from the Gazette on the superintendent search committee ( I am honored to have been chosen by the Amherst School Committee to participate on this committee, and think this is a great group of people to conduct the screening interviews. I look forward to our interviews on January 11th and 12th--and to announcing the three finalists to the School Committee on Wednesday, January 12th.

Second, there is a story on the discussion about elementary math from the last School Committee meeting ( We had a long discussion about this issue -- one I know is of concern to many parents -- at our meeting on Tuesday, December 21st so I encourage those interested to watch the meeting on ACTV. I really hope that the administration chooses to appoint a broader council to review the elementary recommendations in particular (the current math curriculum council has no representation from Wildwood parents at all), and that an action plan is developed to implement changes in our math program in time for the start of the 2011-2012 academic year. As I noted at the meeting, the dissatisfaction with elementary math has been widely-known at least since 2007 (when Jere Hochman first appointed a math curriculum council, of which I was a member), and these kids don't get to make up these lost years that we spend discussing what to do.

Third, there is an article describing the issue of study halls in the high school, as discussed at the last Regional School Committee meeting (  I remain concerned that students at ARHS have had mandatory study halls (sometimes as many as 2 per year) whereas students in other high schools in our area haven't had such a requirement.  It certainly seems like students should be able to fill their school day with classes (which could also allow kids to broaden their exposure to things like art and PE), and I hope the budget proposal we receive in January includes no required study halls. 

Finally, there are a few brief assorted updates on school issues that may be of interest to parents and community parents ( This story includes the names of those on the 6th Grade Task Force, an announcement that Steve Rivkin will be out of the country for about a month and a half on a Fulbright scholarship, and Kip Fonsch's recommendation that the schools steer some students to trade schools instead of the high school.

Note: I'll be away for much of the next week, without consistent access to email, so apologies if responses aren't posted quickly. Best wishes to all for a relaxing holiday season!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Superintendent Search Committee

So, the search committee for the superintendent is set -- and you can read about the members (and time line) on line at:

Let me just add a few points here.

First, we had a number of people apply to participate, and I was really sorry we were limited to so few spots (the search firm recommended a group of 7 or 8 and we went with 10). I am really thankful to all of those who submitted their names and were willing to spend 2 days helping with this very important task.

Second, we were very limited in terms of who could be selected -- we only had 4 spots available (since 3 were taken by SC members, 2 by teachers, 1 by an administrator), and of those 4 spots, we needed to have one spot for a Shutesbury resident and one spot for a Leverett resident. We also needed to make sure that these 4 spots included a town official, an elementary parent, and a regional parent.

Third, this search committee has an important job, which is to narrow the list of 5 candidates selected by the search firm to 3 finalists. However, ultimately the 10 members of the SC will choose from these 3. The superintendent choice must be agreed to by both the regional SC (5 members from Amherst, 2 from Pelham, 1 from Leverett, 1 from Shutesbury) and Union 26 (all 3 members from Pelham and 3 members from Amherst - me, Irv, Steve). The plan is to make this selection at a meeting on Thursday, January 20th at 8:30 pm.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Amherst News: Still More on Math, Salaries, Study Halls

Now that my semester is over (well, at least the teaching part of it -- not yet the grading part of it), I'm catching up on assorted articles that I believe will be of interest to my readers. Enjoy!

Here's a late one from the Amherst Bulletin (November 19th) on the Amherst School Committee's discussion about the math report ( Data presented by Steve Rivkin at this meeting noted in particular the problems low income children in our schools are having with math compared to low income children in other districts. For those interested in elementary math, please come (or watch) the Amherst School Committee meeting this Tuesday (12-21, 7 pm, Amherst Town Hall), in which math is once again on the agenda!

I'm also attaching a more recent piece from the Amherst Bulletin (also featuring a discussion at an Amherst School Committee meeting) in which Steve presented data on the relative salaries paid to administrators in Amherst versus Northampton ( As noted in this piece, Amherst has more administrators (e.g., we have assistant principals at the elementary level whereas Northampton does not), and we pay our administrators substantially more. Although interim superintendent Geryk notes that these differences are hard to compare because we are a regional district, I'm not clear why this is relevant (e.g., do our principals in MS and HS have different responsibilities because these schools include kids from 4 towns?).

The most recent Amherst Bulletin also included an examination of the issue of whether study halls in our high school should count as instruction time ( I've certainly heard concerns from parents about having their children spend time in study halls, and I'm very glad that a majority of the Regional School Committee voted to recommend the elimination of mandatory study halls last spring. I continue to be concerned that other high schools haven't had such a requirement, whereas our students have had to take one or two study halls each year (a point Rob Spence made at the last meeting).

Finally, there was a brief story about the leave of absence taken by Fort River principal Ray Sharick ( As I stated in the article, I hope all is well with Ray and his family and believe that privacy is deserved. Fortunately, there are now definite plans for his return in January (

One more note: I plan to post my December Education Matters column and two different views (one by middle school teacher Jamison Isler, one by Jim Oldham) in the next day or two. Since these three are all opinion pieces, I wanted to discuss these in a different post than the news stories.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Assorted News: International Achievement, Students' Ratings of Teachers, and Amherst (and Northampton) Education Updates

So much news to report ... in Amherst and beyond. Here are links to a number of interesting articles (and thanks again to blog readers who continue to send me great things to post).

First, there is an article from last week's New York Times on the differences in student achievement across cultures ( I certainly agree with Arne Duncan that these scores should be a wake up call.

Second, there is a fascinating article in today's New York Times on the high correlation between students' perceptions of teachers and student achievement ( I believe the research described in this article provides more evidence that we really should listen to what students say about the education they experience.

Third, I'm giving links to three pieces from the Hampshire Gazette.
  • The first describes continuing discussions by the Northampton School Committee in terms of start times (, an issue that is also under discussion in Amherst (I'm not sure of the status of this discussion in Amherst, but will ask for an update at the next regional meeting).
  • The second describes goals discussed by the Amherst School Committee at our last meeting ( As noted in this article, we will have a preliminary budget presented at our December 21st meeting--I strongly encourage parents interested in issues with budget implications (e.g., Spanish language program, instrumental music, math curriculum) to watch and/or attend this meeting and share their thoughts with the School Committee.
  • The third and final article describes the state of the elementary Spanish program in our schools ( As noted in this article, I am really pleased that we have finally implemented a world language program in our elementary schools (something the community has requested for a decade), but am concerned -- based on comments made by Sean Smith, the head of world language in our schools -- that the current 40 minutes a week provided may not be adequate to achieve the level of fluency he believed was important. I look forward to getting more clarity on this issue, and the future plans for implementing this program, soon.

More News: Evaluating Teachers, Early Starts (?), Regionalization, Partnerships, Elections

This post veers off in many different directions ... with the only common theme that the topics all relate to education (in Amherst or elsewhere). I look forward to hearing thoughts on any/all of these!

The first link is to a fascinating article from the New York Times on the use of new methods of conducting teacher evaluation, in part through using video-based observations of classroom instruction ( This article also discusses the importance of figuring out what classroom practices are linked to higher achievement and helping teachers learn effective strategies from watching other teachers.

Next, there is a link is to an article from the Amherst Bulletin a few weeks ago on the thoughts about regionalization ( This article raises many interesting points, and describes plans currently under discussion in Shutesbury to form either a K to 6 or K to 8 regional/union agreement with Leverett and Pelham.

Third is a link to a recent article from the Hampshire Gazette about the potential of changing start times in the Northampton schools ( I have been following the discussions in Northampton with interest, and look forward to learning whether they do or don't make a change. A similar task force has been appointed in Amherst (Rob Spence is the SC representative), and I am interested to see whether this group makes a similar recommendation about changing start times in our schools.

Fourth, I'm attaching a link to the story in last week's Amherst Bulletin about the partnership Maria Geryk has arranged in which our district pays faculty and graduate students from the U Mass school of education for various services (

Finally, here is a link to a recent story on about the upcoming Amherst School Committee election in March of 2011 ( As I noted to this reporter, I have not yet made a decision about whether I will run for re-election, but plan to do so in late January.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Articles on Education in Amherst: Math (again), Budgets, Superintendent Search

My apologies for the less frequent updates here ... this is a hectic time of my semester, so I'm not as up to date on my postings as I normally am. But I hope my blog readers will enjoy these three pieces related to education in Amherst.

First, here is a link to a thoughtful piece by Lisa Kosanovic published in the Amherst Bulletin about the current math debate ( I found her observations very insightful (particularly since she is both a math teacher in Holyoke and a parent with kids in the Amherst schools).

Second, here is a link to my November Education Matters piece, which focuses on the School Committee's role in managing budgets in a way that is responsible to tax payers (

Finally, here is a link to a Gazette story on the characteristics identified by the search firm as needed for the new superintendent ( I believe it is always helpful to have an outside perspective, and certainly agree that an effective superintendent needs to be able to work to bring boards together around a common vision -- something the Amherst School Committee actually has done quite well (and has been doing for sometime) but something that Regional School Committee has struggled with at times (and certainly it is more challenging to bring people together on a larger board with more diversity of opinions and views).

But I'd also encourage community members - and indeed prospective superintendent candidates - to actually check out the meetings on ACTV ... because the vast majority of meetings (even at the regional level) are in fact constructive and respectful (even when we disagree). At last week's meeting, we had a pretty long debate about expanding the membership of the search committee, and ultimately the motion to move to 10 members (and include residents of Leverett and Shutesbury) passed unanimously. Last night we had a long discussion about a motion by Steve Rivkin about gathering information on the effectiveness of the two different math programs in the high school -- and this motion ultimately passed by a large (though not unanimous) majority. So, is there active and vigorous discussion? Absolutely. But ultimately I believe this type of debate leads to better decision-making, and thus better outcomes for kids, which I think is something parents, teachers, School Committee members, and superintendents should want.

Superintendent Search Committee

Note: This announcement is now posted on the ARPS website (, and I would strongly encourage applications for anyone interested in serving in this important way (and free on the 11th and 12th of January!). We have 5 open spaces (3 School Committee members and 2 teachers are already on the committee), and those will include at least one government official and two parents (one elementary, one regional) as well as representation from Leverett and Shutesbury. Please let me know if you have questions.

Apply to be a member of the Superintendent Search Committee

If you would like to submit your name to be considered as a member of the Superintendent Search Committee, please click here to send an email to: Rick Hood, Catherine Sanderson and Nora Maroulis before 11 pm, December 15, 2010.

Note that members of the search committee MUST be available for the following dates and times:

January 5 (time TBA, but will be at night, likely 6pm) - a 2 hour meeting with HYA to prep the search committee for the interviews

January 11
10:00am - 12:00pm - Interview #1
12:15pm - 2:15pm - Interview #2
2:30pm - 4:30pm - Interview #3

January 12
12:00pm - 2:00pm - Interview #4
2:15pm - 4:15pm - Interview #5
4:30pm - discussion and choice of 3 finalists
Night (time unspecified, probably 6pm) - presentation of the 3 finalists to the full school committee

NOTE: the times shown above could change so please plan on being available from 9am to 6pm on January 11 and 12.

In your email please include the following:

• Name
• Phone number
• Are you a parent, citizen, government official, school administrator or student?
• What school(s) do you have children in: none, ARHS, ARMS, Amherst Elementary, Pelham Elementary, Leverett Elementary or Shutesbury Elementary?
• What town do you reside in: Amherst, Pelham, Leverett or Shutesbury?
• Please state in a paragraph or two why you would make a good member of the search committee.

We will be choosing members of the committee by the end of December, most likely by the end of week ending December 18.

Thank you for your interest. If you have any questions please contact Rick Hood (, 413-320-3611).

Rick Hood, Catherine Sanderson, Nora Maroulis
School Committee members of the Superintendent Search Committee

Monday, November 22, 2010

Education News Beyond Amherst

It is very easy to focus entirely on education as it impacts us most directly -- what is going on in the Amherst and Regional Public Schools. But many of the discussions that we are having at a local level are also occurring on a national level. Here are a two pieces that I think really speak to the challenges public education now faces.

This first piece is from the New York Times, and examines Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's push to recruit new teaching talent ( Here's my favorite line: "Duncan’s view is that challenging teachers to rise to new levels — by using student achievement data in calculating salaries, by increasing competition through innovation and charters — is not anti-teacher. It’s taking the profession much more seriously and elevating it to where it should be." I could not agree more.

This next piece is from the Washington Examiner, and discusses the issue of whether teachers should receive higher pay (as they do in the Amherst and Regional schools) for having masters degrees in light of evidence showing no association between education and effectiveness in the classroom ( This article notes that "The biggest losers will be university education schools, because they make a lot of money on master's degrees, Hanushek said. 'There's a relationship between education schools and teachers that is not particularly healthy,' he said." Given the increasing pressure on school budgets, I certainly agree that it makes sense to avoid spending money on things that don't improve education for kids.

This issue of whether higher pay should be given for teachers with masters degrees has also been raised by Bill Gates, as reported in Education Week ( Gates also makes the point that schools could save money by increasing class sizes, as long as those classes are taught by highly effective teachers. Again, these strike me as very interesting ideas to ponder for our schools.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

And STILL More on Math

Given the massive interest about math my blog continues to generate, I am now receiving various articles from others about math (thank you!).

First, here is one from the University of Chicago on the important role that parents have in talking about math to their young children ( I found this research fascinating -- in part because we hear tons about the importance of reading to kids early on in terms of promoting literacy, but much less about the importance of talking about math/numbers.

Second, here's a story from the Boston Globe on how even Massachusetts is losing ground in advanced math ( I found this one pretty depressing -- both as a parent of three kids in Massachusetts schools and as a professor.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

School panel seeks advice on class sizes

This is an interesting article on class sizes in Brookline, and in particular addresses the Brookline School Committee's interest in making research-based decisions on how to best allocate district resources ( Steve Rivkin, who was asked to present information to the Brookline School Committee, describes his own research on the benefits of small class sizes for particular students.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Regional School Committee, November 9, 2010

I'll do a longer blog post soon on last night's meeting, but here is a brief summary of probably the part people are most interested in anyway from the Gazette -- the math report ( You can also read Dr. Chen's full report (, as well as curriculum director Beth Graham's response (, on the ARPS website.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Math Review Presentation

Dr. Andrew Chen will attend the Regional School Committee meeting tomorrow, Tuesday November 9th, at 7 pm in Town Hall to present his findings about math in the Amherst and Regional schools. This item is scheduled quite early on the agenda, and I'm certain he will be willing to respond to questions. The full report has been received by the administration and the School Committee, and will be posted later today on the ARPS website. Please read the report and attend the meeting (or watch it live on ACTV) to hear Dr. Chen's recommendations involving math in our schools. There is also a brief piece in last week's Bulletin about the math review (

Update: The Math Report is now available on the ARPS website (4 pm Monday).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Much Education Action in Amherst

I'm just posting a few quick articles from the Gazette that address issues of education in Amherst, and thus I thought would be of interest to my blog readers. Enjoy!

Here is an article just posted on line announcing Maria Geryk's intention to apply for the permanent superintendent job (

This article, from yesterday's Gazette, describes the formation of a committee in Leverett to study various alternatives to their school structure ( People interested in learning the other towns' explorations about education options should also check out the Shutesbury group's website, which describes a number of options they are considering, including pulling their 7th and 8th graders from the Amherst Regional Middle School and forming a K to 8 district with Leverett and Pelham (

Note: I have now fixed one of these links that wasn't working - sorry about that!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I'm posting a review from the New York Times of a new documentary on failing public schools in America ( The film is playing at Amherst Cinema and I encourage everyone interested in educational issues to see the movie. The documentary highlights the efforts of Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, and Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, DC schools, to reform public education in America.

The documentary brings up many controversial issues around and approaches to education reform, and is creating significant discussion across America. Amherst schools of course do not face the considerable problems seen in the NYC and DC public schools. However, the topics the film addresses, the achievement gap, charter schools, and the role of teacher evaluation and teachers unions in education, are all being played out in Amherst as well as the big cities.

I haven't yet seen the film, and I am not endorsing or criticizing any of the positions or politics explored in the film. Like anything that points out faults in our education system the film has been heavily criticized for being anti-teacher, anti-union, pro-charter school and all together too negative. On the other hand it has been celebrated for finally talking openly about the crisis in American education that should have been addressed years ago. I hope that the film might provide some insight and inspiration as we examine the issues around public education in our town.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Meeting Update AND Superintendent's Forum

I'll do a longer blog post soon about last night's (very good) Amherst School Committee Meeting, but two quick things for now:

1. We voted last night to form a task force to study the governance of the Amherst elementary schools, as you can read about in the Gazette article ( We've spent a lot of time discussing various options on this, and I've heard a lot of different views, and ultimately I believe we need to have a better understanding of the financial implications of the current arrangement -- as well as any alternative arrangement -- so I am really glad the Amherst SC all voted to support the formation of this task force. Steve has agreed to participate, and may be joined by another member of the Amherst SC, and will certainly be joined by 1 or more members of the Amherst Finance Committee.

2. There is a public forum regarding the superintendent selection (and the characteristics/qualities community members/parents/teachers want in this person) so please come share your thoughts: 7 pm tonight (Wednesday), ARHS auditorium. You can also fill out a survey on line sharing your thoughts (

Friday, October 22, 2010

Math: A Few Updates to The Bulletin

I know there is considerable interest in math in this district, so I was pleased to see the brief piece by Nick Grabbe on the upcoming math review in this week's Bulletin (, and in particular the publicity for the presentation of the math review by Dr. Chen on Monday, November 1st, at 6:30 pm in the middle school. But I'd like to point out a few things that I wished had been noted in this important story.

First, the piece points out the rise in 6th grade math scores, and that is indicated as evidence that the Investigations curriculum is effective. However, Investigations is a K to 5 curriculum only; our 6th graders use a new curriculum called Impact, which a number of parents (including myself) pushed for for two years. Thus, any improvement in 6th grade scores is due to the new curriculum, which was adopted last year for the first time, and not to Investigations, since 6th graders don't use Investigations.

Second, I'm surprised the story didn't mention that the 3rd grade math scores (the first math scores collected by MCAS, which follow 4 years of Investigations) in Amherst are below the state average. To be precise, only 18% of the 3rd graders in Amherst scored at the Advanced level in math, compared to a state average of 25%. That really suggests that our district is not helping kids to achieve at the highest level. However, even more concerning was the finding that 14% of the kids in Amherst scored at the warning level in math, compared to the state average of 11%. So, our district has more kids at the very bottom level than the state average AND fewer kids at the top.

Third, it is not that "some parents and School Committee members" express concern about Investigations; there has been long-standing concern about Investigations among parents AND teachers in Amherst since at least 2007 (see for the math program report which I assisted with under the direction of Jere Hochman and includes negative comments by parents and teachers about Investigations) and there is a large national debate about this curriculum. You can read about the concerns (including petitions to eliminate Investigations) across the country simply by googling "Investigations" and "math". You will find many links showing concerns. In other words, the Amherst debate isn't really an Amherst debate; it is a national debate (and frankly, a very important national debate).

Finally, and most importantly, I think the key piece of information that should have appeared in the story is not opinion - mine, parents, teachers, School Committee members - but data. Because frankly, I'm not interested in having a curriculum simply based on what some people like (whether those people are parents, teachers, SC members, etc.). I want a curriculum that works to teach math. And I've attached a link to an article reporting a random assignment study published last summer (funded by the US Department of Education) showing that Investigations was the weakest of the 4 elementary math curriculum studied ( Here's a brief summary:

Achievement Effects of Four Early Elementary School Math Curricula: Findings from First Graders in 39 Schools reports on the relative impacts of four math curricula on first-grade mathematics achievement. The curricula were selected to represent diverse approaches to teaching elementary school math in the United States. The four curricula are Investigations in Number, Data, and Space; Math Expressions; Saxon Math; and Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics. First-grade math achievement was significantly higher in schools randomly assigned to Math Expressions or Saxon Math than in those schools assigned to Investigations in Number, Data, and Space or to Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics. This study is being conducted as part of the National Assessment of Title I. The report cleared IES peer review on February 2, 2009.

I believe that elementary kids in Amherst deserve an excellent math curriculum that will provide them with a thorough basis in mathematics so that they can build on this knowledge in MS and HS math and science courses. If the best curriculum for our kids is Investigations, that's great -- we already own it! And I believe we all need to focus on the facts, and not ideology, and I have serious concerns about both our 3rd grade math scores (again, following 4 years of Investigations) and the results of this randomized study showing Investigations is the worst of the 4 curriculum. I really hope Dr. Chen's report can provide useful information to the district moving forward, and I hope all those interested in this topic will try to attend his presentation on November 1st.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

There Is No 'War on Teachers'

Note: This is an interesting oped on education which appeared in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week. The author (Eric A. Hanushek) is a professor at Stanford University (and a frequent co-author with Steve Rivkin), and is a well-regarded expert on issues in education.

No longer is education reform an issue of liberals vs. conservatives. In Washington, the Obama administration's Race to the Top program rewarded states for making significant policy changes such as supporting charter schools. In Los Angeles, the Times published the effectiveness rankings-and names-of 6,000 teachers. And nationwide, the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which strongly criticizes the public education system, continues to succeed at the box office.

All sides of the educational policy debate now accept that the key determinant of school effectiveness is teachers-that effective teachers get good achievement results for all children, while ineffective teachers hurt all students, regardless of background. Also increasingly accepted is that the interests of teachers unions aren't the same as the interests of children, or even of most teachers.

Until recently, the unions asserted that they spoke for teachers and that they should judge which reforms are good. Any proposal they didn't like, they labeled part of a "war on teachers." Their first response to the Los Angeles Times and to "Waiting for 'Superman'" has been to drag out that familiar line. According to the American Federation of Teachers, "The film's central themes-that all public school teachers are bad, that all charter schools are good and that teachers' unions are to blame for failing schools-are incomplete and inaccurate, and they do a disservice to the millions of good teachers in our schools who work their hearts out every day."

What's really going on is different. President Obama states that we can't tolerate bad teachers in classrooms, and he has promoted rewarding the most effective teachers so they stay in the classroom. The Los Angeles Times published data identifying both effective and ineffective teachers. And "Waiting for 'Superman'" (in which I provide commentary) highlighted exceptional teachers and pointed out that teachers unions don't focus enough on teacher quality.

This is not a war on teachers en masse. It is recognition of what every parent knows: Some teachers are exceptional, but a small number are dreadful. And if that is the case, we should think of ways to change the balance.

My research-which has focused on teacher quality as measured by what students learn with different teachers-indicates that a small proportion of teachers at the bottom is dragging down our schools. The typical teacher is both hard-working and effective. But if we could replace the bottom 5%-10% of teachers with an average teacher-not a superstar-we could dramatically improve student achievement. The U.S. could move from below average in international comparisons to near the top.

Teachers unions say they don't want bad teachers in the classrooms, but then they assert that we can't adequately judge teachers and they act to defend them all. Thus unions defend teachers in "rubber rooms"- where they are sent after being accused of improper behavior or found to be extraordinarily ineffective-on the grounds that due process rights require such treatment. (In a perverse way, rubber rooms are good as long as it is not feasible to remove teachers that are harming kids; it is better to pay these teachers not to teach than to have more children suffer.)

So we are seeing not a war on teachers, but a war on the blunt and detrimental policies of teachers unions. If unions continue not to represent the vast numbers of highly effective teachers, but instead to lump them in with the ineffective teachers, they will continue doing a disservice to students, to most of their own members, and to the nation.

There is a place for an enlightened union that accepts the simple premise that teacher performance is an integral part of effecting reform. As the late Albert Shanker said in 1985, when he was president of the American Federation of Teachers: "Teachers must be viewed . . . as a group that acts on behalf of its clients and takes responsibility for the quality and performance of its own ranks."

The bottom line is that focusing on effective teachers cannot be taken as a liberal or conservative position. It's time for the unions to drop their polemics and stop propping up the bottom.

Mr. Hanushek is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Inadequate evaluations hamper progress in our school system

This is a link to an oped by Steve Rivkin in last week's Amherst Bulletin which I think raises a number of very important points ( Steve's professional work examines the economics of education, and therefore he brings a depth of understanding of the research on education to his School Committee work (in fact, he was recently asked to present research on the effects of class size on achievement to the Brookline School Committee). I found this oped fascinating, and hope my blog readers will enjoy it as well.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Superintendent Search 2010

Note: This announcement is now on the website, which I think is a great example of the extent to which this search firm is gathering information from all stakeholders. Please take a few minutes to click on the link to the survey to share your thoughts about the qualities we need in a superintendent, and encourage your friends/neighbors/colleagues to do the same (

Our school district is now in the process of searching for a new Superintendent of Schools to begin work in July 2011. Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates has been hired to assist the School Committees in this search process. Consultants Al Argenziano and John Connolly of HYA will begin their work by helping the community define the qualities, skills and experience that the public is looking for in a Superintendent. The work to develop this leadership profile will occur on October 27 and October 28, during which time a variety of meetings will occur with school, parent, and community groups. In addition, a public forum will be held on Wednesday, October 27 at 7:00 pm in the ARHS Auditorium. The list of groups scheduled to meet with the consultants will be announced in the next few days.

In addition to holding public forums, we are now posting an online survey to seek your input in the process of hiring a new superintendent. This survey is designed to gather your perception on the importance of various characteristics commonly found in effective superintendents. The information will be used by the School Committees to determine the "Desired Characteristics" of our next superintendent. Select the survey link below that best represents your relationship to the School District.

Please continue to check this site for updates as the search process occurs. We deeply appreciate your participation in this important endeavor.

Rick Hood, Chair
Regional School Committee

Irv Rhodes, Chair
Amherst School Committee

Debbie Gould, Chair
Pelham School Committee

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Updated Summary: Regional Meeting 10-12-10

Here is my longer summary of the 4 hour meeting from Tuesday night (as I described briefly in the prior post).

The meeting started with a two-hour meeting with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates (the search firm hired to assist with the superintendent search). Two men from HYA presented considerable information about the search process, including time line, potential questions for candidates, and strategies for gathering feedback. This is clearly a very experienced firm (they handled the Newton superintendent search last year), and I was extremely impressed with the amount of information they provided. I encourage people to watch the meeting when they can (it is already being shown on ACTV), but here is a brief summary of the steps:

First, HYA will be in Amherst on October 27th and 28th to meet with various stakeholder groups (e.g., principals, teachers, PGO and School Council members, town government officials, etc.) and individually with each SC member, and to hold a public forum. The goal of this visit is to get information from our community about what we are looking for in terms of characteristics important in a new leader. They will also create a survey that people can complete on line describing such characteristics. This strikes me as really helpful in terms of gathering information from many community members to guide what they are looking for in terms of recruiting a superintendent.

Second, they have recommended that a search committee be created, and the Regional SC approved this idea at the meeting. This committee will consist (per their recommendation) of 8 members: 3 SC members (one chosen by the Pelham SC, one by the Amherst SC, one by the Regional SC), 2 teachers/staff/administrators (1 elementary, one MS/HS), 2 parents (1 elementary, 1 MS/HS), and a town government official. The MS/HS parents and town government officials could be from any of the towns, whereas the elementary parents need to be in either Amherst or Pelham (since the superintendent doesn't supervise the Leverett and Shutesbury elementary schools). This search committee will have a pretty limited role - narrowing the 5 semi-finalists selected by the search firm (based on their belief about who would best fit our needs) to 3 finalists (e.g., eliminating, following interviews, the two candidates that are a less good fit). The SC would then meet with all 3 finalists in public, and ultimately choose the person who was the best fit from these. Information on submitting your name for consideration for inclusion will be posted on the ARPS website soon -- and I encourage all interested parents/teachers/government officials to apply (the SC members chosen to serve on this search committee with chose the specific people for this committee from those who submit their names).

Third, the Search Committee will meet in early January for 2 days to conduct the interviews with the five semi-finalists, and to narrow that down to 3 finalists. The SC will then meet with the three finalists in public (and give them tours, set up meetings with teachers/parents/staff/community members) in mid-January, with the goal of finalizing the selection by January 20th or so.

I am now the only person on the Regional SC or Amherst SC who participated in the last search to hire Dr. Rodriguez (and for the record, I voted for Dr. David Sklarz in that vote), and it is very interesting to me that this search differs so much from the search we did two years ago. One key difference is that last time the SC met in executive session with all 8 semi-finalists (it appears this is certainly illegal to do now, and may well have been illegal to do at the time). Another key difference is that the SC last time reviewed all the applications, and then chose the 8 semi-finalists, whereas now, the search firm is doing the work of narrowing the pool. This strikes me as frankly a very good idea, since this search firm actually had considerable expertise in finding good superintendents and presumably they know what they are looking for.

Next, we turned to the regular Regional School Committee meeting. This meeting started with public comment from several parents and community members: Michael DeChiara (head of Shutesbury SC) opposed the idea of the search firm narrowing the list of semi-finalists to 5, Julia Rueschemeyer presented a petition signed by 97 parents/community members supporting a fair and open superintendent search process for internal and external candidates, Michael Aronson presented a list of qualifications required by the Granby SC in their superintendent search, and Marylou Theilman (former Regional SC chair) supported the use of a fair and open superintendent search in terms of the affirmative action policy and the six-figure salary.

Superintendent Maria Geryk then provided her update on various upcoming events in the district. I'd particularly like to point out the math survey, which families of current students are invited to fill out a brief survey as part of the comprehensive K-12 Math Review (go to, and you will see the link under latest news). Parents are asked to complete the survey by Wednesday, October 27, so please try to make time to do so. They are still working on a date for Andrew Chen to visit Amherst and present his findings, so stay tuned for that -- probably November.

We then turned to new business. This included a brief re-vote of last year's budget (based on the change in how some things are calculated, NOT a change in the overall number), a discussion of school committee norms (including trying not to introduce surprise motions and trying to treat all members with respect), and an update on the transition to the new law firm selected for special education (Amherst and Regional SCs have voted to select a new law firm but Pelham has not done so yet). There was also a discussion regarding budget priorities (largely to avoid having the administrators created budgets that the SC then rejected, as happened last year with the proposal from Mark Jackson to require 3 study halls in the HS), and a discussion of district goals (which should be presented and voted on in the near future). The Regional SC prioritized implementing the recommendations from the special education report, improving teaching effectiveness/instruction/evaluation, and reducing the achievement gap (though Steve noted that really should be raising achievement for all kids, not just reducing the gap). More discussion of these district goals will follow at the next Regional SC meeting, which is next THURSDAY, October 21st.

We then had a few brief updates from various subcommittees, including the policy subcommittee (policies will be presented soon for voting) and the budget subcommittee (a line item budget is being created).

Finally, we had a brief discussion about items for upcoming meetings, which requests to send our ranked list of items to Rick for potential inclusion at a subsequent meeting.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Regional School Committee Meeting, October 12, 2010

This will be a brief update to say we had a very productive meeting tonight. The meeting started with a 2 hour open meeting with the search firm assisting us with the superintendent search and they were just excellent. You can read about this aspect of the meeting in the linked Gazette article( I will provide a fuller view of the superintendent search process -- which we need lots of community input about -- and will also provide a fuller update of the regional meeting tomorrow.

Assorted Updates and Volunteer Options

Just wanted to let my blog readers know a few things - so this will be fast.

First, tonight's Regional SC meeting starts at 6 pm (Town Hall, live on ACTV) and will start with a two hour meeting with the newly hired superintendent search firm. I'm interested to learn more about the firm's thoughts re. time line and qualifications, and believe this will be a very informative meeting. Then the actual meeting will start at 8 pm -- the big thing on the agenda is a discussion of budgets priorities.

Second, the SC is seeking community volunteers for various task forces. There are two announcements already posted on the ARPS website ( One of these groups will focus on budget stuff - picking up on the remaining work from last year's Citizen's Budget Advisory Committee, and the other examine the pros/cons of a possible change in school start times - studying whether the elementary and regional schools could change their start times. You can volunteer for either by contacting Kimberly Stender ( There will also be volunteers needed soon for the Amherst SC's Task Force on considering moving the 6th grade to the MS -- stay tuned if you are interested in volunteering for that one.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Education Matters: Schools taking measures to close achievement gap

This is just a quick post to attach the link to my most recent Education Matters column from the Amherst Bulletin (

I'll be doing a post this weekend summarizing the last Amherst SC Meeting (Tuesday, September 28th), so look out for that if you are interested (we discussed the MCAS results for all three schools and voted to form a task force to examine moving the 6th grade to the middle school).

Also, the next Regional SC meeting will be this Tuesday, October 12th, and will start at 6 pm. The first 2 hours will be with the superintendent search firm we've hired -- this is open to the public so feel free to come (or watch on TV).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More Feedback Wanted on Localocracy

I've just posted a new question on localocracy, because I realized from reading the responses (and in particular the reasons given) that my first question wasn't really clear. Once again, if you are an Amherst registered voter, you can go on this site and vote (and you can vote anonymously if you want) or you can ask a question to get more information ( I've pasted my entire localocracy post below, just FYI -- and I'd be glad to hear thoughts/questions here as well (though will look to localocracy to see how the tally of actual registered voters goes). As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

So, I have read through all of the very helpful reasons/questions given on my last issue, and realize that a number of people were confused about what precisely that question asked … hence this question will be similar, but a bit more direct to help voters learn about the key issue, and to hopefully provide more useful feedback. Much of the information I posted on the last issue is still relevant (e.g., Amherst is in a union with Pelham, votes are shared equally on hiring/evaluating the superintendent, there is currently no written formula in terms of how those costs are shared, etc.), but I’m also presenting some new information about an option that I’d love to get feedback on.

Basically there are three options – Amherst can stay in the current Union 26 situation (this has pretty mixed support — some feel it is fine, some feel it needs to be fixed), Amherst can form its own K to 6 district (although this might be possible, the state would certainly come in because Pelham would need to find some new situation, and that probably isn’t fast/easy), or Amherst and Pelham can form a joint elementary regional district (like the current 7 to 12 arrangement, but with 2 towns instead of 4). I’d like to get feedback on the desirability of exploring this third possibility, forming a regional elementary district, for three reasons.

First, many of the people who supported staying in Union 26 expressed support for maintaining a strong relationship with Pelham. Having a regional agreement would actually strengthen the current arrangement, as there would be a single SC making all policy decisions for the Amherst and Pelham schools (e.g., like we have 3 schools now in Amherst, this would just be 4). This would make curriculum alignment and sharing of resources easier (e.g., right now the Amherst schools have Spanish and Pelham does not, both SCs could adopt different math curriculum, etc.). It would also simplify the superintendent’s job somewhat (e.g., managing two budgets, not 3; reporting to 2 SCs, not 3).

Second, many of the people who supported getting out of Union 26 expressed concern about the inequity in voting (e.g., a town with 10% of the population having 50% of the vote in hiring/evaluating a superintendent). A regional agreement would mean the two towns could get a different number of school committee seats, and thus would not require equal representation.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it seems that it is impossible to know whether either Amherst or Pelham would like a regional elementary agreement unless these two towns starting talking to each other in terms of what the terms would be (so that we could see if mutually-agreeable terms could be reached). For example, the towns would have to agree on how costs would be divided, if students living in one town could attend school in the other town, the number of School Committee seats each town would have, and the rules (if any) governing major changes (e.g., closing a school could require the support of Town Meeting of that town). I’m sure there are other details, but these are the types of things that would have to be discussed before either town could know if a regional agreement was in fact a good idea. It might therefore make sense for such discussions to start sooner rather than later so that both towns would know whether a regional elementary agreement might be a viable option moving forward.

And one important point for all to keep in mind: because of the various details and logistics that would have to be worked out if and when a decision was made to change the current configuration in any way, such a change could not go into effect until next summer at the earliest (e.g., none of this could impact the upcoming superintendent hire either way).

So, my question is whether the Amherst School Committee should ask the Pelham School Committee to explore the the benefits of a regional agreement for both towns. A “Yes” vote means you believe this exploration should occur, and a “No” vote means you believe this exploration should NOT occur (meaning you could believe that the current situation is preferable to a regional elementary agreement and no discussion should happen regarding changing it, OR you believe Amherst should form its own district that doesn’t include Pelham). I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Evaluating Localocracy's Approach

So, I've been an eager supporter of localocracy (, because I believe it is an essential way in which we can get more information about what the public thinks. But that is only true if people are reading the information provided and then forming an opinion. I am disappointed with how many people are voting (on either side) with misinformation and that doesn't help the discussion.

Here are a few examples:

1. Some people are voting to end Union 26 because of the inequity in budget spending between Amherst and Pelham. But that issue can be totally solved without dissolving the union. That isn't a reason in and of itself to end the union.

2. Some people are voting to stay in Union 26 because they feel that Amherst and Pelham should work towards great alignment in the curriculum and share the costs of a superintendent. Both of those goals can be entirely accomplished BETTER if Amherst and Pelham form a regional agreement, meaning they form ONE School Committee and the superintendent manages ONE elementary budget, than if they stay in the current union.

3. Some people are voting to stay in Union 26 because they dislike current Amherst SC members (including me!). But the issue of staying in Union 26 is much bigger than the current Amherst SC ... because in a few years, we might very well have quite different people on the SC, who are elected by Amherst voters with their own goals/ideas. Would people still want the Amherst SC to not have the power to select a superintendent if they liked those members (because if we don't get out, that will still be the case, no matter WHO is on the Amherst SC).

4. Most importantly, people don't understand that Union 26 has nothing to do with hiring Maria Geryk. In fact, if Amherst SC members want to veto Maria's permanent appointment as superintendent, that can happen right now in the current situation! The three Amherst members of Union 26 are Irv, me, and Steve (we all voted against Maria's appointment as interim in March). Changing Union 26 has nothing to do with hiring a superintendent in the next 4 months (it couldn't possibly happen that fast -- probably June 30, 2011 at the earliest). The question is not whether you are pro-Maria or pro-ending Union 26. The question is what is best for the town of Amherst, and in particular the children of Amherst. Is it better for the Amherst voters to be able to elect SC members who they want, and then to have those SC members be able to exert more than 50% of the way in their superintendent (given that Amherst pays 95% of the elementary bill)?

Again, I'd love to hear what voters think -- but I really hope all voters will actually read the information presented, and the questions posed and answered by various people BEFORE choosing a side. The point is not to amass points for one's view -- the point is to help inform people about the salient issues, and then have those people vote ONCE they've become educated. It is quite clear from reading the reasons given for various votes that this just isn't happening.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Math: In Amherst and Elsewhere

So, today brought forth two different points for me about math in Amherst quite directly.

First, I read the front-page story in the New York Times on the growing number of districts moving to Singapore Math ( Districts using this math program include public schools in elite districts (e.g., Scarsdale), elite private schools (e.g., Sidwell Friends, where the Obama girls attend school), and inner-city schools in New York City. Interestingly, this is the math program used by the Chinese Charter School in Hadley and by the AIMS program for African American children in Amherst (a Saturday math program). It is interesting to read about the experiences (good and bad) districts have had with this program ... and this article certainly reminds me of how much I'm looking forward to hearing a review of our math curriculum/program by Dr. Andrew Chen (the math consultant located by former superintendent Dr. Alberto Rodriguez).

Second, I received my second child's very first MCAS scores in the mail (he is now a 4th grader at Fort River). I am not going to talk specifically about my own child's performance, but the information provided to all parents included not only how your child does (in both math and English language arts) by also how your child's scores compare to the district and state averages. In a district in which many families have connections to higher education institutions and/or advanced degrees, both Amherst as a district and Fort River Elementary School were below the state average in math. Only 13% of kids in 3rd grade at Fort River, and 18% of the kids in Amherst, scored at the Advanced level, compared to a state average of 25%. That really suggests that our district is not helping kids to achieve at the highest level. However, even more concerning was the finding that 24% of the 3rd graders at Fort River and 14% of the kids in Amherst scored at the warning level, compared to the state average of 11%. So, our district also has more kids at the very bottom level than the state average. In sum, after 4 years in the Amherst schools (K to 3rd), more kids are at the warning level than the state average in math AND fewer kids are at the advanced level than the state average in math. As a School Committee member, a strong proponent of public education, and a mom, I find these numbers highly, highly concerning.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Update on Localocracy Voting

So, the localocracy voting has been fascinating -- and apparently there has been more action on this topic of Union 26 than on other topics they've posed! The voting is pretty much tied as of now (though with relatively few voters on either side -- 10 to 15 people on each). I am finding two things very informative:

First, the reasons people give for getting out of Union 26 are pretty much what one might expect -- concerns about Amherst subsidizing another town and concerns about Amherst tax payers being denied equal representation. However, the reasons people give for staying in Union 26 largely focus on two issues: it has worked well for years (this strikes me as somewhat debatable, given that Amherst does subsidize Pelham!) and that we don't like/trust the current SC. It is obviously fine to dislike me (or Steve, or all of us), but I hope all voters remember that this isn't about the current SC and whether you like them. It is about whether you believe Amherst voters should have the right to vote in SC members they do like, and then whether you believe those SC members should have the right to choose a superintendent (since Amherst pays 95% of the superintendent's salary and has 90% of the kids). I hope that everyone who votes to stay in Union 26 is sure they would still support that vote if in a few years they really liked the new Amherst SC.

Second, the majority of people who have voted to stay in Union 26 have clear ties to the current school administration, whereas none of those who believe Amherst should exit Union 26 have such ties. Several current or former teachers/principals - or their spouses - have voted to stay in Union 26 (Aaron Kropf, David Mullins, Russ Vernon-Jones, Carol Sharick), as have several former SC members (Elaine Brighty, Alice Swift). It is clear that the Union 26 arrangement has felt quite comfortable to those who have long ties to the Amherst educational system.

It is clear from the voting patterns, and reasons provided, that some people in Amherst are really split on this issue (and probably on many), although it is entirely unclear where the silent majority really falls. I continue to believe that public officials need to hear from as many people as possible - hence my desire to do this blog - so I really hope that all of my blog readers who live in Amherst will sign up for localocracy (go to, which just takes a minute (they ask for your name and birthdate and address to verify that you are a registered voter in Amherst). You can then read the full issue I've proposed, and you can vote YES or NO (and give a reason if you want). Before you submit your vote, you can choose whether to use your name or to be anonymous (so, I was wrong about this before -- you CAN vote anonymously) . Again, there are many people in Amherst whose voice is not being heard, so I encourage all my blog readers to vote (either way -- I want honest and objective information on what the public thinks) and to send the localocracy link to their friends/neighbors/colleagues and encourage them to sign up and express their thoughts as well! This is a very easy way to participate in politics in Amherst (even anonymously!) and we all benefit from hearing more voices.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tell Me What YOU Think on

To try to gage the broad sentiment of the community, I've posted a link about the Union 26 issue on the website. This is a new website that is genuinely trying to tap into community feelings about political issues in towns in an objective way (e.g., it is "agenda-free"). I've provided objective information about Union 26 on this website, and I want to now hear what YOU think. Please go to: to register your vote (you will have to sign in and use your name), and please send this information to your friends/neighbors/colleagues. It best serves the School Committee IF we hear from many voices -- not just a few -- so I really hope the community will weigh in on localocracy on this very important issue. Thanks!

One correction: apparently you can vote anonymously on this site -- that is an option. But you have to be an Amherst resident to log in to register a vote.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Amhest and Pelham Joint Meeting, September 28, 2010

We had two separate SC meetings tonight -- at 7 pm, a joint meeting with the Pelham SC, and at 8 pm, an Amherst only meeting (so I will do two separate blog post summaries).

The joint meeting started with statements by Debbie and Irv, chairs of the two SCs. These statements generally expressed willingness to work together and find common ground in a positive way.

The floor was then open for general comments on two distinct topics - cost sharing of central office and governance.

In terms of cost sharing, the key information is as follows:

1. There is currently no written or standard formula determining how costs are divided between Amherst, Pelham and the Region. In contrast, all other superintendent unions seem to have written formula for how to distribute central office costs among member towns. For example, Union 28, in which Leverett and Shutesbury participate, computes enrollment figures each October 1st and then divides all central office costs based completed on enrollment for the next year (starting July 1st). I

2. There is substantial variation both over time and among items in the central office budget with respect to the assignment of costs. For example, last year the superintendent’s salary was paid 50% from the Region, 48% from Amherst, and 2% from Pelham, whereas this year the Region will still pay 50% but Amherst will pay 47% and Pelham will pay 3%. It isn't clear how decisions are made about how to allocate costs in any given year, or who makes that decision.

3. The rule of thumb according to our administrators (according to business manager Rob Detweiler) is that Amherst pays 94% and Pelham pays 6% of the elementary school share of central office costs. In actuality, however, Amherst is paying 96.5% and Pelham is paying 3.5%. Thus, even based on the rule of thumb calculation, Amherst is over-paying right now and Pelham is under-paying.

4. Pelham is paying far below its share of elementary school enrollment which is roughly 10% (not 6%). It is also not clear whether enrollment is the right way to calculate costs. For example, some districts allocate costs based on number of buildings or principals, which was suggested as the best solution in a memo sent to all Amherst and Pelham SC members yesterday by a member of CBAC (this would mean Amherst pays 75% and Pelham pays 25%).

The good news is that all members of both SCs agreed that we need to settle on a clear, consistent, and fair way of allocating costs between Amherst, Pelham, and the Region. I look forward to hearing suggestions from the Budget Subcommittee about such allocations in the near future, and to voting on a policy so that at least this aspect of Union 26 can be settled.

We also talked about issues of governance, and in particular the fact that Amherst and Pelham are in the most inequitable union in the state of Massachusetts -- and how according to state law, there is nothing we can do about changing the nature of the equal voting given to each town.

Steve, Rob, and I all expressed concerns about the nature of this governance, and the impossibility of doing anything about it while staying in the union. Steve indicated he would be bringing forward a motion on this issue in the future, and would like to get the state involved in examining alternative arrangements. I noted that an easy fix to this governance issue would be forming an elementary regional agreement with Pelham, in which case we could have a single SC that would jointly influence decision-making for all 4 elementary schools (a regional agreement would allow the division of representatives in some way other than 3 to 3).

Members from Pelham noted that they were currently studying (as part of a larger "visioning" process) options for the Pelham school moving forward, which they expected to bring to Town Meeting in May for a vote. They asked for the Amherst SC to give them time to complete this process.

Some members from Amherst expressed concern about waiting until May to move on a decision involving Union 26, and noted that it might be in Pelham's best interest to know if a given option (e.g., remaining in Union 26) was off the table before they had moved too far along in their consideration of various options. I noted that it seemed odd for Amherst to simply wait and do nothing, given the possibility that in May we could then learn Pelham wanted to exit the union.

There was also a fair amount of dialogue about whether bringing the state in to help advise on this issue was a good or bad idea. Some members of both SCs (Debbie, Irv) expressed concerns that the state would come in and take control and thus we would lose local control. Other members from Amherst (Steve, Rob) noted that the state would get involved if we chose to exit Union 26, and it would be better to have the state involved earlier so that we wouldn't pursue a path that ultimately would be rejected. They also noted that state law clearly gives SCs the right to make these decisions, and that asking the state for advice clearly doesn't change the state law about local control.

I think this is an important topic for both Amherst and Pelham to consider, and I believe there are solutions that may well benefit both towns. I look forward to a discussion at the next Amherst SC meeting (October) about potential steps for us moving forward on this topic.

One final note: I'd be interested in hearing what my blog readers think about this topic -- but will remind people to be respectful in their comments, which will help us have a more productive discussion about the content of this issue (not motives/personality/tone of those on either side).


One quick update: Here is a link to the Gazette story on this meeting:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

City Schools Revel in AP Success Stories

I'm posting a link to a Gazette story on the recent AP test successes experienced at both Northampton High and Easthampton High ( I congratulate the leaders of both of these schools in the tremendous success they've experienced in terms of increasing the number of kids taking AP tests AND at increasing the passing rate! In these communities increasing AP participation and success is seen as a positive, an indication that students are reaching for and achieving significant academic goals. Some in Amherst have expressed that AP classes have negative connotations of elitism and grinding down of creativity. However, many high school students across the river, and across the country, experience AP classes as intellectually challenging and engaging. They feel very proud of their accomplishments, and save money and time in college by gaining college credit and/or placing out of intro level classes. That is not to suggest that AP classes are the ONLY, or even the MOST, rewarding classes. It is just to acknowledge that very strong, good high schools offer such classes, and in many other communities, having these classes, and having students succeed in these classes, is a point of pride. Perhaps we can find a way to offer more AP classes for those in Amherst that want to take them, in particular the most commonly offered classes such as AP Statistics and AP Chemistry. I am confident our talented teachers could find a way to teach the curriculum of these classes without making them boring or teaching to the test. It would give our academically oriented students a more even playing field with their peers when they get to college.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Thoughts on Hiring a Superintendent

There is a big story in tomorrow's Gazette on the most recent Regional School Committee drama: here's the link to that piece (

I just want to add a few additional thoughts about this very important issue.

I was really disappointed in last night’s meeting, and in particular the extent to which all of the hill town School Committee representatives voted to halt the hiring of the superintendent search firm (the bid would have expired in 5 days, so any delay would have meant we lost this contract -- the only offer we received). This topic was not on the night’s agenda and other School Committee members were not given the courtesy of learning of this monumental motion prior to the meeting (which initiated as a motion by Ms. Luschen from Shutesbury -- which was seconded by I believe Kip Fonsch from Leverett -- to simply hire Ms. Geryk permanently and conduct no search). Also, since there was a unanimous vote at the last meeting to hire a search committee to assist with hiring a superintendent, there was no reason for School Committee members or the general public to expect that any discussion involving making an appointment without a search would be proposed. It felt a bit like an ambush political tactic rather than a sincere desire for an open discussion.

Some people have noted that the Amherst SB just appointed John Musante without a search, and suggested that we should follow that lead. However, there are three key differences between these two situations. John has a long tenure as the key assistant to the Town Manager, he was a finalist in the previous search four years ago, and finally, the Select Board made this appointment only after a significant public process to solicit input from the community. So, these are really not comparable situations.

I have no idea whether Maria Geryk would or would not emerge at the best candidate in an open evaluation process. But I would expect any qualified candidate for superintendent would welcome, and in fact insist on, such a process where he or she could demonstrate to the community their qualifications. This is how a candidate gains broad support from not only the School Committee but the broader community (not just teachers and principals, but parents and community members as well).

Members from the hill towns spoke passionately about Maria’s excellent performance over the last 7 months. Certainly she appears to have support from the staff of the school system who appear to see her as bringing stability to the schools. Personally, I am impressed with Maria’s communication skills and her ability to build bridges to the community (such as the coffee with the superintendent and the hiring of the ombudsman). However, virtually all of the improvements and evaluations around instruction and curriculum accomplished recently were started well before Maria’s tenure. Programs such as the improvements in the middle school, creation of the First Day event, expansion of the preschool program, hiring a staff person to assist with Five College collaboration, the hiring of Dr. Chen for the math review, and implementation of the afterschool and summer school intervention support were started before she was appointed interim superintendent (and initiated with former superintendent Dr. Alberto Rodriguez). She has yet to go through a planning cycle for developing district goals, or develop any specific plans in response to external evaluations such as the special education review or math curriculum review. I believe it is fair to judge people on their body of work, and unlike John Musante, Maria’s work as superintendent has occurred over a very short period of time. She has not had the chance to demonstrate her effectiveness.

On the other hand, Maria has been in charge of the special education program for many years. The recent external review of this program raised a number of serious issues (as have been noted by many parents of children in special education for years). Whether these concerns reflect on Maria’s ability to serve as superintendent would be clarified by a real search process. Many parents, including parents of children in special education, have expressed concerns about Maria as superintendent. She does not at this time appear to have the unanimous public endorsement that John Musante received during the public comment on his proposed appointment.

Moreover, I have never seen Maria Geryk’s resume, and to the best of my knowledge neither has any member of the School Committee. She has never been through an interview process, there are no answers on record as to her views on critical issues to the school such as academic rigor, social justice, and budget priorities. This is due diligence we are obligated to do as a town and as a School Committee. It is also the best possible way for any candidate to win the support of the community.

I believe hiring a superintendent is the single most important thing a School Committee does, and believe the community should have an opportunity to share their thoughts about the qualifications for such a hire. Do we want someone with experience as a classroom teacher or principal? Do we want someone with a doctorate? Do we want someone with experience on budgets and finances, or curriculum and instruction, or hiring and mentoring teachers/principals? Do we not care about experience and just want someone who is a strong communicator or is supported by current teachers? I believe the way to make the best hire is by going through a fair and open process in which both internal and external candidates are given full consideration and evaluated on their merits, experiences, backgrounds, and ideas. I believe that is how we will end up with a superintendent that reflects the values of the community and has the broad support of the community. I hope that members of the Regional School Committee who represent the hill towns will allow such a process to occur so that the entire community can have confidence in the person we hire in January, and that we can provide that person with the support and respect he or she deserves.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

September 22, 2010, Regional Meeting

So, it is late, and I teach in 9 hours, and hence this will be relatively brief. But tonight was truly one of the oddest meetings we've had, and thus I wanted to get a quick update out to my blog readers.

There were two key votes taken: one selecting a superintendent search firm and one selecting a lawyer for the district. The first was supposed to be a quick vote to approve a superintendent search firm (we only received one bid from the four firms that we requested bids from). However, Kristen Luschen, from Shutesbury, made a motion (with absolutely no warning to other members of the SC) to appoint Maria Geryk superintendent, effective immediately, without conducting any search whatsoever. This motion was discussed at length -- and I encourage you to watch the meeting on ACTV - but briefly, all members from the hilltowns strongly supported simply making Maria permanent superintendent and not conducting any type of search (and they reported that this was the message they were receiving from members of their community). I was frankly shocked at this motion, in part because no members of the SC were given any notice about this motion, but also because this type of decision seems like one that clearly should have been announced on the agenda so that members of the public could have shared their views (this topic was NOT on the agenda). I was also quite surprised that members of the SC would feel comfortable appointing a permanent superintendent without any opportunity for public comment on such an appointment (which is precisely what my concern was in March when Maria was appointed for 16 months without any public comment). Moreover, no members of the SC have even seen her resume, and she has never undergone any sort of review of her performance; hence I am uncertain about our ability to evaluate her qualifications for this job and make such a major decision.

This motion was discussed at length, and ultimately was voted down, with all 5 members of the Amherst SC voting to conduct a search (and acknowledging that if Maria was the best candidate, surely she would be selected), and all 4 non-Amherst members voting to make Maria the permanent superintendent without any public comment or notice that this was even a possibility (NOTE: I have a correction to this statement below).

We then turned to discuss the legal representation of the district. Again, I encourage you to watch the whole meeting, but briefly, all members from the hilltowns spoke in favor of retaining our current counsel for all legal matters (special education and general counsel). Several members from Amherst (Steve, Irv, me) spoke about concerns with the current counsel (including concerns expressed by parents of students in special education, concerns about legal contracts such as the contract giving away control of the HS schedule and requiring spring parent-teacher conference in the elementary schools and including an invalid clause in the most recent superintendent contract). However, ultimately the vote was 5 to 4 in favor of hiring the Dupere law firm to represent us in special education (another vote with all Amherst members in favor, all non-Amherst members against), and then 5 to 4 in favor of retaining the current counsel for general counsel (all hilltown members were joined by Rick in the majority; the other 4 Amherst members voted for Deutsch & Williams).

Those were the "highlights" ... will do a more thorough update tomorrow sometime. But in conclusion, it was very clear at this meeting that SC members from the hilltowns are quite comfortable supporting the status quo -- maintaining our current interim superintendent permanently and maintaining our current law firm. And you see that members from Amherst are pushing for more change and a more open process -- requesting an open process by which we choose a superintendent (all Amherst members) and requesting a change in our legal counsel (all Amherst members with respect to special education counsel, 80% of Amherst members with respect to general counsel). The differences in view and perspective between Amherst SC members and non-Amherst SC members seems quite stark, and something I think we all need to take note of.


I am just adding a few other items of business that occurred last night.

First, we appointed a subcommittee of the three chairs to create the superintendent's goals and evaluation (Irv, Rick, Debbie). That system worked effectively last time and I believe will be useful again.

Second, we learned from Rob Detweiler that the regional schools had paid an additional $150,000 to charter schools for reimbursement ABOVE our projections, again showing that some families continue to opt out of our public schools (and more than we expected).

Third, we learned from Rick Hood that members of the CBAC group aren't so interested in continuing their work on budget stuff, which is disappointing. I've heard from members of this group that they were frustrated with the lack of support they received from the administration, which made it difficult for them to compile the data they needed.

Fourth, we agreed to appoint a task force to study whether school times should be changed (either delaying elementary and regional start times OR delaying the start times of all schools). There will be an announcement on the website for those who are interested in serving on this task force.

Fifth, we conducted a first read of several policies (attendance, anti-bullying) -- these policies will be posted on the ARPS website soon for public comment. Policy meetings are also open to the whole community for those who want to attend in person.

One final note: I will be posting a summary of the last Amherst meeting in which the Union 26 arrangement was discussed soon -- look back here if you are interested in learning more about this unique agreement!

************************************************************************************************* One more note: I wrote the initial blog posting last night after midnight and was exhausted, and thus didn't fully describe the relatively lengthy proceedings, and so I want to correct something for the record: the unanimous support from the hill town representatives was NOT to hire Maria permanently without public comment -- it was to suspend the hiring of the search firm so that we could hear from the community regarding whether a search should be conducted. However, the effect of such a vote to suspend the search would, I believe, largely be the same as simply appointing Maria for several reasons.

First, the motion initially made by Ms. Luschen (and seconded I believe by Kip Fonsch from Leverett) was to hire Maria as the permanent superintendent. Clearly at least these two people supported the immediate hiring of Maria without any public comment (although neither member from Pelham supported this motion). Second, the bid we received from the search firm expired in 5 days, and it was the ONLY bid we received to do this work. Thus, had we lost thet bid (and certainly there is no SC meeting planned in the next 5 days at which we could have voted to accept the bid), we likely would have lost this search firm -- and at the prior meeting, both Ms. Luschen and Ms. Gould (from Pelham) spoke passionately about the importance of hiring a major firm to assist us with recruiting candidates. In turn, voting to suspend hiring this firm would have led, even if the search continued, to losing this firm and thereby having to do the search on our own, which all parties had agreed was a bad idea in terms of recruiting qualified candidates at the last meeting (and is a particular bad idea when there is an internal candidate). I believed last night, and continued to believe, that even if Maria is the best candidate, she will be far better served (and in turn, our schools will be far better served) by going through a fair and open process in which her abilities/experiences/ideas are demonstrated than by being appointed in a highly controversial and clearly split vote (as it was very clear the majority of Amherst members weren't comfortable appointing her without a search).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Assorted Interesting Education Articles

I've read (and received from blog readers - thanks!) a number of articles on education that are very interesting -- and, in some cases, have clear implications for Amherst. I've posted links to all of these, so you can click on any of these to read the whole piece.

First, here's another piece (from the New York Times) on the efforts to evaluate teachers ( This is clearly a key topic that many districts are facing, and I look forward to hearing more about the pros/cons ... and seeing the results in districts that have attempted to use this model (which is certainly being pushed by Arne Duncan/Obama).

Second, here's an article from the Boston Globe on "what makes a great school" ( I found this piece really interesting because it focused on the relative lack of importance of money -- and instead on the benefits of good teaching and a rigorous curriculum!

Third, there was an interesting article on race differences in suspension rates, a topic which the RADAR group at ARHS has discussed for many years ( This article reported that in middle schools, black boys and girls are suspended at a much higher rate than white students, which is similar to the data that RADAR has shown from ARHS. I would be interested in seeing similar data as a function of student income (e.g., are these races differences really a reflection of class differences?), and I'd also be interested in learning about strategies used by districts in which such disparities don't exist.

Finally, the New York Times published a fascinating blog piece on the link between exercise and cognitive performance ( This article describes a number of very interesting studies showing not only that physical fitness is associated with cognitive abilities, but also why this association might exist.

One final note: tonight's SC meeting will take place in the high school library at 7 pm and will NOT be shown live on ACTV. I'll do a brief blog post after the meeting to catch people up on the major decisions -- which should include hiring a lawyer (or two) to represent the district and choosing a search firm to help with the superintendent search.

Math Consultant To Visit

There has been a lot of discussion on my blog (and in the community, and by the SC) about math, and we are looking forward to hearing the report by the outside consultant Dr. Andrew Chen in October. As announced on the ARPS website, "Family and community members who have not yet had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Andrew Chen (MIT), the consultant conducting the K-12 math program review, are invited to do so on Monday, September 20, from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m., in the Professional Development Center at the Amherst Middle School." I would strongly encourage parents to attend this meeting to share their views on this important topic.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Education Matters: ARMS principal taking steps for improvement

This is the first week of my semester, so I've been swamped - but will finish the summary of the last Amherst SC meeting this weekend. In the meantime, here's a link to my September Education Matters column in the Amherst Bulletin (

One more note: the Regional SC meeting for next week (September 14th) has been cancelled -- we will meet next on WEDNESDAY (so this is the HS library, not town hall), September 22nd, at 7 pm. That meeting will include the district improvement plan as well as the law firm vote (and will not be shown live, since it is not at town hall).