I am out of town right now on business, but after the events of this week (e.g., heavy media coverage of me, my column with Steve Rivkin, my blog, etc.), I am going to take a few minutes to share assorted thoughts I've had. I hope to post my summary of the meeting on Tuesday (January 12th) tomorrow sometime, so check back if that is what you are looking for.
1. My first thought is about the goal of this blog -- which is to increase dialogue about education in Amherst (between parents and teachers and staff members and community members and students). That is the goal, and I think there are times and issues that this blog has worked very well for (I think there was a lot of good and helpful discussion regarding the Marks Meadow closing and redistricting, for example).
But it is MUCH harder to accomplish that goal when people choose to simply engage in personal attacks and slams that oppose the person, and not their view. So, I'm not having this blog so that people can attack me, or teachers, or other SC members, or the superintendent, or other posters (anonymous or not). I've been asked repeatedly by some to eliminate the anonymous posting option, and ultimately, I really don't want to do that because I know there are people who have questions or thoughts or comments they want to share, but just don't feel comfortable posting with their name. And I would rather have more constructive and thoughtful posts than fewer ... so I've kept this option.
However, I'm making two requests. First, when you post, please give yourself some random name so that people can identify you which can either be your real name or not (e.g., as Rich Morse does when he posts, as ACR did recently, or "puzzled parent" and so on). Second, please speak to the ISSUE the person is addressing, and do not engage in personal attacks (whether you are speaking to me, or the other poster, etc.). It is much easier for more voices to participate when people don't feel as if they will be slammed for expressing their views, and I really hope people can respect that. Remember, everyone who posts on this blog (and indeed even the author this blog) has friends and family members who love and care about them -- and it is very hard to read such personal attacks about yourself or those you love (just ask my husband, who posted on this blog last night in anger; or ask my 11-year-old son, who read the Bulletin and said sadly "why do people hate you, Mommy?"). Try to remember the many readers of your words when you post -- and, for those who post anonymously, make sure to think whether you would use the same words if you were using your real name (and if you wouldn't, then don't post).
2. I also want to clarify a real misconception about my goals/priorities: What I am interested in changing about our schools is NOT what they do (e.g., what they teach in 9th grade, what math curriculum they use K to 5, whether AP chemistry is offered, whether the high school is on trimesters/semesters, etc.); it is about HOW decisions are made in our schools. That's it -- and yet, that seems to be a huge change in Amherst. And there are two very important pieces to this change.
First, I believe that decisions in our schools should be made based on objective data, and not on anecdote and intuition. So, I believe instead of just saying "our schools are great" we should actually measure that. And that measuring will certainly show that some things in our schools are really great -- we have very likely the finest music program of any public high school around (and that can be measured by the number of different opportunities for music in the HS, the presence of instrumental music in the elementary schools, the recognition our music groups get in terms of national awards/opportunities to present). That measuring will also likely show that other things in our schools aren't as good as they could be -- I'm highly concerned that many of our elementary schools failed to make AYP in the math MCAS in 2009, and I'm also concerned that we have lower high school math/science requirements than most other high schools in our comparison group.
Second, a very wise attorney (and parent of an ARHS student) in town created a name for what I observe that I feel is very apt: Amherst exceptionalism (he posted this on my blog a week or so ago using his name so I am giving him due credit). And the idea here (one I spoke to repeatedly in my SC campaign two years ago) is that for some reason, we seem to believe that Amherst is totally different from all other places in the world, and thus whatever we are doing is inherently better than what other schools are doing ... and we couldn't possibly learn from what is going on anywhere else. I believe that we have many dedicated, smart and caring teachers in Amherst -- my own kids have experienced outstanding teachers for 7 years now in Fort River, and I hear great stories about teachers at all of the other schools -- and we are lucky to have so many fabulous people working in our district.
I also believe that there are great and caring people working in other districts ... and that it is possible that other districts are doing some things really well -- perhaps even better than what we are doing in Amherst. And there is no shame in looking to other districts to see how we can make our already good schools be even better for all kids.
When I look at what we are doing in our district, I see many, many things that aren't being done in other districts -- such as extensions in 7th grade math, ecology/environmental science in 9th, the absence of AP chemistry and statistics, the trimester system, and so on. And given that these approaches are unique, I think we have to be able to take a really careful and objective look at each of these to make sure that our choices of how we do education are in fact BETTER than the choices that other districts are making. I believe we owe it to our kids to really assess what we are doing and its effect -- and not simply assume that if we are doing it in Amherst, it must be perfect. In other words, I believe we need to be actively and diligently evaluating what we are doing to make sure that we are doing as best as we can for all kids - not just good enough, and not just good enough because some parents/kids/teachers say "our schools are great -- every year someone gets into Harvard!"
3. My final point is that I'm really, really discouraged by the events of this week, and in particular the really hostile and attacking pieces in the Bulletin and the Gazette. These pieces all focus on criticizing me (and Steve Rivkin) for raising questions about what we are doing in Amherst (and how much it costs for us to do this) ... and seem designed to stifle crucial debate about what our schools are right now and what they could be. It is fine if you disagree with us -- but if so, say why -- why do you think the trimester system is BETTER than the semester system, why do you think 9th grade ecology is BETTER than biology or physics (as is seen in many other districts), why do you think it costs $4,000 more to educate a kid in Amherst than in Northampton, why do you think it is BETTER for us not to offer AP Statistics and AP Chemistry (when these courses are standard offerings at most of our comparison high schools)? I'm willing to debate these issues anytime -- on my blog, in person, via private email (firstname.lastname@example.org). But attacks in the paper accusing us of calling the schools substandard, and beating teachers (until morale improves), and championing the elimination of wood technology and jazz ensemble (which are factually inaccurate), and being elitist/racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-Semitic/anti-Special Ed/anti-environment/anti-pet ownership, etc. don't move us along in the debate about how to make sure our schools are living up to their full potential.
One final thing (promise): I've been accused of bad-mouthing the schools in the press this week by a parent, another SC member, and a HS teacher, and I've been accused of creating bad feelings about our schools and in fact, turning families off of our schools. But here is what I've been told by many, many parents (and kids, and even teachers/staff in our schools) -- that our schools aren't doing as well as they could for all kids, and yet they are afraid to speak out because they worry that criticizing the schools will lead them to experience personal attacks (as I've experienced this week), and thus they really prefer to express their concerns quietly (and I've been told now by many parents that although they share our beliefs and admire our courage, they fear supporting me/Steve in a public way would be harmful to them in some way -- their ability to get clients for their real estate practice/medical practice/law firm, their ability to effectively teach INCLUDING in our very own schools, their ability to get letters of recommendation for their kids from high school teachers, etc.).
So, what's my point here: it is that I didn't create the dissatisfaction that some people are experiencing with some aspects of our schools -- I'm just the one brave/stupid enough to openly and honestly raise questions that MANY parents (and kids and teachers) have about our schools and how we do education in Amherst. I would hope that people could remember that -- and perhaps listen to the message, instead of just shooting the messenger. Remember, I have three kids in the schools - ranging in age from 11 to 5. I don't want our schools to be "substandard" -- I want our schools to be excellent. But I don't think the way to have our schools be truly excellent is to simply pretend they already are excellent (e.g., let's pretend the naked emperor is wearing fabulous clothes), and thus to engage in personal attacks on those who raise questions about whether our programs and curricula and approaches are in fact as good as they can be in a clear attempt to quell all dissent and debate (which, ironically, was the entire point of the column Steve and I wrote last week which people then reacted to by doing precisely what we said occurs happens in Amherst whenever questions about our schools are raised).
There is much that is good about the schools in Amherst. There are also things that could be better. And we can only move towards being better by admitting that we are not perfect, and being willing to engage in open and honest self-reflections about the strengths AND weaknesses in our schools. To again quote a very wise lawyer, "we have to keep moving the ball down the field." I hope all readers of this blog will join with me in a positive way to engage in this type of critical self-reflection so that our schools can live up to their true potential -- which would benefit parents, teachers, and, most importantly, kids.
On this weekend in which we celebrate the life and spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, I want to share a quote (by Dr. King) sent to me recently by a good friend who told me to buck up and keep asking the tough questions: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." I could not agree more.
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.