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, January 15, 2010

Changing the Culture

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 ( 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.


LarryK4 said...

You go girl!

ARHS Senior said...

To help answer the question about the 9th Grade Science Curriculum, which you asked somewhere in this extensive post, I would refer you the the ARHS Science Dept website where there is a large section which covers a range of topics including why they chose it, what is taught, and why they believe there are benefits of this course over Biology/Physics.
The link is included.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Two quick responses:

Larry - thanks for the support.

ARHS Senior - thanks for posting that link, which I think readers will be interested in seeing. I have seen it, and I still have questions that I'm surprised weren't addressed. One issue is that delaying the onset of a core science until 10th grade does mean a student can't take physics and AP Chemistry (were we to have such a course) both while in HS. This is a problem with the current curriculum, and should be acknowledged. Second, I'm surprised that the science teachers have disregarded the experience of other districts that have adopted Physics First -- these include elite private schools (e.g., Bement, Deerfield), other high achieving high schools in MA (e.g., Brookline, Newton), and large urban districts in MA (e.g., Springfield). I guess I'm not sure why this approach was so quickly dismissed.

Joe Masteika said...

Catherine, if we didn't have you, we'd need to invent you. I've been a regular reader here, and I think that what you're doing is invaluable-- asking questions openly and comparing Amherst to other school districts. With an override vote coming up, I think it's especially important that you're willing to ask why an Amherst education costs so much more than in surrounding districts. My income has been flat, even decreasing for several years now, so an override matters to me much more than it once did.

Sometime in the past couple of days, I read a post in this blog by Rich Morse. He asked, rhetorically, just what are all the anonymous posters afraid of? And an (anonymous!) poster replied:

Rich, quite often if you express a different opinion you are treated rudely by other parents after that. I have witnessed it, during the last override vote, I have been subjected to it, with the Marks Meadow episode. I dont blame anyone for not wanting to sign their name anymore.

I hope that post turns out to be wrong, but given the bashing you've been taking, I just want to thank you here for what you're doing. And it has to be under my real name to mean anything. So, thank you, and please, don't lose heart.


TomG said...

Besides the way you mention in your post, what other ways can people who support the change you and Prof Rivkin are seeking help you?

Caren Rotello said...

I'd like to both repeat my support for all that you're doing for the schools, and also to repeat TomG's question: what would help you the most?

I suspect that one thing we can do is to sign our names to our posts. In doing so, we allow others to see that there's more than one of us, and that we're not a bunch of fringe crazies.

Anonymous said...

Catherine, you've shed light on a problem that has existed here for a long time. Thank you for all you do. Thank you. Ali

Ed said...

Larry K can confirm this because he was there too - after the "interesting" school committee meeting back in 2004, when the two of us spoke against _The Vagina Monologues_ - parents came up to us after the meeting and thanked us for speaking out.

Because they couldn't.

One person, who will remain nameless, said that his daughter would be placed in physical jeopardy were he to have spoken against the "play" being performed. That his daughter would be physically assaulted in retribution and that the HS administration would ignore her plight.

When a parent tells me something like that, it gets my attention. Technically it probably was a 51A issue, but I digress...

This was six years ago, but I don't think anything has changed. And the allegedly "liberal" Amherst can not tolerate dissenting voices, Catherine must be silenced because she can not be controlled....

Oh, and there are penalties for promulgating unpopular views - 2004 was also the end of my employment with the Housing Authority....

So much for "free" speech in "liberal" Amherst....

jm said...

On the 9th grade science front, I read the science department website and was startled to see that the science department is not evaluating whether or not students taking the enviro course go on to take more science courses and do better at those courses. Weren't they going to compare this numbers to past students who took biology or earth science?

I thought the big goal was to use the 9th grade environment and ecology course to make escience more relevant and get more kids interested in science -- and do better at later science courses.

That's what the teachers said at the school board meeting I attended.

I like that they are looking at the impact of the course on minority students going on to honors science but that seems like only part of the analysis. Why not also look at the impact on all the students -- and break out females versus males while they are at it.

Ed said...

One other thing -- this is NOT a commentary on the Vagina Monologue issue. It is about free speech.

As I mentioned to a few UM administrators in a different context, I really don't care if someone believes that the Moon is made of Blue Cheese - I don't care if they want to argue that it should be served in the Dining Commons.

This is a free country. Those who behave civilly have the right to advocate any damn position they want to. And those who would use violence to intimidate those daring to express an unpopular opinion are no different from those who would use violence to intimidate those who would do likewise. E.g. the KKK....

You have the right to say you believe the Moon is made of blue cheese, and I have the right to say you are wrong. That is what free speech is all about....

Ed said...

and break out females versus males while they are at it

And also break out female v. male in the reading/writing/language areas. The NAEP data (nationwide) on the growing gap between boys & girls is stunning. It is worse amongst minorities - memory is that the average 12th grade black male has the reading/writing ability of a 7th grade girl.

This is nationally - not Amherst.

While NAEP does not break down race and gender, the NCAA *does* and is a source for data on the number of black males and black females in the college as a whole. And every one I have looked at has a 2:1 ratio of black women to black men.

Ask any woman of color what "BMWJ" means....

The NAEP data indicates that we are narrowing the "math/science" gap for girls while the "language skills" gap for boys is widening. Well..... ???

If nothing else, whom are all these young ladies going to marry? And what are the social consequences of one gender being far better educated and far more successful than the other?

Oh, and BMWJ stands for "Black Male With Job" which speaks volumes about the above, doesn't it???


jm said...

...and this is the reason for this blog. To get information about meetings, websites, perpectives...and to ask a question about high school science evaluation and get a discussion and some information about it.

Anonymous said...

I saw the last SC meeting on ACTV, Catherine, you all look like a family of raccoons. I hope you are lying on a beach somewhere this weekend.

Okay, I will say it. You failed. You failed at the one thing you had to do. To hire an Asst Superintendent, who would guide us in forming an academic program. Dr. R said, at the start, “I can do that job but then I couldn't be able to do the one you hired me for”.

What business do you have deciding what classes will be cut? What does any of you know about being an Asst Superintendent? Without a clear academic program in place, the way you are doing the cuts is as bad as the medieval system of fiefdoms we already have.

The solution is to grow out of the problem -- Dr. R saw this right away. In August, he proposed a charter high school within the HS. Fill a floor with a magnet school for high achievers in the region. Where German and Russian are offered, where every class is geared for the top 5%. UMass has one, called Commonwealth College, the model exists right in town.

The danger, then, is Dr. R is having to do other things when he should be moving us forward. You said this in the beginning, Cath, "I trust Dr. Rodriguez to give us the best options.” Now, let him do his job.

In Amherst, there is a tradition called, The World's Smartest People, where we hire the best people and don't listen to them, like the parking garage. This is a trap some in your committee may have fallen into, a rampant disease in Amherst. Let’s call them WoSP’s. They are everywhere.

You have kids, you know how this works. Please give us three sets of options, 1) a wish list, 2) with an override (if you behave) and 3) no override (if you don’t behave). The money is the limiting factor.

If you only give them one set of options, they will all hate you because no one got their wish. If you have two, they will hate each other and fight over it. If you have three, there is a chance we will get through this without killing each other.

Lastly, may I suggest that you start our forums with a group exercise, like “everyone write down your question”, something like that. I can recommend a facilitator. Or hire a good comic to warm up the audience. Or serve cookies, that always works. Chocolate chip. Mmmm. Just the smell.

But, as LarryK says, You go girl.

Kevin Collins

LarryK4 said...

We're paying Dr. R enough--he should be able to walk on water.

kevin said...

In the words of the great Sammy Davis, Jr, when they are paying you $4million a year, you can be sure you can be getting their money's worth."

You stand in front of your employees and tell them 55 of you will not be here next year. They couldn't pay me enough for that job.

You can believe he earns every cent.

kevin said...

you can be sure they are getting their money's worth

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, and if he did not get such a large raise (or offered now to give it back) over his Golden Boy predecessor it could have saved one teacher.

And by setting that positive altruistic example maybe the Teacher Union would compromise on their raises and step increases and NOBODY would get laid off.

kevin said...

That contract was negotiated years ago and the teachers went without a contract or raise for years. Not even a COLA.

And, considering the state we're in, we could use two of him.

Do your employees know how much you make, Larry? I'm sure it is too much.

The president of UnitedHealth, the insurance branch of AARP, makes enough to pay to insure the health of every uninsured/underinsured individual in Massachusetts. You belong to AARP, I bet. Why are you protecting him?

LarryK4 said...

No they don't.

I'm a private business. But my wife would be more than happy to tell ya it ain't nearly too much.

And speaking of AARP, I think we should assign them the task of finding Osama Bin Laden--because damn, they are good at tracking down 49+ year olds.

kevin said...

Same here.

And I have to agree with you on that, they were the last people I wanted to hear from.

I detect a board game coming on,
Where In the World is Osama B-L?

LarryK4 said...

Cowering in Cave just waiting for a Hellfire missile to drop on his head.

Ironic justice in that it will be an "unmanned" predator that will take out the SOB.

He was soooo happy to send his "soldiers" on suicide missions where they manned the missile.

Anonymous said...

Why should we support an override without knowing how the District is spending the money ?

My view: lets examine the budget, line by line, to learn why we are spending so much for a compromised system. Why isn't everyone descrying the opacity of our system ?

Before making decisions we need the data.

Tuning In said...

Another MLK quote:

"All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem."

This seems to me to be the crux of much of the debate on the ways you wish to improve the schools. It is not that your points aren't valid or even desirable. It is just that when we move towards more adequately addressing one particular set of issues, we often move away from addressing others (because of limited resources). People differ, based on values, personal experience, etc., on exactly what kinds of progress, change, definitions of excellence are most important to pursue. I haven't found you to be receptive to considering that there is validity to those core value differences. I also haven't found you to be be very balanced in presenting the upside of our schools. So I was pleased to see alternative views being expressed in the Bulletin this week. I don't think that anyone is saying that there isn't room for improvement, or that the questions you are raising aren't worthwhile. What I hear people wanting to point out is that there is a fuller picture that needs to be illuminated that includes a lot that is positive and worth celebrating and striving to preserve.

Anonymous said...

3:12 pm -- I already know that a limit of 2.5% wont get me the 2010 services my family needs. I'm voting for an override so the revenues will meet the needs.

Anonymous said...

By "Changing the Culture" where closing Marks Meadow is concerned I think you have participated in an awful thing... I can't agree therefore with anything you say or do from here on out. I'm sorry though that people are attacking you. This is not right. But I don't think a "You go girl!" is much of a compliment or show of support either...I mean it sounds a little degrading...girl?? and a little sexist too... Anyway if better schools are the end result of all your efforts and better schools for all kids no matter what their economic background is then I hope this is what happens. I just don't see it...

LarryK4 said...

Actually it was a compliment and a show of support. And your an Anon; can't get any more degrading than that!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Joe - thank you so much for your thoughtful post (and for having the courage to sign your name). I believe that some nasty exchanges occurred between posters (who shared their names) in the heat of the Marks Meadow closing debate ... I am trustful everyone will treat you with respect for your posting, and admire your courage in doing so. I really appreciate your kind words -- and although I do not yet know what, if any, position I'm going to take on the override, I certainly promise you that I will not make a decision without carefully looking at how money is spent in Amherst and how that compares to money spent in other districts -- I know there are a lot of people who are struggling (my own family income has also decreased in the last year, since Amherst College gave no raises and my husband works for the state and had to take unpaid furlough days), and it isn't fair to ask people to spend more WITHOUT really understanding how our limited dollars are spent. I know some people have already reached a decision about whether they will support (or not) an override -- but I simply don't have enough information yet to make a decision.

Tom G - good question! I think there are three ways you can support the work Steve and I are doing. First, post on this blog (and/or write a letter to the Bulletin) to express support for what we are doing. Second, tell your friends/neighbors/colleagues that you support what we are doing, and why. Third, ask SC candidates for the election this March what they think of what we are doing, and whether they would support our work (and if so, how) -- and vote for those who share your views about our work (whatever those views are).

Caren - thanks for your continued support, and for your willingness to sign your name! I've just listed three ways you and others can support the work we are doing -- any/all would be appreciated. I think some people have the impression that Steve and I are just speaking for ourselves, and that no one actually agrees with us (and that makes it a lot easier to criticize us publicly and ignore what we say). So, giving people a sense that we are expressing concerns shared by others in the community is very helpful.

Ali - thank you for your continued support. It is much appreciated.

Ed - I agree that some voices are silenced in Amherst ... and that people are so afraid of being called elitist or racist that they often don't speak out about changes they'd like to see in the schools (e.g., greater challenge) for fear of being called such names. I am truly hoping that the culture is changing so that we can have real discussions about what type of education we want to provide in Amherst for all kids.

JM - two things in response to your post. First, my understanding is that the science teachers are indeed going to examine how many kids take more science classes (this may not be mentioned on their website) - and I also believe that they are planning on examining differences by gender. Second, I haven't seen any evidence that the science teachers are focused on comparing the experiences of kids in this new course to the experiences of kids in the old courses (e.g., biology and earth science) -- I've asked for this to be done (with three different superintendents now) and I am not aware of any plan for this type of a rigorous evaluation to be done.

Ed - I share your belief that open discussion and debate about ideas is good and healthy. I also believe this is only possible when people avoid attacking and labeling people.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

JM (at 9:45 am) - I certainly hope that my blog is a place for people to debate, discuss, ask questions, and get answers. I know there are people who criticize the existence of this blog (there was a lot of negative discussion about my blog last year when I advocated for closing Marks Meadow, and certainly the article by the high school student expresses negative thoughts about this blog by Nina Koch and Rick Hood). But overall, I guess I can't see how open debate and discussion about our schools is a bad thing -- and I still believe that the net effect of this blog has been positive.

Kevin - first, I am hoping that the term "raccoon" is meant as a compliment ... second, I'm in New Jersey (not very beach-like!).

In terms of the thoughtful points you raise:

First, we tried to hire an assistant superintendent -- Dr. Rodriguez chose to fail this search, and ultimately it is his decision (NOT the decision of the SC). I agree that having a person in this job would have been VERY helpful, and I'm really sorry that we couldn't get this done.

Second, the SC doesn't decide what classes will be cut -- that is the job of the principal (Mark Jackson), presumably with some input from the superintendent. The SC sets policy stuff (e.g., we can have a policy about class size), but we are NOT choosing what classes stay and what classes go (and this would be the work of the principal even if we had hired an assistant superintendent).

Third, I am not aware that the superintendent officially proposed to start a charter high school within the HS -- and I guess I'd have to have a lot more detail about starting the type of charter school you describe. For me, I'd like to see our high school provide rich, challenging, and engaging classes for all kids -- not just the top 5%!

Fourth, I guess I'm not sure why you think we aren't listening to Dr. Rodriguez? He has proposed some budget cuts, following recommendations from the principals, and I believe the SC is generally supportive of these cuts. However, the SC also has to answer -- as elected officials -- to the community, so if the community tells us we want X, Y, and Z, that is useful information, which we could then convey to the superintendent. That is pretty much how the system is supposed to work, and I actually think this is working pretty well (do you disagree?).

Finally, I need to hear more about your idea of the wish list -- we are already having a list of prioritized cuts, so that if more money materializes (from whatever source), fewer cuts will be made (and the principals are ranking the cuts). Tell me more about what you mean in terms of different sets of options so I can understand your reasoning here.

And I VERY much like your idea of starting the forums with people getting to write questions -- I will definitely suggest that!

I'm skipping over the dialogue between Kevin and Larry -- and wish them all the luck in suggesting that AARP be recruited to find Osama Bin Laden. Also want to express my thoughts for the good humor each showed the other in this interaction.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more from me:

Anonymous 3:12 - I agree that we need to understand the budget more before suggesting that residents support an override. I'm trying to get my budget questions answered, trying to look at how other districts spend money, and am trying to get projections on what our budgets look like next year and the year after with or without an override. I'm working as hard as I can to get answers on all of these, and when I have the answers, I will (a) post them on my blog, and (b) make a decision about whether I am supporting an override in 2010.

Tuning In - thank you for your thoughtful and respectful post. I agree with some of what you have said, and disagree with others parts. First, I think you are right that I haven't focused much on saying what is good about the schools -- and I know there is good. That is probably a weakness of my personality -- I spend much more time focusing on things to improve (e.g., what can I do better?) than on things that are good now (e.g., isn't this thing great already?). I also think that I was elected to the SC to make come changes (that was the platform I ran on, and over 2,000 people voted for me in part I assume based on that platform), and I think I can accomplish more good by trying to make those changes than by describing what is good about the schools. But I certainly have NOT meant to imply that there isn't lots that is good about our schools, and I'm truly sorry if I haven't adequately conveyed that.

Second, you make the following point: "It is just that when we move towards more adequately addressing one particular set of issues, we often move away from addressing others (because of limited resources). People differ, based on values, personal experience, etc., on exactly what kinds of progress, change, definitions of excellence are most important to pursue. I haven't found you to be receptive to considering that there is validity to those core value differences." And in this way, I disagree -- because I don't believe that what I want is a particular THING (e.g., AP chemistry, or a new math curriculum, or the semester system) -- what I want is a new way of making decisions -- meaning we make decisions based on data and evidence and comparisons, not just anecdote and intuition. So, maybe you and I have different priorities, but both of our priorities would be better achieved through a better decision-making process. Let's say you are mostly concerned about how we do intervention support for struggling students -- I believe we would need to evaluate how well we are providing such support by comparisons and data and evaluation (not by asking our teachers and having them say "yes, we are doing a great job"). Let's say someone else is concerned about the elementary school math curriculum -- again, I'd want to look at this curriculum in light of data/evaluation/evidence. Let's say someone else is concerned about the art/music options in our high school -- again, I'd want to look at evidence/data/evaluation. In other words, I am much, much less concerned about any given priority (and yes, different people will have different priorities, as they should) and much, much more concerned about the decision-making process used in our district. Does that help clarify my thinking?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Anonymous 8:02 - you may have seen enough about the budget projections so that you feel comfortable supporting an override in 2010. I am not there yet, nor is anonymous 3:12 ... but we do have 2 months before an override vote. I know people who care deeply about our schools who have already decided to support an override. I also know people who care deeply about our schools who don't feel they have enough information yet to support an override -- and I believe the SC should be working very hard to answer people's questions about how we are spending our current dollars (including why it seems to cost so much more to educate a child in Amherst than in other surrounding districts) and how additional funds from an override would be used.

Worried/Anonymous 9:02 - first, thank you for your respectful post, which I really appreciate. I have a number of reactions. We obviously disagree on closing Marks Meadow, and I'm sorry for that. I still don't see that keeping MM open was a good idea -- when I look at our elementary school budgets now for next year, they look OK ... and I know that taking another $700,000 out of them would be TERRIBLE. It is also clear that class sizes will be virtually identical to what they are now -- and smaller than what they would have been if we kept Marks Meadow open. In sum, I just don't see how this was a bad decision, though I know that you disagree. I also think that you can disagree with me about something (e.g., closing Marks Meadow), but agree with me about other things ... or at least I hope you might consider this! Are there other things you care about that you want to share with me?

Finally, I agree that attacking people (including me) isn't right -- and I am OK with the "you go girl" remarks (which I believe are meant in a positive spirit). And I share your hope that I will be successful in my work so that "better schools are the end result of all your efforts and better schools for all kids no matter what their economic background". I am working as hard as I can to achieve this, and if you have suggestions for anything I can do towards this aim, I'd love to hear them.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Many members of the public have a lot of questions about our budget; how it is spent, and how cuts are being made. The School Committee created a Budget Advisory Committee, comprised of volunteers from town, to collect some of this input from the public and to bring those questions forward to the School Committee. Last Tuesday, at the School Committee meeting, our first list of questions were brought forward. Although just a subset of all the questions we have collected so far, we felt as if these questions best represented what the majority of people were asking us and the areas of our budget that would have a potentially large impact on costs.

The Budget Advisory Group will soon (within a week, I hope) have a web page within the web site. On it you will be able to find these questions and, as they come in, their answers (provided by arps staff). There should be a link to it on the home page so look for it soon.

For those of you who would like a more interactive experience of the budget, please consider coming to the public Budget Forum. Originally planned for January 21st, it may be held a few weeks later to give the administration and the SC more time to gather more information that the public has requested.

Thank you to Steve and Catherine for getting the ball rolling on asking the tough questions. Our SC as a whole is now asking more questions and demanding more answers. This is a great thing which will make for a more informed public. Through these efforts, everyone will have more information, whether or not you might agree with any individual decision/cut/addition/etc. I appreciate this increasing focus on transparency and am thankful that the members of our SC are willing to put in their time and energy for our schools, night after late night!

Anonymous said...

"since Amherst College gave no raises and my husband works for the state and had to take unpaid furlough days)"
catherine....come on.....i am sure you would like a raise but be real your combined a lot higher than the majority of saying that many times over which you lose credibility

Ed said...

catherine....come on.....i am sure you would like a raise but be real your combined a lot higher than the majority of saying that many times over which you lose credibility

No Joe, she doesn't.

First, if you want to take the combined income of two professionals instead of just one (a fair issue) then you also have to be fair and go with the family income of all the teachers as well.

This includes not only those who are married but those who are living together as they enjoy the combined family income.

And if the ARSD is reflective of Mass Schools in general, you also will find a lot of women whose husband has a job in something like construction where he makes a LOT of money but depends on her health insurance benefits. Which, I should remind you, are a decreasing percentage of compensation as income rises.

Second, exactly how many ARSD employees have doctorates? You can teach today with an 18 month expedited MEd (I know people in the ARSD who are doing just this), most of the tenured teachers were certified with just a bacculaurate!

Do you have any idea just how damn hard it is to get a terminal degree? (I had my MEd a decade ago.) OF COURSE PEOPLE WITH TERMINAL DEGREES SHOULD BE PAID MORE -- we *have to* be paid more just to make up for the lost earning potential.

And every time I hear this egalitarian populist argument that municipal employees are entitled to pay raises, I am reminded of Andrew Jackson.

And the spoils system -- as it was first instituted -- just fire everyone and put a whole crew of new people in there. This is the flip side of what you are arguing and just realize what you are doing.

And the more the teachers become outspoken as to policy, the more people like me are going to demand the right to vote YOU out of YOUR jobs. Harvard University has no faculty union because the faculty are management.

And if the K-12 teachers wish to be management, then they neither need a union nor tenure *laws* (there is no law that Amherst College have tenure) to protect them from....

Anonymous said...

People finally spoke up in town and the media against you because they read your column on 1/8 and realized how far across the line of decorum you have sailed.

You think that only your presentation of ideas is objective, that your thinking is not ideological.

You ask people to be kind and then bring the comparison of a war, including death tolls into a conversation about a small town high school. How is that appropriate?

Do you know anyone who has ever fought in a war, know anyone who has died in a war? I think if you really did, you wouldn't have gone anywhere near the war imagery. It was way, way, way over the top and completely inappropriate.

Your tone in addressing the school employees in your column is often mean-spirited. Take a look back over your body of work. Maybe if you weren't so intensely accusatory in most of your public statements, your kid wouldn't be asking why people hate you.

Your approach from the beginning has be incredibly intense. Larry Kelly likes that approach and about 5 other people on this post.

FYI: When you call for all of these new AP courses for the hs, you are effectively pushing for some other classes to be cut. Maybe you don't know that's how it works. When there is a finite pot of money, if something comes in then something else goes.

So maybe you should reconsider what you really support because it's impossible to get it all.

I'm damn glad people are speaking up. Your arrogance in presentation will bring about your downfall as it does for most over the top arrogant people.

Mark Twain

kevin said...

Hey, Mark. Leave my buddy Larry out of this. He is just as entitled to his opinion as anyone else.

We are all in the same boat. What will it be, sink or swim? Like it or not, the boat is going down.

Anonymous said...

I think that leaving Marks Meadow alone is the biggest thing that you can/could do. I think that making sure small classes remain in elementary schools is also a very important thing to make sure happens. It is just that I don't see how you can say classes will actually be larger if MM were to remain's not making sense to me...I mean leave that building alone as is and all other class sizes in grade schools will increase?? Is this because more teachers will get fired, yeah that is terrible, to save $$ that mysteriously does not seem to exist? This is also something I don't buy Catherine...How can it be said on the one hand that the "budget" is tight...okay, maybe they are two different budgets we are talking about here, but the university does not seem to be hurting if you were to judge by the new buidlings going up....Isn't this occuring in the same the same town even?? And I'll leave my sexist comments out of this discussion--Mr. Kelly I did not imply you were degrading as you seem to have me, but merely a little ignorant perhaps on how to properly address people...'you go girl'...I mean who are you trying to impress? And Catherine, why are you leaving the committee so soon? How can we truly be convinced that your goal is to make sure ALL kids get the same excellent education here if you bail out now?

Abbie said...

to anon@1258:

frankly you don't know what you are talking about and methinks you are being willfully ignorant.

Catherine could once again painstakingly explain to you (and I am sure you have posted near this exact same post repeatedly and CS has politely and painstakingly explained in return).

The UMass buildings have NOTHING to do with the operating budget and one would need to explain how the state budget works for you to begin to understand. Since you can't even understand how our local school budgets work (or refuse to) then I think it's a waste of good-willed people's time. When the furlough's and layoffs start happening at UMass (like what is happening in most other states) then maybe you will begin to understand (but I doubt it because "a foolish consistency" seems to be warm comfort for some folks).

Anonymous said...

isnt the override needed for all town services, including the schools but also police, fire and public works?

Anonymous said...

Ahhh Miss Abbie, if only we could all be as smart as you.... $ is $ no matter whose pocket it is in....Sadly--the more it can be found in someone's pocket/bank the more power they have and the more ability they have to make us beleive there is none!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Catherine, for being a part of the school committee, for this informative blog, and for spending so much time and energy contributing to the discussion of these issues and advocating for our schools.

I do not always agree with you, but your dedication is clear and I am sorry that you have had to withstand so many personal attacks as a result.

I don't think some people realize how hard it can be to be on a volunteer committee in this town.


Anonymous said...

Abbie and Anon@1258,
State and UMass workers are already seeing layoffs and furloughs, and unfilled positions, and a number of years (at UMass at least) without any COLAs, and none in the foreseeable future. Plus the State health insurance program is losing money at the moment, and mid-fiscal year (next month) is raising all state workers health insurances co-pays and deductibles, resulting in new costs of more than $100+/monthly for many families. So effectively, take home pay for State/UMass workers is actually declining now.

Anon@1258, many of the UMass building projecs have been in the work for decades and are only getting funded now.

Yes, there are different pots of money for UMass, the towns, the schools, and for operating vs. capital expenses.

Many of the current budget problems in the town and schools stem from ole Prop 2 1/2, and the restrictions it set on towns' ability to raise revenue even when faced with increasing costs (of more than 2.5%) and declining state funding. Prop 2 1/2 may have sounded like a good idea backed when it passed, but it really needs to eliminated or significantly changed now.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Alison - thanks for updating blog readers on the great work this budget advisory committee is doing. And thank YOU for chairing this important group -- I can't think of anyone I'd rather have in charge here! I agree that transparency is really important, and I look forward to hearing the questions and answers this group produces.

Joe T - I imagine my household income is higher than some people's (and lower than others) -- but that doesn't mean that having a decrease in income isn't felt. I can certainly imagine that if we are feeling it (and we are), people with lower incomes are feeling it more. My only point here is to say that I take very seriously some people's concern about the impact of an override on their household finances, and thus I believe it is my responsibility to make sure that the schools are using their resources as wisely as possible BEFORE we ask tax payers to pay more.

Mark - I have a number of reactions to your post, but the first one is to make sure you are criticizing the ideas, because this really felt like a personal attack (e.g., calling me arrogant). I'm going to respond to the ideas, and I hope you'll have the courtesy to focus on my ideas in the future.

First, if you read our column on 1/8, you know that we did not compare 9/11 or war to our schools. We compared the SILENCING of dissent post-9-11/the Iraq War to the silencing of dissent that occurs in Amherst. The response this week, and indeed your posting, illustrate our point well -- no one is attacking the ideas/questions we raise -- they/you are critiquing us for raising them (and calling us elitist, arrogant, etc.). That is the entire point.

Second, I am from a milatary background. My grandfather was at D-Day, and my mother was born on a naval base. It is amazing to me, however, that you would make assumptions about me and my background without knowing me, as you post anonymously.

Third, if you believe that I have used a mean-spirited tone towards school employees, list the blog entry date. I haven't said anyone is arrogant, or stupid, and so on. I've certainly said that I think things need to be questioned and evaluated -- but that isn't a critique of school employees ... it is a critique of the decision-making process used in Amherst.

Your comment about my kid is out of line and I'm not responding to it.

I am indeed intense -- that is a very accurate observation. I think having strong schools is really important, and we don't get a second chance to have our kids go through the schools. So, yes, I'm intensely focused on changing the culture, and for those who like the current culture, I'm sure that approach is unappealing (although those who would like the culture to change find it quite appealing -- and I've certainly heard from more than 5 people that they appreciate my hard work).

I do believe we should have AP chemistry and AP statistics. And yes, that means changing what we offer, and assessing what classes best meet the needs of our students. I wonder if you protested the elimination of earth science two years ago to add required courses in ecology and environmental science? That was another example of a time in which some classes were cut to offer other classes, because, as you note, it is impossible to have it all. I remember attending the meeting at which the new science course was presented, and wondering why all of these required courses in ecology and environmental science would be added when we didn't even have AP chemistry.

Kevin - I agree that critiquing other posters isn't appropriate (including Larry). I'm not so sure the boat is going down, however!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Worried - closing Marks Meadow was a unanimous vote of the SC ... and as I've said before, I can't see how we could have voted other wise. Classes will be smaller wtih the closure because we will be able to spend more money on teachers -- if we kept MM open, we would have has to cut more teachers to pay for a principal, secretaries, nurse, etc. I think I've explained that a lot of times. It is NOT that we don't have enough classrooms now ... it is that we don't have money to pay teachers if we keep MM open. FEWER teachers will lose their jobs by closing MM!

The school budget has nothing to do with the university budget.

And finally, I'm not leaving the committee -- not sure how you got this impression? I have one more year on my term ... and I do plan to finish out that year.

Abbie (at 1:21) - thanks for making those points. Which yes, I think I've made repeatedly.

Anonymous (3:31) - there are a lot of ways an override can work. One way is to have a menu override, in which people can vote for different things (e.g., for schools, and/or police, and/or library, etc.). I believe that was the type of override recommended by last year's FCCC. I do not know the broader town needs/priorities as well as I do the schools' needs/priorities, and thus I'm really focusing on understanding just the schools-side of things, and not the other stuff.

Worried/Anonymous 4:08 - I'm really not sure of your point here ... if you believe there is money that the schools are hiding, you shouldn't support an override. But there is no way that keeping Marks Meadow open was going to help the schools' budget -- cutting an additional $700,000 from this year's budget would be very, very detrimental at the elementary school level.

Schools4All - thank you for your thoughtful post. I really appreciate the kind words and respectful tone!

Anonymous 4:55 - I agree that Prop. 2 1/2 is a bad idea ... but I also think that it still doesn't explain why it costs so much more to educate a child in Amherst than in another local district ... and I need to understand that before I can ask the voters to allocate more money to the schools.

Anonymous said...

CS 8:15 PM:"I need to understand that before I can ask the voters to allocate more money to the schools."

How do you find this out? financial audits?

Rick said...

“How do you find this out? financial audits?”

It’s taking Noho school financials, and ARPS financials and comparing them. Either ARPS does that – but they don’t have the people power – or you hire an outside accounting firm to do that, which though that costs something, I think would probably be worth it. But even using an outside firm requires time and cooperation from both Noho and ARPS.

This is absolutely a question that needs to be answered. The only question is how to do it and how fast can it be done. But we should at least get started - have a plan on how to do it.

Curious said...

10:12 am Rick: "it requires time and cooperation from both Noho and ARPS."

so when CS/you says she/you won't support an override until she/you gets the answers to these questions, is this just another way of saying she/you won't support an override in March 2010? Or is there another way for CS/you to support an override in March in the absence of such an analysis?

Rick said...

I already support an override. The reason I do is that although I believe as Catherine does that there is more efficiency that can be squeezed out of some areas of ARPS (and probably police, fire, town and library) I do not believe enough can be squeezed out between now and March 23 to be able to get away without an override. How much the override should be – and this is really important – how much of override should get used in 2011 (as opposed to being put in reserves), is the only question for me.

There are two ways to squeeze: just remove the money, or be hardball in the management of money. We need to learn to be hardball in the management of money. If we don’t think that schools, police, fire, town and library are capable of doing this, they need to become capable of doing this. I know – lots of LOL on that – but I refuse to believe it can’t be done.

In the case of ARPS it has been really helpful this year that they have laid out the cuts in a prioritized way so that we can easily see what it is they would like to add back first if they got more money. We really can’t begin to be “hardball” without that.

BTW there are some cuts in there that are really not “cuts” such as $101,000 savings in health insurance*, which really should be part of the "level services" budget that the cuts are based on (a "cut" = cut from level services).

* health insurance only going up 3% in 2011 – pretty amazing.

This kind of financial reporting needs to continue to get better (like getting financials in a format like Noho uses).

So for me, I don’t need to see the analysis of ARPS versus Noho completed in order to support an override, However, it would be REALLY helpful to see a plan laid out to do so.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 11:10 - I think you find out by asking good questions, and pushing until you get good answers. We have lots of information from the state on how different districts spend money, and I think we need to understand where Amherst is higher than state averages and other local districts, and then push the district administration for answers. I can think of many plausible hypotheses -- we have a different population, we have better schools, we have a regional school system. Those are three explanations off the top of my head that COULD explain why it costs so much more to educate a child in Amherst than in other schools. Then, after you have some hypotheses, you try to investigate whether they are accurate explanations - so, does Amherst have a different population (yes in terms of ELL students, no in terms of low income/special ed students), does Amherst have better schools (we could look at MCAS, drop-out rates, AP scores, course offerings, etc.), does a regional system cost more (we could compare costs with other regional systems). But I think it is very reasonable to ask why our costs are indeed higher than other districts (and the state average), and I believe we need to understand why BEFORE we vote for an override. If the reasons why we are high are good ones (e.g., I'm totally willing to pay more than the state average to have better schools than the state average, so maybe it costs this much more to have great schools), that is one thing -- and I think many people would be glad to support an override if they believed that more money would lead to better schools. If the reasons why are bad ones (e.g., we don't evaluate what we are doing so we spend money on ineffective programs, we have a regional system which costs a huge amount in terms of administrative costs, etc.), then those explanations help us figure out how we can spend money better (and perhaps indicate that we should spend money better INSTEAD of asking for more money).

Rick - I agree that these are important questions and that financial audits would help answer them. I also believe there are faster ways to start getting some answers, as I outline above.

Anonymous 10:22 - Rick is already supporting the override -- he has announced his public support for an override already. I am not yet sure whether I will support an override, because I can't in all honesty support an override until I understand why it costs so much more to educate a student in Amherst than in other local districts. I'm hoping to find out the answer to that question (and am working hard on data analysis to learn more about why this is the case) -- and the answers to those questions will inform the position I take on the override. Could I support one this March? It is possible. Although I agree with Rick's view about the goal of a financial audit, I would certainly not need this level of an audit before making up my mind about an override -- there are other ways (as I outline above) that I believe can also be informative in terms of understanding how we spend money in Amherst.

Tuning In said...


This (in response to anon/Mark Twain):

"I do believe we should have AP chemistry and AP statistics. And yes, that means changing what we offer, and assessing what classes best meet the needs of our students."

Does not jive with this response (to me):

"...I disagree -- because I don't believe that what I want is a particular THING (e.g., AP chemistry, or a new math curriculum, or the semester system) -- what I want is a new way of making decisions -- meaning we make decisions based on data and evidence and comparisons, not just anecdote and intuition."

You continually say that you don't have a particular agenda other than improving our process, while in the next breath offering a pretty consistent list of programmatic changes you would like to see implemented. Perhaps you assume that "data and evidence and comparison" of the kind you're championing will undoubtedly lead us in the direction you're hoping (though I don't see how "anecdote and intuition" isn't, at least in part, what underlies that assumption). My point, again, is that what is not being addressed is the validity of the core value differences that exist when considering one kind of change over another -- particularly when dollars are scarce and the wisdom of supporting an override is being questioned.

Anonymous said...

Also, if Brookline is paying the same per pupil but its teachers' salaries are 20 percent higher, shouldn't Amherst be offering more than Brookline in terms of courses, teams, extras, etc.?

Potentially Disastrous said...

11:01 it would be very very sad to me if, after your questioning and your prodding, you discover we needed an override for this school year.... after the March election.

How do you think about that when kids lives and their school years and teachers will all be impacted because the information was not able to be received by the March election? I fear the coming school year will be diminished because of a failed override effort and because the adults couldn't get their act together. Once again, the kids suffer.

Anonymous said...

Rick, re: your comment "In the case of ARPS it has been really helpful this year that they have laid out the cuts in a prioritized way so that we can easily see what it is they would like to add back first if they got more money. We really can’t begin to be “hardball” without that."
The last four budgets have done the same thing - prioritized cuts. So why do you say it's been 'really helpful this year'?
The decimation of ARPS has been obvious for years. It's just that suddenly a few more people are paying SOME attention.

Just Curious said...

Anon 12:34 brings up a good point - where is that money that teachers aren't getting ending up? Class sizes have increased, academic departmental budgets have decreased, so where did it go? And why is it that we never see a line item for the facilities or IS budgets?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Tuning In - thanks for the good question. My first priority is changing how decisions are made, because I believe a better decision-making process will result in better decisions across all areas (curricular, fiscal, etc.). I do believe that a better decision-making would result in some changes that I support -- for example, it is hard for me to imagine how a thorough decision-making process built on data/comparisons/research would lead us to decide the current math/science requirements in the high school (2 of each) are sufficient (since these are below MASS Core recommendations and virtually all local, state-wide, and national comparisons). However, I could imagine that a thorough decision-making process would lead us to decide not to adopt AP chemistry per se, but another second year chemistry class (like Hadley has, or Scarsdale), or that a particular math curriculum we use is the right one, or that the trimester system is better than the semester system. Does that help clarify?

Anonymous 12:34 - the short answer is "yes." Brookline spends the same on average as Amherst but pays teachers/staff a lot more ... so the question for me is, is our school system significantly better than Brookline's in terms of offerings, class size, programs, etc., OR are there are factors that explain why not (e.g., do we have more low income/special education/ELL students that require additional spending)? That is precisely one of the questions I have and that I'm trying to get an answer for.

Potentially Disasterous - sorry, I should have been clearer -- I certainly don't think it will take two months to answer these questions ... and the override is more than 2 months away. I anticipate having enough answers to these questions that I can answer for myself whether we need an override. I just don't believe it would be right or appropriate for me to support one (or oppose one) without having these answers, which I don't yet have.

Anonymous 2:58 - I have certainly seen prioritized cuts lists by ARPS for the last few years, so I'm also not sure what is new. In terms of the word "decimation" -- I'm not sure that is true at all. If you compare school-based teachers in 2006-2007 to 2009-2010 as a function of enrollment, we have exactly four fewer teachers total in the MS and HS combined than we should have. That is less than one per grade. Moreover, class sizes in the high school have been decreasing over time -- in 2003-04, class sizes in the four core academics ranged from 21.8 in English to 24.3 in science (with 23.7 in social studies and 23.2 in math). As of 2009-2010, class sizes averages are 21 in science and math and 22 in english and social studies. Again, I'm not sure why this is seen as "decimated."

The one thing that I think is REALLY unfortunate is the move this year to two study halls, meaning kids spend 86.6% of their time in class. But for the exact same staffing and same costs (and actually, a savings of about $10,000 per year for monitors), a move to a semester system this year would have meant only ONE study hall (and 92.8% of the time spent in class). However, this change was voted down by the high school teachers.

Just Curious - that is my question -- and that is the question I'm trying to have answered before I feel I can honestly determine whether we need an override -- which again, we have two months to decide.

Anonymous said...

I don't get it. Are you saying only 4 teachers have been cut total from the middle and high schools? Or that 4 teachers have been cut above the number of teacher cuts that you would expect to see because of declining enrollments? Altogether, how many teachers have been cut in the past 5 years?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response to Anonymous 4:22:

I don't have the total number of teachers cut in front of me and I don't want to give a wrong answer. But enrollment has declined A LOT over the last five years, and thus one would expect the number of teachers to fall in order for the student/teacher ratio (and class size) to remain the same. The "four" number represents the total number of teachers that has been cut ABOVE what is proportional to the decline in enrollment. And as you can see, class sizes in core academic classes has actually decreased during that time at the high school.

Nina Koch said...

The loss of richness that has already occurred at the high school is significant. Next year, that loss will be even greater. Let's look at it from the point of view of offerings to kids. This information is available on the high school web site here:

Historical Comparison

It gives a snapshot comparing ARHS this year (and next year under the cuts) with ARHS five years ago. Five years ago, kids could choose from 64 different clubs as a way to pursue an interest and to make a connection with the school. This year, we lost all funding for clubs and it was restored only due to the fundraising efforts of parents. Even with that effort, we have fewer than half the clubs we offered before. Clubs may seem like an extra to some people, but I think that connection is really important to certain kids, especially those who don't always feel like they fit in. I really like the fact that they can find a special niche at the school. For some kids, it's a lifeline.

So, we now have fewer than half of the clubs that we used to have. That fraction holds for a lot of our course offerings too. (Abbie, I am trying to work fractions into the discussion.) Five years ago, we had 22 Social Studies electives. Next year it will be 12. The cuts in English are even more significant. Five years ago: 18 English electives. Next year: 8. That is a big big difference. Most of the courses will be alternating every other year, so students will need to choose their courses carefully or they might not get a chance to take something.

The document I linked above lists what the electives will be in English and Social Studies. I am looking at the list and even with the alternating offerings, I don't see Shakespeare at all. I don't see Poetry. I don't see the Bible course. So I am guessing those are gone completely. I really regret that. I want our students to have those options.

One of the good things about our school is that kids don't just take English I, II, III and IV, as they do at some schools. Instead, they have a shared experience in grades 9 and 10, and then in grades 11 and 12, they branch out and pursue an interest area in their study of writing and literature. In some schools, the students don't even read real books. They just get compiled readers, with excerpts. Our kids not only read entire books, they analyze them vigorously. When they get to college, they know what to do. I am assuming that most parents want us to continue that practice.

Now it is true that we are a somewhat smaller school than we were five years ago and that smaller schools have fewer offerings. Brookline is a bigger school than we are and that is one of the reasons why they can offer more. Hadley is a smaller school than we are and they offer less.

But enrollment at ARHS has not cut in half. It's gone from 1320 to 1139. That is not enough of a drop to explain the reduction in offerings. The reduction comes from budget cuts.

So, while I would not use the term "decimated" (which means cut into a tenth), I can say that there has been a significant erosion of what we can offer our students. It's really a shame. Catherine, I am sorry to see you downplaying the cuts. They are real. They matter to our students and next year they will be felt even more deeply.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering why we moved here.

Anonymous said...

Join the club.

Anonymous said...

Not sure what you both are upset about: that the schools have experienced such devastating cuts or the fact that we have a SC member who doesn't see
them as being so bad.

Anonymous said...

Comments such as Anon 7:08 and 7:29's are unhelpful, and unnecessary.

We are trying to improve the schools here, and your cynicism is not helping.

If you would like to try and get your children a better education in a near-by town, go ahead, but I doubt you will succeed. Though the have their flaws, our public schools are better than most in the area.

Anonymous said...

Catherine said
....Brookline's in terms of offerings, class size, programs, etc., OR are there are factors that explain why not (e.g., do we have more low income/special education/ELL students that require additional spending)? That is precisely one of the questions I have and that I'm trying to get an answer for.

Doesn't SPED funding come from different sources than regular education funding?
So if a district's SPED population did drop, you would not suddenly have loads of money to transfer over to regular ed, as people seem to think (or wish).

Also, just to clarify again -- intervention/remedial programs and SPED are not just different names for the same thing. SPED encompasses services provided per Individual Education Plans (a legal contract between parents and the district). Intervention services (eg, reading and math tutoring/support such as math coaching or Reading Recovery) are not SPED.

I think this is the reason why intervention teachers in the elementary schools are on the chopping block or already gone -- because the funds to pay them DO come from general ed funds.

Anonymous said...

That was a very helpful post from Nina Koch, and I for one am willing to pay for the richness that she describes. And, because she's willing to put her name on her posts, they have a tremendous impact here.

So where else in the public life of Amherst would this discussion have taken place prior to this blog? (We had an override vote fail last time without the existence of this blog.) And where else would Ms. Koch get to argue in such detail and at such length? To a portion of the very audience that needs to be convinced in order for an override to pass?

I do not share the Sanderson skepticism about the need for an override. But I don't question her sincerity nor do I think that she has loaded the discussion here.

Rich Morse

Frustrated Parent said...

Why don't high school students pay to participate in clubs the way student athletes need to pay (increasingly more!) to participate in athletics? I know it wouldn't solve the budget problem but it could help generate some revenue and maybe increase the number of clubs again.

Anonymous said...

If the schools continue to go the way of making athletics and clubs fee-based we will soon have a two-tier school experience. One tier for the wealthy families and one tier for everyone else. Is this really the educational experience we want in Amherst?

You Think You're Frustrated.... said...

to frustrated parent 6:25am: the answer is because not every family in Amherst can afford to pay for these kind of activities and not every family who can is willing to donate more to allow others to participate. THAT's why the school provides it. So everyone can enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Catherine hasn't seen the real effects of the budget cuts because her children are in elementary school and she has no experience of the schools in the pre-cut era. Five years ago there were 4 teams in each grade of the the middle school- today there are two each. There was 7th grade art, there was WR2, there was integrated studies( can't really remember the name), there was tech ed, computers,health, drama and all of the languages. Today 2 teams in each grade, no 7th grade art, wr2 is gone, IS is gone, the students have only 2 electives per year rather than three, we have a scaled back language program.

How much more do you want to cut? I'm sorry but I think that if as a SC member Dr. Sanderson can't see the effects of budget cuts on our schools she is not looking very hard.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Nina - I agree with your points regarding the ways in which the HS has changed over time ... my issue is with how these changes are framed by some (in this blog, in this community), which I think can lead people to see the schools as "crying wolf." So, it is absolutely true to say that clubs have been reduced, and that English electives have been reduced from 18 (in 2006) to 14 (right now) to 8 (proposed for next year at the worst budget cut level), and that social studies electives have been cut from 22 (2006) to 15 (now) to 12 (proposed for next year at the worst budget cut level. But I think people would vary on whether this is "decimated" or simply reduced.

I also think that this is a great time to learn not necessarily by comparing how our course offerings have changed over time, but by examining how they compare to the offerings in other schools. So, right now, there are 15 electives in social studies at ARHS. There are also 15 at Brookline High, although Brookline High has a lot more students (about 1800, I think, compared to our 1200) -- Brookline also requires courses in social studies through junior year, so electives are ONLY open to seniors. Similarly, Northampton High right now has 12 electives, and they have a smaller school then we have (about 900 students) -- and students have requirements through junior year and can only choose electives in senior year. In both of these high schools, students take two years of world/modern history, then a year of US History, then have the option to take electives. Now, our system of two years of required classes and then many elective choices for two years may be better -- but it is a choice, and it may be a more expensive choice (e.g., since you have to offer more class sections to make sure kids divide appropriately then if you simply require all kids to take the same thing and divide all juniors equally into classes). This is the type of question that has curricular and budget implications. Similarly, we now have 14 English electives for juniors/seniors, whereas Brookline has 11 electives (they also have a required junior class so only seniors can take electives), and Northampton has a total of 4 electives in English.

But if people believe they should support an override because it is important for kids at ARHS to be able to choose from 14 electives in English/social studies, and not 8 to 12, that is certainly an option -- and I believe there are some reasonable, thoughtful people who would see this decrease in electives as a huge problem. I believe there are other reasonable, thoughtful who believe that is OK if juniors and seniors in our high school can choose from 12 social studies options and 8 English options (these are the "worst case" numbers) -- and as you yourself have pointed out, Nina, it is much more about WHAT kids learn in these classes (e.g., thinking, writing, reading, etc.) then the particular topic.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Anonymous 7:08/7:29 - if you have a thought/question, share it ... but comments like those aren't making education in Amherst better, right?!?

Anonymous 9:15 - I think the SC should be clear about what the budget changes mean in terms of education -- things like class size and offerings and clubs and music, etc. I believe some people will see these cuts as awful (how can we have cut our electives in half?) and others will see these cuts as not so bad (why is it a problem for kids to choose between 12 social studies classes when they only have to take 2?). But I believe people can decide for themselves whether these cuts are devastating/decimated, etc. -- just as some people felt that closing Marks Meadow was devastating and awful, and others saw it as the best of our options.

Anonymous 10:20 - I agree that cynicism is not helping to improve our schools. I hope people would try to participate constructively.

Anonymous 10:22 - you are right in terms of the different amounts of money, and that intervention/special ed are different pots of money. I still think we need to understand how our district does intervention and provides special ed services, and whether our approach is in line with best practices, as well as the costs of such services. Personally, I'd like to see a lot more money spent early on (e.g., preschool) to prevent the needs for some intervention services later on -- and I think it is great that the superintendent has recommended adding another preschool classroom. This strikes me as a way of spending money that will likely save money later on.

Rich - I agree that these discussions are very useful ... and that is one reason why I was so disappointed to see the very negative article about my blog in the recent school paper. My blog is open to all for posting, and indeed Nina (and others) can post questions and give information so that the readers can make up their own minds about any issues. It strikes me as a very useful forum for discussing education issues in Amherst.

Frustrated Parent - I believe the reason for not charging for clubs is to make sure they can be accessible to all kids.

Anonymous 7:24 - my understanding is that kids on free/reduced lunch pay reduced fees for sports. If you and/or others don't think this approach is working, let me know -- I think the alternative would be to cut some sports completely, and that would reduce options for all kids.

You Think You're Frustrated - yes -- that is why the clubs have been free ... so that all kids can participate.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Anonymous 8:33 - For me, what matters is not the number of teams ... it is class sizes and offerings. You suggest that five years ago there were four teams in each grade of the MS and now there are two (although aren't there 3 in 7th grade and 2 in 8th?). But remember, enrollment has dropped pretty substantially in the MS over the years -- by about 100 students, I believe, over the last five years. This would naturally lead to a reduction in the number of teams. Class sizes last year -- with 3 teams in 7th and 3 teams in 8th -- were on average 20. This year, they are still 20 in 7th (and 25 in 8th) -- and next year, a half-team will be added to 8th so class sizes may actually be SMALLER than they are now in 8th.

Similarly, you state that we will have a "scaled back" language program -- meaning students will move from 6 language options to 4. That is true ... and I can live with that, and I can't in good faith describe not being able to take Russian or German in 7th grade as "decimated."

Finally, you say that there are only two electives per year -- but that means in the projections for next year, kids will have music EVERY SINGLE DAY, and kids will have a rotation of art/drama/health/computer/PE. Is that a bad selection for a MS? I share your desire for more art ... but is this decimated? I guess it is hard for me to see these cuts are being as drastic as you seem to feel they are. But the interpretation of these cuts and their impact is ultimately the choice of each tax payer.

Frustrated Parent said...

Thank you for the responses to my posts. If I understand it correctly, athletes (no matter what their income level) have to pay to participate. The fees are reduced according to income, but athletes still have to pay. My question was if athletes have to pay, why don't club members have to as well?

I agree that we need to keep as many clubs and athletic teams as possible for our kids but I wonder why they are not treated equally. I also agree that it is a shame that it costs for any of our kids to join any of these groups (and also worry about creating a two-tier structure but fear that it will be the middle-income families who cannot afford full-pay but who do not qualify for reduced fees). But again, I wonder why athletics and clubs are not treated equally in terms of what is offered to our kids for free and what they must pay for. Does anyone know the answer to that? Did athletics used to be free?

Anonymous said...

So let me understand- do you think that it is an educationally sound model to have one teacher have 120 or so students with all that entails?

Anonymous said...

Frustrated Parent, I have wondered about that for years too. I have watched athletic fees rise for years now. I have also wondered if there is a minimum of kids required for a club before they pay someone to supervise it. In the past there have been some pretty small groups. Why not have a small fee, even $10 for the year would help. It would still be peanuts when compared to how much kids pay for sports at school or LSSE.

Anonymous said...

Catherine- I never said decimated- but the effects of past budget cuts are real and profound and I think that it's a real problem that you can't see that.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Frustrated parent - I don't know why clubs and athletics are treated differently ... but I will try to find out. I think you raise a good point.

Anonymous 9:59 - is 120 kids to a teacher an educationally sound model? Well, the high school teachers now teach 250 kids over the course of a year (75 students during two trimesters, 100 during one trimester), and I imagine the HS teachers give more homework on average (since the kids are older) and certainly imagine they write a TON more letters of recommendation. Northampton 7th/8th grade teachers teach 125 at a time right now. So, is 120 per teacher feasible? I think it is -- although next year the estimate is 100 to 105 per teacher in both 7th and 8th grade regardless (not 120).

Anonymous 10:03 - I will check into the fees for clubs/athletics issue. I think this is a good point to consider.

Anonymous 10:03 - the US is in an economic slump ... so, there are cuts every where ... there are fewer professors at Amherst College this year so on average, we have larger classes to teach and students have fewer options. Have there been cuts in the Amherst schools over the past few years? Yes. Do those cuts have an impact? Yes. We agree on both of those points. I think what we may disagree on is the impact of those cuts -- I don't think having an extra 2 or 3 kids in a classroom has a major impact on the quality of learning for each kid, and I don't think it is awful for kids to have to choose between 4 as opposed to 6 world languages in 7th grade. You believe that these types of cuts have a larger impact than I do -- that's it. My 3rd grader couldn't participate in orchestra this year because with budget cuts, we delayed the start of instrumental music to 4th grade. So, that impacted my son (who was eager to start an instrument), but I don't think it is a huge deal for us to start offering violin/cello in 4th versus 3rd. Other people might see this as a huge cut. I just think we need to be honest about what the cuts are (and are not) so that people can decide for themselves how to interpret their impact. I certainly respect that you see the cuts that have occurred as very major. I would hope you could also respect those who don't see these cuts in precisely the same way.

kevin said...

You said it all, Catherine, when you said, It is nine o'clock and we haven't mentioned the budget yet. Larry Shaffer presented his budget last Friday and individual SC members are still requesting "data" from Dr. Rodriguez' office? This is a filibuster, if you ask me. By burying Dr. R's office in requests for "data", you (3d person plural, sorry) fiddle away the hours.

Regardless of which programs are actually cut, things have a way of finding their own level. In the absence of any actual academic plan, however, any cuts you make are just guesses and all debate is political. While it is important for everyone to be heard, when does it end?

When I worked at Bankers Trust, we had a saying, "If you don't have deadlines, you can't make deadlines". Larry Shaffer made his deadline on Friday? When is yours? Let’s see.

According to a recent Bulletin article, the Budget Coordinating Committee (BCC) is scheduled to receive an Executive Summary of the impending cuts on January 21, and reaches a consensus and submits a draft of its recommendations on January 28.

Okay. Here we go. The School Committee calendar shows... Look! The SC Budget Subcommittee Public Forum is on January 21st. Oops! Missed the BCC Executive Summary deadline. And the next SC meeting is… not in January… here it is, February. Oh well, we didn’t need the SC to weigh in on the BCC Final Recommendations on January 28, anyway. Irv and Andy can handle it.

So, yes, you said it all, Catherine -- it’s nine o’clock and we haven’t mentioned the budget.

Thanks for listening. Hang in there. As we say in Aspen, watch out for the turkeys.

Kevin Collins

sincere questioner said...

I'm not sure I get Kevin Collins' sense of humor (it sounds kind of sarcastic on the blog), however, I think asking for a lot of data with deadlines come and gone is - in practice - a filibuster. Do you think the school can do what it's supposed to without an override of an outdated arbitrary limit?

Anonymous said...

Catherine said
"-- and as you yourself have pointed out, Nina, it is much more about WHAT kids learn in these classes (e.g., thinking, writing, reading, etc.) then the particular topic."

A small point, but I do disagree with your statement that what's taught (generic academic skills) is more important than the subject matter in electives.

Since we are already pushing down college curriculum into HS, should we not also acknowledge that HS students already have strong tastes & interests (at least by the time they are seniors) just as college students do? And that this is why "relevant" subject matter is so important in elective offerings?

Anonymous said...

It's one thing to ask and another to get. Is the delay on the questioner's side or the side providing the information?

Nina Koch said...

"I don't think having an extra 2 or 3 kids in a classroom has a major impact on the quality of learning for each kid"

I do. I'm in the classroom. I can tell you what impact it has.

Let me give you an example that happened just today. I am currently teaching a course that I also taught last trimester, so I have an opportunity to try to correct some of the mistakes I made previously. Last term, I had two worksheets related to Equivalent Expressions. Worksheet 1 turned out to be too easy, while Worksheet 2 was too hard. A majority of students got the same problem wrong on that sheet. This term, I decided to combine the two sheets, change the order of some problems, and to rework the problem that so many had gotten wrong. I asked it in a different way and I gave them a different visual structure for recording their answer. I have just looked through their sheets this evening and nearly every student got it right this time.

If you give me 8 or 10 extra students on my rosters, the time it takes to attend to them will come from somewhere. It means I won't be able to do some of the more optional tasks, like revising a worksheet to make it more accessible. Instead, I would probably just drop the more challenging question and not ask it at all. Every day, I will be choosing some task like that as the one that doesn't get done. Cumulatively, it will indeed have a major impact on the quality of learning.

Is that what you want? I don't think so.

There are a lot of ingredients that go into providing a quality education. Time is the most essential one. I'm already making compromises that I don't want to make. I am willing to give up my raise so that it doesn't get any worse. I hope the members of the community are willing to make a sacrifice as well.

LarryK4 said...

The question is not whether you are willing to give up your raise Nina, it's whether the all-powerful Teachers Union will allow it.

If ALL (for-one-and-one-for-all) town employees gave up their raises and step increases in 2011 it would save $2 million--or half the "projected" budget deficit.

I will vote in favor of a modest Override ($1 million) as outlined in the Amherst Bulletin editorial a while back as long as it's a package deal: $1 million in givebacks, $1 million in cuts,and $1 million from reserves.

Anonymous said...

Larry, I'm married to a town employee that hasn't had a raise in over 2 years while having an increase in our health insurance, taxes, LSSE, water, trash and everything else in our lives in Amherst. Going after the paychecks of the lower and middle town earners isn't quite right. I can't support an override unless all of the school spending issues have been answered. And the other depts. too for that matter.

Anonymous said...

"So, is 120 per teacher feasible? I think it is -"

Of course it is feasible, but is it desirable? The more students each teacher has, the less they can provide to each student AND to each parent. Each year it has been getting harder to provide the same kind of service that people in Amherst are used to...the personalized teaching and the personalized contact with home is simply harder to maintain with more and more students. Teachers continue to try to maintain the same level of service because they are so dedicated, so many on the outside don't notice any difference from year to year, but it really is getting harder and is taking its toll in various ways on the inside.

Also the idea behind teams as a small learning community where everyone is KNOWN gets eroded as well as the size of teams grows. Anything over 100 really feels like too big to do much of what teams are designed to do.

Many of the things that make a middle school special are not being decimated, but severely eroded. How much farther can we go?

Sam I Am

while Rome burns said...

so while everyone is waiting for issues to be resolved... school budgets.... teacher union discussions.... town employee considerations.... rome burns. And the kids of Amherst will suffer, while the grownups.... what?.... collect information? assess data? I wish a different way could be found that provides resources ($) to sustain existing services, while the adults "figure it out".

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be cynical but I think that you'll only think that 120 is feasible until your child doesn't get back assignments in a timely way or gets little feedback, or the teachers are slow to respond to your concerns or they can't meet the needs of every child in the classroom, or they reduce the amount of homework that they assign. Last year at the HS one of my kid's classes ( honors) had 30 kids in it and the teacher was forced to reduce the number and scope of the assignments because of the class size.

the outside world exists said...

Anonymous 7:31: what you are describing is my child's experience in the middle school 2 years ago on a team of 75 students! I don't think it is just a numbers game there. Just sit in a classroom during open house when the teacher announces they don't check that homework is done (much less correct it). Why did we all sit there when that was said? Also, the level of student evaluation dropped precipitiously from elementary school to middle school -- and my child had much larger class sizes in elementary school (and fewer worksheets to fill out).

I think it would be useful to know how many students other middle school teachers teach before we decide -- in a blog, school board meeting, superintendent's office, or acting principal's office -- what is a good workable number of students per team. I would like to know this number for regular junior high schools and team-based middle schools. Wouldn't you want to know?

Also, what are average class sizes at other comparable middle schools and high schools for that matter?

Frustrated Parent said...

I have to agree with "the outside world exists." My kids have been in the middle school during years with larger team sizes and with smaller team sizes and I have not seen any difference in the amount or quality of work assigned or whether or not teachers check, grade, or return assignments. Overall, I have seen not enough focus on getting the kids the feedback they need in a timely fashion. Some exceptions, for sure, but also some examples of classrooms I (and my kids) have been unhappy with.

Out in the "outside world," we are all having to work more, work longer hours, and usually for less pay. Productivity is up in the US as workplaces start to demand more of their workers (and seem to be getting it). I do realize that it is more work to teach 120 kids than 100 over the course of a year, but I also know that our teachers get breaks and prep time during their work days that many other workers do not get. If they are being asked to perform at a higher and more efficient level, is it not also acceptable for us to ask more of our teachers?

I'm sure I will get flamed for teacher-bashing, but I am just being realistic about the world today. Many of our teachers are excellent, some are truly dismal, most are doing their job. Just as is the case in most workplaces.

Anonymous said...

Frustrated Parent said:
"our teachers get breaks and prep time during their work days that many other workers do not get"

Teachers get LUNCH breaks, not sure what you mean about breaks otherwise. Many times there isn't even time for teachers to get to the toilet for heaven's sakes. Maybe you've seen that ad about the teacher who really, really has to go -- that's no joke!

Every corporate job I ever had, I got a paid lunch -- twice the length of what teachers in Amherst get (30 vs 60 minutes).

Prep IS work. I don't understand why people think prep is some easy fun time. It's grading papers, planning lessons, finding lesson materials, calling parents, answering emails, organizing the classroom, meetings, paperwork, etc. How is this NOT work that is directly relatd to teaching? How is this perceived as not serious work time?

Let's say I worked in corporate sales. Some of my time would be spent actually selling and doing customer service, but some would be spent on training, learning about new products, meeting with other employees, paperwork, emails, phone calls, etc. So, while I would strive to make the non-selling portion of my day as efficient as possible to free up time for actual selling, would you call these non-selling tasks non-work?

Of course not.

Anonymous said...

If you don't like it in Amherst, move to Sunderland.

They have a very cute library.

And a nice HS where the biggest issue is the problem they do not have with alcohol.

And a roof on the elementary school that caves in from time to time.

Just quit complaining about how people you do not know are doing a job that you know nothing about.


Anonymous said...

I love it when people from the so-called "outside world" or "the real world" suppose that they know what goes on in the teaching profession, or what the demands are.

Most of these folks doing the talking would be crushed and exhausted by spending just a week of teaching high school children. In short, in order to be good at it, it's just the hardest managerial job going.

As a former high school teacher of 4 years and then a prosecutor for 19 years, I say, just don't go there. Know what you don't know.

Rich Morse

Nina Koch said...

Hi Rich,

I think you're right that people who have never taught don't have a strong sense of the nature of the job. On the other hand, I am sure there are things about other people's jobs that I don't understand. I also think it's hard to make a persuasive argument on that basis. It's just very hard to give someone a picture of what it is really like and all they can think about is our long vacations, etc. etc..

So, I would encourage people to take the point of view not of the teacher but of the student. Think about what the student is going to get from that teacher under various scenarios. Decide what level of service is acceptable to you. How many minutes a day would you like me to spend giving some kind of individual attention to your child's work? Every minute you subtract from teacher prep time is less time spent on looking at student work.

Someone made the analogy to changes in the economy, where productivity has been forced to increase. Well, I think in some cases there is idle capacity and you can get genuinely better use of resources, but more often, I would say over the last decade or so, the changes in industry have led to crappier products. When Walmart squeezes a supplier to produce an item for a lower cost, then something has to give. It's not like the producer suddenly realizes, oh we could have been doing it this way! Silly us. No. They just reduce the quality in some way. So now we have things that don't last as long.

I can make the same argument about educational quality. Do people want the Walmart version of that?

curious observer said...

Reading these past few posts my first reaction was -- what professional job have I held or my friends held in which we didn't work 50 to 60 to 70 hour weeks? And with little vacation, while paying a big bite of medical insurance, no pension in sight and absolutely no job security. Lots of non-professional jobs have the same or worse conditions for much less money. So, for many of us, teachers jobs look like some long-forgotten, glowing time in the American past.

Then I thought, good for them. Wasn't it better when American workers had better benefits, pensions, job security, etc.? We are bitter out here in the non-teaching world but why would we wish these insecure, exhausting job conditions on anyone? And don't forget our shrinkiing 401K/IRA retirement savings. I think the expression sour grapes captures it all.

Teachers are among the people I most admire and appreciate. Good salaries, benefits and vacations are what we all should have.

I am no fan of teacher job security when it lets poor performing teachers keep jobs for years and younger, excellent teachers get cut because of lack of seniority. There has to be some way of giving well-performing teachers job security to prevent them from being cut because they are older and expensive or at the whim of an adminstrator. And a way of moving teachers not so well-performing out so better teachers can be hired. How do you create an excellent school system? With excellent teachers. We can't afford anything less anymore.

But I don't begrudge teachers the good job benefits they have earned.